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‘Does it bother you not at all to bind ghosts?’ he asked at last. His thumb slid across the knuckles of her left hand, not quite touching the ring. ‘To enslave them? Not even spirits, but the souls of your own kind.’

‘Every ghost I’ve bound committed crimes that would see living men imprisoned or executed. You wouldn’t let a living man who tortured or murdered his family go free – why let him do such things in death?’

His lips twisted. ‘I know many torturers and murderers who walk free, and I suspect you do too. Even so, it still seems…cruel.’

Ah memories. This time last year I was still pumping out reviews every day, even during the festive season. Now I have the luxury of taking my time with my reading – too much time some of you might be thinking. Just the other week I was browsing in Kinokuniya and decided that I wanted to read a fantasy book written by a woman. Perhaps that strikes you as a strange prerequisite, but to my mind the success of Twilight and its ilk proves that there is a huge demand for fantasy literature among women, but the stereotype of the basement dwelling male fan persists. In many respects The Drowning City challenges those preconceptions of fantasy literature, a point I will return to below.

Isyllt Iskaldur is a secret agent from the kingdom of Selafai who travels openly as a necromancer to the occupied territory of Symir. Her mission is to undermine the expansionist Empire that rules the city. The Assari conquerors are resented by the native people of Symir as well as the unquiet dead and it seems all she will need to do is fund the efforts of the revolutionary movement that seeks to topple the occupiers and her task will be complete.

Complications, however, soon ensue. One of her party shortly after their arrival becomes troubled by the nature of their mission and is tempted to defect to the rebels. What’s more, there are schisms within the movement itself, with a group known as Dai Tranh favouring more extreme methods that threaten the lives of the occupiers as well as the native inhabitants of Symir. Then there is her abilities as a necromancer suddenly becoming highly in demand, as spirits are rising up out of anger at the occupation they died fighting to prevent and possessing the bodies of their descendents. Finally Isyllt encounters an imperial mage named Asheris, whom she suspects is himself a double-agent of some kind. In setting in motion the plot of her masters to cripple the Assari Empire, has Isyllt only succeeded in wiping out a city of innocents instead?

What I find fascinating about Downum‘s vision is her fusion of Sino-Arabian influences. The Assari broadly parallel the Ottoman Empire, whereas the culture of Symir is devoutly concerned with spirits and the revering of ancestors. Isyllt encounters a devouring spirit known as a ganghi, a concept similar to Chinese ‘hungry ghosts‘.

This is a welcome inversion on typical fantasy tropes founded on Anglo-European mythology and folktales. I have discussed often on this site the debt modern fantasy owes to Tolkien’s raiding of Saxon and Nordic myths. The Drowning City goes so far as to feature a climax familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings. Of course the inversion of the X-Y axis of fantasy continues with the genders of these characters, most of whom are female as opposed to the stock standard sword-wielding male bruisers weighing down the shelves in your local store’s fantasy section with their overly detailed biceps.

If I had a complaint about The Drowning City it would be that the points of view of characters chop and change within chapters quite rapidly, with nary a telltale paragraph symbol. I suppose the crests and emblems of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin have left me spoiled in that respect.

This remains a confident and fascinating mixture of storytelling and worldbuilding. The first book of Downum’s series The Necromancer Chronicles, I look forward to the continuing adventures of Isyllt. Betrayal, political intrigue, magic and fraught romance – Downum delivers it all.

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

If we are to properly understand women’s oppression in the West today, objectification and sexual performance must be understood as work. The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost. Female sexuality, which every day becomes increasingly synonymous with objectification, is work.

Yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite sandwich shop in Bondi Junction, enjoying my avocado and salami while reading my book when I overheard an interesting radio advert. Two women are casually talking to each other and one says “You’re looking tired.” I must have zoned out at that point, because when the ad suddenly jumped to the name of a plastic surgeon, I realized that looking ‘tired’, apparently requires going under the knife now. What a wonderful world we live in!

Meat Market is Laurie Penny‘s first published work of critical commentary – of many I hope. It joins an impressive amount of journalistic writing, which can be found on her blog Penny Red, as well as The Guardian and New Statesman. Penny presents an overarching assessment of how many conflicting issues facing women today, from the continuing commodification of the bodies of women to the fragmenting within feminist ideology itself.

As such Meat Market is not a feminist work that continues to spell out basic tenets of the movement, already fought over for decades, instead challenging the complacency surrounding such notions as patriarchal society, or the modern liberated woman. “Why are we so afraid of women’s bodies“, she asks, that peculiar loathing for the female form in culture which demands it be plucked free of hairs, nipped, tucked and starved. I am reminded of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. However, this trend is highly visible in contemporary society and not an idea limited to academic journals about the unconscious.

