Tag Archives: history

The Wives of Henry VIIIth, by Antonia Fraser

The Wives of Henry VIII

What It’s About

The lives and deaths of the women who were, in some cases very briefly, queens of England under Henry the Eighth.

Why I Think You’d Like It

The aim of this book was to take these women out of Henry’s shadow and examine them on their own terms. This goal is met. Before this, I could barely name the six wives, even though they have only three names between them (spelling variations aside, there’s one Jane, two Annes and three Katherines). Now I feel almost as though I have met them; shook their hands, attended their weddings, been there to cry at their tragic ends.

It also does so much more. From reading this book, you learn about the state of women of their time, about medicine and childbirth and the compex politics of noble marriages. You get the full story of the social and political revolutions that lead to the formation of the Church of England. You gain insights into the future reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, by understanding the turmoil they grew up in. Everything about this book will enrich your understanding of that moment in history where we transitioned from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, by better understanding the human beings who were right there at the turning of the wheels.

I especially appreciate the attention to source material. My biggest turn off, when it comes to history of marginalized peoples, is the desire to fill in the gaps with speculations flavored by modern ideas, especially when those create a more digestible interpretation of events. While many things stay the same throughout the twists and turns of history, so much is dependent on culture. If we don’t at least attempt to understand historical figures on their own terms, we will inevitably do them a disservice. Antonia Fraser keeps the focus, as much as possible, on the historical records, and on representing these women as they represented themselves. Where the records make room for multiple interpretations, she explains those as well. The result is a richer, more complex, more honest book.

If you’re interested in either feminism, history or politics, you’ll find this book detailed, well-researched and absolutely fascinating.

Content Warnings

I think in this case the content warnings are true trigger* warnings. The book’s tone is fairly clean and academic, but even so these women lived through some truly horrible events. Katherine of Aragon was gaslit during the divorce proceedings. Anne Boleyn was falsely accused of witchcraft and beheaded. Jane Seymour died from complications after childbirth. Anna of Cleves was bullied, manipulated and stranded in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language. Katherine Howard was groomed to be sexually appealing from a far too young age, and then that very behavior got her beheaded. Katherine Parr got off fairly well, but after Henry died she did marry an asshole who groomed Princess Elizabeth for sexual abuse, so there’s that. All the language is fairly academic and well below most people’s threshold for offense, but if you’re in a place where that might trigger a relapse, maybe put this on an “after I’ve done some healing” list.

*In case you haven’t read my rant, trigger warnings are not for people who are easily offended, they are for people with medical conditions, especially PTSD.

Advertisements

China Dolls, by Lisa See

China Dolls

What It’s About

Three best friends try to make it big in show business, despite anti-Asian prejudice in World War II.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Personally, I’m a sucker for old school Hollywood glamour. I know that world was full of lies, exploitation, and hierarchies of privilege, but goddamn, it was a great aesthetic. And, of course, the best works use that image while acknowledging the seedy underbelly. All About Eve, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard… that’s my jam right there.

This book captures that aesthetic, and combines it with detailed, research into an underrepresented and overlooked part of that world. The author is a mixed racial woman who was strongly influenced, both in life and her writing, by her Chinese grandparents. She based her portrayal of 1940s Chinatown heavily on her family’s recollections, and the result is a fantastic, fresh setting for a classic story.

I loved the dynamic between the three protagonists; all good hearted, all wounded in their own ways, all with flaws that balanced out when they worked together but escalated all too quickly when conflict was introduced. The thing you want from this story is to see them all work it out and get back together. Of course I won’t tell you if that happens or not, but the writing is completely successful in making you ache to see that.

Can somebody make a movie of this? I would watch the shit out of it.

Content Warnings

Frankly, all the things. You’ve got your racism, your sexual content, your alcoholism and depression, your physical abuse, your homophobia… it’s an offensive content buffet.

