Illuminations by Mary Sharratt – Book Review

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen by Mary Sharratt
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As a young girl, Hildegard sees visions, visions that she believes come from God. Of course, in the 11th century, visions can be a tricky proposition. Do they come from the Lord or the devil? Perhaps Hildegard’s mother believes her visions will make her unmarriageable, perhaps as the youngest of many children she will have no dowry, or perhaps she simply wants to curry favor with the noble house of Sponheim. Regardless of the reason, Hildegard’s mother makes the decision to give her daughter, her youngest child to the church. Hildegard will be a handmaiden to Jutta van Sponheim. This all seems bad enough to Hildegard, but then she learned that she and Jutta were not to be normal nuns, but would be enclosed – literally walled inside a series of small rooms in a monastery. After many years in her literal and figurative prison, Hildegard wins her release from her prison – although not her vows – upon Jutta’s death, becoming renowned as a Christian mystic.

Hildegard’s story is bizarre, terrifying, and inspiring by turns, to the point where it seems that it simply must be fiction. At the same time, though, it is clear that Sharratt has done her historical research here, because both Hildegard and the world in which she lived are vividly rendered and fully fleshed-out. Hildegard herself is an absolutely fascinating human being, accomplishing much more than one might think possible for the youngest child of minor Germanic nobility in the 11th century – and a woman, no less! Her visions and eventual relative power could have made her a difficult character to empathize with, but Sharratt humanizes her very effectively, partially by describing her almost maternal feelings towards the young women who are given to the church against their own will to serve alongside her.

Although I really enjoyed Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill, I absolutely loved Illuminations. Sharratt writes about a women who was formerly unknown to me, and does so in a way that makes me feel that I truly know her. Highly recommended.

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Mad Women by Jane Maas – Audiobook Review

Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond by Jane Maas, narrated by Colleen Marlo
Published in audio by Tantor Audio, published in print by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of Macmillan

If you reviewed an audiobook today, Thursday June 28th please leave your link in the Mr. Linky before midnight Central time (US) and you will be eligible to win a prize.

Synopsis:

America loves Mad Men, but was was it really like to be a woman on Madison Avenue  in the 1960s? Is Peggy’s story accurate? Joan’s? If anyone has the answers, it is Jane Maas. Maas was an advertising copywriter in the 1960s who grew to a great success within the industry, and she’s not afraid to tell it like it is (and was).

Thoughts on the story:

Here’s where I admit I never really got into Mad Men. I watched the first season, or most of it, on dvd, but was never really motivated to start the second season. Having watched the first season did give me a bit of background to what Maas discusses in Mad Women, but watching the show is not really a prerequisite to enjoying the book. Maas weaves feminist issues effortlessly together with advertising history and lore in an absolutely fascinating package. There’s quite a bit of sex, drugs, and alcohol in Mad Women, but it is in an attempt to set the scene and explain what was really going on, not in an attempt at being salacious, or gossip-mongering.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Colleen Marlo largely became Maas in her narration, she had the same mix of confidence and knowledge that comes across in Maas’s writing, making them a very good fit, and making the already interesting material all the more compelling.

Overall:

You don’t need to be a fan of Mad Men to find Mad Women intereting, but it will hold a special attraction for fans wondering, “was it really like that?” Although I’m sure it is still fascinating in print, Marlo’s narration is a great experience.

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Powells: Audio/Print*
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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Bossypants by Tina Fey – Audiobook Review

Bossypants by Tina Fey, narrated by Tina Fey
Published in audio by Hachette Audio, published in print by Reagan Arthur Books, both imprints of Hachette

If you posted an audiobook review today, Monday June 6th, please leave your link in the Mr. Linky before midnight Central time (US) and you will be eligible to win a prize.

Synopsis:

Tina Fey is a smart, funny woman, a working mother. Before she was famous for her work on SNL – particularly playing Sarah Palin – she was a member of Second City and, before that, a young girl who had a lot of gay friends in summer theater.

In Bossypants, Fey touches on motherhood, feminism, working at SNL and 30 Rock, and her life growing up.

