Book Review: The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, by Hope Nicholson, is a fun and informative history of nine decades of North American comic books, concentrating on the female characters portrayed therein and their evolution. As I have come to expect from Quirk Books this is a well presented publication. It is laced with humour and appreciation for the form, written by an author who knows her subject and engenders enthusism in her readers – even one like myself who started knowing little more about comic books than can be gleaned from the films and TV shows they have inspired over many years.

Divided into nine chapters, one for each of the decades covered, these start with a summary of key developments in comic book creation and dissemination over the time period. There follows an introduction to a number of individual female characters who first appeared in the decade, whose stories highlight the trends of their times. Illustrations are included of the subjects in action. This is not intended to be a definitive list but rather a representation of changes in the industry.

Comic books were first created for titillation and in many ways this has not changed. Apart from in the 1940s, when there was a shortage of men due to war, female writers and artists have been in the minority although they have always contributed.

The 1950s brought a new puritanism and a Comics Code of Authority was introduced. This clampdown on permissiveness led many to believe comics were only for kids. Storylines could still be suspect with romances between teachers and pupils, children and adults, going unquestioned. It was accepted that clothes would be torn off in combat and sexual attentions forced when not freely given.

Comic book stories are often improbable and somewhat silly but this need not detract from the readers enjoyment. The artwork is generally excellent even if impractical costumes and curvaceous figures feed the white, male, hetero illusion of desired femininity.

The 1970s saw a return of sexually explicit publications as an underground movement was created. By the 1980s comic books had moved off the news stands and into Comic Book Stores leading to a dwindling female readership. This situation was turned around with the growth in conventions which enabled women to connect with fellow fans away from the boys club atmosphere of the store. As webcomics have been developed female readership has once again markedly increased.

Although these changes have enabled more diversity, which doesn’t go down well in certain quarters, there is still oversexualisation of characters, gratuitous violence and comic books being created as porn. However, there have always been a wide array of genres – romance, fantasy and snarky teens as well as superheroes. I learned that Margaret Atwood has made some fairly silly comics too.

This book was an education on a type of publication I have had little exposure to, a celebration that accepts the criticisms of many of the common forms and depictions. I now have an increased affinity with certain types of comic book afficionados. Most of all though, it was an interesting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: Scandal

Scandal, by David Boyle, looks back at the time when Victorian society decided that homosexual behaviour should be criminalised and investigates why.  The research was inspired by the author’s great-great-grandfather, a respected banker and Justice of the Peace living with his wife and children in Dublin, who fled beyond British jurisdiction in 1884 when several of his known associates where put on trial in what became known as the Dublin Scandals. At that time sodomy was a crime but proving such a private act had occured was difficult. The Dublin Scandals were significant because they reported the facts of homosexual behaviour in newspapers and thereby whipped up public indignation.

The time frame was also a factor. Feminists were campaigning against child abuse, citing examples of pre-teen girls being sold by their poverty stricken families to brothels. Sexual behaviour was being discussed as never before and a prurient readership was agog. The perceived decadence of the arts, personified by those who circled Oscar Wilde, engendered moral outrage in their detractors. With public feeling behind the influentials who wished to drag down a bohemian elite, the stage was set to amend the law in regard to sexual behaviour, and to make gay sex a crime.

The details of the history are fascinating. These are wrapped around the author’s analysis of the life of his great-great-grandfather, Richard Boyle. Within the Boyle family archives, Richard had been erased and the author did not know why. What emerged when he went looking were links to the Dublin gay scene and a subsequent warrant issued for Richard’s arrest.

The known facts of Richard’s life are presented with gaps filled in by suppositions based on his contemporaries and their reported behaviours. I found some of these sections a touch too whimsical. Nevertheless, what emerges is an idea of the impact the change in the law had at the time.

“Society in the 1890s was caught in the tension between the drive, not perhaps so much for purity, but for the possibility of innocence – and the drive for some kind of self-determination, self-definition. We are too: they are the two sides of any kind of gender or sexual politics – part demanding to take part, part demanding the right to refuse. These are not contradictory causes, but they tend to attract different kinds of people to the campaign.”

The desire to protect children from adult sexual proclivities was taken advantage of by those who hated homosexuals. Examples are cited of the unintended consequences, personal and political.

The writing style is patchy in places as it jumps between the investigative reporting and family history. This is still though an interesting read.