But man, if you’re going to read an offensive book, this is a great one to read. Obviously not if you want to avoid any of those things for mental health reasons. If you’re in need of actual trigger warnings for any of that, I recommend putting this on a “when I’m in a better place” shelf.

If, on the other hand, you are someone who is passionate about those topics, and wants to see them explored well in a book that is also very entertaining in its own right, this is the book for you. Full disclosure; characters are faithful to the perspectives and prejudices of their time, and don’t apologize for using un-PC language or embracing Hollywood stereotypes to get ahead. That doesn’t mean those issues aren’t addressed, but that they unfold naturally over the course of the plot. There were a lot of times I was worried about where she was going with a particular issue, but I pressed on, and I’m so glad I did.

You Can Fly, by Carole Boston Weatherford

You Can Fly

What It’s About

A history of the Tuskeegee Airmen, in free verse.

Why I Think You’d Like It

 

It is a beautiful celebration of the struggle and victory of African American pilots in WWII, illustrated with woodcuts made by the author’s son. There is a fictionalized POV character but the events and social realities are meticulously researched. Despite the pain and unfairness, this is ultimately a story of triumph and pride. It’s a celebration of the hard work, and the people of color who battled white supremacy, both at home and abroad.

Content Warnings

References to Jim Crow, racist bullying and lynchings, but nothing graphic

Black Self-Determination, by V. P. Franklin

Black Self Determination

What It’s About

An early history of resistance and achievement by African-Americans, from the antebellum era to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.

Why I Think You’d Like It

If you’ve read many conventional history books, the agency of Black Americans erased or downplayed. Many kids grow up thinking of them as largely helpless and ignorant up until the days of Martin Luther King. This book is one of the most thorough challenges to that notion. It uncovers a wealth of original sources that were long ignored by white historians, and tells the history of Black emancipation from their own cultural perspective.

Rather than being a simple linear history, it takes on history subject by subject. It starts with the work of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, and puts them in the context of a contentious period of self-discovery. He shows how their perspectives didn’t align with the experiences of many freed slaves, which is context that I never got when I learned about these men.

It goes on to talk about the cultural history of Black religion, education, music. It outlines core values of the early Black community, such as freedom, education and self-determination. It especially argues how they were developed as tools to survive slavery and how they evolved to empower and strengthen their communities as slavery ended only to bring new challenges.

It is incredibly thorough, both in its scope and in its cited sources, and I sorely needed to read it. For anyone looking to unwhitewash their understanding of history, I can’t recommend it enough.

Content Warnings

Quotes periodically from writings of Black people on lynchings, beatings and other acts of violence that they witnessed or experienced. Some descriptions are fairly graphic.

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene An Intimate History

What It’s About

A history of the discovery of the gene, the decoding of DNA, and all the difficult social and ethical questions that come with the science of genetics.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In general, I love the style of teaching science through it’s history. It’s a reminder that science is not a result, but a quest, and scientists not as austere demigods of knowledge, but fumbling discoverers who make no shortage of mistakes along the way.

In this book, it is an especially appropriate approach. Every scientific story has included the potential for abuse, but the science of genetics has been misused in some of the most horrific ways yet. Even the nuclear bomb can’t compete with the deaths and tortures we have justified with some misappropriated genetic jargon. By telling the history of genetic studies side by side with the cultural implications, Siddhartha Mukherjee brings home the importance of thinking hard about how we use and abuse genetics today.

