33 Readers
16 Sages

shell pebble

the saddest story

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison

Read with Feminist Book Club @FeministBC 

This is my contribution to the discussion:

I think the main theme of the novel is the self-hatred produced by a racist culture. The most overt image of this is Pecola’s pathological desire for blue eyes, but it is also powerfully evident in the character of Geraldine, mother of Junior, who is one of the women who ‘come from Mobile’ and dedicate themselves to the erasure of their natural ‘funk’, and even more so in Pauline, Pecola’s mother. I found Pauline’s story the most affecting, because she was unable to show any tenderness to her own children, yet doted on the white child of the family she worked for (the berry cobbler scene is as disturbing to me as the rape) and was described by them as the perfect servant. Evidently, she doesn’t neglect Pecola because she is a cold, cruel person, but because a racist culture has ingrained in her a hatred of what it has designated as blackness (her husband’s fecklessness, her home’s hopeless poverty and cheerlessness, and her children’s ‘ugliness’). Morrison, in describing her behaviour to her family, ends by saying ‘and the world itself agreed with her’.

I think this blackness-as-designated-by-white-supremacy is the same thing as the ‘funk’ that the ‘women from Mobile’ try to expunge from themselves. Geraldine’s son yearns for blackness in sexual terms when he longs to play with black boys. White-supremacy (and the black self-hatred that is its offspring) is a hatred and fear of the black body and its sexuality.

Just before the rape scene, Cholly’s ‘freedom’ is described. I struggle to understand this idea of freedom, but it seems to arise from a litany of proscriptions he has transgressed. He has refused to conform to the demands of white supremacy, but as no alternative narrative to make sense of his experience or identity is available to him (Morrison suggests music could provide one, pointing, I guess, to the Black Arts movement and the reclamation of Black beauty/body/sexuality) he is almost a person without socialisation, without culture, so he can only behave reactively or out of feeling. As his experiences are largely negative, so are his actions. He is able to rape his own daughter without shame, in fact partially out of confused tenderness towards her, as he has no longer any way to make sense of relationships or the feeling of love – or, perhaps, since all his feelings are despised by white supremacy, they are in total confusion, with no way to distinguish kind from cruel, transgression from goodness.

Claudia (and her sister) is to some extent liberated from racialized self-loathing, as exemplified by her rejection of the white dolls she was given. However, I don’t think Morrison has made Claudia immune, rather, she is pointing out that people enact moments and points of resistance to the onslaught of the white supremacist hegemony.

I loved the book. I felt every word of it was a poisoned dart in the flesh of oppression. I was quite rightly discomforted.

One witness

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China - Jung Chang

I am daunted by the prospect of commenting on this book. Jung Chang tells the story of her grandmother who was a concubine to a warlord general before marrying a compassionate and principled Manchu doctor, and was one of the last generation to suffer the disabling practice of foot-binding.

She tells the story of her mother, revolutionary, committed communist, wife of a passionate political leader, whose support for the regime finally collapsed in the face of inexpressibly extreme onslaughts of violent purges, violations of basic rights and erasure of all culture and knowledge except 'Mao theory'. It's overwhelming just to read of the sufferings she and her generation struggled through. That these things actually happened somewhere leaves a mark on my chest.

She tells her own story of precarious survival and struggle for scraps of education under the terrifyingly unstable regime, and of her indoctrinated worship of Mao. Her father's status sometimes allowed her family certain privileges, but these could be snatched away at any moment. When she finally wins the right to leave China, even under restrictions, the relief for the reader is intense yet unbearably conflicted by the sorrow for all those who did not escape hunger, misery, brutality and death. That Chang found herself able to bear witness is a gift. Every word of this work is a memorial to those lives narrowed, broken and wasted by a political agenda that deemed them cheap enough to sacrifice.

As Cecily points out in her review one of Chang's great achievements here is shaping her material into a coherent narrative written with engaging clarity. Despite the great length and heavy subject matter, this book is an easy read

Dismantling the new sexism

Delusions of Gender: The Real Science behind Sex Differences - Cordelia Fine

I really think all educators need to read this book. Fine's target is the new gender essentialism, the reconstructed sexism that attempts to put women back in their traditional roles as 'unbenders of husbands' brows' and caregivers to children, and to keep them out of politics, mathematics and the sciences, by asserting that they are fitted for their place by essential female abilities and incapacities. In 1869 the philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his book The Subjection of Women, was severe on this fallacy, but like a zombie it just keeps getting up, backed by the bad-science fad of the day. 'Neurosexists' are advising school-leaders to adjust their teaching for gender differences, and with the threat of 'empathy-based math' looming Fine felt she must call a halt. She selects some choice quotes to show us how little the new sexism differs from the old (this is a very funny book), then proceeds to dismantle it with a three-pronged attack.

