Reading

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!

Lockdown Reads: Fiction

Since I’m running out of things to post about for the time being unless I delve into holidays of the past again, I thought I’d write about what I’ve been reading since lockdown started in March (I know we’re not officially in lockdown now, but I’m still not going out very much, so I’m going to count things I’ve read recently too). I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I tend to average two books a week, which didn’t change significantly in lockdown, since let’s be honest, I didn’t really go out that much before coronavirus was a thing either. I might not have been reading much more than usual, but what had changed was that since I was no longer able to get books from the library, I was either re-reading things I already owned or buying everything I read, so was reading a lot more things that had been on my to-read list for a long time rather than just picking up whatever the library had that looked interesting. I read slightly more fiction than non-fiction (26 vs 16), and I’m not going to make you sit through reviews of all those books, so I’m just picking out some of the more memorable ones to highlight here.

 

You would think that with all the scary real-life stuff going on, I would want to read something more cheerful than horror stories, but honestly, horror is my favourite genre, and I love being creeped out by a scary story, so in a weird way, I do find horror kind of comforting. At any rate, I tend to prefer things more on the spooky, unsettling side of the genre – ghost stories, yes please! – because body horror generally makes me feel sick; however, I’m ok with straight-up gore if it’s not done in a torturey way (e.g. I love The Evil Dead, but refuse to watch Hostel or anything of that ilk). Grady Hendrix has been one of my favourite horror writers since I read Horrorstor (which is about a haunted IKEA-esque furniture store, and the book itself looks like an IKEA catalogue, which is really fun), so I was very excited to read The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, which just came out a few months ago, and it did not disappoint. Most of the horror in the book actually comes from the racism and misogyny ever present in the background of the story, which is set in Charleston in the late 1980s-early ’90s, and though there was a pretty graphic dismemberment scene towards the end, I’m not really bothered by that if it’s happening to an evil supernatural being instead of a living person, as it was here (the lynching scene earlier in the book was much more difficult to read). I think this is my favourite of Hendrix’s books so far.

I also read We Sold Our Souls, which is an older book of his that I hadn’t read yet, about a heavy metal band with a member that literally sells the band’s souls to achieve fame. It wasn’t quite as good as TSBCGtSV, but I still found myself speeding through it to find out what would happen to Kris, the book’s protagonist, since I could relate to her experiences of growing up in the Rust Belt and being the only girl in a rock band (punk rock, in my case) – I wanted to see if she would get her revenge against the singer of her former band!

 

I also LOVE short story anthologies, and I’ve been gradually working my way through everything edited by Ellen Datlow, who seems to churn out a couple every year, each with a different horror-related theme. I’m freaked out by most things in the sea anyway, so I thought The Devil and the Deep would really give me the chills, and I wasn’t totally wrong. I find all anthologies to be a mixed bag by their very nature, and this was no exception, with probably more weak stories than strong ones, but there was still enough good ones here to hold my attention.

His Hideous Heart is technically YA, and when I saw that it contained thirteen of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories re-imagined by modern authors along with Poe’s original stories, I had to have it. If I had one minor quibble, it was in the way the book was arranged – all of the modern stories were at the front, and all of Poe’s were at the back, but I would have preferred if each Poe story was right before or after its reinterpretation, because I read them that way so I could see how the reinterpretation compared to the original (and I can’t imagine I’m the only person to do that), and it got a bit annoying to keep flipping back and forth. There was definitely a strong LGBTQ theme running through the whole book, which really put a new spin on Poe’s work. Honestly, some of these were surprisingly frightening for a YA book, especially the story about the girl who was abducted and tortured by a serial killer obsessed with the Spanish Inquisition, so I definitely think this was plenty scary for adults too!

 

I was sent The Silent Companions by a book subscription service I thought I’d try out (end result: not impressed, especially since they only sent two of the three months I paid for. I understand there may have been some confusion because they stopped orders for a while when lockdown started, but I did email them about it after they started shipping again, and never got a response. I should probably follow that up), and I cannot lie, the titular silent companions, which are life-size full-length portraits painted on upstanding wooden panels, really freaked me out, so much so that I dreaded having to get up to pee in the middle of the night for a week or so after in case I saw one of them gliding towards me (despite not owning any, because the characters in the book didn’t know they owned any either until one just appeared). However, the glaring historical inaccuracy that was one of the main plot points of the book really pissed me off (spoiler alert: it has to do with how witches were executed in early modern England, which regular readers will know is a real bugbear of mine) and ultimately soured me on the whole thing.

I wanted to read The Saturday Night Ghost Club because it had great reviews from readers who loved that it accurately re-created the atmosphere of 1980s Niagara Falls, and I am all about late ’80s and early ’90s nostalgia, particularly where spooky things (Halloween in particular) are concerned. Unfortunately, I just didn’t think the writing was very good, and I could see the “twist” ending coming from a mile off, so the nostalgia factor wasn’t quite enough to win me over. There was also something just a little bit icky about two middle aged men forming a “ghost hunting club” with a group of young teenagers that involved them taking said teenagers to isolated locations late at night, so that put me off as well.

