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review 2020-08-25 22:47
Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty
Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire - Ira Mukhoty

This is an interesting book about the women related to the Mughal emperors. I wound up disenchanted with it and think that its reception so far has been perhaps a bit too glowing, but I did learn some interesting things from it.

Essentially, this is a history of a little over 200 years of the Mughal empire in India, from just before their arrival at the beginning of the 16th century, to just after the death of Aurangzeb at the beginning of the 18th. The focus is on the women of the dynasty, who played far more powerful and active roles than western stereotypes would have it. Also, the “harem” (the correct term for the women’s quarters is a zenana) wasn’t exactly teeming with wives and concubines of the emperor; any woman related to him or to his loyal retainers could show up to live there and many did, along with their own entourages and servants.

Particularly in the early years, these women were hardly in purdah: they accompanied the emperor as he traveled around, even to war or on daring escapes across mountains from pursuing armies (this sometimes resulted in wives and children being captured or killed); they traveled from city to city at their own whim; they went on hajj. Even later on, once the zenana became more separate, the women there still wielded considerable power, as they often had independent fortunes, owned trading ships, commissioned monumental buildings, and weighed in with the emperor on issues of public policy. Maham Anaga was essentially regent of part of India for awhile, while Noor Jahan coined her own money and had the authority to issue edicts under her name and with her own seal.

All of which is fascinating, and I’m glad to have learned about these women, but the execution let me down a bit. First, the author covers more than 200 years and a ton of women in just 246 pages of text, which means it’s rushed and often doesn’t get much past generalities. Second, the first third is definitely the best because Mukhoty can rely on the memoirs of Gulbadan, daughter of Babur and relative of the later emperors, which bring a lovely personal touch to the story. In the later portions we don’t have that and so it becomes more distant. It might also be that the earlier women are just more interesting, as many of them led quite dramatic lives while the later ones seem to have mostly stayed behind walls amassing wealth and commissioning buildings in their names.

Third, the author seems to glorify the Mughals overmuch, in a way that comes across as colonialist. We may not think of the Mughals as colonizers because they weren’t European and, unlike the British, at least they kept India’s wealth in the country and acculturated themselves to the place. But still, they rode in from Afghanistan and killed a ton of people to conquer territory for their own power and glory, and continued to do so throughout the existence of the empire. Mukhoty mostly elides the fact that their wars consisted of naked land grabs, and there’s a weird “oh, those Hindus and their barbaric customs” vibe that comes close to suggesting the Hindus needed the Mughals to save them from themselves.

Finally, the book just doesn’t come across as very historically rigorous. Mukhoty’s decision to write the entire history in the present tense is weird and distracting. There’s also a tendency to use the same evocative generalities over and over again; the author is always talking about someone’s glittering, blistering, blinding, incandescent, etc., etc., ambition, which is a fancy way of saying the Mughals loved conquering people and imposing architecture. There are endnotes (though frustratingly, no index) and the author seems to have used at least some primary sources. She also doesn’t run rampant speculating on thoughts and feelings (lack of source material is perhaps why the book covers so many people in so few pages). But I would have appreciated more facts and less editorializing.

In the end, interesting book that opened my eyes to a part of history I didn’t know much about. Could be worthwhile reading if you’re interested in the subject, but ultimately it was frustrating for me because it could have been better.

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review 2020-08-25 21:20
Madame President by Helene Cooper
Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Helene Cooper

I picked this book up primarily because I loved the author’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, about growing up in Liberia until political instability and terror forced her family to leave. This book, though, is a biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018 and the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa. It’s a good biography, readable and engaging as all the best journalistic work is, and certainly informative though it lacks the humor and personal touch of Cooper’s memoir.

About the first quarter of this relatively short biography (290 pages) covers the first approximately 50 years of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life, spending a few pages on her childhood before moving on to her marriage, higher education, subsequent divorce from her abusive husband (even though it meant no longer being able to raise most of their children), and her career as a financial bureaucrat. The second quarter focuses more on Liberia’s civil war and the years of coups and atrocities. Johnson Sirleaf was absent from Liberia for much of this time working for financial institutions abroad, but the reader needs to understand something of what was happening in the country to put her presidency in context. Finally, the last half covers her elections and presidency, though the book ends in 2015 and was published in 2017, before she actually left office.

The book is highly readable and offers a lot of explanation to readers who may not know anything about Liberia; Cooper is clearly adept at bridging two cultures. It is an admiring biography, and as far as I can tell an authorized one—Johnson Sirleaf allowed Cooper to follow her around and was interviewed for the book, though Cooper didn’t share her drafts—but Cooper also highlights areas where Johnson Sirleaf made poor or questionable choices. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about all her female supporters who stole their adult sons’ voter IDs to prevent them from voting for her clearly unqualified male opponent, for instance—interestingly to me, Liberian women seemed far more likely to vote for a candidate because of her gender than their American counterparts. But I was glad to see Cooper really dig into Johnson Sirleaf’s achievements in office: the chapter about how she managed to persuade other governments, multinational institutions and private companies to forgive Liberia’s $4.7 billion debt is fantastic and highlights a huge accomplishment that few others could possibly have achieved.