Penny identifies the constant focus on feminine appearance as a form of labour, one which necessitates a state of constant anxiety. Far from being liberated, women today face an increasing set of prohibitions on their behaviour. Feminism itself is blamed for any societal trend that is considered bad, such as the breakdown of the family, or even teenage drunkenness. So how could it be said that female liberation has occurred?

It is this notion of everyday ‘labour’, that the author uses to investigate the hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex workers. Pornography has replaced natural sexuality in the minds of many, burlesque commodified from an ironic vision of the aristocracy to a commercial entertainment, the fetishised female form a marketing device for every product under the sun – and yet women who sell their own bodies are viewed with contempt, denied basic protections under the law. The prostitute is denied any agency in the media, described variously as drug addicted, or innately criminal.

Feminism has failed to address the rights of the sex worker, even as luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have failed to acknowledge the status of transsexuals. Instead mainstream transphobia is indulged, gender reassignment surgery seen as a lifestyle choice that undermines the aims of feminist ideology. Penny points out that such a stance fails to consider women who are intersex and that by refusing to defend the rights of transsexuals, those who seek relief from their feelings of body dysmorphia are left at the mercy of the medical establishment.

Penny also discusses the treatment of anorexia in the media, which only reinforces the myth that women (as well as a growing percentage of men) begin to starve themselves out of a desire to appear more sexually attractive. To counter this claim she includes testimony from several anorexics describing how they in fact desired to eliminate any trace of femininity from their bodies, while newspapers feature the images of ‘size zero models‘.

The author insists that feminism must rediscover its political impetus and give recognition to the women whose lives are spent working on multiple fronts, as well as engage men who have become disempowered themselves.

This book presents a compelling argument for the reassessment of feminist values, as well as the need to challenge the false consciousness of modern men and women. Personally charged invective that demands to be heard. I read over underlined passages repeatedly after finishing the book.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Feminists barely acknowledged the significance of what we now know to be the momentous changes which were taking place around them and because of them. The changes were seen as either not deep enough or in danger of being overturned. At the very moment when feminism could have changed its rhetoric as many of its objectives were being met, there was instead a reassertion of its basic propositions. Why?

When I announced to friends and family I was resigning from my civil servant job to travel with my wife Stephanie to Australia, many asked what I would then do when I got here. I explained the procedures required for making a visa application to stay in the state, that I would probably not be able to work for several months at least. Quite a few folks that I spoke to about this became alarmed for my future prospects. So I was just going to sit at home while my wife went out to work? What about my morale, how would I fill my days?

Personally I saw an upside to all of this. The chance to read as much as I like – hence this blog. Maybe even improve my writing – the #Nanowrimo competition was a godsend. As the months have passed though I do find myself regretting not having a professional income, that sense of achievement that comes with a salary, an acknowledgment of the work you have done. Volunteering has filled a gap I did not anticipate. At no point have I thought of myself as less masculine because of my financial circumstances. The received wisdom, despite the advent of contemporary feminism entering the mainstream, remains that the breadwinner for a household has the authority. And authority, as any traditional feminist will tell you (and on that point their Right-wing opponents agree) is first and foremost an expression of patriarchal power. My relationship with my wife, our desire to live as equals regardless of our circumstances, I realize is quite unusual for many people.

Rosalind Coward‘s book argues two main points. Firstly that feminism has achieved much for women that feminists themselves rarely recognize. To do so, it appears, would be to admit that the disparity between the genders has lessened. This, in turn, would weaken the force of the feminist argument. Her second main point is that in engaging the political right in this continuing argument of extremes – single mothers are the greatest problem facing society; masculinity itself is under threat; women who wish to ‘have it all’, are merely greedy – feminism itself has been caught in a reductio ad absurdum. The dialectic has been beached on confrontational bear-baiting by both sides.

The caveat to this is of course that feminism as a whole is not guilty of this. Just that the most visible proponents of feminist theory in the media continue to repeat the same aphorisms as if nothing has changed. Women in the workplace who balance their family lives with their careers are noticeably quiet. The position of men could be said to be under threat, because they in turn have not chosen to review their status in a changing world.

I fear I am putting words in the author’s mouth. Coward discusses how social inequality, that stalwart point of Left politics, has been replaced by politically correct musings on the nature of the family as an essential element in society. The role of the father, by this rationale, has been undermined, leading to youth crime and failures in education. She notes at one point that while feminist theory once pointed to the poor exams results of female students as proof  of discrimination, similar results attributed to male students from the 90s onwards have been dismissed.

