The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

This is another one I enjoyed as an audiobook that would have worked just as well in print or ebook — the material is fascinating no matter how you consume it. For a history buff like me who is particularly intrigued by women’s lives that are often marginalized or ignored altogether in recorded history, this was a book I knew I had to read as soon as I heard about it.

The titular five are the five “canonical victims” — that is, the five women generally considered to be victims — of the murderer known as Jack the Ripper. Five women of low social status, indigent and in most cases homeless, killed (presumably) by a single murderer over a period of a few months in London in 1888. This historic serial killer has, of course, fascinated people for more than a century, spawning a whole spin-off industry of “Ripperology” and people trying to do what the police at the time could not do: identify the murderer.

Throughout it all, the unknown killer has become romanticized, while comparatively little attention has been paid to his victims. They are often dismissed with the sweeping statement that Jack the Ripper “killed prostitutes.” In fact, only one of the woman was known and identified by all around her as a sex worker; some of the others may have occasionally engaged in casual prostitution along with begging in order to survive, while others almost certainly never did, but none of them except Mary Jane Kelly, the last “canonical” victim, would have identified themselves or been known to those around them as sex workers.

What these women had in common, based on what we know of their lives which Rubenhold so brilliantly pieces together in this book, is that they were all desperately poor at the time of their murders — although most of them had good starts in solidly working-class families and, in some cases, had the chance to climb a little higher in society, aspiring to a more middle-class vision of security. A combination of misfortune, alcoholism, and laws that made life almost impossible for women after a marital breakup, all worked together to drive these women into abject poverty, moving from workhouses, to “sleeping rough,” to unsafe accommodations. In these conditions, they were easy prey for a brutal serial killer, but Rubenhold, unlike almost everyone else who writes about the Ripper murders, does not dwell on the gruesome details of murder and dismemberment. In fact, she barely touches on the murders at all, choosing instead to focus on the women’s lives from the earliest known information about them, up to the nights of their deaths. This is, as the title suggests, very clearly the story of these five women, not of the man who murdered them nor the things he did to their bodies after death.

There have been, after all, more than enough books written about the murders. What nobody has done before is pay the kind of careful and sustained attention that Rubenhold has done to these women themselves — not simply as “the Ripper’s victims” but as flesh-and-blood women with real lives, hopes, and aspirations. Along the way, we learn a lot of social history about the daily lives of poor women in Victorian England; when information is not available about a particular period in one of these women’s lives, Rubenhold attempts to fill in the story by telling us about the sort of thing that might have happened to a woman in the same position in that era. The entire book is a vivid reminder that while women are generally at a disadvantage compared to men, and the poor always at a disadvantage compared to the rich and middle-class, the very worst thing you can be in most societies is a poor woman. And perhaps the only thing worse than that is to live on forever in a kind of ghoulish historical afterlife where you are rarely even called by your name or thought of as a person, but remembered only for your connection to the man who ended your life. Rubenhold gives these five women the dignity of their own history, and it’s a fascinating read. One of my favourites of the year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

I’m reviewing a string of audiobooks all together here, and this is another one I found thoroughly enjoyable, although unlike a comedian’s memoir read by the comedian himself, this one would work equally well on paper or e-book. It has that traditional Susan Orlean touch of picking a subject and taking a very, very deep dive into it, coming up with a treasure trove of wonderful, quirky historical details you didn’t know you needed to know.

The ostensible subject is the 1986 fire at the main branch of the Los Angeles public library, but the broader subject is libraries in general — their history and place in American society. Several strands of story — the history of the Los Angeles library, the fire and subsequent investigation into suspected arson, the life story of the main suspect, the role libraries play in society and how they are changing to meet changing times — weave in and out of each other in alternating chapters: all fascinating, and all informative. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Leave a comment

Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general

Son of a Critch, by Mark Critch

I knew this book was going to be funny — it’s a memoir by our most beloved local comedian, for cryin’ out loud — but I did not expect it to be this funny. And I know I’ve said this before, especially about books by performers, but trust me with this one: you have to listen to the audiobook. You have to hear Mark Critch read this, especially when he does the voices of his mother and his (also locally-famous, at least to people of my generation) radio newsman father, Mike Critch. In fact, he does voices for absolutely everyone in the book, so that it feels like a full-cast recording, except the whole cast is Mark Critch.

Critch is a few years younger than I am, and while there are things about our upbringing that were very different (Catholic school, for example) and things that are pretty much unique to him and absolutely no-one else (e.g. growing up in a house next to the VOCM building, so far out on Kenmount Road that he had literally no neighbours or playmates), there are also so many things about childhood in the 1970s that were completely relatable — except transformed into utter hilarity not only by Critch’s writing but by his delivery of every story. Please, please listen to this audiobook. You won’t regret it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Audiobook, Canadian author, Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Akin, by Emma Donohue

This is a book that tells a small but beautiful story of unlikely travellers thrown together. Noah is an elderly retired professor from New York who is about to make a long-delayed journey back to the French city of his childhood, which his family left during the Second World War. But at the last minute a wrench is thrown into his plans by the appearance of a great-nephew he has never met. Michael is a street-smart eleven-year-old whose life has been thrown into chaos by his grandmother’s death; his unknown great-uncle is the nearest relative he has while his mother is in prison, and Noah very reluctantly agrees to take temporary custody of the boy until something more permanent can be arranged.

