book review: the high couch of silistra

The High Couch of Silistra

I don’t write a book review for every book that I read. Sometimes a book is just meh, and I don’t need to get my heart rate up writing and ranting about things that are just meh. It’s about balance, people! But every once in a while a book comes by that just pokes me in the eye wrong, and then I can’t stop myself from voicing all my bitter little opinions.

The High Couch of Silistra by Janet E. Morris is definitely such a book.

Long ago, the human colonists of Silistra waged a war so vicious that, centuries later, the planet has not recovered. Men and women alike suffer from infertility–the deadliest legacy of that deadly war. Because the birth rate is so low, the Silistrans value above all the ability to bear children, and their social order is based on fertility and sexual prowess. On a planet desperate for population, women hold the keys to power. These are the adventures of Estri, Well-Keepress of Astria and holder of the ultimate seat of control: The High Couch of Silistra.

Originally published in 1977, the book, along with its insufferably corny cover, was just about to get lost under four decades of library dust to never irk another human being again. Then, driven by some demonic force that no mere mortal would ever be able to understand, someone (and I’m too lazy to do the research as to who this incurable criminal is) resurrected it. Reprinted it. Brought it back from its timely and well-deserved death to serve as a banner for idiots who have no inkling of actual feminism  to rally under.

The High Couch of Silistra

To add insult to near-fatal injury, there were a considerable  amount of people who couldn’t shut up in the reviews about how this book is real feminism, and how all women should just please listen up and see how it’s done.  

Two of the views that caused me the most eye-twitching:

“What a remarkable feminist text. I found this book to be similar and far superior to the oft praised ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.”

“This is a novel that changed the game for women characters in science fiction, and the women who write science fiction.”

If you are confused as to why these opinions seem so outrageous to me, please read on:

Okay, so to be fair,  let’s start with the positive. The one star I gave to this book on is solely in honour of the excellent world building. And if anyone (no one?) has been following my reviews, you’ll know that shoddy world building is not a thing I easily excuse. In this case, however, I can’t fault it. Silistra is no place you’ve ever been or even thought of. Everything, from the plants and animals to the structure of society, is brand new, and is presented in a way that is evocative and immersive. I really enjoyed the slight confusion of trying to make sense of this utterly unknown culture that I had just been dropped into. 

But the rest of it is…not so great.

gripe 1:

Feminism, and how this book is NOT that.

One of the reasons reviewers called this book ‘feminist’ is because it ‘explores the idea of female dominance through sexuality’. But isn’t that exactly the opposite of feminism? Feminism mostly tries to put forward the idea that women can do and be anything men can be if they put their minds to it. There is no ‘feminine way’ to do things and there is a definite backlash to the idea that women should be exerting power over their circumstances only through their vaginas. Women can (and do all the time, thank you very much) run their lives by using their brains. 

Estri, on the other hand, barely tries to do this. She makes some cognitive decisions in the beginning of the book, to which I thought, Yay! A woman with a sex drive and a brain! Because, yes, that IS feminist, but Estri soon deteriorates into a woman who simply lies back and takes whatever comes her way right between the legs. She doesn’t exert dominance over anyone. She has no power, and can seem to do nothing or go nowhere without submitting to the rape and abuse of various men. 

She also exhibits very little control over herself, much less her situation. She demands to continue on her quest, which is admirable, but not really enough to absolve her of her other sins: she has no power over her own urges. She falls in love with every single man who rapes and mistreats her, and rather than mustering an ounce of self-respect, she simply follows them around like a lost puppy. She thinks about it a handful of times, concluding that *insert name here* is so awful and terrible (and some of them are truly reprehensible), but she just continues to sleep with them and love them, because her ‘need is too great’. This perpetuates the dangerous stereotype that women are completely and utterly at the mercy of their bodies. In case anyone doesn’t know this: THEY ARE NOT. They have brains and are capable of complex thoughts and most notably, can resist their inappropriate sexual impulses if they know it’s either dangerous or not good for them. 

gripe 2:

Claims of a sex positive society, and how this book doesn’t quite follow through.

