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. 

It Ended Badly (CBR8 #65)

Image result for it ended badly

This book has reviewed several times for the Cannonball Read and is how it ended up on my radar at all (which is how oh so many books end up in front of me). I am a history nerd so a rundown of thirteen historical relationships that did not end well sounded great to me. I have to tell you, I slammed through this book in two sittings.

Quick review: a witty, friendly, informally written but well informed gathering of information that you should absolutely read as a palate cleanser or any other quick read format.

Longer review: All of the above is true, but that doesn’t mean that this book isn’t without its flaws. There are flaws. The tone of this book worked for me perfectly. This is not intended to be a serious historical monograph, this is a longform listicle. AND THAT’S OKAY. Any author who uses parenthetical asides to share personal information about themselves or point out the only time we are likely to feel sympathy for a historical figure is my kind of author. But I understand that this is not for everyone.

The thing that has me rounding this book down to a three star rating instead of the four stars many others have given is that while I was entertained, there were definitely chapters which went on much too long. Looking at you Henry VIII. That’s a well-known tidbit, those two beheadings, we could have moved along. The Nero, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Timothy Dexter, and Edith Wharton chapters were the most interesting to me personally. Eleanor rocks, Nero and Dexter were crazypants, and Wharton just made me sad for her and reminded me I still need to read and/or watch Age of Innocence. You can bet that’s going on our vote for the next Cannonball Read Book Club (voting for Classics with movie/TV adaptations should happen sometime around October 15…)

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

Hark! A Vagrant (CBR8 #49)

I’m glad I lent crystalclear the Hamilton book when I had it out from the library, or I’d feel in real friend debt, since she has been lending me books all year. This is another delivery from her, and it served as a palate cleanser between Children of God, When a Scot Ties the Knot, and The House of the Spirits. Yes, I have weird reading habits, Casino Royale was in there too for a short time.

Its tough for me to review this book, crystalclear declined to, not being able to figure out how to say “just go read it, the cartoons are funny” in 250 words (did I get that right? I hope I did.) Since I have a rule to review everything, I’m sitting here typing furiously, trying to explain to you why I really liked this book, but I still only gave it three stars.

The problem, as usual, is me.

Comics just are not my thing. I’ve tried a couple different variations on graphic novel type literature and universally my brain just doesn’t process information that way. I also was never a big Sunday comics reader, I’d skim a few when I could pry the section from my parents or grandparents, but not much more.  Beaton, however, is exactly the type of writer who should hit my funny bone, and does, most of the time. Her writing is a wry, delightful, and shows an intelligent wit and her line drawings accomplish so much with so little. It’s no wonder to me at all that so many of you have liked this book a great deal.

If you’re in the mood for the comic version of Texts with Jane Eyre, then this is the book you are most rightly looking for.

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

Doomsday Book (CBR8 #34)

This review will be the definition of spoiler free, come see us over at the Cannonball Read June 1 to talk details.

I am, as they say, perplexed by this book. It was like a roller coaster ride. At the beginning, I felt like this:

There was a great wide world of story ahead and it was all for me. Historians! In the near future! Using the scientific method and time travel!

But then, I spent a lot of time waiting for thins to start happening.

And that was not the most pleasant experience, really. I went the audio route for this one, since I knew I would be under a bit of a time crunch and I could listen at 1.25-1.5 speed depending and that would help. It did, but listening to all the pieces be set up on the board while knowing that there was still 20+ hours of audio left me wondering what all the fuss was about, because you good people had already started rolling in the 4 and 5 star reviews.

And then things got going, and I understood.

There are so many layers, so much context, so much world building built it that you have to wait, and then you start to have fun, but there’s also that moment when the doom is coming (which by the way the blurb for the book spoiled for me, not that it isn’t telegraphed a mile away) that I actively stopped reading because I didn’t want to read what I knew was about to happen. It was too much, both for the characters and for me.

This book lives and dies by its characters, and they are good. I look forward to hearing what everyone has to think.

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

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels (CBR7 #88)

I want to thank my fellow ‘ballers for bringing this book to my attention. I work in museums, and I have two conferences this month in Philadelphia. This meant that if I timed some things correctly, and gave myself a day, I could actually go to a couple museums in Philly. Let it be said that after living less than three hours away from the city for over 6 years I finally managed to go sightseeing in Philadelphia this week. Go me! As part of my trip I was able to go to the Mutter Museum, and I decided reading this book needed to be part of my experience. I’m so glad I did.

It’s tough to work in the museum field, particularly in the northeast, and not be aware of the Mutter. They are rock stars of the field in a lot of ways. They bring in huge numbers, most of who are millennial (an almost un-gettable demographic) and they both embrace their cabinet of curiosities history, while moving past it. I was a little in love before I even got to the museum doors. But how did they get their start, and who was Mutter anyway? Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz set out to answer those questions and frame the beginnings of what we know as modern medicine, all because she loved the Mutter and its former director.

In the vein of books like Devil in the White City, Aptowicz weaves in the personal story of one man, in this case Thomas Dent Mutter and the larger story of the modernizing of the medical profession and its education during the mid-1800s. By carefully interweaving the two, and generally sticking to short chapter lengths Aptowicz was able to take the evolution of how we deem someone ready and able to treat us, along with the basics of medical care and teaching hospitals, all while giving us the story of a truly unique and visionary individual who pushed the frontiers of medicine, particularly reconstructive and plastic surgery, and unfortunately died too young.

Most of the book focuses on the history and the story of Mutter’s life, just the end focuses on how his teaching collection ended up bequeathed to the College of Physicians and available to the public as one of the United States’ first medical museums.

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

The Romanov Sisters (CBR7 #69)

::sigh:: I am not the target audience for this book. Quick review: If you are in the mood to learn lots about pre-revolutionary Russia and the Romanov family, particularly the personal lives of Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children and you enjoy immaculately researched historical monographs but do have not already spent years studying Russian history, then this is absolutely the book for you and you should find the time to read it. If, however, you are like me and already know A LOT about the social and political history of modern Russia and the Romanov dynasty and really don’t want to learn anymore about the tsarevitch and Rasputin and are only interested in the four sisters, this is not the book you want.

I wasn’t kidding, this is a beautifully researched monograph and the research is top notch. That all worked for me splendidly. What didn’t work for me is that this book was not actually the bill of goods I was sold. Moving away from the title, here’s part of the blurb from Goodreads, “Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.”

And this book does contain those things, and the primary sources are used to bring new insight into these young women who were often kept from public life. BUT… this is perhaps the final third of the book. The first two thirds of the book focus on the life of their mother from birth, her marriage to Nicholas, and the early years of their lives and waiting for the eventual birth of their brother. Interspersed throughout chapters which were intended to be about the sisters were asides to all the other family members and the history going on around them. This was more information than I wanted or needed, but might be just what you are looking for. In fact, other on the discussion page for this book for the Go Fug Yourself book club on Goodreads (we’re voting for our next book now!), many of the other readers loved this level of detail. And you might too!

But for me, not so much. I skimmed A LOT, any time that Rasputin’s name or Alexey, or a mention of Alexandra’s poor health I moved along to the next page. I read very quickly this way. I need to find a shorter work focusing more exclusively on the sisters, particularly Olga and Tatiana who really intrigued me. I welcome any and all suggestions!

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

Five Came Back (CBR7 #60)

In 2008, before my time taking part in the Cannonball Read, I read and loved Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. For those that are interested, that book covers the 1967 Best Picture Oscar race, cataloguing how that year’s nominated films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, and Bonnie and Clyde each highlight the changes both in Hollywood and in the culture. I suggest it wholeheartedly. When I saw via Goodreads that Mark Harris had a new book out, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, I got it from my library and (eventually) dug in.

Unfortunately, this one just didn’t sing for me in the way that Pictures at a Revolution had. In Five Came Back Harris tells the story of five Hollywood directors who joined the war effort in World War II to be of patriotic use, and to document the war. We meet and follow John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens as they leave behind a Hollywood system experiencing both highs and lows and enter a world to which they are unfamiliar. Between them these five men were the scene of almost every major moment of America’s involvement in the war. They served in every branch of service—army, navy, and air force and all theatres of war. They were present at the biggest moments in the American campaign from Midway, Normandy, to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi death camps or stateside in the shaping of the message out of Washington, D.C.  and chronicling the effects of the war on its soldiers once they returned home. As it did for so many others, World War II divided the lives of these men into before and after. However, as a reader I became less and less interested in some of these narrative threads and instead wished to hear more about Wyler and Stevens.

The beginning of this work was simply far too detailed to pull me into the book. I understand that Harris is after giving the reader the general feeling of the time, but it just dragged and dragged – for nearly 150 pages. When it comes to drawing in a reader for a work of non-fiction I often think its best start broad with big sweeps of information to draw the reader into your preferred level of detail. Just because we the reader are interested enough to choose to read your book does not mean we are interested enough to be as informed as you assume we should be, just saying. Other than that issue, and the general slow pace of the text, and my disinterest in half of its main characters are leaving me rating this a three, but it keeps all three because what worked for me worked well.

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