The 1619 Project (CBR14 #69)

I don’t imagine this will be a long review, not because the work doesn’t deserve it, and not because there wasn’t plenty to discuss during the Cannonball Read book club earlier this fall, but because after spending months with this work, I don’t know how much more brain space I can give it. In a not insignificant way, I need to be done with this work for now.

This book is a discussion. Its various contributors are providing context, new or more in-depth analyses of how so many topics that make up civics and citizenship can be traced back further than people may anticipate. This is a work interested in historiography (the study of historical writing), and in being historiographic. It wants to be a place to begin a shift on how we tell history because it knows it is not the final word, but a jumping off point. It invites discourse. It is my hope that perhaps it will help elucidate the way in which professional historians work. That it is a constant process of discovery and analysis. That there is really no such thing as one accepted history – that way lies the obliteration of the non-white, non-male, disabled, queer and so many other perspectives.

As you may know, I’ve worked in public history for the past dozen years and was a classroom middle school social studies and history teacher covering world history, world geography, U.S. Civics and U.S. History to Reconstruction for grades 6-8 for a few years before that. I think there’s a great disservice done in how we teach history and that the process of how history is made and remade isn’t understood. It’s iterative. My senior thesis was a historiography related to one individual, comparing and contrasting the ways they had been portrayed and their actions interpreted over the course of a hundred years. Historians write perspective grounded in the interpretation of primary and secondary sources created by people of all sorts of experiences, backgrounds, amounts of power. People who did, people who observed, people who may not remember accurately, but their feelings can tell us so much. Those writing for The 1619 Project are unpacking more and more of those voices, of those people and I honestly think everyone should spend time with this book. May it not take you as many months as it took me.   

Say Nothing & Empire of Pain (CBR14 #36-37)

After having read two of his books in quick succession I can say with full confidence that Patrick Radden Keefe is an excellent writer and a dogged journalist. He was starting with topics that I wanted to read about, even if they were difficult, but he was able to draw me in in ways I wasn’t expecting and achieved more than I had anticipated.

Say Nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland takes on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath, using the McConville case as an entry point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war. But that isn’t the only thing Keefe is pulling at, as the subtitle clearly says this is also a story about memory, about the way various people involved in the sectarian violence chose to remember, and how they do or don’t embrace an accurate public memory especially as it’s about a culture that, traditionally, isn’t known for talking about things. He also describes how the peace that came out of the Good Friday agreements fell short in providing a way to reckon with the consequences of over thirty years of violence in a population of approximately 1.5 million people at the time and how the peace fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland and left many wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders.

Reading this one was a bit of a roller coaster experience. Patrick Radden Keefe writes an intricate history about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland, the way it elucidates thousands of others, and the devastating repercussions of decades of violence. The book is broken into three sections, and while I was reading the first section, I remember thinking that it was very well written and engaging but wondered at how firmly the story of Jean McConville was going to manage to be included into the actual story Keefe was writing, as it seemed to keep taking a backseat to the other strands of the story that were being woven in as he brought into focus The Troubles through the lens of Provo violence. By the second section the story of McConville and her children was largely missing, and I thought the narrative suffered (and I stalled out on reading). And then the third section came roaring in, and Keefe takes all the various pieces and gives us a mosaic of how various crimes and violence illuminate the story of one woman who was disappeared in 1972 and its effects on her children over the next forty plus years.

Keefe follows the trajectories of many players within the conflict, as well as the murders of the sixteen people who were disappeared by the Provisional IRA. Deeply and thoroughly researched, this is an excellent example of narrative non-fiction.

Empire of Pain

I requested Keefe’s most recent work, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty before Say Nothing but read it second. The Sackler story was what brought Keefe’s writing to my attention although I admit that it wasn’t until late in 2021. Keefe’s article for The New Yorker about the artists who lobbied the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove the Sackler name from their galleries (seven in total) was big news in the Museum world, even those of us firmly on the outside of the art world. That article referenced Keefe’s earlier article for the magazine and this book, and with a string of five-star reviews from fellow Cannonballers this book skyrocketed up my to read.

And boy, did this book make me angry. The rage it induced within me was by no means small, as this is the story of the family that owns the company that possibly single handedly created the modern opioid crisis while hiding in plain sight and denying their drug was addictive at all, and lying about having studied that component at all while paying off all the right people. There are many fatal overdoses have resulted from opioids other than OxyContin, but the crisis was initially precipitated by a shift in the culture of prescribing—a shift carefully engineered by Purdue that Keefe chronicles.