This complicates Noah’s trip, but he ends up bringing Michael along. Also along for the ride: many unanswered questions. Noah has a collection of mysterious photographs taken, not by his own grandfather who was a world-famous photographer, but by Noah’s mother, who remained behind in occupied France for some time with her father after she had sent Noah to safety with her husband in the US. Noah has never learned much about his mother’s life during the war, and now wonders why she stayed behind, what she was doing in France, and what the photographs represent. He is trying to piece together and unpick all of this — and his own complicated feelings about it — while trying to forge some kind of a relationship with a frightened and often resentful young boy. It’s as complicated as you would expect and, in the hands of a master storyteller like Donoghue, very engaging to read. I liked this book a lot.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I know the motto of every avid reader when a book is made into a movie or TV series is “The book was better!” and I know that many fans of Good Omens felt that the recent TV adaptation didn’t live up to the book that they so adored. However, I came to it the other way around and while I did enjoy reading the book, there’s no way I’d be able to get the brilliant performances of David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Azariphale, out of my head. To me, the TV series will always be the “real” Good Omens because it got into my brain first.

It is a really interesting novel, though, for anyone raised (as I was) in a Christian church that strongly emphasizes the Second Coming and the end of the world. In this novel, the end of the world is coming, and the demon and angel main characters, who have become quite good friends (if not, perhaps, more than friends? depends how you read it) over their centuries of duty on earth, discover that they don’t actually want the world to end. They don’t want either side of the great conflict to win, because it will mean the end of a life they have come to know and love — human life on earth, with all its flaws and joys.

There’s a lot more going on in Good Omens, but that’s the heart of it for me — the suggestion (exactly what you’d expect from two atheist humanist authors like Pratchett and Gaiman) that humanity at its best is better than any heaven we can devise (and also, of course, the corollary that humanity at its worst is quite hellish enough without need for any actual demons). For those of us who do believe in God and the devil, it raises questions worth asking: Is what we’re offering in terms of an afterlife actually more attractive than this life at its best? Do we sometimes imagine Heaven acting in — well, Hellish ways? What, at bottom, does religion have to offer than humanism doesn’t?

I think I know at least some answers, and I’m sure Gaiman and Pratchett (were Terry Pratchett still around to debate the issue) would disagree, but I love them for raising the questions in such a marvellous, creative, funny and insightful way. And, of course, I love the makers of the TV series for their incredible, perfect casting decisions.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- fantasy

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Normal People starts with two teenagers in an unusual relationship. Connell’s single mother is a house cleaner: Marianne’s family is one of the families she cleans for. There’s a social gap and a power imbalance between the two, for sure, but it doesn’t play out exactly as one might expect. At school in their small Irish town, Connell is popular: good-looking, athletic, well-liked. Bookish Marianne is something of an outcast: a freakish loner nobody likes. Although they quickly become friends — and more — Connell is not willing to risk the social ostracism of being known at school as Marianne’s friend, much less her boyfriend.

When they get to university, the tectonic plates of their social lives shift: here in Dublin, suddenly Marianne is the popular one with loads of friends, while Connell is the outsider, his working-class status leaving him often feeling he can’t keep up with his college acquaintances.

Over the years that span the end of high school through university, Marianne and Connell orbit around each other: sometimes they are close friends; sometimes friends-with-benefits; at one point they are openly dating each other; for another stretch they don’t speak at all. The novel is, in other words, about all the heart-rending ups and downs of being in your late teens and early 20s, navigating the transition to adulthood in the company of a person you (maybe) love, certainly are obsessed with, but can’t quite figure out how to live with (or without).

Rooney is as brilliantly insightful a writer as all the people who recommended this book told me she was: the point of view shifts between Marianne and Connell as each minutely examines what they are feeling at each new stage, and there are brilliant understated insights into the differences that money and class introduce into a relationship. There’s darker stuff here too: spectre of Marianne’s terrible family life and the reasons she hates to go home lurk in the background behind everything that happens between and around herself and Connell.

I found this novel hard to put down once I got into reading it, and felt a little breathless at the end, unsure where exactly we’d gotten to, or what we might imagine as the future for Marianne and Connell. I think this openness at the end is quite intentional on the author’s part: she’s not going to spell out for us what happens next, but we know, at least, that they have come through this particular turbulent stage of life, on to whatever lies beyond.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, by Janet Fitch

This sequel to The Revolution of Marina M. follows our heroine Marina, who was a middle-class teenager during the Russian revolution, through the years of the Russian civil war. The first book left Marina separated from the man she loved passionately who cheated on her, pregnant with his child, alone and friendless in a country that has in a few short years turned itself inside-out and upside-down. Marina has been a good Communist in her time, but the lines of allegiance are shifting so quickly that she’s no longer sure who can be trusted in this new landscape.

There’s plenty of landscape in this book, as Marina ends up travelling across Russia with her ex-husband (not the father of her child, although he’s going to make an appearance too, don’t worry) on a train that’s basically a travelling Communist propaganda show. Eventually she ends up back in her home city of St. Petersburg — sorry, Petrograd — a city transformed beyond recognition from the one she grew up in. Here she suffers shattering personal loss, tremendous risk, artistic growth, and more than one betrayal. Marina, as a fictional poet, interacts with several real-life characters from Russian literature, including Maxim Gorky and Anna Akhmatova. Through it all, she is driven by a ruthless determination to survive.

I’m no expert on Russian history; to this non-expert it felt like, as in the first book, Fitch was capturing the tenor and uncertainty of those turbulent times perfectly, showing us a Russian revolution and civil war that was so much more complex than the simplified pocket version we learned in school — an ever-shifting world of changing alliances, power-hungry rulers, and people like Marina just trying to survive.

And all this before Stalin ever arrives on the scene!

There are many more things that could happen to Marina, and that will happen to Russia, but we’ve already learned from the prologue to the first book that an older Marina will be making her life far from her beloved Russia, and the ending of Chimes gives us an idea of how that will happen, without promising another volume. If this is the end of Marina’s story, I think the author has done a good job of bringing reader and character through those difficult years.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical