Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford

Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics
by Adam Rutherford

I read Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics last year when I was in search of a text that would A. layout a basic and linguistically accessible history of eugenics suitable for a first- and second-year undergraduate audience and B. be cheap enough to assign as a required text. Rutherford’s Control fit my requirements across the board (but, I opted not to assign it as a required purchase).

Control is a very well-written popular press style non-fiction; Rutherford superbly breaks down what might be confusing historical and academic jargon into easy language and approaches this complicated subject with an eye towards a neophyte reader, a reader who has an interest but not preexisting knowledge of eugenics at all. The book therefore unfolds in chronological order, permitting the reader to develop and understanding of the historical and popular narrative of eugenics as it was understood in various moments of time.

The beginning of the book outlines the birth and rise of eugenics as a popular real and pseudo- science, starting with Francis Galton, and ending with the present, the tinkering of Dolly the sheep’s DNA and duplication as well as other unethical uses of reproductive science. As a historian I found the first half of the book very useful; it was this half which enticed me to use it in my history courses.

The second half of the book diverges into more contemporary concerns and reads as distinctly editorial; there is no hiding Rutherford’s intentions here — nor should there be. I wholehearted agree with Rutherford’s concerns about the future uses of eugenics and what this means for human rights and humanity as a whole. But Rutherford was preaching to the choir here; leaving me well aware that I am not the target audience for this work. Nevertheless, I would encourage everyone to read Control since it doesn’t harm anyone to revisit the horrors of eugenics.

Overall, a very readable and thought-provoking book. References are sparse (for a work of scholarship), but fully adequate for a popular press non-fiction and useful for the interested reader to delve deeper into the topic.

Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke

Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke

This was an incredibly fun non-fiction to read, the perfect book to carry around in your bag. It’s a conversation starter, a laugh-out-loud-on-the-train commute/waiting room/airplane/sit-by-the-pool-and-watch-butts-walk-by kind of read. I thoroughly enjoyed it on multiple levels.

First, on content: Radke’s research is well done. This is not an academic, peer reviewed piece of scholarship, but it is a well-researched, chronological and multi-disciplinary perspective on that part of our body we might often despise/regret/wish hidden/love/extoll/exhibit. Butts begins with an evolutionary explanation, a physiological treatise in what, why, and how we have butts at all and what they do for us. It then moves on into history proper, working to the present, and ending with a significant number of chapters focused on butts in the contemporary moment (Kim Kardashian and others) and in popular Western culture. [Radke is up front with the Western-centric focus of her study; this is a commentary on butts as understood in Western culture and history and is not a global study.]

Second, prose: Radke’s delivery is on point for a non-academic, general audience non-fiction. The prose is smooth, hilarious in so many parts, and remains lighthearted throughout, even when the content gets heavy and educational.

Whatever you feelings and thoughts about butts, backsides, or bottoms, Butts is a great read.

Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s By Margaret K. Nelson

Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s
By Margaret K. Nelson

I was very excited to read this book by sociologist, Margaret Nelson. As a historian of mid-twentieth century culture and politics, the title alone was titillating enough. Keeping Family Secrets did not disappoint.

The book is divided into sections, each one addressing a particularly scandalous (for the time) family secret: homosexuality among boys (in particular), having a “red”, Communist-leaning parent (or one accused of being a “Commie”), the institutionalization of a sibling or a child, having Jewish ancestry, and others. To our contemporary minds, such facts of life are hardly worth mentioning in some communities; no one would bat an eye at a child of unwed parentage, for example, in most communities today. But that is where Nelson’s historical scholarship shines. Keeping Family Secrets transports the reader to an era in which such things did matter and mattered a lot. The book focuses not only on the scandal itself, but more so on the consequences of those scandals on the other family members and the long-term trauma and emotional damage they experience long after society has moved on from the shock of such events. The bulk of Nelson’s sources were published memoirs of siblings, survivors, and family members. Indeed, there are fantastic references for further reader for readers interested in specific histories and stories.