Keefe is methodical in tracking the story of the Sacklers, starting with Arthur Sackler, the patriarch of the family who made his money as a medical advertising guru, in many ways birthing the system that we see today. He and his brothers were doctors, had worked and studied at psychiatry hospitals, but their money came from the advertising and publishing endeavors which in turn led to buying Purdue in 1952 which was then a patent medicine company focusing on such pedestrian needs as laxatives and ear wax removers. But Arthur remained focused on his publishing company, and while he owned a third, he was largely silent partner – his brothers Mortimer and Raymond were joint CEOs. Within two decades the brothers were rich, and already beginning to spend the money on securing the good family name. Within another decade they started working on Oxycontin because their then current money maker in the painkiller arena was about to come to the end of its patent and they were going to be fighting with generics.

In the end this is a story of greed and dishonesty. It’s a must read, but a tough one as well.  

Four Queens (CBR14 #35)

Nancy Goldstone’s Four Queens is the sort of non-fiction I enjoy tucking in to. I travelled last week and wanted a book to read at the airport and on the plane to decompress and scratch the same mental itch as my marathoning Time Team has done (a show which helped me recognize names and places in this book!) and am I ever so glad that I had thought ahead to pack this book as well as Last Night at the Telegraph Club for book club prep. This monograph leans towards the pop history side of the equation, and at just north of 300 pages cannot possibly contain all the information regarding the lives of its subjects, but it did the job I wanted it to do, introducing me to historical figures I did not know and helping elucidate some of the political, financial, and religious machinations of the late medieval period.

Four Queens shares a lot with another book I read this year, The Dark Queens. I read both for the Read Harder Challenge task 22, read a history about a period you know little about. The books share a point of view and cover some similar ground, and while both fall within the Middle Ages their time periods are separated by seven hundred years. This is an era I know little about but find endlessly interesting. The premise of Goldstone’s book is right in its title: in the thirteenth century there was a family of four sisters whom all ended up crowned queen at some point in their lives. They experienced this rare happening in vastly different ways, and being a queen affected them in a variety of ways, but most importantly their family politics ended up shaping major sections of Western European history for centuries.  By taking the sisters as her subject, Goldstone shows the intricacy of thirteenth century international relations, highlighting the interpersonal connections that so strongly influence decisions and policies affecting people’s lives.

The titular four queens were the daughters of Raymond Berenger V, Count of Provence, and Beatrice of Savoy; Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice; whose improbable marriages made them the queens of France, England, Germany, and Sicily respectively.  We are also introduced to the extended family members who become crucial to how the four queens (although mostly Marguerite and Eleanor) ruled, including their maternal uncles and Blanche of Castile who rules France for much of her son Louis IX’s reign. Goldstone walks her readers through Ineffectual monarchs and the younger siblings who wanted their jobs. A lot of time is spent discussing the ways in which Henry III and Louis IX were not necessarily born with the temperaments to be good leaders, Henry being ineffectual in armed conflicts and Louis’s piousness leading him to put his faith before his people. Henry and Louis each had a seemingly more effective younger brother (the cousins shared more than many realized, including probably themselves). Richard of Cornwall was widely regarded as a better leader than Henry and routinely outsmarted his brother and forced him to pay him off, and Charles of Anjou was more confident and ambitious than Louis. The union of Charles and Beatrice of Provence (the youngest Provencal sister) was a marriage of two jealous, younger siblings and Goldstone captures how that dictated their married life well.

I’ve seen complaints about the tone used by Goldstone in relation to the Crusades, specifically as relates to possible Islamophobia and anti-Asian sentiments re: the Mongols. I personally did not clock too much of that, mostly because I felt Goldstone was writing in the tone of the people she was chronicling, who were literally waging religious war against these groups, but I can see how I may have easily missed something as I did skim much of the Crusades section (there was only so much death and destruction I could handle). I did notice a few mistakes early on most of which were copyediting issues which weren’t caught (misspellings of Carcassonne, misnaming Edward the Confessor as Edmund, misplacing Flanders on the western coast of France) but overall, the research was strong as Goldstone incorporates a variety of different chroniclers’ views (though perhaps she didn’t interrogate their biases as thoroughly as she could have), as well as letters written by the queens, their husbands, and sons. But… she doesn’t actively cite them, and there is no Notes section, although there is a Bibliographical Note where she discusses her process and the main sources she relied on and a Selected bibliography which is comprehensive.