Book Review: Ronald Laing

Ronald Laing, by David Boyle, is a short biographical study of the Scottish psychiatrist, who enjoyed a brief period of fame and notoriety in the 1960s and 70s before the existentialism of the era gave way to the monetarism of the Thatcher years. Straplined The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist, the author explores what drove the doctor to work towards changing the way patients with mental illnesses are treated. Laing was not alone in this endeavour but his work was influential.

In the 1950s, when Laing first started to practice medicine, the mentally ill were incarcerated in large institutions run for the benefit of their staff and society rather than patients. The traumatised inmates were routinely drugged, subjected to ECT and, occasionally, lobotomised in an attempt to control and then standardise their behaviour. They were often treated with contempt by those tasked with deciding on treatment.

“When cruelties are permitted on people or animals, it seems to lead to active dislike among those charged with their care.”

Laing’s approach favoured cutting back on drugs, improving accommodation and autonomy, and listening to what patients had to say. He believed that mental healing could occur with minimum intervention given time and the right conditions. He questioned the definition of madness arguing for greater acceptance of difference. Such radical notions were frowned upon by the medical establishment but fitted well with emerging societal tolerance for individualism and freedom.

The decades in which Laing lived were pivotal to the acceptance and then rejection of his ideas. His personal development was also a factor. Laing took LSD and suffered from alcoholism. He was volatile and something of a philanderer. His fall from grace was exacerbated by his personal behaviour.

The book is divided into sections charting the milestones in Laing’s career and the context in which these occured. With my interest in psychology and sociology I found it fascinating.

“For Laing and his closest collaborators, we are all isolated individuals. He used to speak of trying to divest himself of all forms of collective identity. It was the collective categorisation that Laing raged against, especially of those in mental distress.”

Laing died aged sixty-one having fathered ten children and published numerous books. His work continues to influence psychiatric thinking even if aspects have been discredited. The author mulls what he would have made of the standardisations imposed today on medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as on other areas of life such as education.

A film about Laing’s life titled Mad to be Normal and starring David Tennant has recently gone on general release. This book would provide an excellent introduction and background for interested viewers.

Book Review: Fragile Lives

fragilelives

“A successful cardiac surgeon is a man who, when asked to identify the three best surgeons in the world, has difficulty in naming the other two.”

Fragile Lives, by Professor Stephen Westaby, is a memoir that is both awe inspiring and heart-rending. It tells the story of the medical career of a man raised in working class Scunthorpe who became a world class, ground-breaking cardiac surgeon before watching his life saving profession being stymied by the NHS bureaucracy that we know today.

The first few chapters cover Westaby’s childhood, inspiration and medical training. Born in the post-war baby boom years he decided young that he wished to be a heart surgeon after watching a television programme, ‘Your Life in Their Hands’, in which American surgeons were able to close a hole in a patient’s heart thanks to the newly created heart-lung machine. Westaby gained entrance to a local grammar school and from there worked towards his dream of medical school. As a teenager he took menial jobs at a hospital, learning as much as he could through observation. His years of medical training at Charing Cross and the Royal Brompton in London brought him to his first surgeries, where he learned that a certain arrogance is necessary for a successful outcome. A surgeon must believe in their own abilities if they are to innovate and thereby save more lives. When a patient is cut open on an operating table the surgeons cannot know exactly what problems they will be required to deal with.

Subsequent chapters look at particular patients whose medical issues Westaby tackled in new ways. Not all of them survive, and those that do are changed.

“extra life is not ordinary life. There’s a price to pay and a second dying to come”

These cases are fascinating if poignant to read. There is an amount of medical detail included but the language used is accessible. Westaby’s confidence in his abilities and willingness to take risks not only saved many of the lives he held in his hands but also led others in his field to do the same. These world class doctors worked together, sharing techniques and outcomes for the good of their patients as well as furthering their own careers.

“For the unfortunate patient, any prospect  of survival depends upon having an experienced trauma surgeon at hand. Few are offered that privilege.”

Westaby worked all over the world and experienced many levels of both staff competence and facility provision. When dealing with a patient who will surely die without intervention, risks seem a price worth paying. This is the way, the only way, that new techniques and treatments can be developed.

A cardiac surgeon must retain a certain detachment as they are dealing every day with the dying who often harbour multiple health issues. Success rates matter. The monetary cost of surgery is high and those controlling the purse strings wish to invest only in proven drugs or equipment.

Pioneering surgery is now threatened by the blame culture. Even proven techniques are being rationed due to the focus on cost, whatever the benefit.