Thoughts on the story:

If you are expecting a deep treatise on feminism or working motherhood, you might be disappointed by Bossypants. Except I highly doubt you can stay disappointed for very long. Fey might not spend an inordinate amount of time or depth on any one topic, but every section of the book is rife with her trademark wit, and she hits every note beautifully, nary a joke falls flat.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Tina Fey is hilarious narrating her own life. For someone with the comic timing and delivery that she has, narrating your own memoir is an absolute must. Honestly, I simply can’t imagine any other narrator doing justice to Fey’s unique voice. The audio did mean missing the immediacy of seeing the pictures of Fey growing up, but Hachette included a pdf of all of the pictures along with the audiobook and Tina Fey references them so the listener knows when to when to check them out, or at least remembers the context when it is convenient to open the document. And huge plus for the audiobook? The fact that they were able to get the license to include the audio of the SNL skit where Tina Fey first played Sarah Palin. That alone makes it worth listening to.

Overall

Fey’s writing is sharp and smart enough that I imagine Bossypants must work quite well in print, but for the added emotion and humor of Tina narrating her own work, I must strongly recommend experiencing Bossypants in audio.

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Source: library.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Madre by Liza Bakewell – Book Review

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Madre means mother, right? Well, technically. Madre may mean mother in Spanish, but it means a whole lot else besides that in Mexico. There is an extensive list of madre idioms, nearly all of which have negative meanings along the lines of disaster or whore. How can this be, when mothers traditionally hold a very high place in Mexican society, in a land where the Holy Virgin, the mother of Christ, is so venerated? What question could be more fascinating to a social anthropologist with an interest in linguistics and feminist leanings from the United States living in Mexico? It was this first question, in fact, that turned Liza Bakewell from a social anthropologist into a linguistic anthropologist with a particularly interest in madre and the intersection of gender and language.

“It can be dangerous to say madre in Mexico. Underscored and italicized. His words would blow fire across the screen. A kind of watch-out fuerte, not only powerful, but really powerful. Like a match to gasoline, or a blow to the face.” -p. 47

Out of this fascination came Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun. The subtitle of Madre is really the best description of what this book is. Far from a strictly academic treatise, Madre is more of a travelogue/memoir combo by someone who is simply very intelligent and likes to think deeply about issues of language and society. In spite of this, the chapters are organized topically within the larger subject of madre: talking about piropo and albur, the grammatical dominance of maleness even in a room predominantly female, las mentadas de madre.

Perhaps this begins to explain the origins of the symbolic dilemma of madre in Mexico. The Church believes the bride, once married, is Eve, not the Virgin. -p. 175-176

Maybe it is just me, maybe I missed my calling as an anthropologist, but I think that the intersection of gender, culture, and language is a fascinating place to linger and observe, and I’m so grateful that Bakewell brought me to this particular intersection. Even better, she does not manage to lose a non-Spanish speaking, non-linguist on her journeys. It could be occasionally disconcerting to have the very personal style interacting with the linguistic and anthropological insights, but overall it worked very well.

A very interesting book, if the concept interests you, then I can recommend Madre.

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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Dracula in Love by Karen Essex – Book Review

Dracula in Love by Karen Essex
Published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House

As a maligned and psychologically abused child, Mina Murray has only ever wanted from her adult life is normalcy. She renounced her strange ways after being sent to boarding school and now it seems she may have achieved the normalcy she has always desired; not only has she had success as a teacher at her former boarding school, she is now engaged to the handsome young solicitor, Jonathan Harker. All is not as it seems with Mina, however. She has been dreaming incredibly sensual dreams, all of which involve a handsome, mysterious stranger, who Mina is certain she has seen somewhere before.

“Dracula” is a literary classic, but it is written entirely from the point of view of the men in the story. “Dracula in Love” is Karen Essex’s response to Stoker opus, told entirely from Mina’s point of view. Instead of remaining a cardboard cutout of the apex of Victorian womanhood, Essex’s Mina is a fully fleshed hotblooded woman. She yearns not only for the normalcy of marriage, but for the intimacies that accompany it. And even being engaged doesn’t keep her for lusting after her erotic dreams.

When people think about “Dracula,” they often forget just how much Stoker’s masterpiece is about sex, because it is disguised for Victorian sensibilities. But really, vampire myths are sex central: the penetration, the exchanging of bodily fluids. What I really appreciated about “Dracula in Love” is that Essex acknowledged how much the story was about sex and incorporated it into her story, without being needlessly salacious and graphic. It was really a very fine line to walk and people who are sensitive to sex in their novels may think that she’s taken it slightly too far, but I thought she achieved a very good balance.

A delightful re-imagining of “Dracula” and vampire lore with a strong female perspective. I loved Essex’s take on the vampire mythology as well. Highly recommended.

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A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
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This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
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