Indeed Coward terms ‘womanism’, as the assertion that where men once assumed an innate superiority over women, now the fairer sex has been proven to be on top. The notoriously anti-feminist Margaret Thatcher is nevertheless embraced as a symbol of the capability of women to rise to the top.

There is a failure to recognize that while historically power may be said to be gendered, the desire for power is not.

Coward examines not only contemporary academic works on feminism, but popular novels such as Erica Jong‘s 70’s classic Fear of Flying and changes in media such as the ‘Diet Coke Break’ ad campaign, to demonstrate how shifts in culture have occurred, but the rhetoric has stultified.

Refreshing and challenging.

 

We were gabbing about Oprah’s abundant advice on how to improve our health, relationships, homes, finances, spiritual lives, fashion sense, and the list goes on and on. Winfrey inspires masses of women all over the world. And yet, it dawned on me, for every Oprah fan I’ve come in contact with, there has also been someone who can’t hide her vitriol about the media sensation. I wondered why.

So Oprah made a very exciting announcement on her show last week. To commemorate the last season of her talk show/infotainment hour, the most powerful woman on American daytime television is bringing her audience to Australia, courtesy of Qantas Airlines and Tourism Australia. Then John Travolta popped out of a plane.

And yes, they’re going to rename the Sydney Opera House the Oprah House.

So I felt it was timely to read Robyn Okrant’s book Living Oprah. From January 1 2008 this performance artist/yoga instructor/self-confessed Oprah addict wrote a blog dedicated to following every piece of advice released by every facet of the Queen of Television’s media empire. From her television chatshow, to O magazine and her online website, author Okrant would dedicate herself to ‘living her best life’, as per Oprah’s instruction. Novels bearing the Oprah book club seal of approval would be read, the medical advice of special guest Dr Oz would be followed and the various exotic dishes that met with approval would be dined upon.

To be honest, reading a book a day seems a lot less daunting now.

Okrant takes us through her experiences living under Oprah’s instructions on a month by month basis. Each chapter ends with itemised breakdown of the costs incurred and time spent on each activity. Also the growing popularity of Okrant’s Living Oprah blog transforms the author into a media personality of her own right, although on a much smaller scale. One of the admirable aspects of her endeavour is her refusal to accept endorsements, despite the financial costs of abiding by the rules of her challenge. Every time a book title is announced on Oprah’s book club amazon’s electronic shelves are emptied.

This leads to an interesting question. Should one person wield so much influence over such a large number of people? I remember Oprah’s syndicated show back in the 80’s when it was indistinguishable from the many other talkshows on the airwaves – Phil Donohue, Arsenio Hall, Regis and Kathie Lee. Oprah is now the face of an incredible media empire. She is courted by corporate, charities, celebrities and national tourist boards. Okrant begins to feel concerned when her guru announces her support for Barack Obama as presidential nominee as a ‘private citizen’. Had the chosen candidate been anyone else on the ticket, would she have been willing to throw her vote away for the sake of her project?

I believe the first time I encountered the word ‘Oprahism’, was in William Gibson’s Idoru. The book is set in a near-future era, where AIDS has been cured due to a mass media ‘saint’ and various new cults have sprung up to challenge traditional religions, including the worship of Oprah Winfrey herself. It was an amusing conceit, but perhaps we are starring at the disturbing reality right now.

Okrant’s book posits how is it possible to abide by any of the lifestyle philosophies, or commercial endorsements, when many are contradictory. A programme promoting detox diets may well be followed by an episode featuring a delicious desert. For want of a better word, Oprahism appears to represent a confusing mixture of cosy Objectivism, a Luddite resentment of modern technology, rampant consumerism and body fetishism. Okrant suggests that Oprah’s influence is so pervasive her audience swallows all of this whole, without any real critical assessment.

Of course Okrant’s own role in this is questionable. How sincere is this project? Is it performance art keyed to trending topics? For one she promotes that execrable book The Secret (which has also received Oprah’s thumbs up) – I don’t object to positive thinking so much, as the poisonous notion of ‘negative attraction’. Also during the period of writing ‘geek chic’, was quite popular. So Okrant quotes “With great power comes great responsibility”, attributing it to Uncle Ben from the movie Spider-man, 2002. I told you I was a geek.” Quoting from the movie does not make you a geek – it makes you an audience member!

While this is a interesting project, I couldn’t help but suspect a degree of parasitism.

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