I was really hoping for a book that lives up to its reputation of featuring prostitution in a new light, but this book doesn’t. Sex is still a thing taken from women by men. It is still a method men use to control and shame women. The problem here is that it could have been SO much cooler. What if there was a society where sex, and even the purchasing of sex, was a perfectly normal and healthy thing? What if sex was seen as a major and respectable form of commerce? But not here. The selling of sex is a way to make sure women fulfil their most desperate need and highest purpose in life: conceive and have offspring. And here we have another sexist trope, the idea that the greatest joy a woman can experience is motherhood. 

gripe 3:

Estri is not an inspiring woman. 

I have some more gripes about Estri and how lame she is and how she frequently mentions her shortcomings, but do very little to try and overcome them. She just lies back, because, wait for it, here comes the next round of rapes.

gripe 4:

Rape. Rape. Rape. Oh, and did I mention the rape? 

This book has so much rape in it that I went from being uncomfortable to being outraged to just plain pulling an Estri and waiting for it to be over. I don’t know where this female ‘dominance’ and ‘control’ is that people speak of, because Estri gets raped by almost every single man she meets. A previous lover unceremoniously anally rapes her in the first few pages, and the experience passes over Estri like so much water. She doesn’t even bat an eye. More rapes follow. There is a gang rape. There are men raping other men. There are men beating two women and forcing them to have sex with each other against their will. AND NONE OF IT EVER GETS ADDRESSED. It’s just treated as normal. Par for the course. A thing that happens every day and no use even talking about. Estri barely gets it over her heart to admit that she didn’t consent to any of the acts. She just takes it lying down without a complaint. Which, gentlefolk, is NOT THE SAME AS BEING SEX POSITIVE!

I find this to be an enormous opportunity lost . These issues could have been discussed in light of this supposed ‘sex positive society’ of theirs, but it doesn’t happen. What could have been a very intense and thought-provoking look into an unfamiliar sexual society just falls flat without any payoff. 

gripe 5:

The story was not compelling. 

This is sad, because I would have forgiven this book most of its crimes if the story was amazing. But it’s not. I’’s just not that interesting. There are a lot of good world building exercises, but without a story to prop up the scenes, they just fall flat. Like I said before, she travels from point A to B, and that is basically it. No character development, no growth, no knowledge acquired, no new skills learned, no relationships built that aren’t immediately abandoned and forgotten. Just a lot of rape and abuse and then a ending that suggests enlightenment…but doesn’t actually show it. All of it is just meh. 

gripe 6:

There’s no actual sex. 

Not a single word to describe even a moment of intimacy between any of the characters. Most of it is just truncated into ‘he took me’ or ‘he used me’, or even more cryptically, ‘afterwards’. Sometimes it happens so quickly that I miss it completely and only notice the latest gang rape when I look back over the pages. Normally this is not really a gripe, but I think I would be willing to withhold many of my other gripes if this was just some run-of-the-mill erotica. I know dub-con is a highly enjoyed feature of a lot of erotica, and so maybe then I wouldn’t have found the blatant sexism and consent issues to be such a problem. If there was some description of the sex I could rest assured that this book was written towards getting people off, rather than opening their minds. I don’t know. Maybe. I just think that if you’re going to write a story that is almost exclusively about sex and features more rape than anyone ever can swing a non-consenting cat at, it should at least have *some* description of it somewhere. Otherwise half the book seems to not be happening at all.

So that is why I will not be continuing the Silistra series. This decision deeply distresses me, because I am an obsessive compulsive who likes finish the shit I start. But this torture is surely not worth it. Moving on.

on tight lacing and waist training

Back of purple satin ribbon corset with black lace trimmings.

I recently received this email asking me for advice on corset-wearing. I’m fairly certain it’s spam, but I wanted to address some of the issues it touches on.

