So Liz , inspired by the Juvenile Instructor, initially challenged me to write a blog post detailing all the great feminist books that had been published this year. I happily agreed and then quickly realized that I hadn’t actually read enough feminist books that had been published this year to make a full list. Gender historian – FAIL! So instead I present a list of the best books that I have read this year – whether fiction or nonfiction, feminist or not. They are in no particular order.
- Julian Barnes, Arthur and George – Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this novel explores the friendship between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalje, the son of a Parsi vicar in the Midlands. Edalje was falsely convicted of slashing ponies in 1903. Barnes’ recreation of the trial and Doyle’s subsequent attempts to prove the innocence of Edalje brings up themes of national pride, spiritualism, race, and religious belief all while being set in late Victorian and early Edwardian England.
- Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation – Most of my friends had already read several of Lauren Willig’s romance novels. Willig was originally a graduate student in the Harvard history department before she dropped out of her program to become a lawyer and eventually a novelist. Her books, of which this is the first, delight in combining historical detail with bodice ripping romance, and each novel is centered on the story of a young English girl who has happened the safety of her home to become a spy in Napoleonic France. The novels are also framed by the story of a female graduate student at Harvard who is slowly uncovering this story as she reads the letters, diaries, and papers the women left behind for her doctoral dissertation. The young girl, Willig’s Mary Sue, of course, has a dashing romantic interest of her own. Think A.S. Byatt’s Possession – only deliberately girly and more fun.
- Elizabeth Elbourne, Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853 – The first academic work on this list, Elizabeth Elbourne’s Blood Ground is an exploration of the work of the London Missionary Society in the Cape Colony. Elbourne argues that historians who have emphasized the dichotomy between indigenous African beliefs and white Christianity have missed the complexity of Southern African history. By the time missionaries arrived in the Cape, she argues, the Africans living there had already been in contact with Europeans for decades. Moreover, the translation of Christianity into Africa was something that required significant changes on both sides. Elbourne’s exposition of British Christianity in the first chapter is also the best that I ever read.
- Celestine Vaite, Frangipani – One of the things I learned in undergrad is that if you want to feel productive without doing any real work, you should something read something marginally related to your research. Hence, Frangipani by Celestine Vaite. Frangipani examines the mother-daughter relationship between Materena Mahi, the only “professional” housekeeper in Tahiti, and her daughter Leilani. For an American reader, their relationship is tinged with exoticism. Breadfruit trees, Chinese stores, surfing, and dancing with French soldiers all mark it as taking place somewhere different than middle America, but the story between Materena and her daughter is still recognizable and touching.
- Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in a Revolutionary World – I read this one in Britain with a different subtitle – The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire – designed to appeal to an audience who still finds the American Revolution a bit unsavory. The book’s description of violence during the Revolution and the effects it had on loyalists is an important reminder that the American Revolution was for many a loss of identity and a betrayal by their fellow colonists and eventually by Britain itself who signed a peace treaty they could not countenance and then, failed to provide them with a sanctuary. The book’s far flung geography, which encompasses India, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, and Nova Scotia, is also a reminder of the far reaching legacies of the American loyalists who colonized much of the world after being chased from their original colonial homes in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.