History · Nonfiction

Mistress: A History of the Other Woman


by: Elizabeth Abbott

I was really excited when I found this book.  A history of mistresses – what’s not to love? It’s a carefully curated collection of mistresses’ stories; generally famous ones, whose stories tend to be between 3-7 pages long.  There are 400 pages in the book, so there a quite a few stories covered.  It is the perfect book for any stop and start readers, as it’s really easy to fit in a page or three here and there.

I was even more excited when I started reading it and found it was actually pretty darn good.  Abbott focuses mostly on British and American mistresses from the 19th and 20th centuries, though she does touch on East Asia, the Middle East, Ancient Greek, women indigenous to the Americas, and a little bit of non-UK Europe. She does cover quite a few people, and none in much depth.  I actually really enjoyed that aspect; it was like a survey course in mistressdom and it definitely piqued my interest in a few women in particular.

Abbott is a good but not great writer and there are a few parts, especially the conclusions of individual stories, where it feels a little stilted.  There’s a few minor organization issues that detract from a smooth reading experience but nothing that should keep you from enjoying the book.

One of the best things about the book was how explicit she was in discussing and analyzing the situations these women were placed in, merely by being born a woman.  She looks with a sympathetic eye towards the times they were born into, while also being honest about their flaws and mistakes as people.  The amount of context she manages to add, in such very short spaces, is amazing and very well-done.

I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes with the wording she used about sex when talking about women who were unfaithful.  But, halfway through the book, it became clear she was treating the men in her story the same way she was treating the women.  I couldn’t tell if it was my own bias influencing how I read it or if Abbott had a slight bias that was peeking through.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter. For the most part, Abbott’s book is well-balanced and fair, dealing with both the moral implications and the realities of the world people were living in.

I was really intrigued by the women she chose – everyone from the desperate and loved-crazed to the practical and money-driven. There were rich and famous women, middle class women, poor women, women who wanted fame by association, women who wanted marriage, and women who wanted freedom.  It was truly eye-opening.  It painted a picture of what being a mistress was like while showcasing such a wide variety of women who chose to become mistresses.

Sometimes there was a little more focus on the man the mistress was sleeping with than the woman herself, but I think this was more a result of what information was available – often the man’s life was more thoroughly chronicled than the woman’s.  All in all, it was a really excellent book looking at a position that has been so important but so under-discussed throughout history. I would highly recommend it.

If you’re into women’s history, alternative looks at history, or the lives of famous figures, you should definitely give this book a chance! If you’re not into tales of moral ambiguity or if clunky conclusions are a pet peeve of yours, than you might want to give it pass.


Feminist Sundays!


Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.

Hi guys and welcome to my first Feminist Sunday! (I probably won’t participate every week, but I’m participating this week.)

I thought I would tackle a phrase that drives me up the wall.  It’s often seen in, but not limited to, romance novels. And it goes like this, “Any other woman would’ve X, but she Y’ed.”

Why does that phrase make me so annoyed? I’ll grant there are times when it is true: Any other woman would not have been able to relate to my experience as an unmarried European monarch, but Elizabeth I truly got me. Or: Any other woman would have not been able to follow my dissertation on the physical properties of radium, but Madame Curie helpfully critiqued my experimental design.

And there are times when its hyperbolic use seems appropriate, in that there probably are other women who would share the response, but they are few and far between: Any other woman would have called the police and run far away when she realized my psychopathic murderous hobbies, but Lila was completely into it. Or: Any other woman would’ve divorced me after I caused an international scandal with my affairs, but Hillary stayed with me through the entire ordeal. 

But unfortunately, most often the sentence runs like this: Any other woman would have freaked out/cried/become emotional and therefore useless, but Heroine remained calm, assessed the situation and utilized her abilities to best help the situation OR remained calm and did nothing so I could rescue her. And this is quickly followed by romantic navel-gazing ending with the conclusion that this is why the hero loves the heroine.

That’s not super flattering, now, is it?  Most women are apparently incapable of handling any tense or dangerous situation (because EMOTIONS!) and so, boys, when you find one who doesn’t act like a woman in these situations, you should marry her.

I am going to point out here that I know plenty of women who remain calm in tense or dangerous situations and end up being quite helpful.

It’s also weird that a heterosexual man finds himself falling in love with a woman because she doesn’t act like he thinks a woman should act.  Let’s run through that logic, shall we? 

A) I am attracted to women, presumably because they look and act like women. I have very defined views on how women should act; this is part of my attraction to them.  B) But the only woman who is worthy of my love is one who acts like a man.  Which brings us to C) women are inherently inferior to men and therefore not worthy of my manly love unless they D) act like men, which makes them worthy of my manly love.  But E) I am not attracted to men.  Only women.  Just not women who act like women.

Setting aside all inherent problems with how  women are viewed in that particular train of logic, it doesn’t make much sense, does it?