 

Last horror (sort of) books. I am definitely guilty of not making enough effort to read things by authors of colour, so I’ve been using this excellent Twitter thread recommended by Emily of Nightmare Fuel (which is also excellent for horror recommendations – I definitely advise signing up to her newsletters of book reviews if you’re as into horror as I am) to discover some more diverse horror authors than the ones I usually read, which is how I found Water Ghosts (which I also read recently, though I’m not talking about it here because I didn’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other) and indirectly, how I discovered Oyinkan Braithwaite when I had her books recommended to me after adding a load of other horror stories by women of colour to my to-read list. I was totally enticed by the excellent cover, so I had to buy it. I wouldn’t say it’s a horror story as such, because although there are murders, it’s really more a book about toxic family relationships, and I ended up really frustrated with Korede, the main character, for not doing more to overcome her past, though I know that’s much easier said than done, especially if you grew up with an abusive father, as Korede did.

Marcus bought Betty Bites Back for me because he thought it sounded like something I would like (I do go on about the patriarchy a lot), and though I think it was a great concept, most of the stories didn’t quite live up to it (I never need to read the one about scooping out eyeballs again. In fact, I wish I hadn’t even read it the first time. Blech).

 

Here’s proof that I don’t only read horror! Ruth Ozeki has been one of my favourite authors since I read My Year of Meats back in high school, which I have re-read many times since. Ozeki isn’t hugely prolific, as she has only written three novels to date (I also love A Tale for the Time Being), but I was hoarding this one on my shelves for years, waiting until I needed a treat, and that time was now. All Over Creation is about an elderly couple living on a potato farm in Idaho who are reconciled with their long-estranged daughter Yumi when she reluctantly comes home to care for them after she learns her father is dying, and all the things that happen as a result of Yumi returning, including a group of GMO protestors camping out at the farm. I think this is definitely the weakest of her books, as Yumi wasn’t that likeable, and there was way too much technical stuff about genetically modified crops that felt like straight up propaganda (I guess the same could be said of My Year of Meats and the American meat industry, but I completely agree with Ozeki’s views of the evils of factory farming, so it wasn’t quite as glaring to me in that book), but even a weak Ozeki is still a good read!

I’ve been into Terry Pratchett for years and years and years, and of course had read and loved Good Omens ages ago (before it was cool), but I haven’t started to get into Neil Gaiman in his own right until relatively recently. When I leafed through Neverwhere in the gift shop at the Tate (one of the last times I was in a museum before lockdown!), I knew I had to have it, since I love anything to do with secret bits of London. It’s not on the level of Good Omens or anything, but I enjoyed it well enough, even though the protagonist Richard was super annoying for most of it (why are you whining about wanting to go back to your disgusting sounding flat and your mean fiancee when you’re exploring a magical underground world?) and will look for the sequel when it comes out.

 

Emma Donaghue is another long-time favourite. I read her short story collection The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits, about the real-life story of Mary Toft, well before I even moved to the UK, and Room, which is probably her most famous book, really messed me up, but in a good way, if that makes sense. When I heard The Pull of the Stars was coming out, and was about the Great Influenza, I bought it literally the day it was released. It is about a midwife/nurse working on a fever ward for maternity patients during the 1918 pandemic, and there are some very gory passages about women giving birth, but it’s also a lovely story about love and loss, and though the ending felt a bit rushed after the slow build of the relationship between Julia and Bridie in the first three quarters of the book, I really loved it. It made me so angry at what the Catholic Church did to Ireland though. Ugh!

Barbara the Slut is a bit of a fun one to end on, because how could I resist that title? It’s actually a short story collection about a number of different women, including the eponymous Barbara, who actually reclaims the “slut” label after it’s spray painted on her locker in high school and uses it to empower herself and take down a guy spreading nasty rumours about her. This is Holmes’s only book thus far, but I will definitely be hoping for more in the future, because I loved this one as well.

This is certainly not all the fiction I’ve read lately, but I don’t want to drone on and on all day (you’re probably already bored out of your minds), so I’ll leave it there and talk about some non-fiction titles next week!

