non-fiction

Lockdown Reads: Non-Fiction

 

I’m back with more of what I’ve been reading, this time with some non-fiction titles. The first two are the sort of books that make me feel oddly conflicted, because although I get really excited about reading them, merely knowing they exist makes me feel bad about myself. This happens when I see a book on a topic that I’m very interested in or know a lot about, because I feel inadequate for not writing books like this myself when I’ve really no one but myself and my sheer laziness to blame. The Wonders especially made me feel like that because the topic of my Master’s thesis was “constructions of dwarfism in 18th century England,” and one of the people I focused on was Jozef Boruwlaski, to whom Woolf devotes an entire chapter. Honestly, for parts of it I felt like he must have somehow read my thesis, since he was making the same points I was, but of course it’s only natural that someone using the same source material would come to the same conclusions I did, which is obviously what happened here (also, Woolf’s book is better written than my thesis was. I did not try that hard). I’m also super jealous that he got a Ph.D in Victorian freak shows, since I would LOVE to study something like that. But I’m not going to let my enviousness of this guy’s life turn my review into sour grapes, because I genuinely loved this book. It was so fun to read, and was the perfect combination of cultural and medical history.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Poe-Land. I’ve also read Ocker’s book on visiting Salem, Massachusetts in October, and though he also writes about the sorts of things I love, I can’t get behind his books. I just don’t think they’re very well-written – honestly, he makes Poe boring, which is pretty hard to do – and something about his tone grates on me. I would have loved the opportunity to visit all these Poe sites and write about them, and it pisses me off that someone who did have these opportunities didn’t actually seem all that enthusiastic about it (though I guess the same criticism could be levelled at me when I blog about places I don’t particularly enjoy), but such is life.

 

As I mentioned in my BLM post, I am trying harder to educate myself on issues surrounding race, including reading these two books (for starters!). Since I have close family members that are Trump supporters, I was really interested to read Dying of Whiteness to see if he could provide an explanation for the phenomenon summed up in the book’s subtitle, whereby white working class Americans tend to vote for parties and policies that actually make their quality of life worse. Metzl divides his book into three sections, on education, health care, and guns, focusing on a different Southern/Midwestern community for each, and he shows how these issues affect white voters, and then interviews the voters themselves to try to determine why they vote against their own best interests, and it does often come down to a deeply ingrained culture of racism, whether the voters realise it or not (basically, they would rather go without things themselves, like health care than have their taxes go to programmes that would benefit people of colour, who they consider lazy and not deserving of benefits). I still don’t understand it on a personal level, because I don’t really care who else gets to use the NHS as a result of my paying National Insurance, since I get to use it too, but it does provide an insight into a large segment of the American population, and it probably just makes me even angrier than I was already at American politics. I’m still glad I read it, though it is quite dry and almost academic in parts, with a whole chapter in each section dedicated to various graphs and charts that I couldn’t be bothered to sit there and decipher.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, although it also cites a number of statistics and studies, was a much more engaging book than Dying of Whiteness, probably because Eddo-Lodge is a woman of colour who intimately understands the topic she’s writing about, whereas Metzl comes across as something of an outsider to the people he’s interviewing, despite his upbringing in Missouri. I think Eddo-Lodge’s book might be the more uncomfortable of the two books for white people to read, as the kind of people who are likely to read Metzl’s book probably look down their noses a bit on Trump voters anyway, but even “woke” people are likely to find it difficult to confront their own biases, as implied by the title of Eddo-Lodge’s book. But I honestly enjoyed WINLTtWPaR more of the two books, because it was more challenging and passionate. Definitely worth a read!

 

I generally enjoy Bill Bryson – both his travel writing and his more factual titles (though I still say his audio guide to the Roman Baths in Bath is awful) – and it’s no secret that I’m interested in medical history and medicine in general, so this definitely seemed like a winner. And it was! It was sort of reminiscent of a slightly less fun Mary Roach (not intended as an insult, since I really love Mary Roach, and even slightly less fun is still pretty fun) whereby Bryson provides a comprehensive guide to everything in the human body for non-medical professionals, and even though some of it relied on references to other medical books I’ve already read, I think Bryson does a great job of compiling everything in one place and making it easy to read.