Embedded in the historical and archival analysis are the voices of the family members who suffered innocently, either as children or as siblings, as a result of their families’ secrets. What Nelson reveals is the collective, societal, and intergenerational trauma that forced conformity and cultural norms can inflict across decades.

Keeping Family Secrets is highly accessible, not only in terms of content, but in its prose and language. It delivers a very readable piece of non-fiction. I hesitate to suggest it would be good for an undergraduate college audience, but parts of it would be enjoyable and easily accessible for use in the classroom or in a course in general.

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir
by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

Every memoir is significant, on the basis that it documents a part of the human experience — and in the end, what do have if not an experience of life? In the context of the universe, this is what makes our existence unique — but there are some memoirs, some human experiences that possess a weightiness absent in others. That is, they reveal a humanity that transcends individual experience. The Education of Augie Merasty is one of these memoirs.

The cruel history of colonial settlement isn’t newly discovered — but it was hidden, deliberately and systematically for centuries. In the past fifty years and much more recently, excavations of memories, land, and archives have revealed the depth to which this erasure was taken. Merasty’s memoir is one of these excavations. [My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling (30th Anniversary Edition) is another memoir of residential schools and colonialism in Canada I’ve read this year, if you’re interested.]

I have an especial interest in these kinds of historical documents, not only as a historian of decolonization, but as an educator; the utility of the historical documents in the classroom are invaluable to convey the real effects of racism, colonialism, the power of the state in shaping our lives. Students often see the government as some kind of abstracted, remote thing, a hovering object over their lives that merely casts a shadow every once in awhile. Memoirs of this nature reveal how wrong that assumption is; the state is neither above nor below, it is embedded in every part of our lives and beings — even our DNA and the genomes that make up ourselves and our ancestry have been shaped by states and power. The Education of Augie Merasty is proof of the depth of the state in shaping human experience.

What makes The Education of Augie Merasty poignant is not only the memories he shares with the reader, but the whole of the story of this memoir’s making. The convoluted path and necessary involvement of the writer, David Carpenter — who serves as historian here — is a testament to the damage and legacy of settler colonialism in North America. The incompleteness of the stories, the silences and gaps in time and memory, as well as Augie’s language, preserved here by Carpenter, are evidence of the zigzag pathway that history is recorded, preserved, interpreted and ultimately used. As a tool to teach historical methodology, The Education of Augie Merasty is a fantastic case study.

The chronology of the memoir too, in the way it links the past to the present, is invaluable. Too often students see history as a static, buried thing of the past. That myth is a hard one to kill. But kill it we must, because history is not only the root of the present, it is also a reflection of our present selves and world. That is a key characteristic of history: Carpenter’s presence in these pages and the unresolved ending (unlike many memoirs, this is not posthumously produced) help to deliver this lesson.

Other aspects of the memoir make it even more perfect for classroom and course use: its length is short, its language is accessible, its story is compelling and shocking. The absence of larger historical events occurring in Canada and the world are also bonuses here too, allowing the instructor to compliment the text as appropriate to the course level.

Merasty’s memoir is one I will be considering for use in my courses.

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
by Malcolm Gaskill

Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches straddles the worlds of scholarship and fiction, the latter built on the solid foundations of the former. In doing so, this book takes the best of both literary domains to produce a richly detailed landscape of Puritan culture and society in England’s Old and New World. It centers on a Puritan couple, John and Mary, accused and tried for witchcraft in Thomas Pynchon’s New England. It starts long before their relationship begins and carries the reader through to its agonizing disintegration. Along the way, readers are engaged in the lives of a full cast of village denizens; this is a wonderfully immersive read.

Not merely backdrop to the main events, but integral for the reader’s understanding of the whys, whens, and hows of the witch hunts that followed, are the economic and political developments of Pynchon’s New England in the New World and the maneuverings of Royalists and Cromwellian supporters (rebels) in the Old. Gaskill delivers all the necessary context for the reader, leaving them with an almost palpable texture of English life in the 17th century (really, one can’t call this “American” in any sense of the word, though the New World does eventually become that.)