I don’t have a problem with that trope when it’s as such: Most other women would not have shared my interest in restoring classic Chevy trucks.  That is a) probably a fairly true statement and b) does not imply negative things about most other women.  It is not a character judgment to say someone does not share your interests and hobbies. (Assuming you don’t murder people for fun, that is.)

And as an ending point, I do occasionally see this trope used against men, usually in a domestic sense, as in: Any other man would have run screaming from the sight of the baby, but he stayed and played with it. Which has many of the same problems as above.


A Natural History of Dragons

anaturalhistoryofdragonsby: Marie Brennan

Apparently I never wrote or posted a review of one of the most awesome books I read last year.  The funny thing is that I started this review twice but then never finished it. Well, it’s being published today, though I read the book many months ago.

A Natural History of Dragons is the memoir of the fictional Isabella, Lady Trent, the world’s foremost expert on all things dragon.  Set in an alternate version of Victorian England, it is truly one of the best books I read last year, despite my lack of review.

This particular books covers Lady Trent’s formative years, as she begins to develop and pursue her interest in dragons and the natural sciences.  One of the things that I most loved was that Lady Trent did not set out to be a trailblazer and completely revolutionize the world of dragons and women’s role in the sciences.  She just worked towards opportunities and took them when she could.  Don’t get me wrong, the world needs revolutionaries and trailblazers, but a lot happens because of people like Lady Trent, who aren’t necessarily striking a blow for (here) feminism as much as they are following their interests and passions without much regard for the rules.

Within this book, Lady Trent is exploring how to live in a society that does not approve of ladies doing unlady-like things, and is trying to balance conforming to gender roles with being herself.  I like the way the book is realistic about the types of challenges she must face, from outsiders and from the men who are in charge of her life, and also from within, in terms of how she thinks she must behave and how she wants to be able to function inside society.

The plotline itself was a fun adventure.  It had a strong scientific bent that I really enjoyed – not science jargon, just an inclusion of what scientific work is often like. (Detail-orientated, demanding, repetitive, and often boring.) Lady Trent, who has always had an unusually strong interest in the natural sciences, finds herself and her husband presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, to travel to a remote village in a foreign country and study dragons.  Though it’s not at all proper for a Victorian lady to traipse off after adventure, she strikes upon a plan that will let her maintain some of her reputation and most of her adventure, and sets off with her husband for a life-changing adventure.

Lady Trent herself is a practical person, not given to flights of emotion or idealization about the world.  She’s of a very scientific bent, detailed and prone to thinking things through and accepting the realities of the world as she sees them.  She has no illusion as to what studying dragons will do to her reputation or standing in society, nor does she think she can survive outside of society as an outcast.  But she is prepared for adventure and clearheaded; this is no Jane running off to study gorillas, but a Madame Curie, determined and steadfast.

I don’t have the book anymore, having given it away in preparation for the Great Move this month, but it really is one of my absolute favorites and I can’t wait for the sequel, which comes out in March.  I know I ranted on about Lady Trent in this review, but I do assure you, the plot was well-done: adventurous, a little suspenseful, and including a fairly broad range of characters that I really enjoyed; the writing was excellent, and overall the book really worked.

If you like strong female characters, dragons, science, adventure, or are just looking for a good fantasy book, you should give this one a try! If you like characters who are emotional or dramatic, or if you are not a fan of a slightly drier style of writing, then perhaps this is not the book for you.


Quotes Worth Sharing

Saturday furrowed his brow. “Why would I care about your First Kiss?” he said. “You can kiss anyone you like.  But if you sometimes want to kiss me, that would be all right, too.”

This absolutely lovely quote, from The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, takes place after our brave heroine, September, apologetically tells her crush, Saturday, that she had her First Kiss with someone else.

I love it. I almost never pick out quotes from books but this deserves to be shared.

What about you, dear readers? Have you read anything lately that’s stuck in your mind? Please feel free to share it in the comments!

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

We Need to Talk About Kevin

by: Lionel Shriver

This is probably the darkest book I’ve read all year – even Anna Karenina had some light and hopeful moments to it.  We Need to Talk About Kevin chronicles the story of Eva Khatchadourian, mother of Kevin Khatchadourian, mass murderer in a school massacre.  

The book takes the forms of letters Eva writes to her estranged husband, Frank, telling their story from their initial discussions about having to the current day, more or less chronologically. Current day is a little over a year after the massacre; Kevin is imprisoned for his crimes.

The story mainly revolves around Kevin.  Even in her own story, Eva’s letters are a desperate attempt to answer the question: Is she responsible for her son’s actions?  It’s a really interesting read on the nature vs. nurture “debate” (most people agree it’s a combination of both; it’s just assigning importance that we’re still trying to figure out) and the influence a mother has on a child’s development, as well as the reciprocal influence the child has on the mother’s development.