Hi I really have never worn a real corset before. Meaning I have only been annoyed several times to flimsy costume corsets with plastic boning. Well I recently had a baby and tried on a waist trainer but how I love and adore how women of the past seemed so delicate and strong enough to endure a real corset. Well long story short, I would like to know if it’s ok to start a corset regime so soon after child birth?

first, some things about me that you should know:

1.  I do not waist train.

I know a tiny little bit about it, but I do not have the self-discipline and mental fortitude to engage in any consistent body regime such as waist training. As a result my knowledge is secondhand at best.

2.  I am not a doctor.

This one seems obvious, but yes, apparently it still bears mentioning. There are some corsetieres out there who claim to have such extensive knowledge of human anatomy that they’re basically surgeons, but I don’t believe that for a second. At least not from most of them. 

3. I have never given birth.

So not only do I have no experience with waist-training or medicine, I also have no experience with pregnancy. I am therefore the worst possible person to answer the real question above.

BUT….the internet is a blank canvas conveniently left within my reach with all these blogging tools labeled “post me!” So I will go ahead and give you my opinions anyway.

1. most garments being marketed as ‘corsets’ these days are not corsets

I have ranted about this before and created a handy chart for those who are still in doubt. So yes, dear writer and the internet in general, I am also terribly annoyed by the flimsy corsets with plastic boning.

Are you wearing an authentic corset chart

2. nobody should ever have to ‘endure’ a corset

One has to endure many things in the course of a long, full life, but uncomfortable underwear should not have to be one of those things. And yes, while there are always some rogue fashionistas who take things a tad too far, most women didn’t ‘endure’ corsets. For a large portion of its more than 500 year history, corsets were custom-made for specific wearers. On extant examples one can often see how some of these garments really were quite asymmetrical, as they have been shaped to fit the body in question.

And a properly fitted corset is not uncomfortable. Not something you throw on for the first time without batting an eyelash, to be sure, but certainly not a device for torture either. Corsets are probably better off being compared to a good pair of shoes. They will chafe at first, but soon your foot and the shoe will come to an understanding about who goes where, and you will find yourself forgetting about the shoes altogether. Similarly, a new corset may feel a bit stiff or pinch-y, but eventually it will become worn-in and feel more like a second skin. In the end, wearing a corset can actually be a pleasurable experience.

So wether you buy a corset or get one made by a professional (and I REALLY do urge you to spend the money on getting a proper garment) make sure that you buy one that is going to be comfortable. Obviously there are levels of comfort – some people see nudity as the only true form of comfort – but if you feel like you can’t breath or can’t move, then that particular corset isn’t right for you.

Other things to look out for is nerve pain VS muscle pain. When wearing a corset for the first time it will change the shape of your body, and therefore the way it moves. You will use muscles you’ve never used before, and similarly, other muscles  will go completely unused (more on that later). This will obviously cause some level of discomfort as your body adjusts. For this reason it is usually suggested that you start wearing a corset for only a few hours a day until you get used to it.

The other pain that you can experience is nerve pain. We are all different, and a corset, unlike most other garments, are designed to not only hug tightly against the body, but to also push and pull it in new directions. So sometimes a particular seam or boning channel will sit at just the wrong spot on our bodies, causing a nerve to get compressed (or some other thing that I don’t have the medical terminology for). When this happens, take the corset off and never put it back on again. Find another one that doesn’t cause you pain.

This is, incidentally, also really good dating advice.

But I digress.

Actually, while I’m digressing:

3. women of the past weren’t all that delicate

I just don’t even have the energy to go into this now, but maybe I’ll just dip my toes a bit. Throughout history, even at their most delicate and protected, women ran entire households, birthed as many as 10 children during their child-bearing years (who may or may not make it through infancy) and raised all said children (often without the help of the father, as men weren’t ‘temperamentally suited’ to child-rearing), all while keeping everyone fed and seeing to all the housework. Now put a tightly laced corset on top of THAT and I dare you not to faint dead.

