Astray by Emma Donoghue and The World's Oldest Profession

February 28, 2013 Historical Fiction 32

Cheerio, Bookworms!

There are some really awesome book bloggers out there, did you know that? Jen at The Relentless Reader was tweeting about cleaning out her bookshelves a while back and offered up her ARC of Astray by Emma Donoghue. How nice is that?! (The answer is SUPER NICE.) So anyway, I was like “Oh please pick me!” And she was like, “I don’t even think you’re a little bit crazy, I’m going to send you a book!” It was beautiful.


The last time I read Emma Donoghue, she was scaring the crap out of me in Room.  Astray was a collection of short stories. They were all historical fiction (my fave!) and based on REAL EVENTS. It was DELICIOUS. Elephants, gold miners, lesbian sculptors- there’s really something for everyone in this book!

My personal favorite was a the tale of the Victorian prostitute. She tried to keep her profession a secret from her younger brother, but being a hooker is tough to keep to yourself, even if you’re the very portrait of discretion. Unbeknownst to her, her little brother was in the know and managed to make a deal with a well established gentleman to help them out. The afterward told us who the well established gentleman was- Charles FREAKING Dickens! In celebration of this story, I thought we should listen to this highly appropriate tune from The Decemberists. It’s “A Cautionary Song.”

I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I love a good prostitution story. Let’s face it, nobody goes into the “world’s oldest profession” without an interesting set of circumstances leading them there. Plus, I think these stories help give a voice to the type of people who usually get brushed under the rug by history. Soooo… Here’s a list of historical fiction books about ladies of the night!

1. Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue. Apparently Donoghue likes her trollops. I haven’t read it yet, but everyone says it’s amazing, so obviously it’s on my short list.

2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Elite Japanese prostitutes!

3. Peach Blossom Pavilion by Mingmei Yip. It’s about a Chinese house of ill repute. With the best reputation. (I steal lines from Shakespeare in Love like a boss.)

4. In The Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. Renaissance Italian paramours!

5. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Why haven’t you read this yet? In the book, Fantine sells her two front teeth in an effort to avoid her fall from grace. Obviously they couldn’t do that in the musical or Fantine would have to lisp through her big song… But yeah. French whores, represent!

So, Bookworms, do you enjoy collections of short stories? How about books about prostitution? Or perhaps a song that matches a book PERFECTLY? Talk to me!

32 Responses to “Astray by Emma Donoghue and The World's Oldest Profession”

    • Words for Worms

      Ha! I’m glad I’m not the only one. I think it’s more a “my life could be sooooo much worse” sort of thing… But maybe it’s the vicarious sex. Maybe.

  1. Ashley F

    I typically dislike MOST short stories, not because I dislike the stories themselves but because I always find the character development and relationships rushed. They typically lack the detail that I love.

  2. didibooksenglish

    I can’t fess up to having read any of the books on your prostitution literature list except Les Misérables. That was so long ago I feel I due for a reread, but I do remember loving it. As for the others why not. Looks like you’re continuing to elongate my Goodreads TBR. Merci ma chère. 😉

  3. Megan M.

    I heard a lot about Room when it was first published because it made such a big splash what with the Jaycee Duggard story blowing up around the same time but for some reason I had the impression that it was her debut novel. No idea she had so many books out.

    I really don’t like to read about violence against women so if I know beforehand that it’s a big part of the story then I avoid it, so I don’t think I’ll be reading Room or Slammerkin. She must be talented though, to be able to make those kinds of stories intriguing for so many readers.

    • Words for Worms

      Room was tough with the violence part. Most of these other books aren’t necessarily so physically violent, they’re more about being emotionally broken and becoming resigned to fate… Which can be just as disturbing, just less bloody.

  4. Darlene

    Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.
    Historical fiction, taking place in the 1800’s. Prostitution and the love and redemption that got her out of it. It was highly recommended to me for a long time. The first few chapters were so difficult for me I had to put it down. (I just find it REALLY hard to read about children being abused or abandoned) BUT the people kept pushing me to finish it so I picked it up again.
    This became one of the books I just HAD to own for myself. It is sitting beautifully on my shelf right now and I have given copies as gifts several times.
    Really wonderful piece of work. It is written as a parallel to the book of Hosea in the Bible, Hosea was a man who married a woman that becomes a prostitute and he loves her back to faithfulness.
    Just incredible.

  5. Sarah Says Read

    You always manage to amuse me. But yeah, yay for books about ladies just trying to make a livin!

    Ummmm I don’t think I have any favorite stories about these ladies (I can’t even think of one), but Les Mis sounds even more interesting (didn’t know there was anything to do with prostitutes in it… I clearly know nothing about this book!)

  6. larainwater

    Great post! I received Donoghue’s “Astray” for Christmas, but I’ve yet to delve into it. It’s now at the top of my book pile! Sherman Alexie’s new collection of short stories, “Blasphemy,” is also on that pile.

    I highly recommend Jody Shields’ “The Fig Eater,” a rich and addicting novel of murder, sex, and intrigue set in 1900s Vienna. It’s been quite some time since I read it, or I’d offer more detail. What I do remember is that once I started it, I didn’t do much else until I finished!

      • larainwater

        Excellent choice! I hope you enjoy it. Speaking of historical fiction, I raised an issue on my blog yesterday on about women and smoking in historical novels:

        As a woman trying to quit the habit and finishing edits on an historical novel (a horrible combination), I realized that nearly all of my male characters smoke but none of my female characters do. I found some interesting research from the Surgeon General on the habits of women and smoking.

        I wonder if the ladies of the night you described in your recommended novels smoke….

  7. Too Fond

    Another cracking good prostitution novel–The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Can not recommend that one enough. It’s set in the Victorian period and the heroine is Sugar, a “lady of the night”.

  8. SV

    Yes please read Slammerkin. Its so good, its inspired me to think about writing a true-story based book.

  9. Leah

    I don’t know how I haven’t read Astray yet. I sounds amazing. And yay for The Decemberists! I saw Colin Meloy do a solo show once upon a time, and it was wonderful. Except he seems to throw his head back instead of just lowering his jaw when he sings, which is kind of weird.

    I’m reading Les Mis right now! Poor, poor Fantine 🙁

      • Leah

        Ugh, he was the worst! “Sorry ladies, our parents want us to be grown ups now, so we’re gonna peace out and abandon you and your bastard children. But we payed the check!”

  10. Emma Donoghue

    Thanks for mentioning me: I do think prostitution is the job that stands for all other jobs. Michel Faber’s THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE is superb; Sarah Waters’ TIPPING THE VELVET has a heroine who works as a rent boy; FOREVER AMBER is a Restoration-set classic.

Talk to me, Bookworms!

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