I had my eye on A Curious History of Sex for a while, and finally grabbed it when the price dropped. This one was definitely entertaining in parts, and contained A LOT of Victorian pornographic images, which I genuinely found fascinating (in a non-erotic way), but it was very piecemeal and felt more like something to dip in and out of than to read straight through. Because I did just read it all at once (not in one sitting, but I wasn’t reading anything else in between), I probably enjoyed it less than I would have if I’d just read a chapter here and there, but it’s still worth a look if you’re interested in sexual practices through the ages, though it is VERY hetero-centric, with only a small section on gay sex that felt very incomplete. I realise that there is only so much space in a book, and obviously no text can be totally comprehensive, but considering Lister spent a tonne of time talking about obscure things like the erotic aspects of bicycling, it seemed odd to leave out an entire major dimension of sexuality.

 

The next two titles were equally fascinating in different ways. Whilst I adore a nice grisly true crime book, The Five was very much not this; if you go in looking for gory details on the Jack the Ripper murders, you will be disappointed. However, there are already plenty of books devoted to the murders themselves – what Rubenhold is trying to do is give the victims a voice, as so many Jack the Ripper books focus so much on the Ripper that they almost end up glorifying him, which is pretty messed up when you think about it. So this is all about the lives of these women before they were murdered, and the women they might have been. Primary sources are fairly sketchy for working class Victorian women, so some of this is speculation, but Rubenhold generally makes that clear, and the information she has been able to uncover is fascinating, albeit deeply depressing, These women had such hard lives, and she really managed to bring that sense of deprivation alive. In many ways, it felt similar to Victorians Undone, which is one of my favourite non-fiction books of recent years, and I really liked this as well. Rubenhold’s next book will be about the women associated with Dr. Crippen, and I am very much looking forward to it!

Entanglement is all about the global hair trade, and as someone who has never worn a wig or extensions, I had no idea what a big business it is! This book covers everything from the women who sell or donate their hair to the women who buy the finished wigs, and everyone involved in between in the process of transforming loose hair into wigs or extensions. I honestly never thought hair could be so interesting, but Tarlo makes it so. A surprisingly great read!

 

There are a lot of similarities between David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and I got into both of their work at about the same time, but perhaps due to his difficult upbringing, sometimes Burroughs is just a bit much for even me. Case in point, Toil and Trouble, which is all about why he believes he is a witch. Now, I should say up front that I totally dabble in witch stuff on occasion (in case the witch hat in my Instagram picture wasn’t a clue), in a strictly non-theistic, non-“spiritual” way (I’m definitely not a “spiritual” person, whatever that even means), and part of me wants to think that I do I have some powers (because who wouldn’t want to be able to control stuff with their mind?!), so I can relate to Burroughs in some ways. But deep down, I don’t really take any of it very seriously, whereas Burroughs does, and some of the examples he gives as to why he believes he is a witch are a bit far-fetched. Having an owl living near your property is not evidence that you’re a witch. Having your mother, who has well-documented mental health problems, tell you that you are a witch is not proof that you are a witch. So this definitely fell more flat for me than his other humorous essay collections, though in fairness to him, there were still some laugh out loud moments, just not as many as in some of his other books, probably because he was too earnestly trying to convince the reader of his witch credentials.

And lastly, there was Swallow. God, I hated this book. The subject matter initially sounded so interesting, as it was meant to be about Dr. Chevalier Jackson, a doctor who removed thousands of swallowed objects from his patients over much of the 20th century, and kept them all in a cabinet, which now lives at the Mutter Museum. And the Mutter Museum is one of my favourite places on Earth, so I was with Cappello as she began talking about her visits to the museum, and how she was drawn to writing about Jackson and his collection. And then she completely lost me. Cappello is a literature professor rather than a historian, and it shows. This book seems to be all about emphasizing Cappello’s bizarre literary style rather than Jackson himself, and is written in an annoying flow-of-consciousness way where she keeps interrupting the Jackson narrative to talk about seemingly whatever random thoughts pop into her head, like an artist who reminds her of Jackson, or how strange she thinks it is that someone named Mary Hat (as her surname translates to in English) is writing a book about swallowed objects, or honestly who the hell even knows what, since I was just completely lost for half the damn book when she went off on these tangents. I forced myself to read to the end, because I was interested in Jackson’s story, but honestly, just read the guy’s autobiography if that’s what you’re interested in, because this book is awful. I don’t know what Cappello was thinking when she wrote it, but judging by the reviews on Goodreads, my opinion is definitely not in the minority.

Well, that’s it for now, but my birthday is this week, so I’ve taken the week off work and we’re renting a car, which means I’ll hopefully have something new to write about next week!