From the beginning, Eva never wanted a child.  She got pregnant with Kevin to please her husband, mistaking a disinterest in raising a child for apathy.  Shriver excellently dissects the indirect pressure on women to have children – the assurances that “you’ll feel differently when it’s your child,” the assumption that because one is female, one wants to have a child, the prescriptive way in which women are supposed to feel about children in general.

The lack of options presented to women plays into this -it is not part of our social framework that women apathetic or on the fence about having kids should err on the side of not having children, rather than assuming they’ll love the baby when it arrives; that a child is a major life change that is not going to magically work out once the baby arrives.  Certainly Eva and her husband never really discuss how they feel about parenting beforehand or how they feel about children – not how they feel about becoming parents, but how they feel about their future child.

Eva’s lack of a desire for a child, coupled with a lack of bonding with her son and an exceptionally difficult baby set up a failing relationship between her and her son.  As Kevin grows older and begins to commit rather horrifying acts (and his mother retaliates, once, much to his delight), Eva finds herself with nowhere  to go.  Kevin brilliantly manipulates his father into seeing only good in him.  In fact, Frank, for all that he is an affectionate and attentive parent to Kevin, doesn’t know Kevin at all.  He ignores the warning signs – the exclusion from playgroups, their inability to keep a babysitter or a nanny, the harrowing tales Eva hesitatingly brings up – and allows Kevin to pull the wool over his eyes as many times as necessary.

Eva, on the other hand, doesn’t bring up Kevin very often.  For all that she sees her son for the (somewhat classical) sociopath he is turning into, she ignores his behavior as much as possible, or allows it to remain solely between her and her son.

In a sense, everyone except Kevin is trapped by societal conventions.  Eva has no on to turn to about her lack of feelings for her baby and later her concerns about his behavior.  Frank is so invested in the idea of a perfect family that he hangs on to his idealization of Kevin as the perfect son until, too late, he can no longer avoid the truth. There are options out there, but it seems like Eva and Frank have never truly encountered them.

Kevin himself is rather an enigma.  One can’t tell if he was born evil or made evil.  Or born with evil tendencies and never prevented from fulfilling them.  Everything he does is done with his mother in mind; why this is so is unclear.  What is clear is that Eva knows and understands him better than anyone else in his life.

Overall this is a rather excellent yet supremely disturbing book.  I rather related to Eva, in her disinterest towards children and motherhood – I have no desire to reproduce whatsoever. I can’t imagine having – and never will have – a baby feeling as I feel.  I don’t blame Eva for Kevin’s actions – I think it’s due to a complex web of influences, events, nature, and social pressures – but I do think there was more she could have done.

If you want a dark, twisted novel taking an unusual stance on a horrifying event, or if you love thought-provoking novels in general, give this one a go.  If you’re not okay with violence, or if you dislike novels revolving around characters that are hard to sympathize with – and these characters are often hard, if not downright impossible, to sympathize with – you may want to give this one a pass.

As always, spoilers are welcome in the comments!


Female Love Interest

I’m currently reading The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss’ sequel to The Name of the Wind.  I’m about halfway through it and I’m really enjoying it – I’ll write a review when I’m done – but first, a quick rant.  (Avast, mateys! Mild spoilers abound!)

Denna, the main character’s love interest, is driving me crazy.   She is mysterious and beautiful.  And mysterious and beautiful.  And  – oh look, she picked up a hobby relevant to the main character and did a stupidly generous thing for Kvothe, the main character and has a moment of deep insecurity in the second book, in addition to continuing to be mysterious and beautiful.   (A moment, mind you.  Not a developed theme or anything.  Just a completely predictable “beautiful-girl-who-seems-to-have-it-all-together-is-actually-vastly-insecure” moment.)

Arg! Seriously, Rothfuss? Seriously?! You have this intelligent, headstrong, complex daring main character who is having these fantastic moments of character development and all you can think of for a girl worthy of his love is – mysterious and beautiful? There’s not exactly a windfall of well-developed female characters in these (massive) novels, but, hell, any of the others would make a better love interest than Denna.  I feel I could easily replace her with whatever stereotype springs to mind when I say “mysterious, beautiful” lady and it would not detract from either the story or the love plot at all.

I can’t even give her credit for street smarts because 1) extremely stupid moment of generosity mentioned above.  Look, all I’m saying is if you’re constantly depending on others’ good will to support yourself, you often find yourself in straits, and you come into a huge windfall of money, don’t spend it all on a boy. And 2) she is being incredibly naive and gullible as it pertains to other mysterious people.

This is the only part of the book I sincerely dislike. But, oh, how much I dislike it! Please, people, if you’re going to make your books all about one character who’s amazing and super-intelligent and brave, ect., ect., can you take some time to write a love interest that seems realistically intriguing and engaging as a person?  Beauty and mystery are no basis for a relationship.