Back to the real issue at hand…

4. waist training is not a way of getting into shape

To get to the crux of the question: I think the fact that there is recent childbirth involved may mean that the desire for a corset stems from a need to get back into shape. So let me say this plainly: I think (see? these are personal opinions all) that waist training is a very bad idea for getting into shape or losing weight. So bad it verges on irresponsible.

Here’s why:

Waist training is not permanent. Even Cathie Jung, who wears her corset constantly and has a waist that is threatening to disappear entirely, admits that her body goes back to its original shape almost as soon as she takes the corset off. She once said that if she takes it off for only 30 minutes she starts losing ground. This is how squishy our bodies really are. It has a memory, and it will stubbornly go back the way it came every single time. Waist training is cool if you like that corseted look, or the feel of wearing a corset, but it isn’t weight loss, and it certainly isn’t toning.


You actually risk losing muscle tone. A well-made, properly fitted corset is designed to do the very thing that your core muscles are supposed to do: they keep you upright, in place and neatly together. Once you start wearing a corset for long stretches of time, your core muscles will be let off the hook and they will quickly begin to atrophy. So if you were hoping to get back into shape by wearing a corset, and not working your core, think again. In fact, it is even MORE important to work out your core if you waist train.

It interferes with your eating habits. This can actually be a good or a bad thing. A corset compresses your stomach, among other things, and will mean that you can only eat small amounts at a time. Some waist trainers say that they spend the day eating frequent, small (HEALTHY) snacks. This is indicated as good diet advice by many…let’s call them “people who claim to be professionals”. But the flip side is that I think it can also mess with otherwise healthy eating routines. Just be aware of it, and know that, just because the corset causes you to not feel hungry, it doesn’t mean that your body isn’t desperately in need of food.

5. also, let’s talk about those plastic things the Kardashians work out in

They don’t work. Seriously. How could they? Wearing an elastic band around your waist while working out will at best restrict your movement a bit, which defeats the purpose of exercise in the first place. Mostly it causes you to sweat more and so lose some water weight. It also seems to work because most people don’t hit the gym at all. Then, once they have the ‘corset’ on it’s sit-ups and boot camp like crazy. Believe me, it’s the sudden bout of exercise that’s causing the improvement, not the ‘corset’.

kim kardashian and khloe kardashian wearing corset

Wearing the thing to add an extra bit of waist to that killer party outfit is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and I won’t mind getting one for myself. But the promises it makes to slim your waistline and ‘remove toxins’ sound like rubbish.

Where it may become relevant is in the postpartum area. I can imagine (again, I have to imagine these things, because I do not have the requisite degrees or experience) that wearing a tight elasticated garment around a baby-stretched midsection may help the skin to return to it’s natural shape. I don’t know if this is scientific, but I have a notion that battered and stretched skin will fare better at recovery if it was kept neatly together without constantly being pulled at by gravity.

6. to answer the question once and for all:

I don’t know. Ask your doctor. Listen to your body. Eat healthy foods. Get regular exercise. Love and respect your body. Whatever that may mean to you.

happy 2016 and no resolutions!

No more news year's resolutions for 2016!

Happy 2016!

I’m not a big one for setting new year’s resolutions, since that just seems like we are willfully setting ourselves up for failure. Nor am I a fan of the self-loathing and regret that goes along with the plan to improve ourselves in the new year.

Not even the timing appeals to me: it is an arbitrary line that marks the difference between the past and the future. In the same way that we weekly tell ourselves that we will get our acts together on Monday, so the new year is the ultimate of deadlines. We have been bad, but starting on 1 January, we will endeavour to be good. But, in truth, it is NEVER too late to change. Never to late to make the small adjustment that you want to see in your life. So I won’t wait for that special place in time, that line that separates the old from the new and improved.

And mark I say ‘endeavour’ because the goals that most people set themselves are just plain unattainable, and if the previous year has been any indication, we are sure to fail yet again. So most years I just gently coast from one year into the next, thinking that, no matter what, I’ll at least try my best to be my best. Whatever that may entail.