Meanwhile, other reviewers have mentioned that the book deals with some dark subject matter around Liberia’s civil war, and this is true though it isn’t the primary focus of the book. The last 35 pages mostly focus on the Ebola pandemic, which was interesting to read during another pandemic: there was a lot of initial denial around Ebola too, though once people accepted that it was real they seemed to do a good job of taking necessary precautions to wipe it out.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of good information in this book, but there’s more distance from its subject than I would have expected in a semi-authorized biography of someone who’s still alive: I didn’t get much sense of Johnson Sirleaf’s personality, what makes her tick, how the people close to her view her, etc. Maybe she didn’t want her personal life in a book, her family didn’t want to share, and Cooper decided to respect their wishes—hard to say. But while I still blew through the book in just a few days, I think I would have liked it even better with more personality. Cooper credits several people in the acknowledgments with making her ditch her “flip tone” and I wound up wishing she’d kept it. There are a few humorous bits, which were welcome.

But I’d certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject, and Johnson Sirleaf is without doubt a tough and impressive woman, though (like everybody else) imperfect. Those who would like a more personal, in-depth and at times humorous story (with some overlapping subject matter) should check out the author’s memoir.

Only time will tell how to interpret events after the end of this book: Johnson Sirleaf stepped down in 2018, allowing for Liberia’s first peaceful transition of power in decades, but then the winner of that election was George Weah (the soccer player), whose vice president is Jewel Taylor (ex-wife of Charles Taylor, the war criminal). Hmm. I hope Cooper will keep on writing books about Liberia; I for one will be happy to keep reading them.

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review 2020-07-31 21:27
The Favourite by Ophelia Field
Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough: The Queen's Favourite - Ophelia Field This is an interesting biography of a woman I can’t help viewing as the Hillary Clinton of turn-of-the-18th century England: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was a prominent, divisive, highly political woman closely connected to her country’s leader, but not naturally suited to her supporting role. Opinionated, partisan, determined, self-righteous and stubborn, even today Sarah Churchill remains a colorful figure often portrayed in a highly negative light. Churchill is best known for having a very close relationship with Queen Anne, up until their dramatic falling-out largely due to political issues: the queen leaned conservative while Churchill was a committed Whig, and after decades of friendship Churchill seems to have assumed too much in terms of her influence once Anne ascended the throne. During the course of their friendship, Anne sent Sarah a lot of letters that today come across as highly romantic in tone and vocabulary, leading many to assume that the two were lovers. Author Ophelia Field looks at both sides of that question, but without spending too much time on speculation, preferring to focus on known facts. It’s pretty hard to figure out centuries later whether people were sexually involved, but we do know that many of the female courtiers at that time wrote each other letters like this, perhaps in part due to overheated epistolary conventions and in part because friendships were prioritized more at the time than they are now. It’s also worth noting that certain words simply had different connotations at the time (people declared their “passion” for their parents and children as well as their friends). On the other hand, while Anne dutifully got pregnant with her husband an astonishing 17 times (none of which resulted in a child surviving to adulthood), she did not have quasi-romantic relationships with male courtiers in the way other queens of England did, and Sarah evidently saw something untoward in Anne’s letters, as after falling out of favor she used them to blackmail the queen. This book though is a rather exhaustive chronicle of Sarah Churchill’s life, of which the Queen Anne episodes were only a part. There’s a lot about her relationship with her husband and his military victories, a lot about political maneuvering, and a lot about various satires and attacks against the Churchills in the press at the time. I also appreciated the final chapter dealing with the various portrayals of Churchill since her death. I don’t disagree with the reviewers who say the book goes on a little long, in perhaps too much detail, with the letters, politics and press attacks. It’s interesting stuff, but it may not need to be quite so granular and as a result the book takes a little while to get through. In my view Field does an admirable job of remaining balanced: Churchill was clearly a difficult person in a lot of ways, prone to strong opinions and long-running arguments (though perhaps not quite as contentious as some of her detractors portrayed her). She doesn’t seem to have been an attentive mother and was controlling toward her grandchildren, using the fortune she amassed through clever investments to keep them in line. At the same time, her willingness to step out of the standard role of a woman of her time is admirable, and she was clearly tough, committed, charismatic and intelligent. She wrote a lot, and was very concerned with how posterity would view her, so we get many excerpts in her own words. Overall, this is an interesting and at times dramatic biography of a strong personality, though at times it does drown a little in detail, while there were a few areas (such as Churchill’s children) that I would have liked to see fleshed out more. This book is a good choice for those interested in the topic.
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review 2020-06-23 22:39
Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe by Monique Frize
Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy's Pioneering Female Professor - Monique Frize

This is a lazily researched, poorly-organized and poorly-written book, that nevertheless proved interesting to me by covering the biographies of 18th century female Italian scientists, which I have not found elsewhere. Biographies available in English are overwhelmingly Anglocentric and a historical biography of a non-English speaking woman without an adventurous sex life is a rare find indeed.