First, she explores the construction of gender and explains aspects of the present inequality from her perspective in social psychology. She quotes trans woman Jan Morris who describes her former competence in matters of car-reversing and bottle-opening evaporating after her transition in the face of others' assumptions about her. The power of stereotyping is not to be ignored; Fine quotes study after study to show how strongly most people, whether consciously or not, associate women with empathy and caregiving, and men with maths, science and power, and how priming gender affects subsequent thinking and performance. Simply reminding a candidate that she is a woman drastically reduces her score on a maths test, demonstrating an effect called 'stereotype threat' which is amazingly easy to remove - including an introduction to a test telling participants that 'in ten years of data-gathering, no gender-related performance difference has been found' dramatically boosts the performance of women and girls. Cross-cultural comparisons also prove instructive, making nonsense of ethnocentric gender assumptions.

Fine explores how stereotypes and the lack of role models work against women in the workplace and in education. This section is more broadly relevant to racial, social class, disabled, LGBTQ etc representation and the double bind problem of administrators appointing people like themselves on one side, and aspirations being damped by the invisibility of marginalised groups on the other. CVs with female names are rated lower and receive fewer responses than identical ones with male names. Fine also indicts sexist work practices such as entertaining clients in strip-clubs. Stereotypes also operate in the home, where men are conditioned to believe themselves incompetent (the hunter brings home the the carcass and collapses to stare into the fire) unless jar-opening brawn or plug-wiring brains are required. Fine demonstrates that men are very competent parents. Even rat-dads, with no hormone-tampering, are readily able to raise perfectly adjusted rat-kids.

Surveying the data, Fine finds very scant evidence for the assumption that women are more empathic than men; there is no magical female ability to read people's thoughts, and slight differences in young children could easily be due to parents talking more to infant girls. The evidence for male superiority in mathematical/analytical tasks is also thin, restricted to performance at mentally rotating 3D objects. Even this could be due to more exposure to active toys, and in any case hardly constitutes an excuse to exclude women from the workplace. Fine is hilarious when exposing the loaded survey questions that have been used to find gender differences. Research makes it very clear that people will rate themselves higher or lower on abilities stereotyped to or against their gender, especially when that aspect of their identity has been primed. 

The search for gender-determined ability differences continues with a painstaking survey and critique of the popular literature enthusiastically claiming they exist and the neurological and psychological research which has supposedly found them. Fine is incisive in her discussion and criticism of studies around the effect of testosterone, including play differences, but she is damning when it comes to the shocking dishonesty and misrepresentation employed by 'neurosexist' popular 'science' books. Oh, and if you don't manage to read this book, please take it from me here and now, that anyone trying to persuade you of a gender difference on the basis of pictures from brain scans is to be scornfully ignored.

The final section deals with how children are socialised to perform gender. Many parents assume they are providing gender-neutral parenting and 'fall back' on a biological explanation when their little girls demand pink dresses and dolls. Fine shows just how far parents have to go to eliminate the pressure to perform gender by recording the hilarious experience of the Bem family, forced to such lengths as denying that they knew the gender of friends, and erasing beards from picture books. How can a preference for pink be genetic? In Victorian times, it was a male colour, while girls wore tranquil Virgin-Mary blue. Fine demonstrates with survey after survey and study after brilliant study that gender roles are pushed on us by our culture, not our chromosomes.

'As neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier put it over two decades ago, we should "view biology as potential, as capacity and not as static identity. Biology itself is socially influenced and defined; it changes and develops in interaction with and in response to our minds and environment, as our behaviours do. Biology can be said to define possibilities but not determine them; it is never irrelevant but it is also not determinant"'

the pleasure of a good ruin

Ionia: A Quest - Freya Stark

Ahh Freya Stark! A dauntless and learned traveller with poetic and philosophical sensibilities, she here took the legendarily unreliable Herodotus as her principle guide to Turkey/Asia Minor/the Levant, and unlike that classical historian-geographer, wrote with scrupulous honesty, humility and frank subjectivity. While imaginatively inhabiting an ancient past full of warring Greeks, Persians, Lydians and other contemporaries, she navigates a more immediate physical world of hospitable and helpful hosts, spectacular natural beauty and poorly protected ruins. Her transcendent experience at the theatre in Priene, and her description of the harmony of Greek buildings and roads with the landscape they inhabit, provide a surpassingly eloquent and sensitive insight into the pervasive appeal of the 'classical' Greek world. I didn't find this an easy read though, and readers who don't share Stark's passion might well find it a slog.


Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

A feast of language and humour. Nabokov feels every pea under innumerable mattresses, and makes us share in his delicious sensitivity. Pnin is a tissue of stereotypes, so cunningly fashioned that like a true human he transcends them all, inhabiting his rich identity with warmth, vigour and exasperation. Pnin lives, and the reader lives through him, and grows larger, more tolerant, and more generous in spirit in the act.

Report from the front line

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - Or Destroy It. - Jonathan Watts

Watts' evocative title is taken from his childhood prayer begging god to prevent the Earth being shaken from its axis by the force of the world's largest population landing in concert. His book offers no prospect of avoiding an equivalent catastrophe for the biosphere; 'China has jumped' he states, and we must all rebalance our lives. Region by region, he examines the activities pushing China's ecosystems beyond their limits.

The global consequences are stark. The rich, minority world has exported dirty industries and actual waste to China, where an ever bigger mess has to be swept under an ever shrinking rug. Western governments have claimed carbon savings without counting the exported emissions. Watts' interviews with Chinese people in all sorts of social positions reveal a prevailing preoccupation with economic growth and increasing affluence. Often despite serious impacts on their lifestyles, environmental concern is worryingly far from most interviewees' minds.

Mao's Great Leap Forward, which instituted reckless hydro-engineering and foolhardy agricultural experiments, and caused a population explosion, is blamed for much of the 'develop now, clean up later' attitude, but Watts is quick to point out that Euro-American economies industrialised with as little thought for wider impacts, if not less.

Filthy coal power emissions and desertification are major problems, which impact strongly on what I find the most disturbing problem; increasing pressure on water resources. China's waterways are under stress and in many cases too polluted to use. Himalayan glaciers, which provide a steady supply for the lands below, are being steadily depleted. Talk of redirecting waterways from India to irrigate Northern China hint at major conflicts in the future. Both countries have areas of severe shortage. Watts points out that China is buying land in Africa to feed its citizens. Dark shadows of carbon wars hang in the future...

Watts searches hard for the seeds of hope, investigating China's much-vaunted green investments and conservation programs, finding many serious flaws. Throughout the book, he contrasts Confucianism, which focuses on human society, with Daoism, which focuses on harmony with nature. His conclusion draws on these roots: science must help, but it cannot be the solution. In China the limits to growth are being hit now. The global economy will have to restructure. In order for this to happen, Watts claims, there must be a shift from humanist Confucian to holistic Daoist values: a lesson from ancient and modern Chinese culture for people everywhere.

Not one word wasted

Europa - Moniza Alvi

I often dislike poetry because I can't understand it, or when I can understand it, I think saying the same thing in plain prose would be more powerful and communicate better. In the poetry I do like, the musicality of language or focus on form serves to allow some transference or inspiration that wouldn't otherwise have happened. In Alvi's case, poetry allows her to share reflections on trauma and PTSD that would be unspeakable without symbolism and images that make them possible to digest. The word that comes to my mind is compost, because the poisonous, disease-spreading rotting refuse, dead matter and excrement can eventually be turned into minerals and compounds, clean ions that nourish the descendents of the dead.

Maybe that image is unwelcome; I don't want to encourage the interpretation that trauma has some final benefit. In many of these poems, Alvi plots some stage of a fragile remission, and the work put into fighting for air and safety would have been spent otherwise in sunlight. There is not one shred of romance about suffering here. But, in the poems about Europa, the transformation that happens to her is wondrous and leaves me very uncomfortable, especially when her now many-selved body asks finally 'Can we forgive him?' It's perhaps instructive that a man, her father, has the last word, but only to admit his helplessness, confusion and awe before her changed state.