“When a surgeon remains focused on helping as many patients as his ability will allow, some will die. But we should no longer accept substandard facilities, teams or equipment. Otherwise patients will die needlessly.”

By the end of his career Westaby had become disillusioned with the NHS. He had watched too many of his patients die due to a lack of drugs and equipment simply because they are deemed too expensive by non medical decsion makers.

“What mattered was keeping down costs. Death comes cheap.”

Inevitably he looks back on his own younger years with a degree of pride and with more regard than he offers today’s trainees. Setting this aside there is a warning to be heeded. It is understandable that cardiac surgeons feel frustrated with the constraints placed on their ability to work effectively. What this means to the individual patients and their families is the difference between life and death.

Those who believe that the drama of medical TV shows is overplayed should read this book. It is a fascinating account of a career that observed and facilitated huge medical innovation. The effect this had on the patients whose cases are included had me in tears of both sorrow and joy. To anyone with an opinion on the value of national healthcare expenditure, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Harper Collins.

Book Review: A Tale of Trees

taleoftrees

A Tale of Trees, by Derek Niemann, provides a potted history of British woodland, and details the devastation caused after the Second World War when farmers and other landowners were subsidised first by the government and then by the Common Market to bulldoze their plots of ancient woodland in order to convert them to arable use or conifer plantations. All land was expected to be managed with the aim of maximising economic return. To these modernisers, wood was simply a slow growing crop.

The author explains the difference in ecology between ancient woodland, mixed use replanting and regimented conifer plantations. The benefits of ancient woodland to the fragile ecosystem was not taken into account in the drive for increased food and timber production after the war. A complex habitat that had taken millenia to create could not quickly nor easily be replaced. The skills required to maintain such an environment can be lost in a generation.

This is a fascinating, beautiful but hauntingly poignant account of the damage caused by short term, ill advised human thinking. Many fret over the loss of ancient buildings, works of art and historic artifacts yet fail to appreciate the value of what man working sensitively with nature, of which he is a part, has created over many centuries. There is beauty but also utility. It is only in recent years, too late for large swathes of ancient woodland now lost forever, that value is being understood. A healthy ecosystem is an asset, even if this cannot be measured in monetary terms, and is required for healthy people as well as other living things.

To stem the destruction, support was required from government which had financially encouraged such actions – described in the book as being akin to setting a madman loose in an art gallery with a Stanley knife.

“He has signed a petition to parliament that has a straightforward demand: Give all ancient woodland statutory legal protection. Surely that’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, since there are so few of them?

He has sent me the reply he received […] Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century. Perhaps this may be true, but […] If the paintings of the National Gallery were at risk, would we be happy with a response that said Britain has lots of paintings?”

With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to understand how such desecration was allowed let alone encouraged, yet when there is money to be made such actions are still all too easy to believe. Protections are seen by some as a nuisance. Valuable assets to be managed for the benefit of all can be resented by those thereby prevented from maximising their personal monetary gain. Consider how art is purchased for investment potential rather than aesthetic appreciation.

Although dealing with a specialist subject the writing is clear and accessible. Anyone who has enjoyed the peace and beauty of a bluebell wood will have sympathy with those who fought to save these national treasures. What this book offers is an understanding of how much additional value they provided – their loss is devastating. That some are now attempting to do what they can to reverse the damage is a beacon of hope.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Short Books.

Book Review: How to Play the Piano

howtoplaypiano

How to Play the Piano, by concert pianist James Rhodes, is the first offering in Quercus’s new ‘The Little Book of Life Skills’ series. I received the book just before it was published six weeks ago and read it through almost immediately. I decided not to post my review until I had attempted to follow its instructions that I may report back on how effective they had been at teaching me to play Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major within the time period proscribed. In the interests of full disclosure I posted details of my musical background here. The key points are that I have never had a formal piano lesson but I did have some musical training on other instruments as a child.

The book opens with advice on how to master a piece of music. It is important to take things slowly and to practice regularly. To play the piano it is necessary to be able to read music, and to understand the correlation between the symbols on a musical score and a piano’s keys. Explaining this vital information takes up about half the book. It is then time to start to play.

A copy of the score is included and may be cut out or scanned. A few annotations have been added which are pointed out as progress is made.

The importance of correct fingering is explained. To navigate a keyboard smoothly this is a necessary skill to master. Timing is also important and to demonstrate this, and to give some idea of the sound being aimed for, the reader is directed to a series of short videos the author has posted at http://www.jamesrhodes.tv  I found these helpful.

