Delusions of Gender


Huzzah, a science book that's fun to read as well as being knowledgeable and scholarly! I enjoyed this book so much. Cordelia Fine smashes through all those pop-psych books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and Why Men Can't Find Butter in the Fridge and Women Can't Mend Taps, or whatever they're called (I must confess here that in a weak moment I may have picked up a couple of these titles from the library book sale to amuse myself...)

Anyway, Fine completely dismantles the so-called 'science' behind the claims that men's and women's brains are fundamentally different, demonstrating that any observable differences in behaviour are much more likely to be a product of social and environmental factors than genetic 'hard-wiring' (which isn't even a thing).

I do worry, a lot, that even in the last couple of decades, the gender boxes seem to be becoming more and more rigid, especially for kids and even babies. I had no desire to dress my girls in pink and frills (they did have a couple of princess dresses). I didn't go out of my way to raise them in a gender-neutral way (something Fine believes is basically impossible anyway, as even tiny children swim in a soup of culturally mandated assumptions and expectations). I now have one quite girly girl, who has to show me how to put on makeup properly, and one who hasn't worn a skirt since Grade 2. They both have friends who are trans and non-binary, which is of course completely fine; but I do feel it's a shame that society seems not to offer a wider, more elastic range of ways of being male and female in the world. I look back at myself when I was eleven or twelve -- not pretty, bookish, not interested in fashion or pop music or celebrities or handbags -- and I wonder if that girl was growing up today, if she might not start to question whether she was really meant to be a woman? I don't know, I don't know.

Anyway, Delusions of Gender is a terrific read and I'm going to scour my shelves for any stray books about Why Men like Guns and Women Like Knitting and I'm going to throw them in the BIN.


Big Sky

I had Big Sky on reserve at the library for months before I was able to read it. I must admit I think Kate Atkinson's recent books have been less brilliant than her early novels (Transcription was quite disappointing) and there are aspects of Big Sky that were a little annoying: a couple of blatant, cheating cliff-hangers (in one case, literally); a murder mystery that ends up being almost an irrelevance; and of course, Atkinson's trademark coincidences. But it was nice to be back in the company of Jackson Brodie, who is a dependable protagonist, and it was lovely to see Reggie Chase, from When Will There Be Good News? make a reappearance, now a policewoman herself.

Big Sky treads some dark territory, namely child abuse and sex trafficking, and it takes a while for the separate threads, which Atkinson painstaking lays down, to tie together in a satisfying conclusion. Big Sky might not be brilliant, but it is a solid, reliable read -- not unlike Jackson Brodie himself.


Dragonfly Song


I've always been intrigued by the mysterious Minoan civilisation, centred on bull worship and ritual 'dancing', the origin of the legend of the Minotaur, so I thoroughly enjoyed Wendy Orr's award-winning middle-grade novel, Dragonfly Song, set in Bronze Age Crete.

Told partly in prose and partly in verse, Aissa's story begins on a small Mediterranean island, ruled by the snake priestess. Aissa is the priestess's daughter, cast out at birth for a small imperfection; adopted into a peasant family, but cast out again as a cursed child when brutal raiders visit the island. But mute Aissa is destined for a bigger fate than slavery -- to become a bull dancer, sent in tribute to Knossos.

I was slightly bemused by the parts of the book that talk about 'servants' when Orr clearly means 'slaves', and I wondered if the publishers felt this was too touchy a subject, even for a historical narrative; but then there are other sections when 'slaves' are openly discussed, so that can't be right. I wasn't entirely comfortable with this apparent eliding of the two. But that's a very minor quibble in a lively, fascinating story, which will surely spark further investigation for young readers. 

There is a sequel of sorts called Swallow's Dance, which I will also keep an eye out for.



Stargazing by Peter Hill was not at all the book I was expecting. With its meditative cover and poetic title, I had anticipated a nature memoir in the vein of Robert Macfarlane or Helen McDonald, something thoughtful and lyrical. 

(I must also confess that another reason I grabbed this from Brotherhood Books was because in another life, I knew someone else with this name, who coincidentally took me up onto a rooftop blindfolded so I could gaze at Halley's Comet with dark-adjusted eyes.)

But -- this was not the same Peter Hill, and Stargazing was no reflective hymn to nature's wonders. Instead I found myself reading a jaunty account of Hill's 1970s stint working on Scottish lighthouses as a nineteen year old, the eccentric characters with whom he shared his duties, and a way of life now lost to automation. He casts a wry retrospective eye over his teenage self (addicted to poetry and drawing, obsessed with music) and popular culture of the time (Dr Who even makes an appearance, along with Captain Beefheart and Jack Kerouac). 

Okay, I must admit there is also a pinch of Nature's Wonders -- the wild seas, the creepy night when one of the lighthouses was swamped with migrating birds. But most of Hill's nostalgia is centred on his fellow lighthouse keepers, some young, some old, and the stories they had to share. At the change of shifts, one keeper had a duty to make sure the next one was fully awake, and so they'd sit and drink tea and eat cheese and biscuits, and talk about their lives. As he says, it was the only profession* that paid you to tell stories -- a sad loss indeed.

*Except, you know, author, I guess.


Dear Dodie


I first came across Dodie Smith as the author of the beloved children's classic, The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I'd enjoyed the book as a child but came to a deeper appreciation of it when I read it to my own girls -- it was one of the few books, apart from Harry Potter, that both my daughters loved and demanded repeat readings of. It was so warm and funny, so witty and clever, with jokes for adults as well as children, and the illustrations were so charming, that I never minded going back to it. The sequel, The Starlight Barking, was a little weird, with a science fiction/mystical premise; that wasn't such a big hit, but still enjoyable.

I was well into adulthood before I encountered Smith's second best known work, I Capture the Castle (originally written as an adult novel, but now regarded as YA). What a beautiful, moving, eccentric, yearning novel -- I'm so sorry that I missed it as a teenager, I would have lived in it. It's rapidly become one of my very favourite books.

Then I found another novel, It Ends in Revelations, in a second hand book shop -- quite a modern take on homosexuality, for its time, I thought, but not amazing. I had no idea that Dodie Smith had enjoyed a stellar career before the war as a playwright, long before she wrote any of the books that have remained her lasting legacy. She and her husband Alec moved to America when the war began, so that Alec, a pacifist, could avoid conscription. They remained there for fifteen years, with Dodie earning a comfortable living working on Hollywood screenplays, but she always felt guilty and conflicted about the move, which she regarded as a betrayal of her country, and more pertinently, as cutting her off from public sentiment in England. She was never able to recapture her former success as a playwright, even after returning to England and remaining there until her death.

No wonder she had enlightened ideas about sexuality; half her friends were gay, including Christopher Isherwood, and she was also a good friend of Julian Barnes, who eventually became her literary executor. In later years, she and Alec lived in virtual seclusion in a country cottage, content with their many Dalmatians (naturally) and a beautiful garden (Alec) and writing her autobiography (Dodie). Over her lifetime she wrote endless letters and diary entries, all of which Valerie Grove must have read to produce this biography.

Grove is quite judgemental about Dodie and describes her as 'self-indulgent' and 'pampered,' which is no doubt true, but she was also determined, humorous, generous (when she had money) and thoroughly enjoyed life's pleasures. In her youth she was an (unsuccessful) actress and then worked in Heals, a furniture shop, where she set out to seduce the much older owner and had a long affair with him, before marrying the young, handsome and devoted Alec. So good for her! 

I think I Capture the Castle is by far her best work, and it showcases her best attributes: clear-eyed self-reflection, whole hearted emotion, appreciation of beauty, and a wry, witty sense of humour.