Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, Neil McKenna
Despite the claims of meticulous research, Fanny & Stella seems to be mostly a sensational recounting of some admittedly quite sensational events. On the one hand, I felt that there was a lot of delight taken in talking about the “sordid” details — pretty thorough accounts of physical examinations for sodomy, and also a bit of an obsession with the sex as well. It’s also written in many places as if it’s nothing but a story, and it certainly doesn’t keep in mind that for Stella and Fanny, this trial was potentially a death sentence.
On the other hand, from the descriptions here (admittedly this could be the author’s work rather than reality), the two would have loved the attention, the tell-all details, outside the context of, you know, being in great danger. And I certainly learnt about the LGBT community in the Victorian period, and some of it rather surprised me.
The fact that Fanny and Stella were referred to by those names, more or less consistently, and by female pronouns… I couldn’t decide if that was meant to be respectful to them (what were their gender identities? Would they even have had a concept of that as we do?) or if it was meant to drive home at every point the whole “He-She Women” thing going on. Adding to that was the way the author presumed to know what was going on in their minds…
All in all, it’s entertaining but I wouldn’t trust it as solid scholarship, and I’m a bit leery of the author’s motives in writing it. Certainly it felt like there was a lot of prurient interest going on.
I’m really not sure what to think of this. It reminds me of John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, somehow; something about the style, the density of it and allusiveness. I’m sure I missed some things by not being aware of the Vergil stories, not picking up on all the mythological references properly — and I have a pretty good background in that sort of thing, since I took Classics.
It’s a slightly different style than expected, too, I think. It slides seamlessly between scenes without any transition, it slips from direct speech into reported speech — it doesn’t make things easy. I quite liked the writing style, for the most part, but I wouldn’t like it to be a common one, if that makes any sense.
The story itself… it’s a quest narrative, but the quest is more about knowledge than action, at its heart. It’s about making a magical object, in a context where magic isn’t easy, isn’t a shortcut as it can be in other fantasy works. It’s a long slow process, like any other way to make something, and it requires sacrifices and effort. It’s an interesting take on it.
I wasn’t overwhelmingly fond of the portrayal of women — Cornelia, Phyllis and Laura seemed pretty nebulous, and the love aspect was just flung in there — but The Phoenix and the Mirror was something a little different to my usual fare. It just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.
The idea of creating a proper utopia, as opposed to portraying an idea that was meant to lead to a utopia and ended up being oppressive/only working for the upper class citizens, is not a new one, but it’s not one I’ve seen around much recently. Part of that is probably that it’s hard to make a society like that interesting; my English teacher Mr. E always used to point out that literature is about things going wrong, that what we are interested in is not happy people, but the conflicts they come into. I would add that we enjoy a happy ending, true, but it needs to be earned, whether by an epic battle or a comic series of misunderstandings and angst.
The problem with News from Gardenia, for me, is partly that. It’s a utopian society, and nothing seems to happen through the entire novel apart from the narrator being transported forward in time — where very conveniently, people immediately recognise what’s happened and sort out said hapless narrator.
The other problem is, well, I didn’t like the POV character. I’m not sure if he’s intended to be on the autism spectrum, as another reviewer suggested, or whether he’s just meant to be the stereotypical insensitive nerd guy, but his attitude to his girlfriend from page one was making me grind my teeth, and it didn’t get better. The writing isn’t good enough to carry that, making me wonder if it’s actually a character voice or the author. Blech.
So in summary, not worth it, sadly. But hey, if anyone wants it, I’m putting it on Bookmooch.
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Paula Byrne
I have never really been a big Austen fan, which along with my relative indifference to Shakespeare and Chaucer when I began my first degree reaaaally made other lit students look at me askance. I still think that those three are pushed upon us to a ridiculous degree, and often its not even their best work that is touted as The Book To Read (for example, I favour Troilus and Criseyde over The Canterbury Tales, and pretty much anything over Romeo and Juliet). But anyway, I’ve slowly come to appreciate them a little bit more, which will probably horrify my mother (at least where Austen is concerned). Sorry, Mum.