Reading: Museum of Reading, Royal Berkshire Medical Museum, and the MERL; Biscuits, Eyeballs, and Ploughs

In my eternal quest to find things to do on weekends other than eating waffles and watching classic Simpsons episodes (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I’d tracked down some intriguing sounding destinations in Reading, so that’s where my boyfriend and I headed last Sunday.  After getting stuck in horrendous traffic due to the Reading Half-Marathon which the internet failed to warn us about, and my nearly having to hurl in a disposable glove as a result (motion sickness, one of the banes of my existence), we made it to the Museum of Reading about an hour later than I’d planned on, which meant we were more rushed than I would have liked.  The weather, naturally, was terrible, freezing, driving rain, so the walk from the off-site parking lot was notably unpleasant, but the museum promised warmth ahead.  (Side note, much of this section is cobbled together from my yelp review so I didn’t have to rewrite the entire thing, I just wanted to get that out of the way lest anyone find it and think I plagiarised something).  It’s housed in a gloriously imposing Victorian building, which was a welcome change from the sprawl of industrial estates and box stores that seemed to make up most of Reading. There were two main reasons I decided to come here: a Victorian reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry, and collection of biscuit tins from Huntley and Palmers, a former Reading-based manufacturer.  So everything else here was just an added bonus.  Admission was free, like all the other places we visited in Reading, and the interior had dim lighting and fairly cluttered cases, which gave the museum the old fashioned feel that I love.  The ground floor was devoted to the history of Reading, and had one of those buttons you press to hear a music sample (in this case, monks singing; and a heads up, the monk version of Salve Regina is nowhere near as uptempo as the one in Sister Act) which shattered the quiet, and embarrassingly went on for ages!  We could still hear it playing when we headed upstairs

Replica Bayeux Tapestry + severed limbs

Replica Bayeux Tapestry + severed limbs

The Bayeux Tapestry is wrapped around the walls of an entire floor, and except for some modesty shorts sewn onto a previously naked man by the propriety-conscious Victorian ladies, was a faithful copy of the original, which is housed in Normandy.  It tells the story of Harold and William the Conqueror, with lots of neat little details, like random body parts scattered across the bottom of the combat scenes.  It was probably better than actually going to France, since I am lazy and my French is not the best, except for the fact that I had to satiate the overwhelming croissant craving that came upon me with a sub-par English croissant from the M&S across the street, but we all must make sacrifices.  But the Museum of Reading had another redeeming, and very British feature: Biscuits!

The charming kitten tin

The charming kitten tin

The top floor of the museum was mostly devoted to taxidermy, Roman history, and some random Victorian oil paintings, and we circled around three times looking for the biscuit room.  We finally asked a man working there, and it was hidden down a back hallway that was accessed via the taxidermy room.  I’m glad we eventually found it, because I would have been unspeakably upset had I left the museum without seeing the biscuit framed picture of Lord Kitchener.  Other highlights included a John Ginger pin (to promote Ginger Nuts), random stale biscuits that had survived to the present day (one of them had even been in a fire!), and the classic sad-eyed kitten biscuit tin.  Though the original Huntley and Palmers is long defunct, a new company is making biscuits using the name, and you can purchase them in the gift shop.  We tried the “Seriously Knobbly” dark and milk chocolate ones, and they were indeed “moreish” as the packet promised, though not on the level of Fortnum’s chocolate digestives, which is my idea of biscuit perfection.

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So after spending far more time at the Museum of Reading than anticipated, because the biscuits tins were indeed that enthralling, we only had 90 minutes to see both the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum and the Museum of English Rural Life before they shut.  We headed to the Medical Museum first, which is in a section of the actual Royal Berkshire Hospital, and required us to walk down this really sketchy looking dank tunnel to get to it.  The entire museum fit into one room, and was a pretty standard medical museum, with the exception of a nice little collection of glass eyes.  The people running it were very friendly and helpful, and they had loads of information cards scattered around the place, which was nice, but it seemed like their target audience was people interested in the history of the hospital itself.  I enjoyed it, and the volunteers was obviously passionate about the place, which was wonderful to see, but I don’t think it’s worth a trip in itself, though by all means stop by if you’re in Reading anyway on the first or third Sunday of the month, as they could use the support.

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Finally, and only half an hour before closing (it was across the street from the hospital, but there was no way to cut through the hospital buildings, so we had to walk the long way around, which took FOREVER), we made it to the Museum of English Rural Life.  It was basically a ton of random farming implements and other crap scattered around a massive warehouse-type building, but I quite liked the setup, since it reminded me of my Grandpa’s barn.  The collection was mostly wagons and ploughs, and some amusing and excellently beardy photographs of various Victorian and Edwardian men with archaic occupations, like molecatcher.  I could dig it, since I kind of have a weird obsession with the Little House books, and being able to see all the different types of farm tools helped me visualise stuff in the books a bit better, but it admittedly wasn’t the most enthralling of museums, and half an hour was probably ample time to see it.  It might be better if you have kids, since it seemed like it had a few special activities for them to take part in.  Still, all in all, it was a solid day out, and certainly better than our London outing the day before.

Ploughs, MERL

Ploughs, MERL

4 out of 5 for the Museum of Reading, and 2 out of 5 for the Medical Museum and MERL