Alvi's poems are spare, generally short; she wastes absolutely nothing and none of her images fails to provoke an answering emotion. The one-page poem 'Mermaid' is at once polemical and extremely subtle and multilayered, full enough of questions to spark long essays. 'The Ride', is similarly epic, distilling a marriage (I think) into 23 knife-sharp lines like

'We'll take the ring road,
he said. Give me your bag.'

The poem about honour killing is utterly simple, because there is nothing to add to the starkness of the action; Alvi refuses to intellectualise or embellish the horror, and manages to maintain the realism of the girl's voice in a single, poignant simile when she compares the living room where it happens to 

'a forest clearing,
the animals scurrying away.'

Alvi also draws on Jules Supervielle's war poems, working through horror of violence, unwanted memories and suicidal impulses. This might sound very grim and dark, but Alvi's touch is so light and caring, that the effect is to make everything human, to include pain and misery in the realms of permissible feeling, and thus bring their sufferers in from the isolation of being beyond empathy, being othered as mental health patients. Her poems challenge assumptions about therapy and recovery from trauma, and about contentment. She also addresses cultural divisions and failures of communication and understanding, lamented in 'The Veil', a symbolic boundary obscuring 'the receding east, the receding west'. At the moment, this is my favourite poetry book.


Halfway down the stairs
I hugged it to my chest.

It was the size of a small
collection of laundry,

the shape of the bundle
Dick Whittington carried

on a stick on his back,
or the tiny parcel of spices

(the woody ones)
my mother would lower

for the duration
into a pot of steaming pullao rice.

For the duration.
That would be a fine thing.

stop thinking wishfully

Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet - Tim Jackson, Mary Robinson, Bill McKibben, Herman E. Daly

Tim Jackson tackles the problem of persuading us to take the obvious conclusion that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible seriously, by sending up the myth of decoupling - the decarbonisation of economic activity can't happen fast enough to prevent ecological disaster unless population and affluence stop increasing too. Inequality has to be addressed, both globally and within societies suffering from affluenza...

We need immense structural changes and a redefinition of prosperity; an escape from the social logic of consumerism and ecological macro-economics. Working hours regulation, and an end to design obsolescence are key suggestions. Rebalancing between self-enhancement/transcendence and between novelty and tradition are also prescribed. Jackson sees a large role for the state, and a less capitalistic system.

Lazy conduct by the reader

Safe Conduct: An Autobiography and Other Writings - Boris Pasternak, B. Deutsch

Begun on Susan Sontag's recommendation, but I found Pasternak's dense poetic style too slow and difficult to read. It might be very rewarding to persevere with, but as usual I get impatient and start thinking "I could be reading Andre Lorde!"

Manly stewing

Driving Over Lemons - Chris  Stewart

My ability to relate to the author got off to a poor start, wore thinner under his gendering of food, and finally broke down over his willingness to associate with and admiration for a taciturn domestic abuser. I might have got further if the writing seemed really fantastic, but it seemed just like other civilised-man-on-the-wild-passionate-continent books with the usual wife-ignoring, romanticising tropes.

Bread & Apples II

Between the Woods and the Water - Patrick Leigh Fermor

I was thoroughly lost in the Transylvanian forests.

The greatest value of Fermor's travelogues is perhaps as a document of a vanished world: Europe between the wars. Landscapes political and physical have utterly changed, communities remodelled, migrated or erased. These books are like maps from Atlantis.

Bread and Apples

A Time of Gifts - Patrick Leigh Fermor

Setting off from London to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople at the end of 1933, Fermor dives into a land of marvels that was largely swept away by the second war, already brewing as he makes his winding way with wide-eyed wonder and zest for every new experience

His description is unrestrained verbal extravagance, yet never loses its vivid immediacy, and while historical detail occasionally overwhelms, the balance and pace of the telling bears the mark of a master storyteller. It can be hard work to read but it's blazingly evocative of a vanished, perhaps fairytale pre-war Europe. It's as stridingly exuberant, as sun-bright, emotionally resonant and as unearthly at times as that unforgettable opening page of 100 Years of Solitude. My favourite section was Vienna, where he made sketches for his bread!

Rain shadow and slate

Time - Terry Friedman

Goldsworthy is an eloquent and generous artist, offering rich insights into his evolving philosophical approach and inspiring contemplative practice. Both the work, and the commentary, develop out of the artist's reflective experience of working with and exploring materials. Thus, it has an extremely broad appeal, conceptually, aesthetically and in terms of skill and mastery. It will be particularly of use to those interested in Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetics, and in ecology and the environment.