Paula Byrne’s biography of Jane Austen is quite a common sense one. Instead of looking first to her fiction and then trying to extrapolate out to her life, it looks at the objects that surrounded her or inspired her and teases out things from there. I’m not really a scholar of the period in any sense, so I can’t speak as to the accuracy of it, but it reads well and I appreciated this view of Jane Austen as a practical, witty and determined woman, fully supported by her family and with no doubts about her chosen course in life. It debunks ideas like the picture some people have of her being very sheltered and not in contact with the world, putting us in touch with the politics she would have been aware of and the places she went. It has some nice inserts with some of the objects mentioned pictured in colour.
I’m not keeping this book, but I’m certainly donating it to my library — I know that someone who is more of an Austen fan than me will doubtless appreciate it even more, and I’m willing to bet there’s a member of even our tiny little library who fits the bill.
The British: A Genetic Journey, by Alistair Moffat
I generally enjoy Alistair Moffat’s non-fiction writing (I don’t know if he’s written any fiction), although I don’t agree with his outlook on the Arthurian legends (which he even manages to slot in here). It’s very much popular science, or that’s how it feels with the inserted text boxes of “interesting facts”, but the level isn’t really “complete beginner”. I mean, it talks about mapping population movements via comparing particular unique markers, which must mean single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), but it doesn’t really contextualise that much. To me, my classes in genetics and anthropology contemplated this really well. It also talks about mitochondrial DNA and things like that, again without much explanation.
It starts off being general, rather than really a genetic history of the British, because of course, it goes back to the last common ancestors of mankind. It narrows down later on, looking at the various different inflows of new DNA, e.g. to what extent the Romans or the Normans mixed with the people already in Britain. What I was more interested in was the discussion of how Britain’s population got there. I didn’t know, for example, about the land that joined Britain to mainland Europe at one time, Doggerland, so all of that was new to me.
All in all, it didn’t give me many surprises, but it’s pretty up to date (includes stuff about recentish finds like the Denisovans) and, for the British population, pretty comprehensive. I’d have liked a little more about the separate populations of Britain: there are genetic differences, generally, between Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English people, and I’d have been interested to know more about how those groups formed and remained intact.
Yay, it’s Sunday Saturday (I can do the days of the week!) and I have some books to show off! Tynga’s Reviews, as usual, is hosting Stacking the Shelves.
So first things first, a new library opened in Caerphilly. It is lovely, and only getting four books out was a heroic feat.
And then yesterday after my shift as an RNIB volunteer, I ended up in the hospital’s WHSmith, which was dangerous. They always have buy one, get one half price, but I couldn’t find a fourth I was interested in. Which is probably all to the good.
I’m most excited about Fanny & Stella, which I’ve already started reading. It’s a bit sensationalised, but I think the subjects would’ve loved that. Not the trial for “conspiracy to commit buggery”, but the very exuberant, flamboyant biography.
And finally, here are two pictures of my makeshift bookshelf, containing almost all the books I dragged with me for a five-week trip to my parents’ (minus the comics, which’re on a different shelf).
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson
Caspar Henderson’s 21st Century Bestiary is not an encyclopaedia, as some people might expect, but something more in the medieval tradition of bestiaries, mixing information with philosophical and moral comment. It’s interesting, and Henderson’s ideas are well expressed, and I imagine a full colour version of the book must be stunning (my own is the paperback, all in black and white, but I seem to recall seeing a colour edition). It’s definitely not all that scientific, in places, relying on anecdote and going off on tangents into what an organism might have to teach us.
One of Henderson’s major concerns is the environment, and the preservation of Earth’s current biodiversity, for which he makes a good case. Ultimately, if your interest is science, this will probably be unsatisfying: it’s here to demonstrate some of the scope of biodiversity, not to explain it, or even to go very deeply into any one scientific principle (though it touches on plenty).
I do wish it had been better edited — the typos and such are extremely distracting. All in all, it isn’t quite as good as I’d expected from the rave reviews and my quick glance over it in the shop, but it is interesting.