Yet, this year, I find that I do have some…let’s call them CHANGES, that I would like to see in my life. These aren’t big and unattainable, nor are they geared towards making me a better person. Or a thinner person, as is so often the trend. Instead they are slight adjustments, an attempt to gather all the loose ends of my life into an altogether much more pleasing whole.

So timing, self-loathing, and new year’s resolutions be damned. On this day, 2 January 2016, a nondescript Saturday morning, I resolve, with immediate effect, to try and apply the following changes to my life:

1. I want to manage my time better.

Okay, this is a toughie, as it is actually the one thing that every other change springs from or is geared towards achieving. I have certain goals that I want to achieve in a wide variety of interests, and the truth is that, if I don’t improve my time management, I won’t be able to get to everything. One change I have already made is to delete The Sims FreePlay from my tablet and the Facebook app from my phone. Getting rid of the Sims was easy: I was already waaay over it and just needed to pocket my sentimentality and get rid of it. Facebook was harder. I enjoy Facebook. Not necessarily the people/friends aspect, but the group aspect. There are many websites and common interest groups that I enjoy keeping abreast of, and Facebook just makes it so easy by gathering everything helpfully on my wall. But in the end I can spend up to two hours an evening reading every article from io9 or I Fucking Love Science, or jumping into the fray over at the NaNoWriMo group. Now, these examples often offer very interesting insights into this word we’re living in, but it is two hours I could have spent on something else.

So, starting right now, I will Facebook less. If I need to know something I can Google it. And if another Dressgate happens, I’m sure someone will tell me.

2. I want to write more. Or at all.

See? This is where the time management comes in. With everything else going on in my life, sitting down and entering the right mind space to be able to write a book is hard. This is mostly my own fault for not managing my time better and allowing myself to get out of practice. In 2010 I wrote my first draft and spent 6 months writing a little bit each and every day. It was a habit that I had formed, and found that, once trained, my mind very easily slipped into the right frame for writing. But then editing and more editing and writing courses and beta reading came along, and during the course of the past five years I have learned how to rewrite and forgotten how to write. This seems like an easy fix. All I have to do is write a little bit every day. Even if it’s just a page. Even if it’s just a blog post or a journal entry. I have gotten myself involved in a little endeavour called #JanNan2016 and firmly believe that if I can write a bit every day for the month of January I will start to slip into a habit that will become easier and easier with time.

So, starting right now, I will write more, and I will do it every (ish) day.

3. Speaking of writing, I want to get Spadille (working title. . .) published.

It’s been six years of writing, rewriting, and teaching myself how to write (that has been the hardest part, but SO worth it) and I finally found that I am done. DONE. Every time I finished a rewrite on Spadille I used to tell myself that that was the last one, only to rest for three months and fall right back into the fray. But, by August 2015, I had finished a rewrite and knew, finally, and with extreme relief, that I was done. I was finally happy. It was only then that I realised I had given up hope of that every happening. I am currently applying edits from my beta readers, but after that, hopefully by the end of January, I will start the search for an agent and send this baby off into the world.

So, starting right now, I will work hard towards getting Spadille published.

4. I want to blog more.

Both for publicity and the healing effects of journaling, I think it would be a constructive exercise to blog more. Say, one post a week. Right now I have many running jokes on my blog, like the Daily Fail that only happens about once a month, and Corset of the Month that happened exactly twice over 36 months. And it’s not as if I don’t have the material for it. In my life there is sure to be fail daily.

So, starting right now, I will blog a bit more.