The Dark Queens (CBR14 #26)

I work in Public History, but any good public historian (or historian of any stripe) will tell you that it is nearly impossible to know all eras and areas well. There are inevitable blind spots – you have to choose where to apply your limited time. When this year’s Read Harder challenge asked us to read a history about a period you know little about, I was stoked, an excuse to go back further than I normally do and read about some women doing the leading. I had picked out Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe from my to read list (where it has been languishing since 2014)as my pick (and I will still be reading that history about 13th century queens) but Pooja’s review of The Dark Queens in January sent me scurrying to NetGalley and adding that book to my list immediately.

Before picking this book up, I knew practically nothing about 6th century France, or either Fredegund or Brunhild. But it was the subtitle that leapt out to me: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World. In this work of narrative non-fiction, author Shelley Puhak is very clear about that as well as the methodology she used in the research and writing, the existent historical record is used to piece together roughly sixty years of history where Fredegund and Brunhild serve as the stabilizing force, while also upending the systems they were born into. As the European world wrestles with the fall of the Roman Empire, powerful families emerge to take the lead, but it is not a clean or easy affair and through these two women we are able to glean a view into that world. We also see how methodically the stories of their successes were erased or overwritten, how they were recast by those who followed, after their deaths their stories were rewritten, their names consigned to slander and legend, and their legacies buried for over a thousand years.

Brunhild was a Spanish princess, raised to be married off for the sake of alliance-building. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a palace slave. Their paths cross in the middle of the Merovingian Empire where women were excluded from noble succession and royal politics was a blood sport. They formed coalitions and broke them, mothered children, and lost them. They fought a years-long civil war. But these two reigned over vast realms for decades – their combined empires only to be eclipsed by Charlemagne who would build his empire from the ashes of theirs 150 years later – commanding armies and negotiating with kings and popes and ruling as regents.

While Puhak captures the complexity of the women and the courts they lived and ruled in, and this unfamiliar time, striking at the roots of some of our culture’s stubbornest myths about female power, the book is at times uneven, and sometimes strays too far from the titular queens. The scope of this work is a big ask of any book, or any author, and the final copy I ended up reading (out from the library as I had failed to download my publisher provided copy before it was archived) had a few errors which confused matters. This is also a slow read, dense with names, dates, and details. Puhak provides a Dramatis Personae at the beginning, as well as maps throughout, and that’s good because I found myself needing to refer to them as I made my way through the narrative over the course of a week.

I received an ARC of The Dark Queens from Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley, it has not affected the contents of this review.

Canyon of Dreams (CBR13 #32)

Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon

It is obvious from the get-go that Harvey Kubernik, a veteran music journalist who hails from Laurel Canyon, loves his subject. The problem is that love, and the love of his version of the Canyon, may have artificially narrowed his view of his subject. This is no small book, while its dimensions don’t quite fit the definition of ‘coffee-table book,’ it is a large and difficult book to hold that is chockfull of photos which make it a good choice to casually peruse at a table. In fact, I would suggest reading this book that way, as opposed to reading it cover to cover because there is no real sustained narrative here. At times I felt as though I was reading the begats section of the Bible (this musician led to that musician led to this other musician…).

And, alas, this book really isn’t an examination of the Magic and Music of Laurel Canyon as the subtitle promises. It is instead a nostalgic reminiscence with surprisingly varied points of view. Kubernik conducted interviews with figures from the Canyon, including members of The Seeds, The Byrds, Little Feat, Three Dog Night, The Doors, John Mayall, Rodney Bingenheimer, Steve Cropper, Andrew Loog Oldham, Slash, and dozens of others which simultaneously works at uncovering the myths of the area but provides precious little substantial insight into this coveted area outside Hollywood. And, given the return of the Laurel Canyon sound, precious little space is given to its contemporary status.

The book itself is beautifully produced. What I appreciated most was that Kubernik takes us back to the origins of the neighborhood as it began in 1927 with the Garden of Alla (later Allah) apartment complex, at the canyon’s entrance through its time as home to experimental architectural design all before the musicians started arriving in force. But I think if you’re interested in the Laurel Canyon sound you’re better off with the documentary, Echo in the Canyon.