What did you recently finish reading? The Universe Versus Alex Woods, which made me cry. It starts off misleadingly quirky, and then I went and fell in love with it, and the ideas it articulates. I almost want it to be a surprise in the same way for everyone who reads it (if you’d like the surprise, don’t read my review), because I love the way it developed. I’ve got to keep an eye out for Gavin Extence’s other work.
What are you currently reading? I still haven’t finished reading Rachel Neumeier’s Black Dog. When I do read it, I’m biting it off in big chunks, but I don’t just want to nibble at it — which is hard, when I’ve had a lot of work on, and nibbling books are what I need at the moment.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, by Caspar Henderson, is my currently ‘nibbling’ book, though I’m nearly finished with it. It’s a type of modern bestiary, which I think has confused lots of people who expected something encyclopaedic and mostly scientific, whereas this draws from the medieval tradition of articulating philosophical/moral concepts through talking about mythical/little-known creatures.
I’m also reading The Iron Wyrm Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow, which is so far too blatantly drawing on the Sherlock Holmes tradition for me to be too interested, although it does feature a female main character who seems to have a fair amount of agency and power without being perfect, so we’ll see how that goes on.
What do you think you’ll read next? I have Secret Chambers, by Martin Brasier, next on my pile. I’m in a non-fiction mood at the moment, so that’s been calling me. Also maybe Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, because of my astrobiology and astronomy classes.
Fiction-wise, I should just be working on my backlog of books/series started and not yet finished. The Assassin’s Curse, by Cassandra Rose Clarke, is next on my pile in that sense.
And now I’m going to go off and draw for the winner of my giveaway for Black Dog!
Oh, wow. The Universe Versus Alex Woods starts off seeming like it’s gonna be a quirky sort of book: the narration is matter of fact where it possibly shouldn’t be, and the situation Alex is in on the opening pages is an interesting one. Unfortunately for everyone who picked it up on the basis of that, it’s not really the kind of book it turned out to be. I don’t know that I’d call it funny — it’s not laugh out loud funny, anyway; more “wry smiles” funny — and I don’t know that I’d call it heartbreaking, either. It made me cry, but the simplicity of the narrative voice kept it from being maudlin, from dwelling too much on any of the important details, which is what for me made them strike all the more forcefully.
It is the story of an unlikely friendship, that’s definitely true, and it’s a beautiful story from my point of view. It’s fairly apparent from the first chapter, to me, what exactly is going on here: what matters is how we get there, and how much less funny/quirky it seems by the end, and how much more sad and true and beautiful. But if you don’t want to know, don’t read any further in this review.
What was apparent to me from the beginning is that this is a book about an assisted suicide. It didn’t even need to be stated clearly: trying to get back into the country at Dover, the urn of ashes, somehow it all just clicked for me. Possibly because this is an issue that I’ve thought about at great length, forwards and backwards. Because if I were Alex Woods, I’d do exactly the same things, in exactly that order, and I would feel exactly as right about it.
The friendship between the two is the fun and quirky part; the fact that, when Mr. Peterson becomes ill, Alex chooses to take care of him, and then to make sure that he is also allowed to die when he’s ready, and the understanding between the two… This is an idealised version of how this might happen, and the fact that Alex narrates means that we don’t pull up and see this from another character’s point of view — how they might worry about Alex’s reactions, how he might feel — and that might make some people feel that this is a book somehow advocating for euthanasia. Which I think it is, but only in the sense that it makes it clear that to be allowed a choice about how and when we die makes it a lot easier to die — and that for some people ‘how’ and ‘when’ might be very clearly defined, as they are for Mr. Peterson. But I don’t think it advocates euthanasia as the only way. It just emphasises choice, and how very comforting it is to many people to know that they have control over even that last inevitability. It even emphasises choice in smaller matters, like what drugs you take.
If you don’t understand why someone would want assisted suicide, this might help. If you don’t understand why someone would want to help someone commit suicide, I think this would definitely help. And if you already understand both of those things, then it’s still something that articulates all this very clearly, and might just give you words or clarity for yourself in the future.
I am definitely, definitely keeping this book. I will probably lend it to people, and I hope I never need to read it again myself, but I can imagine times when I might want to.