The focus on time underlines the poignancy and wide ethical resonance of works which embrace the changes wrought by natural processes, on scales from the momentary (the dry shadow formed by a body lying on the grass through a shadow, a handful of sand tossed into the wind) to the geological (cairns built of dry stone) and everything in between (arches made from slabs of ice, leaf-mats woven and released into rivers). Ephemeral, stately, playful, beautiful, surprising, illuminating works fill these pages, richly supported by frank and fascinating diary entries.

This edition is well printed on good paper, of an agreeable size, and it features a superb chronology by Terry Friedman.


Booklet or Tome = Either in theory. Good reading comes in servings of all sizes. I read on public transport, so weight is an issue. I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov - I manage about 10 pages of an evening in bed so it's taking a while; I've read about 25 other books since starting it! I suffer from a tendency toward convergent thinking so I really struggle with material that doesn't seem purposeful to me, but many books are long 'of necessity'. Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow for instance is 800 entirely wonderful pages...


Pre-owned or New = Clean-freak so I prefer fresh, but I buy loads of books from my amazing local charity book shop and I use the library, but the book has to look clean and I always wipe the covers with alcohol gel! I like finding other folks' notes in books though.


Historical Fiction or Fantasy = Maybe erring towards fantasy because I struggle so much to keep any kind of hold on What Really Happened which has immense political import. I've read more fantasy than HF


Hardcover or Paperback = I care about aesthetics and either could be beautiful, but I strongly prefer paperbacks because of weight issues


Funny or Sad = I rarely choose comedies but I love it when a 'serious' book is funny - especially when it's satirical. At the same time, I wouldn't choose a book because it was sad. I don't WANT to suffer, but I'm seeking truth when I read, and if it's sad then let me be sad. Humour often gets the sad point across in a bearable and relatable way


eBook or Print = Irrational preference for paper.


Collecting or Cleaning out = I hate having things I don't use and have limited space, but I have a stash at my parents' house and pass on books into their collection, recommending many to them to read. I currently keep about 3/10 of the books I buy to possibly re-read, the rest go to my amazing charity shop or on to friends.


Internet or Bookstore = I need both. I usually find prize-winners and books by well known authors and also unexpected finds in shops, while more obscure wish-list items have to be sought online. I have regular meet-ups with a bookworm offline friend at the London Review Bookshop which I love - their cafe is amazing, and I never leave without buying a book or three.


Backlist or New publication = All


Best or Bad seller = Agree with Killer Rabbit on this - "If a friend likes the book, that will get my attention. Strangers...not so much."


Cookbook or Baking book = Er I love thinking about cake but I don't eat it much. I just got a book called 'Rawsome Vegan Baking' which is the only 'baking' book I've ever had. I don't really do sugar, butter or flour! I like food books with nice pictures and creative ideas for healthy vegan food as I'm a very competent cook and don't need basics.

Gardening the drama

Shakespeare's Britain - Jonathan Bate, Dora Thornton, Becky Allen

Shakespeare is said to have been a keen gardener

When I visited the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World with my family, we all felt the same thing; a sad gap in our knowledge had been filled with rich and fruitful learning! I have always enjoyed Shakespeare thanks to great teaching when I studied, great productions when I went to the theatre, the great Baz Luhrman version of Romeo & Juliet, and contagious parental enthusiasm, but I definitely enjoy him more having seen the evocative collection of objects and information brought together by that exhibition, the catalogue of which is reviewed here by Kalliope. This is a small selection from that experience...

Appreciating the cultural environment that Shakespeare's works came out feels to me like more than an added dimension - it's as if I've been given a new faculty of sense, as if I smell or taste something I'd only imagined before. The ambience of the time, the imagined forest of Arden, the thrilling mythology of witchcraft and fascination with colonial travellers' tales from the 'New World' are called up by all sorts of works of art and artefacts, carefully and accessibly interpreted. The political significance in their time of Shakespeare's historical dramas such as Julius Caesar is explored. There is some interesting material on James I and unification with Scotland, which relates to the optimistic late play Cymbeline.

Deliciously produced, this little book is just the pre-theatre dish to whet the appetite and season a serving of the bard

Ethan Frome (Wordsworth Classics) - Edith Wharton

In exquisitely beautiful language, Wharton constructs an austere, desperately sad rural love story. Ethan's aesthetic and ethical sensibilities let in a little light in this dark work.