The next twenty pages take the reader through the score, two bars at a time, explaining the tricky sections and offering advice on how to move the piece along. Getting through this section took me about four weeks. I was diligent with my practice, although I may have averaged closer to half an hour, five days a week rather than the three quarters of an hour, six days a week suggested. As much as anything I found the muscles in my hands would start to ache after this length of time and wanted to maintain my enjoyment even if it was to the detriment of the musical skill I could aquire.

Having more or less mastered the notes, albeit at quite a slow pace, there is then a chapter on performance and instruction on how to use the piano pedals. I found this tricky. Remembering the pedal affected my concentration on the notes and I struggled to play without mistakes. I also wished to add the suggested interpretation which, again, led me to flounder on the bars where notes move between octaves and fingering positions must be changed. The author suggested that, having played through the piece so many times, the score would no longer be required. My memory does not work in this way and I continued to need the score in front of me in order to play.

There is a lot to take in and remember but the book is clear in its instruction and eager to remind the reader that they started out unable to play the piano. To be able to get through the piece, even if not to as high a standard as desired, is very pleasing.

The final chapter offers a pat on the back and suggests some other pieces that the reader may wish to tackle should they choose to continue their musical journey. Using the advice gleaned from this book I can see that this is possible. I now feel that I have learned to play this particular piece, which is satisfying. It has also been a lot of fun.

img_20161003_151212608

An example of how it should sound: Prelude No 1 in C Major by J.S. Bach, BWV 846 | The Well-Tempered Clavier

And my less than perfect performance, affected by knowing I was being recorded, although the mistakes and hesitations are still typical when I play.

 

Thanks to my younger son for jumping the hoops needed to get my mobile recording onto YouTube – the only way I could think of to share the results of my 6 week challenge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.

Book Review: Wonder Women

wonderwomen

“There are so many attitudes that need to be adjusted, so many biases that need to be addressed”

Wonder Women, by Sam Maggs, is not the book for anyone who believes that a successful woman is one who is slim, beautiful, amenable and capable of snagging a husband. Successful women, like successful men, are individuals who achieve things for themselves, and this book introduces the reader to dozens of ladies whose work added significantly to their area of expertise. They were innovators, inventors and trailblazers despite the ire they encountered from the patriarchal system. Naturally, many of them were denied credit for their work. History grants accolades to straight, white men as if they are the only people born with brains and the ability to use them. As is demonstrated within these pages, that ability was often lacking when it came to dealing with the opposite sex.

The book is divided into chapters introducing the accomplishments of women of Science, Medicine, Espionage, Innovation and Adventure. Within each chapter, five women are profiled followed by a couple of paragraphs on seven more. Each chapter is rounded off with a Q&A from a current expert in the area discussing their experiences as a women working in a male dominated field.

To achieve their aims, women often had to use subterfuge. Sisters worked with their brothers, wives with husbands, professors with lesser qualified male colleagues. Ideas were willingly shared for scientific advancement leading to men claiming credit for discoveries. Papers by women detailing the exact same research and results, sometimes published years before, were ignored.

“I’m not surprised at what I’ve done. I’m only sorry I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly”

Men in every time, place and discipline underestimated their female colleague’s skills. In one example, a morse code operative training for a new role was magnanimously offered a booklet by her superior, that some of his boys had found helpful, as she may need its advice to proceed. He was unaware that she had written it.

I most enjoyed the chapters on areas where I have a personal interest – Science and Medicine. In Espionage and Adventure some of the women came across as morally suspect, although being nice has never been a prerequisite for achievement. There are plenty of men lauded for their contribution to the advancement of learning who may not have made the best of friends.

One statistic that I noted was that, of the 5 million US patents granted since 1790, only 5% have a women’s name on them. A sizeable number of the 95% resemble inventions conceived and developed by women that were rejected as the patent office could not believe a women capable. Expensive court cases proved that accepted ideas had been copied and stolen by male acquaintances. Many patent requests avoided mentioning gender to circumvent the ingrained belief in a women’s lack of ability.

Determined women created their own opportunities. Some disguised themselves as men, others travelled abroad to gain the training denied them at home. One women who persuaded a college to allow her to attend seminars was required to sit behind a screen lest her presence upset the roomful of men, poor lambs.

The writing is light-hearted and brisk but carries a serious message. It offers a reminder that delicate little lady brains simply need the education and experiences routinely afforded to men in order to equally achieve. Perhaps at some level men are aware of this, and that is what they fear.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.