5. I want to read 50 books in 2016.

In 2015 I took up the Goodreads Reading Challenge to read 30 books. In the end I finished ahead of schedule and upped my challenge to 40 books. The great thing about the challenge is that you can move the goal post at any time, so there’s no failing and self-loathing involved. Just a fun, loosely-defined attempt to read a bit more. So this year I have upped it to 50 books. This is a bit ambitious, but as a wannabe writer it is extremely important for me to read as much as I can, as it serves as research and education on top of any entertainment and enjoyment I can get from it. (Books are friggin’ awesome, aren’t they?) I also intend on reading through the Lucifer series and some short stories, so that should make it easier to attain the 50 books goal.

So, starting right now, I will read (even) more.

6. I want to save some money.

This is a problem, as item 5 above definitely encroaches on this one. There is some math that I am too scared to do, but I’m fairly certain that I spend a prodigious amount of money on books, be it audiobooks (which are damned expensive), comics and graphic novels (that have to be ordered from the UK, because South Africa is lame in that regard) or general impulse buying at the mall. I see this as a noble cause, and I am NOT about to start pirating books, so I doubt that I will be cutting costs by restricting my book-buying. That, however, means that I will have to snip somewhere else. Not sure where or how, but maybe a good place to start would be to keep a spending diary and creating a budget. I’m not bad with money, but I want to go travel again and do some home improvements, and that all costs a bit extra.

So, starting right now, I will start paying attention to how I spend my money.

7. I want to improve at my horn playing.

This been has been lagging, but 2015 hasn’t entirely been a bust. I spent the first six months or so repositioning my embouchure, switching over to playing mostly on the B flat side, which has made a significant improvement in tuning. It was a hard journey that often seemed hopeless, but eventually I made it through and then…just stagnated. The last half of 2015 saw me treading water. I didn’t improve, wasn’t motivated to practice, and delivered an absolutely awful performance at my end of year exam. I think part of it was that I was overambitious in choosing my pieces, and was then too unmotivated to do them any justice. The lucky thing here is that there is a loophole one can slip through: the more you practice, the better you get. That first part is a no-brainer, yes, but what follows is even better: The better you get the more you want to practice. Which boils down to: the more you practice, the more you want to practice. Aaaand Bob’s your uncle. The trick is just to get started…

So, starting right now, I will play a bit more horn, even if it is just a few minutes every day.

Things that might be conspicuous in their absence: 

1. Losing weight

Yes, I have gained a lot of weight over this holiday, but whatevs. As soon as I start going to the gym again (which I enjoy and don’t need to be cajoled or guilt-tripped into) and eating healthy again (which is a lifestyle choice I apply to parts of the year that aren’t the holiday season) I will lose the vacay fat and start to shape up again. No need for body issues, self-hatred or tear-stained before selfies in a grimy bathroom mirror. Life is good. Respect your body. We’re all going to be fine.

2. Making corsets

This is a funtivity that will have to sidle in when I have time. But it is not the goal of 2016. Maybe another time. Maybe for a specific project. But right now I need to prioritise and corsets are resting on the backburner.



spring flowers on the west coast

Spring had already sprung some time ago, and I took some lovely pictures to prove it, but then neglected to post it on this much-neglected blog. It was a particularly stormy day at the West Coast National Park, but the flowers were still out in all their glory, so without further ado…

flowers8 flowers7 flowersmain flowers2

Some weather rolling in…

flowers5 flowers1

Starting to look positively Irish!


A little panorama. Click to embiggen. 



#dailyfail – illuminati spam

Time now for the #dailyfail, an event which is inevitable in my everyday life.

This is not so much a fail as it is a succeed, because while spam is always pretty spammy, this one actually made me laugh. A rare feat for spam. It also sparked some thoughts that I promptly filed under “Ideas for Later Use (books, crafts, pos world domination etc.)”. 

I give you Illuminati spam:


Pro tip: this is NOT how the Illuminati approaches prospective members. Or if it is, you certainly do not want to be part of its “Wealth,Riches,Fame,Spot light” [sic], because they are obviously a bunch of morons who can’t use their $1,000,000 to pay a proofreader or anyone with a brain to do their marketing. So if this email hits your inbox, delete it and get the hell back to work. There will be no quitting of day jobs yet.