Tag: Hallie Rubenhold

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Non-Fiction

When I first started planning a round up of my favourite books from a decade of blogging, I’d intended to make a Top 10 list. However, it quickly became clear that 10 was not going to be enough! So instead we’re having a week of lists, broken down by genre or category. Because I had a hard enough time choosing just five, never mind trying to rank them, the titles are listed in alphabetical order.

Between the World and Me

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

ISBN 9780812993547

Between the World and Me uses the conceit of a letter to the author’s fifteen-year-old son to explore what it means to be Black in America. The scale is at once national and yet deeply personal; Ta-Nehisi Coates encompasses America in geography and history, but also speaks directly to his own child and his individual circumstances. Touching on everything from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration, Coates challenges orthodoxies and rejects easy answers in his pursuit of understanding. He writes with a unique combination of lyrical prose and pitiless clarity. By asking hard questions and rendering no easy answers Coates has penned an entreaty that has stayed with me for the past seven years.

Categories: African-American

Born a Crime

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

by Trevor Noah

ISBN 9780385689229

When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. His funny but poignant memoir is excellent in either print or audio.

Categories: Memoir

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

by Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History, True Crime

Quiet

Cover image for Quiet by Susan Cain

by Susan Cain

ISBN 9780307352149

Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. I read Quiet all the way back in 2012, and never wrote a full-length review, though it appeared in my list of Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012. It has stayed with me a for so long because it provided me with a way to talk about my experiences that I had previously lacked.

Categories: Psychology

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David Quammen

by David Quammen

ISBN 9780393239225

Zoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Sometimes, that spillover is a dead end; the circumstances are so unique that they may never occur again. Or the virus can be transmitted to humans, but not between people: game over. But the thing that keeps virologists up at night is the pathogen spillovers that are not only virulent—highly deadly to humans—but also highly transmissible between humans once the species boundary has been breached. With the possibility of the Next Big One always looming, David Quammen takes the reader through famous outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses, with sections on Hendra, Ebola, malaria, SARS, Lyme, Nipah and HIV. I read a number of books about pandemics in the spring and summer of 2020 in an effort to better understand the experience we were all going through. If you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of  the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. 

Categories: Science

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2019

This year proved to be a great year for reading non-fiction, with many wonderful books to choose from. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

The Best We Could Do

Cover image for The Best We Could Do by Thi BuiThi Bui’s haunting, beautifully illustrated graphic memoir opens on the birth of the author’s first child in an American hospital. Her arrival at the milestone of parenthood prompts her to reflect on her family history, and the difficult choices her parents had to make as refugees who came to America from South Vietnam in the 1970s after an unlikely courtship. The reality of creating her own family prompts new reflections on the one she was born into, and sympathy for choices she had previously struggled to understand. The result is a poignant reckoning with both her family history and her heritage, and the fraught relationship between the two countries at the root of her identity. The Best We Could Do captures the dreams that parents hold for their children, contrasted with the harsher realities those children are often born into, and yet pervaded by hope for the next generation. The result is a moving work that seeks to bridge the gap of silence between those generations.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel 

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji YoshinoKenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs. Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. His command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

Categories: Social Justice, LGBTQ+

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie RubenholdIn 1888, in one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that brought them to a common end. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling uncomfortable with true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History

Range

Cover image for Range by David EpsteinMost people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength. It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, Range is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving.

Categories: Science

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellIn the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Sonia Purnell’s fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read.

Categories: History

Honourable mentions go to Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, and Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells. I really was spoiled for choice this year, and it was terribly hard to narrow it down!

What were your top non-fiction reads of 2019?

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenholdby Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

“Much like the occupants of Whitechapel’s common lodging houses, the victims of Jack the Ripper and the lives they led became entangled in a web of assumptions, rumor, and unfounded speculation.”

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end.

Rubenhold opens The Five on Trafalgar Square in 1887, a year before the events that would claim the lives of her five subjects. Hundreds of homeless Londoners descended on the Square each night, bedding down on the paving stones, in a Victorian precursor that modern audiences might recognize in the more recent Occupy movement. Among them was Polly Nichols, who was no stranger to sleeping on the streets when she did not have enough money to buy a bed for the night. She had no fixed address. In opening on this scene, Rubenhold emphasizes that poverty and homelessness were rife in Victorian London, and that many factors contributed to the situation.

Most of the victims were born into working class families, with trades such as printing, tin making, and soldiering. Elisabeth Stride was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in London to work as a servant. Of the five, only Mary Jane Kelly’s early life remains a mystery, lost to a series of fabrications and name changes. Four of the women were, or had been married, and three of them had children. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are commonly remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. Though it is impossible to definitively rule out occasional engagement in survival sex, she finds clear evidence of sex work in the histories of only two of the women. In the case of Elisabeth Stride, she may have left Sweden in part to escape a reputation that lingered even after she had left the trade behind. Ultimately, of course, it does not matter whether Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane were, or ever had been sex workers. They were poor, vulnerable women struggling to survive on the streets of London’s East End. They were victims of a brutal murderer who felt entitled to take their lives, knowing that society would not value their loss.

If not prostitution, there are other common threads along the path that led each of the women to one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The breakdown of a marriage was a common catalyst; unable to legally divorce, they simply left. And since the work available to women did not pay a living wage, leaving meant falling into a makeshift existence, trying day by day to scrape together four pence for a bed in one of the East End’s filthy lodging houses. The other option was to commit oneself to the workhouse, exchanging a day’s labour for a night’s lodging and a meagre meal. However, the workhouse was fraught with shame, and many would choose to sleep rough rather than submit. Alcoholism was also a shared problem, though the relationship between cause and effect is murky. Which of the women landed on the streets because they drank too much, and which drank too much to dull the difficulties of poverty and homelessness?

The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is very clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. No attempt is made to build suspense up to the moment of their deaths, or to speculate about what they endured in their final moments. The deaths are not lingered over, and the mutilation of their bodies is minimally described, noted only in the difficulties they lent to identifying the victims, and the impact seeing this desecration had on the family members who were called upon to performance this office. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

I would have liked to learn more about how Rubhenhold sifted through the conflicting and biased evidence that survives in order to piece together the lives of these five women. However, I think that such a method would ultimately have detracted from Rubenhold’s focus on centering the lives of the women, rather than their deaths, and the legend that grew up around their murderer. To ruminate too much on methodology would be to slip back into the amateur sleuthing that defines so much of the modern obsession with Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold notes in the text when the coroner’s records of an inquest do not survive, forcing her to rely on newspaper accounts of dubious and conflicting accuracy. She also states that she privileged the evidence and testimony of the people who knew the women in life. Otherwise, she steadfastly keeps her attention on the women, and the social context in which they lived.

You might also like How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman