My Thoughts on “The Dark Archive” by Megan Rosenbloom

A few months ago I picked up The Dark Archive by Megan Rosenbloom. I’m a big fan of morbid medical histories, and when I saw its lovely cover I knew I had to borrow it from my local library. Like any good nonfiction book, it taught me things and got me thinking.

This book is a deep dive into the curious study of books bound in human skin or “anthropodermic bibliopegy.” It’s a fascinating book that goes into the methodology of distinguishing real human skin books from other animal leather books, the history of how these books came about, and the eccentric characters who made and collected them.

 What really resonates with me as a librarian and history nerd are the discussions around the ethics of preserving or destroying such controversial material. I fall into the camp of thinking all history is worth preserving. Destroying what we find distasteful is the same as trying to destroy the past. We can’t reckon with things that we no longer have evidence for. This is especially important to me a black woman living in these United States.

Human skin books bring up uncomfortable questions for the medical profession. Most collectors were physicians in the 19th century who also provided the material leather from the corpses they managed to (ahem) acquire. In most of these cases, they were deceased patients or cadavers dug up by the local resurrectionist through unsavory means. These bodies are often unnamed, forever unknown. Their DNA was processed and scraped out of what remained of them. But still they remain, these nameless people immortalized against their will, their skin viewed as simple material to increase the value of their own collection. Their value remains in the illicit nature of these acquisitions, not the life they lived or who they were.

I like books that make me think. Medical history and its adjacent studies tend to do it for me. They make me question how things are.

If you want a good history lesson on this morbid medical topic, I say you should definitely give this one a read.

Monday Musings: Daylight Savings and The Great Confusing

Daylight Savings was this Sunday. I feel like I’m in some bizarro world where time has lost all meaning.

The changing of clocks somehow snuck up on me. I knew it would happen. Had it marked on my calendar even, but I’m still confused by everything. I woke up from my alarm yesterday, bleary-eyed, and wondering why the clocks were all wrong. I’m used to seeing the sun at six and found myself wondering why it was still dark at 7 this morning.

It doesn’t necessarily help that this is a ‘long week’ for me. Seven days of work, Saturday to this Friday. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I’ll survive. I don’t even feel it yet but that may be because I woke up with coffee this morning and I’m always more hopeful on Mondays. Tuesday will be my real test.

 

Recently, I’ve been wanting to get back into history again. This is a noted change from the romance book binging I’ve indulged in for the last few weeks. The Noble Blood podcast has given me good doses of royal history and I began a book about the world of early Hollywood around the time Howard Hughes came on the scene in the late 1920s (also by another podcaster, Karina Longworth of You Must Remember This fame). I’ve queued up several books from my library to also feed this need. I find that learning about the past offers comfort in our present.

 

In other not-so-concrete news, I’ve been giving some thought about my blog here and the content I’d like to share with you all. I’m a planner (sometimes to a fault) but my blogging schedule has more of a frenzied pantser energy. I like to build a consistent habit out of it, but that requires talking about things.

Blogging forces me to be more thoughtful about what’s going on in my day to day. I don’t like looking back on the week and thinking that if I’m not writing then nothing was done. It’s good to celebrate the little things and the changes in season.

ACT UP and LGBTA+ Activism

“ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS”

Let’s talk about ACT UP for a minute. 

ACT UP protesters in front of City Hall in New York in 1992.

As I briefly mentioned in my Like A Love Story review, ACT UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power,  was a major fixture in gay rights activism and HIV awareness in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

After years of government inaction under the Reagan administration in response to HIV, thousands of Americans had succumbed to the disease. This was majorly due to the wide perception that the disease only affected gay men and the rampant anti-gay sentiments across the nation often tied to religion. It’s well documented that the Reagan administration knew for years that the disease was a crisis and chose to do nothing. It’s also widely known that major treatments pushed by the pharmaceutical industry were inaccessible to most due to the price and proven more harmful than alternatives available in other parts of the world. 

ACT UP was started in March 1987 to bring attention to the AIDs epidemic and demanded action on the part of the government that was letting members of the LGBTQIA+ community die. Started by Larry Kramer (1935 – 2020) in the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in Manhattan, the group would go on to engage in nonviolent protests around the country. It was truly a rainbow coalition of various affinity groups that worked towards bringing awareness and action in a time where many of their friends and loved ones were dying.

They put a spotlight on the AIDs crisis and made it known the injustices they’ve endured under a system that didn’t care about them. They made them care by reminding them of their responsibility to protect all citizenry no matter their creed, gender, or sexual orientation. 

Here is just a short list of what they did:

  • Held a demonstration on Wall Street to demand more access to experimental drugs and halt “business as usual” in the face of the epidemic.
  • Protested at the doorstep of the FDA to expand drug access and to speed up the drug approval process
  • Urged the CDC to change their definition of AIDs to include women and needle users
  • Held a die-in in St Patrick’s Cathedral after Archbishop John O’Connor opposed the use of condoms and abortions. This was well after it was proven that safe sex practices helped stop the spread of the disease.
  • Spread the ashes on the White House lawn to for the H. W. Bush administration’s continued inaction had a real body count

The important lessons to take from ACT UP and all civil protests is that they denounced the system loudly. Protests force those in power to listen and to act. It was a slow painful struggle but due to their efforts and countless others, HIV research, education, and medication are more widely available and they continue to work towards more equitable access to these resources. 

ACT UP is still active today. Since the beginning, they’ve advocated that health care should be a human right and still take up that stance today. They have 70 chapters worldwide.

Sources:

ACT Up (Britannica Article)

ACT UP Historical Archive

And since I love documentaries:

United in Anger: The History of ACT UP (Youtube) (1 hr 33 mins)

The Hunger

Though I love reading history, I’ve only occasionally dipped my toe in the realm of historical fiction. I’ve got nothing against the genre. I’m just quicker to pick up a nonfiction book delving into the topic than a fictionalized one.

But The Hunger by Alma Katsu, proved to be quite the treat.

I find the story of the Donner Party fascinating. The Donner Party is the true frontier horror story of a family caravan, hope set on starting anew in California, finding themselves trapped in the wilderness and the terrible winter of 1846-1847. As their supplies dwindle, people start dying of hunger and quickly turn against each other for survival. In the end, they’re forced to cannibalize members of their own party.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The human eating is a bit overblown in the collective imagination of this history compared to the true horror of being in a situation that you can’t escape. The animal in us lashes out when found in that corner. If you want to learn more, one book I highly recommend is The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis. It’s a near 500 book tome but the history is woven into a rich narrative that’s worth all the paper.

 It’s interesting exploring how Manifest Destiny gets corrupted by greed and how the hope turns in on itself. 

The Hunger by Alma Katsu explores these things and more. She takes a few liberties with the historical account but her choices breathes life into these characters.  Each character is escaping from something. Whether that be a certain situation or a dark secret. They pin their hopes on California to do away with their sins but they quickly realize there’s no escaping them.

There’s also a thrilling supernatural bent to the narrative. I won’t spoil too much but let’s just say there be monsters. I think the most compelling thing I found was how people are so quick to turn on each other and how strife ends being the main reason why most of the cast dies off. 

This was a brilliant horror story, dripping in dread. 

My Rating:

4 stars

[Goodreads Summary]

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?” 

Revision, History, and Other Things I’m Trying Not to Think About Right Now

It’s been a pretty productive week for me. Consequently, it’s also been a terrible one for my characters. I managed to push through the spot I was stuck on last week. I’m in the middle of putting the pieces together for the main crux of Grim History’s first arc. They’ve gathered in one place, now I have to keep pushing them along.

The story is rough at the moment. Despite being on my mind since 2017, Grim History is still a first draft. Everything is new, uncharted territory. Often imagined, never dedicated to words. It has a ton of issues. I’m painfully aware of it but I’m resisting the temptation to look back and start editing. The last time I started to do edits before finishing the story, I decided the whole thing needed to be reworked. I started at square one again. I’ve got a nasty habit of throwing the whole thing away when I get hung up on one issue.

I’m getting into the habit of writing down perceived issues in a separate document and then moving on. Maybe a note or two on improvements but not too much else. And trust me, there’s no shortage of them. In the document, they’re broken down into the following categories: Setting, Characters, Plot, and Structure. Pretty self-explanatory, right? I plan on going into more detail about each in other blog posts but “Setting” has been especially on my mind this week.

Though Grim History isn’t strictly a historical fiction, I still want to ground it in a specific time and place in American history. Admittedly, I’m not a puritan for historical accuracy. Historical accuracy is hard to judge in fiction (or media in general) especially as our understanding of the past keeps evolving. And also, that concept violently lunged itself out the window since this particular story is teeming with spirits, vampires, and other supernatural creatures that influence the events on this make-believe historical setting. But I do want enough information that a reader can believe its in a specific time and place. The time is more or less set—the early 1840s–but I’m starting to flip flop on where it takes place.

First draft wise, this isn’t important. The details will come in through revision and tons of research. Two things that I won’t commit to until after the first draft.

So that’s where I am at the moment. I’m currently 15 parts into the story and still going strong. I predict the climax is a good three parts down the line though. My goal is to get Arc 1 finished by mid-July.

We’ll see how that goes.

To All The Books I’ve Read Before (February Book Roundup)

Hello Friends!

I have to confess something. I didn’t think I got too much reading done last month. Finding the time to read was a bit of a struggle. Or, at least, it felt that way. In between fighting the flu and balancing reading and writing on my head while working, divvying up my time and energy for it was…something. But after reflecting on the month, I managed to get through some pretty interesting and varied titles!

So without much ado!

The Poison Squad
Deborah Blum

Poison SquadYes, I just finished it this month. I am a dutiful library patron and I had to give it up for a few weeks. It was really popular in my neck of the woods and one of the downsides of the library system is that you have to give it up if you don’t read it fast enough. Such is life!

The Poison Squad is a lesson in how we have to continually fight for the social change we want to see in our government and the world at large. The book circles back to the argument that we have to keep fighting for the institutions and protections set in place for us. The book was essentially about struggle. Struggle to get the national spotlight on how food gets adulterated and tampered with to make it on the cheap. The struggle to get laws passed to hold companies accountable. Struggle to enforce, struggle to maintain, struggle to update with the times.

I was reminded that history is a long game. Nothing happens overnight. Our modern regulation of food is a century-long struggle that is still happening each and every day.

Diary of a Tokyo Teen
Christine Mari Inzer

tokyo teenAn okay graphic novel about the author’s trip to Japan and how she connected back with her roots. The art style was fun and it was filled with a lot of good info about Japanese culture. It was only okay for me because I didn’t feel like I learned anything new from it. I studied Japanese a fair bit and even visited a place or two in the book myself during a college so I didn’t come across anything I didn’t know. The most effective parts were how she discussed her reconnection with her culture and lessons about growing up. How the world can be a big, exciting and sometimes confusing place and how that’s okay!  If you want a fun primer on Japanese culture, I highly recommend this!

Looking for Lorraine
Imani Perry

A1+3MQC3caLThis is perhaps my favorite book I read in February. I first heard about this book on the Call Your Girlfriend podcast and decided to pick it up after seeing it on the shelves of my local bookstore. This is a lovely memoir about the short life of Lorraine Hansberry–writer, playwright, queer and civil rights activist. She’s most known for her play, A Raisin in the Sun, but this book showed she was so much more than that. I most enjoyed how this was written taking elements of traditional biography and prose. Imani Perry also offers up some self-reflection and her sense of connection of Hansberry on her own life. The writing was very affecting, pulling from Hansberry’s own writings and painting a clear portrait of her life, her passions and her struggles. If you are at all curious about Lorraine Hansberry and the moment she occupied in history, I highly recommend this book.

Clara Voyant
Rachelle Delaney

clara voyantThis is one of two middle school reads that I picked up this month. Clara Voyant is a fun mystery about aspiring journalist Clara Costa who, as a newbie on her middle school newspaper, gets stuck with the horoscope section instead of the hard-hitting news she craves. She believes that horoscopes and other mystical things are a whole bunch of “woo” which she gets enough from her mother and her equally eccentric new friends in Kensington Market. But things get strange when her horoscopes come true and the school’s mascot goes missing. This was honestly a fun little book with interesting characters. It was a real pleasure to see the (sometimes funny) interactions between Clara and her mother. Who can’t relate to a parent you are sometimes embarrassed to be around. Also seeing how middle school politics play out in what’s considered noteworthy gave me a genuine shot of nostalgia as I think back to my (cringy) middle school days.

 

A Properly Unhaunted Place
William Alexander

a properly unhaunted placeRosa Diaz and her mother are library appeasement specialist move to the town of Ingot, a properly unhaunted place. But things are not what they seem. After being invited to the local history festival by Jasper Chevalier, they both figure that all is not what it seems. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s full of fun and scary spooks, some good pacing, and some really fun characters that I loved following. There are also some really important lessons on honoring the past and coming to terms with the more unsavory history of person or place. There were some really good quotes that were beautiful in sentiment.

Burial Rites [Review]

burial rites

Burial Rites is a haunting historical fiction exploring the last months of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person beheaded by the state in 1830. Convicted because of her involvement in murder and arson, she’s sentenced to spend the rest of her days with a family who is horrified at the prospect of sheltering a murderess under their roof. At first, only Toti, a local priest that Agnes chose to prepare her for the afterlife, would have anything to do with her but as those around warm up to her, they come to realize that not all is as it appears to be.

I’m really glad I picked up this book. It’s haunting, foreboding, and as you’re reading you can feel the weight of everything that’s happening. The setting of a dark and harsh rural Icelandic landscape was so visually expressed, I could feel the sting of the cold.

One of the themes of this book explores the nature of gossip and how it does much to influence how other’s perceive characters. How someone can be ostracized by what is simply said about them. The setting is similar to a big small town. Everyone knows everybody and one public transgression of societal norms can brand someone for life.

One of the things I loved about this book is how narratives can be twisted. Even as Agnes was giving her account, she commented how her words were taken from her. Used, abused, and turned around to reflect a reality that is ascribed to her.

I remained quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me.

Due to this, she finds herself cold. She doesn’t try to protest the ways people perceive her finding some solace in the quiet and manual labor.

This theme is what kept me hooked into the book. I loved how the story does the work of bringing to life this historical character. It most sharply does this by giving her a first person voice in contrast to the third person narrative. The reader is privy to the mental throes she goes through as she thinks on her past, her present, and the future that ebbs shorter with each passing day.

But I still didn’t love the book.

When I give a book a four-star rating, I try to really question what, if anything, prevents me from loving it. Oftentimes, this is hard to articulate. In this book’s case, it was the ending.

The ending is a foregone conclusion. Agnes Magnusdottir is executed. This historical record tells us this and since historical fiction draws heavily from that, it has to stick to it. This isn’t what I had a problem with. The central question of the narrative is the “how” and “why” to the murders in Illusgastidir. It hangs over most of the cast and does a lot to influence what the audience takes away from Agnes’ character. But I felt neither of these things had an impact on the course of events. It doesn’t necessarily have to but it says something that these details were thrown in as a plot dump near the very end.

This one little issue didn’t detract to the whole experience, however. More of the point of the story was to give a voice to a woman didn’t get much of one during her actual time. In this, the story is really successful and I recommend it highly on this alone.

My Rating:

 

4 half stars

What I’m Reading In Nonfiction [#1]

As always, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction these last few weeks. Somehow I managed to pick up two books that have Chicago as a major setting.

1893-chicago-fair-white-city-dayThe first, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, talks about Chicago as the site of the 1893 World’s Fair. The work it took to build the fairgrounds while the dark machinations of H. H. Holmes also played out in a hotel of his own construction. As the whole of the United States were struck dumb with awe at the White City. Holmes was murdering people, particularly young women, in his murder palace designed in a way to best secret away the bodies of his victims. Since I recently completed the fifth season of American Horror Story, I couldn’t help but draw between Holmes and James Patrick March of the Hotel Cortez which I’m sure was the intention.

tenor

 

Now I’m reading Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard which centers on the oft-overlooked US president, James Garfield. He was spontaneously nominated at the 1880 Republican National Convention which was held in Chicago that year. This happened despite him giving a speech in support of fellow Ohioan and then-Secretary of the Treasury, John Sherman and publicly decrying his name being put up for nomination as the convention went on.

 

Untitled design
Garfield (left), Sherman (right)

 

Unfortunately, Garfield’s is perhaps most famous for being assassinated. He was a Gilded Age president and in my high school history classes, we were taught a good chunk of president’s during this time were unremarkable. There was so much corruption fueled in part by the spoils system beneath the surface of their administration that their tenures seemed moot in comparison.

But I’m not quite sure how fair this assessment was. I question most of the things I learned in high school history classes and this book has already more keenly interested me in Garfield’s life. Here are a few of the things I learned about the 20th President of the United States:

1) He was raised in poor circumstances. He lost his father at a fairly young age leaving his mother, Eliza, to care for him and his other siblings. Encouraged by her and propelled by his own work ethic, he made the most out of his status by improving himself through education.

2) He lusted after a life on the seas. He set off to be a sailor when he was young acting on this desire.

3) He was a Union hero, during the Civil War and a fierce abolitionist. His strategy at the Battle of Middle Creek not only landed him a Union victory despite his small army but helped keep the state of Kentucky from falling into Confederate hands.

That’s all I have this week! Did any nonfiction book catch any of your interest this week? What were they about? I would love to know!

 

Yesterday [Review]

17264080The Skinny: Amanda is trying to get her life back on track after experiencing a recent tragedy. While making her way to her job, she runs into a Mark Callahan, a mounted policeman of the Chicago force. After their dramatic meeting, they feel drawn to each other. Almost as if they’ve known each other in a former life. Their discovery of what ties them together takes them from the battlefields of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

You know those novels where the premise just sounds so perfect. Where it seems to have the perfect blend of action, psychology, history with the right smatterings of a romance to make for a compelling narrative? Ever had all these hopes dashed?

Okay, that might be a bit harsh. While reading this book, I just couldn’t help but feel so disillusioned with everything: the characters, the structure, the romance (oh the romance!). But let me take a step back.

Of course, there were narrative elements I really did like about the story. The opening chapters are full of action and quirky character details were instantly engaging. Every step back in time was beautifully written with rich historical detail. I looked forward to the sections where we were seeing the Civil War through a child’s eyes and the devastation wrought by the Chicago Fire of 1871. Samyann’s clear love of Chicago, past and present, really comes through. These were the parts where I thought the book truly shined.

Let me just preface the next section by stating that I know that this book wasn’t written for me. For a mystery, horror, and nonfiction enthusiast, romance ends up being a really hit or miss genre. I more enjoy romance as a piece of greater narrative, not the point of the narrative. Whether two people get together can’t be the only stake. Despite the many elements in Yesterday, it is essentially a romance story with that one stake. More frustratingly, however, is that it’s a romance novel where I didn’t even care if the leads got together.

I really disliked the characters, particularly the leads. Amanda has suffered many tragic losses throughout her life and finds that these tragic incidents define her life. She refuses to get close to any other person. When she feels that she might lose someone, she completely breaks down. This is not too bad by itself but how it was executed grated on my nerves. She has obvious coping issues but the narrative posits love instead of therapy as her ultimate cure.

The psychological therapy where she regresses into her past life was supposed to reveal a trend of trauma and to figure out how she knows Mark, the other main lead. The story continually posits Mark as the fix to her trauma. That being together will ultimately fix Amanda’s mindset and I wasn’t here for it. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way and it was really difficult for me to root for them as a couple because of it. There’s no growth that naturally springs from the narrative. The solution is that they should be together and the narrative more hinges on that question than any personal development.

I also had a problem with how the story was structured. Most of the plot happens while the characters are sitting down talking and drinking their favorite beverage (be it wine, beer, coffee, what have you). Important plot points are referenced in the past tense. Scenes outside of these that I would’ve much rather seen like Mark’s discussion with the antique store owner are skipped over so the characters can talk about it in Amanda’s apartment. This structure becomes quite trying. Even in past scenes, I would’ve more liked to see how Bonnie’s (Amanda’s past life) family lived through the Civil War before ultimately making the decision to go North. Or how I would’ve loved to see Bonnie and Daniel first meeting in the past rather than just dropping into that story at a much later date–skipping right past their first meeting to their courting.

Unfortunately, this is why I could hardly enjoy the book. I really, really wanted to love it but I couldn’t.

 

My Rating:

1 star

This Month in Nonfiction [January 2018]

new world comingNew World Coming: The 1920s and The Making of Modern America by Nathan Miller

This is a really comprehensive history of the 1920s with due notes to the decade’s antecedents and the culture that followed it. I felt that a good deal of the book focused on the politics of the time (more so than any other history I’ve read thus far) where other other cultural aspects were bundled together under one chapter. I think I learned a lot from this book–again, particularly the political background and business side of the 20s–which was really eye-opening. I didn’t know much about Harding, Coolidge or Hoover. Learning what Hoover did before, after and during his political career was the most eye-opening. I may pick up a special biography about him if any of you have some good suggestions!

Overall, this was a dense book! Like really dense! It took me a while to get through it but I’m happy I did.

A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln & the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico by Amy Greenberg

This is a very engaging book about a war and time period (the 1840s) that I knew little to nothing about. The US-Mexican War is often overlooked in history classes. From my own experience in my high school history class, I remember my teacher briefly mentioning it, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and “BOOM,” we got California. Rarely did we touch upon the nitty gritty and its no wonder.

A Wicked WarThe narrative discusses how the US-Mexican war was not a noble one. Whilst poring over the details, on a surface level it reminded me of Vietnam. At least in its public perception from noble war to avenge American blood spilled to a growing antipathy towards it the longer it went on. (Of course, this war does not equal Vietnam–different conflict with different motivations.

Amy Greenberg centers her account of the war on a couple of central figures (Henry Clay, James and Sarah Polk, James Hardin, and Abraham Lincoln) showing how they and countless other actors influenced the course of the war and its conclusion. It also discusses how the war shaped them–again, that nice narrative quality.

I personally picked up the book to learn more about the 1840s as a decade and the US-Mexican war played a huge role in shaping it (as well as the following decades). I learned a lot and encourage others who are curious to pick it up.