Readers should be prepared for a long read; detail like this does not come short, but the delivery is concise and succinct, leaving off unnecessary descriptions and fictions that do not add to the narrative. The descriptions that remain convey an authenticity, evidence of Gaskill’s skill of drawing out richness from (what is often, dry,) archival text. We can not only envision John and Mary, young and hopeful at the beginning, withered and waning at the end, but the humanity of their shortcomings are recognizable so as to make them and their community as near to us as our own flesh.

History, that remote and abstract object, comes alive in The Ruin of All Witches.

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror
Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this collection: Modern horror? Literary criticism? Traditional tales of terror? It intrigued me regardless.

What Unquiet Spirits delivers is a combination of all of the above. It is memoir, criticism, history, and ethnography in balanced fusion. Each chapter is written by an Asian female author and in it she discusses both her own writing, the cultural and historical inspiration for her characters, the origins of some feminine demon, ghost, or creepy — a unquiet spirit — which haunts her and the pages she has produced. In some chapters the author draws on a deeper well of literature of the past and ponders the future of the female spirit archetype that is the focus of their chapter.

The books is divided by and devotes its pages equally to feminine spirits across the Asian continent, from East to Southeast to South Asia. I was pleasantly surprised to see such attention given to Southeast Asian spirits and archetypes (my favorite was always the pontianak, the evil spirit of a woman who lurks in the dark under the protection of a banana tree. In my recollection, she can be “pinned” to the tree with a needle or a pin and made to do the pin-holder’s bidding. But, beware to that horrid individual if the offending metal is ever removed!)

While the collection examines different demons and feminine archetypes from across a swath of very diverse cultures, it ultimately makes a singular, united appeal to the reader. Their call to action is unmistakable: Asian women, as a whole, alive or dead, demonic or angelic, monstrous or victimized, are powerful beings. Asian women have been too long overlooked in the literary world and deserve more than the whispered, submissive voice they have been too long assigned by Orientalists; hear them shout, scream, screech!

For that reason alone, Unquiet Spirits is worth reading. But there is more.

The authors reveal facets of the Asian feminine that have rarely been visible, that is to Western audiences. To Asian women, we have always known they were there, even when our patriarchal societies told us to ignore them, to castigate them, to revile these demonic women as ill-influences on ourselves and our communities, yet still, Unquiet Spirits is sure to deliver novelties and new knowledge to Asian/Asian American readers.

The World’s Greatest Sea Mysteries (Non Fiction) by Mollie and Michael Hardwick

The World’s Greatest Sea Mysteries (Non Fiction) by Mollie and Michael Hardwick

This title lit up the 8-year old in me when I saw it. I remember loving those DK trivia books and collections of mysterious events. I am still a sucker for a book on sasquatches or sea monsters. The Hardwick’s collection did not disappoint. Each chapter recounts the tale and history of a vessel lost at sea, a spate of sea monster attacks, ghostly ships, and the like. The chapters are short, succinct, and leave the reader wanting to know more — and isn’t that the purpose of a mystery?

The prose is a bit dated — the Hardwicks wrote the original back in the 1967 — but there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, that kind of syntax adds a little historicity to the collection. There is something familiar about it and nostalgic in a way. But maybe that’s just me remembering my childhood and the long, lovely hours I spent reading books like these that let my imagination fly wild.

Home Safe: A Memoir of End-Of-Life Care During Covid-19 by Mitchell Consky

Home Safe: A Memoir of End-Of-Life Care
During Covid-19
by Mitchell Consky

This memoir was a bit out of character for me; but, I’ve been reading quite a few memoirs this year and this one caused me to pause. Is it too soon to read about Covid-19? We’re not quite past it yet, are we? Given that Covid-19 remains looming in so many places and may very well make a comeback, I figured it might help my own healing to read about someone else’s pandemic experience. Admittedly, mine was mild, privileged, and uneventful in comparison to so many millions of others on this planet. What did others feel? How did others live through this? We talked amongst each other, but too often we said a lot of nothing to avoid the anxiety that a deeper, more nuanced conversation could too easily trigger.

From a historian’s perspective, memoirs like this — indeed, the millions of posts, tweets, blog posts, articles, stuff — that we produced in the past few years say something poignant about this strange and traumatic moment in our individual and collective lives. What was this moment in our history? Memoirs give us entrée into others’ internal lives, see how others experienced this.

Consky’s account of the past couple of years, encompassing the dying and death of his father and others, delivered on both points. What was living and dying in the pandemic like?

But readers should not expect a litany of statistics or a step-by-step replay of WHO’s or the American CDC’s decisions and policies. This is a memoir, a deeply personal and individualized account of a global experience. Death is always subjective, always individual, always very personal. Readers should not expect this book to discuss everyone’s experience of Covid-19. The deaths in this book are not coronavirus related deaths necessarily; this book is about the non-pandemic deaths that occurred during the past two years. Ordinary life and ordinary death did not pause for the pandemic. Pandemic deaths eclipsed the distress of other kinds of deaths, but only insofar as their appearance in the news, social media, public forums. The trauma of those passings remained, but was invisible in contrast.

That said, this book is about life too. It is about resilience and the ways in which we communicate those important things in life that need to be said and done before death makes it impossible to do so. This memoir is about memory, not only Consky’s but those of his father’s and the surviving friends and family of those who lost loved ones — during the pandemic and at other times too. Life and death during the pandemic of 2020-2022 was unique in our lifetimes, but also… not. Life and death was also familiar… too familiar? Scarily familiar. Comfortingly familiar. I cannot decide. Neither can Consky, I think.

This book is also about memorializing and the ways in which we do this, for ourselves and for the dead. One act struck me in particular: when a group of friends gathered their memories of another among them who had passed away and gave the resultant artifact to the deceased’s family. This book is about how we can commune over death, that common event, that inevitable process that erases (or should) differences and animosities among us.

The end of life care Consky refers to? I think he means us, the surviving family members and friends of the ones who have passed away. For that reason, the book transcends the pandemic. The pandemic is (was?) a great thing, a momentous thing, but life and death will go on with or without it.

Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Kings and Princes by Julia A. Hickey

Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Kings and Princes by Julia A. Hickey

This is a compendium of salacious scandals highlighting a handful of women who possessed power and agency in a world where their gender and sex were deemed inferior to men. For readers who enjoy the political maneuverings rife in European medieval history, this is a fantastic work to add to your collection.

Each chapter focuses on a specific woman, her immediate world, and a narrative charting of her political and public life as it was recorded in the historical archive. There are the usual mentions of the usual heavyweights of Medieval women’s history: Elizabeth Woodville (who became Edward IV of England’s queen), Katherine Swynford (who became the Duchess of Lancaster and the wife of John of Gaunt), Rosamund Clifford (the mistress of Henry II and the object of many romantic poems), and Saxon queens, like Emma or Ælfgifu of Northampton. But the book also brings to the forefront other, lesser known women who came to wield sexual and political power: Maud Peverel (the mistress of William the Conqueror), Herleva of Falaise (the mistress of a Duke of Normandy), Edith Forne Sigulfson, and numerous other unnamed women who bore royal children.

Many of the women in these pages were powerful in their own right as heiresses or bearers of royal blood, but invariably most were eventually cast aside or somehow lost their influence over the men who ruled this world and time. For all their power, Medieval Europe was a patriarchal world.

Medieval history is — to me at least — infinitely intriguing, but the archival evidence on women in this age and the internal lives of individuals is so sparse that monographs are often dry and lack the kind of micro- and prosopographical history I personally enjoy. There is a great deal of historical tennis volley of “Duke So-and-So met Earl Such-and-Such in battle” or “Lady Blah Blah was then wed to the second son, Henry (always a Henry somewhere), but died alone the way” and so on and so on, so on, so on, etcetera, etcetera. But to Hickey’s credit, the prose and style of this book make what might be a dry topic of political intrigue interesting.

Bravehearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West by Katie Hickman

Bravehearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West
by Katie Hickman

“Gripping,” “Exhilarating!”, “Captivating!” These are descriptors I often flutter my eyes at, chalking these up to marketing histrionics that serve solely to assuage publisher’s fears about book sales and authors’ egos. But in Hickman’s case, I was hard pressed to find more authentic adjectives for Bravehearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West.

I was expecting no less, to be honest. I’ve read Hickman’s work before (Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century (2003) and Daughters of Britannia: The Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives (1999) specifically) and enjoyed her scholarship for many reasons. Bravehearted, however, was the first time I’ve read Hickman’s scholarship since I began and finished graduate school, becoming in my own right, a historian. I can now say I appreciate Hickman even more than I did previously.

Bravehearted (like Hickman’s other works) is, from the perspective of a general reader, incredibly easy and smooth to read. The facts (that is, the history) are woven so artfully into her prose that the reader never feels like there’s a history lesson embedded in it. (There is, of course. More on that below.) Instead, the women, men, and children — indigenous, white settler, and immigrant alike — feel like full-fleshed characters in a story set in an epic, sweeping landscape. I could not help but feel the tragedy and simultaneous hopefulness of their journeys across the United States. At times, the harshness of the wind, the damp of the rain, the aridity of the desert air seemed to tragic, and simultaneously hopeful whip my hair, slick my skin, burn my nose. Hickman achieves what all historians — storytellers that we are — aspire to do: transport the past into the dimension of the present.

Each chapter of the book focused on a different region, a different woman, a different route settlers took toward the Western coast. The Pacific Northwest, the Californian region, and the Southwest were all covered in succession in Bravehearted. Embedded within these pages were not only those perspectives of white settlers, but indigenous voices too; though, the focus of this book was primarily on the European, East Coast, Midwest, and White settlers who encroached, entitled and arrogantly, into Indigenous lands. There are mentions of other people of color, Chinese immigrants and Black women, but again, these feature less prominently than white women and men. It is worth noting that there are few Mexican/indigenous women in Bravehearted; indeed, as I attempt to recall the book from memory, I find myself unable to remember one. Of course, it’s possible I am just forgetting, but that in itself is telling: There weren’t enough of them mentioned to mark a place in my memory. (The index is absent in the ARC so I could not look up where I might have read about them in it.) This is a well-researched, brilliantly written work of historical scholarship for any audience, but, it is not a work of decolonization; its intent is not specifically aimed at disrupting dominant narratives of white settler colonization or to bring to the forefront the voices of women of color.

This is — and this is not a detraction so much as it is a neutral statement — a history for those who are interested in women and the gendered component of history of the American West. The lesson is a simple one, but one which still requires learning: white women were as much part of the making of the West into the White American West as white cowboys, sharp shooting lawmen, and male miners (there were female miners too!) In other words, white women (and women of color in lesser numbers) were there too and they shaped White America in equal measure to their masculine counterparts.

The content of Bravehearted is not entirely divorced from race or ethnicity, but certainly the focus here is gender more so than race or ethnicity. Hickman’s inclusion of men and women of color and the indigenous perspective is not minor or token in any way; it is well done, but academic readers who may be expecting a stronger connection between or a deeper discussion of gender and race might struggle to locate it within this particular work. This is — and again, this is not a detraction — a work for a general audience. What Bravehearted offers the reader is breadth, indeed, a wide lens of the landscape of the American West in terms of the gendered experience of traversing it in the 19th century.

If, by now, my final verdict is unclear, let me end with it: This is a fantastic telling of American history worth any and every reader’s time.