Queer: A Graphic History

Queer: A Graphic History

I tried to sneak this one in before the end of June but the library just wasn’t with me. One of the tasks in Read Harder challenge this year is read a LGBTQ history and the hunt for that book stumbled me across Queer: A Graphic History, and while this isn’t a history of queer folk (more a study of the word, theory, and the worldview) I’m glad to have read it if only to help shore up some gaps in my own knowledge base (I am thinking of a conversation with my partner about identity politics that made my brain hurt A LOT, but now I’m seeing more clearly). This is a great book for those of us who have no real interest in becoming a queer studies scholar but do want to have a better understanding of queerness and queer theory.

Structurally this book is basically a textbook-style introduction with comic-style illustrations. In being that it meant to be introductory Barker and Scheele use quick, clear sentences and art to clarify terminology and chronology (there are a lot of moving parts here) including a distinction between queer theory and queer activism. This is a bit of a mile wide and inch deep approach, the book covers (very quickly) 19th-century sexology and Freud to modern queer theorists. While the goal of the book is to help make the theories applicable and understandable – one that it achieves – it unfortunately was a bit of a slog. I do however appreciate its intersectional approach. The authors look at how race, disability, ethnicity, nationality, and class interplay with and are, in fact, foundational to queer theory. Throughout, the book is inclusive of bi, trans, ace, and other people including disabled people and people of color.

Lady Killers (CBR12 #28)

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History

Here in the time of Covid Quarantine I find myself struggling to focus on reading most books. I need something that I can bounce in and out of and apparently books about serial killers are my jam right now. Hot on the heels I picked up Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer which I received as a Christmas gift (I am also officially out of dead tree format library books). I had been excited to read it when I received it and had pulled it into my “possible things to read during quarantine” pile that I’ve got going next to my reading chair.

When I reviewed my last book, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, I mentioned that it was not pop history even though it tried to hide out amongst its likes, probably to find a wider audience. This book definitely is pop history – and I’m not complaining. There have been women serial killers all along, and while the vast, vast majority covered in Lady Killers use the expected poison to get the job done, it’s important to look at how these stories are told, in much the same way the myth of all the women killed by Jack the Ripper were prostitutes. This book is well-researched and has end notes tracking the sources used, as well as copious thanks in the author’s note about the researchers who helped her gather the information presented in the book. Its in the tone that this one shines in the pop history department – Telfer isn’t afraid of a little gallows humor in her discussion, but it doesn’t cheapen the content.

Telfer attempted to tell a wide range of stories, from the 13th century to the 1950s and across several cultures. She also points out the places where she was limited in trying to discuss two additional female serial killers of color – this is more than just a quick trip through 19th and 20th century Europe. Telfer is much more interested in telling the stories of shared humanity, of how the instincts and behaviors on display in the various serial killers and those they interact with – victims and not – are shared by all of us although the particular mix needed to push each of these women to murder is thankfully missing from the vast majority of lives.

The Five (CBR12 #27)

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

When I think back to my experiences as an undergrad history major I was often one of very few, if not the only, women in the room. Each course was the same; walk in, pick a position near the front of the room, but off to the side so as to not be considered aggressive but not be lost in the sea of testosterone, and hunker down to have to talk over those who would talk over you. I eventually got to a place of confidence to push back against the mansplainers, the re-staters, and all the other blowhards I ran across. I also had the benefit as a night student of having the same professors multiple times who got to know me and would give me the opportunity to smack down the worst offenders and defend my intellectual territory.

This walk down memory lane of the early 2000s is not navel-gazing, its to show you how I found a kindred spirit on the pages of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper in its author Hallie Rubenhold. Rubenhold spends three hundred pages absolutely thrashing the established, predominantly male, scholarship on Jack the Ripper and his victims and it is a wonder to behold.

“Today there is only one reason why we would continue to embrace the belief that Jack the Ripper was a killer of prostitutes: because it supports an industry that has grown, in part, out of this mythology.”

(Rubenhold, 292)

In this exquisitely researched work (its for sure an academic history monograph trying to hide as pop-history) Rubenhold takes the reader through the lives of the five women from birth to death. In the stories of these five women we find the social history of London in the second half of the nineteenth century – there were several forces at work that placed these women in Whitechapel in the fall of 1888 and in the path of a murderer. Rubenhold slowly and deliberately unpacks the various strands that weave the stories, one woman at a time, all the while lacing in the larger subtext of the time and how it effected their lives, but also the investigating and reporting after their deaths.

“Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, the were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. Their worth was compromised before they even attempted to prove it.”

(ibid, 288)

This was a slightly tough work to read right now – economic insecurity is the main cause of these women’s deaths, the shared thread that puts them in the path of a serial killer. As millions in the United States file for unemployment each week of the COVID-19 pandemic, as I wait to see if my industry survives the inevitable restructuring that will come in how we work as a society, I am all to aware of how the loss of my paycheck, the loss of the support I have in my life, would upend my existence, again, just as it did time after time for the five.

“If a husband, father, or partner left or died, a working-class woman with dependents would find it almost impossible to survive. The structure of society ensured that a woman without a man was superfluous.”

(ibid, 288)

I can easily recommend this one to anyone with interest in the Ripper murders in 1888, or just the general history of the time and area through a different lens than they may have seen it before. Rubenhold unpacks education, poor reform, prostitution laws, the Workhouse system, and the growth and death of industries while telling the very personal stories of five women who lived lives that have been mostly erased by the story of the man who murdered them. In telling their story, Rubenhold also tells the story of the women who lived their lives around them.

“When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place. Labelling the victims as ‘just prostitutes’ permits those writing about Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane even today to continue to disparage, sexualize, and dehumanize them; to continue to reinforce the values of madonna/whore.”

(ibid, 294)

Ghostland (CBR10 #22)

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

One of the ways books find their way to me is via podcast. I listen to a few pop culture and history podcasts and usually the lovely hosts have book recommendations. This particular one comes via Dave Gonzales of Storm of Spoilers and Fighting in the War Room. His description of the book both sold me and really is a fantastic encapsulation of what the book does; “GHOSTLAND … tracks other American ‘hauntings’ and reveals how those stories are the product of racism and sexism a good 80% of the time” caught my interest immediately and went directly onto my to read list for the year.

Ghostland hovers around several interest areas of mine, and for a few years I was an active part of the dark tourism that he covers in this book (ghost tours and paranormal programming at historic sites and buildings). So, why not unpack the culture that leads to these things in the first place now that I’m safely on the other side (I had many reservations about doing these programs). There is a social undercurrent that feeds the stories we tell, and choose not to tell, and it extends as far as our ghost stories.

This book tells the story of the dead by focusing on the problems of the living; how do we deal with stories about ghosts and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed to be haunted? Colin Dickey pays attention to what can be known about the stories of a haunting story, but then also tracks the ways in which changes to the story, and sometimes even the “facts” themselves are changed. Dickey uses his personal experiences and research to tell a version of American history you may not be familiar with. Or, you might actually be familiar with it as the major weakness of Dickey’s work is that he is often telling his reader the story of some of the most famous hauntings around the states (Winchester Mystery House, anyone?), which can make for an occasional slog of a read. But, for me, it was all made worth it by Dickey unpacking the inherent racism and misogyny of the ghost stories that populate our collective conscious.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

#stickingittocancer #onebookatatime

Unmentionable (CBR9 #37)

Image result for unmentionable the victorian lady's guide

One of the questions I receive most often at my job as a educator at historic sites is “wouldn’t you love to live back then?” For reference, that encompasses a period of time roughly 1820-1920 and the answer is a resounding no. I am all about indoor plumbing, air conditioners, and not being considered property. This book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill lays out all the ways life was downright terrible for women life was during that same approximate period.

For most people this would not be considered a beach read. For me it absolutely is. Lumenatrix coined the style of this type of book as “accessible non-fiction”, which I completely agree with and am now stealing. I’ve always thought of it as “non-fiction with a sense of humor” like Mary Roach’s books. Therese Oneill is wonderfully sarcastic and direct in her prose, and the structure of the book is well thought out and easily followed. Oneill moves naturally from one aspect of daily life to the next laying out all the differences for life of women in the firmly upper middle class then to life today.

For me, the best part of this book is the way in which Oneill weaves in primary resources, both visual and print into her narrative. While I already knew much of what Oneill discussed, having access to her resources was a bonus to me. So much so, that I immediately passed it along to Ale since she is researching Victorian ladies and their unmentionables for an upcoming project.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.