But unless you have a strong interest in that subject, you probably shouldn’t read this book. First of all, it’s poorly researched. The author apparently cribbed most of it from the dissertation of a researcher who died prematurely, and that researcher appears to have done much more work on it than this author, who regularly cites to Wikipedia (!). Second, she seems to run out of material about halfway through after already having covered Laura Bassi’s biography and some background on science at the time, so spends the rest of the book summarizing letters Bassi exchanged with various men (unclear why this isn’t simply incorporated into the biography portion) and providing mini-biographies of other Italian women active in science.

Third, the writing is just bad; I think the author is a science professor who is interested in the subject but very much not a writer. She struggles with appropriate prepositions, capitalization, and hyphenation, and there’s frequent awkward sentence structure and word use (words like “obtention” and “embracement”). She also frequently reminds readers of things we’ve already been told, going so far as to use Bassi’s full name and remind us of basic facts such as the city in which she lived well into the book, giving the impression that no final read-through was conducted to streamline the writing. Overall, it’s just rather awkward and jagged.

That said, it definitely is an interesting subject: Laura Bassi was a professor of science in 18th century Italy, which was quite an achievement for a woman at the time, and if the book doesn’t exactly bring her to life, it definitely introduces a lot of facts about her. As it turns out, Italy offered somewhat more opportunities for educated women in the 18th century than other European countries, largely based on the notion of the “exceptional woman,” whose brilliance reflected well on her family and city because since women were assumed to be less intelligent than men, if a woman was that smart, how brilliant must their men be? In general, these “exceptional women” were expected to adorn civic occasions rather than make actual careers, and to be very much the exceptions to the rule: the father of one of them, who had championed his own daughter’s advancement, argued successfully against the same university granting a degree to any other woman on the grounds that it would somehow cheapen his daughter’s achievement. Bassi managed to turn her degree into an actual career though, with some help from unexpected places, namely the Pope, an old friend of hers who wanted to improve the state of science in Bologna at the time.

I would love to see someone write biographies of the women discussed here for a general audience; there’s so much rich material that would be new to most English-speaking readers, and the information included here certainly expanded my understanding of history a little. That said, it is very difficult to recommend this particular book.

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review 2020-05-28 18:39
A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell

This is an engaging book about a totally badass historical figure, though I’m left unconvinced that the author really had enough information to write a book about her.

Virginia Hall was an American woman who, during WWII, worked undercover in France for first the British and later the American intelligence agencies. She helped organize and arm the French Resistance, spied for the Allies, and later even directed guerilla activities herself. She faced incredible dangers to do so, and with about two years behind enemy lines, spent much more time in France than most operatives, despite the comrades regularly being hauled off by the Gestapo to be tortured and sent to death camps. She had plenty of adventures and near-misses, including once having to escape over the Pyrenees on foot in winter, an even more impressive feat given that she walked on a wooden leg after shooting herself in the foot years before.

Hall is certainly an impressive figure, and I am glad to have learned about her and enjoyed the book. After the first couple of chapters early on, relating the first 30-odd years of her life before sneaking into occupied France, the book is overwhelmingly focused on high-tension WWII exploits, and written in a fluid style that makes for quick reading. I’ve read my share of WWII books considering this is not my favorite subject, but I learned some new things here about the French Resistance, and the book introduces readers to numerous impressive men and women who risked and sometimes lost their lives fighting the Nazis.

That said, Hall herself – no surprise here – was secretive, and refused to share war stories even in later years with the niece to whom she was close, so I have some questions about where all the author’s information comes from. In particular, the author is quick to describe Hall’s thoughts and feelings about events without attributing them to any particular source, leaving me to suspect she made them up. Also, that same reticence on the part of the book’s subject left me confused about just how Hall was accomplishing the things she did. Somehow, Hall would arrive in a place where she knew no one, and despite Purnell’s repeated insistence that Hall was security-oriented and had no patience for loose-lipped operatives, within as little as two days she would have some new person apparently in on the secret, risking their life to accompany her on dangerous missions, while she risked hers in trusting them. Obviously Hall was an excellent judge of character since this virtually always worked out, but the book doesn’t give any sense of her methods, probably because the author doesn’t know.

I also came away with the sense that Purnell was perhaps a little too enamored of her subject, heavily criticizing anyone Hall didn’t get along with. It’s interesting that Hall’s career never really went anywhere except in occupied France: before the war she largely seems to have been held back in her attempted diplomatic career by gender prejudice, and it was at least partially the same story afterwards in her years with the CIA. However, I couldn’t entirely share the author’s indignation with the CIA’s failure to fully utilize Hall’s talents when during the decades after WWII the agency was busy toppling democratically-elected progressive leaders in Latin America to replace them with right-wingers who were friendly to American business interests and whose torture and murder of dissenters was pretty similar to the Nazis’ methods. While Hall’s having a desk job during those years doesn’t exempt her from her share of moral culpability – which Purnell never acknowledges – it at least lets the book focus instead on the straightforward excitement of the French Resistance years, with everything after that summed up in a single chapter at the end.

As an interesting and enjoyable book that introduced me to an impressive woman I would not otherwise have known about, I found this worth reading. But it’s sufficiently biased and speculative that I find it a bit difficult to recommend.

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