He also tears apart the cultural abuses of science brilliantly. He starts with the justifications themselves; what people said in order to make segregation, forced sterilization and genocide sound not just socially acceptable, but enlightened. He puts you in the place of an ignorant citizen, easily impressed by anybody who sounds like they can tell a mitochondria from a protein. This is paired with reminders of the culture at the time, and the way certain lines of reasoning sound appealing as they justify pre-existing beliefs. Then, just as you’re beginning to worry about whose side he’s really on, he attacks. He lays out the lies, the misconceptions, the assumptions and outright biases. He exposes the reality of the lives affected by the various racist and toxic policies, and the actual moral questions we are left with. As he moves forward through history, you see the gaps close between antiquated notions and ideas we can find in any modern grocery store magazine stand. You see the common lineage of modern ableism, sexism and racism share with the eugenics movements of the past. He points out the flaws in saying, “well, they didn’t know better back then” by showing the questions that scientists could have asked, even with their resources at the time, but didn’t, and the dissenting voices that were ignored until it was too late.

But don’t think this is a downer book. It’s also full of the miracles and wonders of real science and true discover. The prose is fantastic as well. Siddhartha Mukherjee has a good sense of narrative rhythm, and hits a beautiful balance between thought provoking and fun to read. This history is fascinating and cool, but it’s not an abstract curiosity for any of us. He does a fantastic job reminding us of this.

This is an awesome book for anyone into science, history, politics, social justice, human rights, culture, or just learning for the sake of being a more informed person. It is fascinating and cool, but genetics not an abstract curiosity for any of us. It is inextricably linked to who we are, and how we view it will determine how we operate as a society.

Content Warnings

Nothing in a MPAA sense, but as you probably gathered, a good deal of the book covers arguments for oppression, and the real world consequences. Unless any of that would trigger actual PTSD symptoms, I’d encourage you to give this book a read. He is blunt, but not graphic, and the payoff is exponentially worthwhile.

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

Flygirl

What It’s About

Ida Mae Jones, a light skinned Black woman, passes as white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in WWII.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because it’s everything historical fiction should be. The research is excellent, and Sherri L. Smith includes a cool postscript on what real world events inspired various scenes in the novel. The story is moving and emotionally real, but it isn’t just about angst and difficult choices. It’s about female friendships, fulfilling dreams, being part of a cause you believe in, and the sheer joy of flying.

I loved both Ida Mae and all the supporting characters. She bonds with a couple of other quirky misfit girls and they support each other through flight school. She also has a close relationship with her father and brothers, as well as an interesting, tense relationship with her mother, who is afraid Ida Mae will abandon them for a life of passing for white full-time. The complexity of their relationship is raw and relatable. I love how you are made to see both of their points of view. In fact, while there are a few characters who are just straightforward villains, most of the time you can see both sides of a conflict, and feel for everyone involved.

It’s also one of those stories that absolutely needed to be told from within the group. I’ve seen a lot of passing-for-privileged narratives, for all kinds of identities, written from someone of the privileged group, and they’re usually crap. I’d honestly gotten pretty sick of them, but Sherri L. Smith shows how poignant and thought provoking these stories can be when an insider chooses to tell them.

It took me to another time and place, put me through an adventure, and left me thinking about the issues and problems it raised. What more could you ask for?

Content Warnings

Racism towards some of the main characters, or witnessed by them. Otherwise it is fairly tame; the work the WASP do is dangerous, but they aren’t involved in anything gory or graphic.

Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocturne

What It’s About

This book is equal parts biography and cultural history, focusing on three artists; modern dancer Pearl Primus, novelist Ann Petry, and musician/singer/composer Mary Lou Williams. As it describes their fusion of artistry and activism, it also takes the history of Harlem past it’s 1920s heyday and shows how the cultural and artistic boom evolved into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are many gaps in our history when it comes to African Americans. You would be forgiven, after reading your average American textbook, for thinking the entire Black community was just cryogenically frozen between the 20s and the 60s. And that’s if you had one of the good ones that mentioned the Harlem Renaissance at all. This book is a fantastic way to begin filling in the gaps. Griffin’s focus may be the 40s, but she also gives context from the 30s and indicates how the changes wrought in WWII set the African American community up to weather the 50s and triumph in the 60s.

Griffin has a fantastic writing style. I never got bogged down in too much detail, nor did I get ever get lost. She’s as engaging as any storyteller; I didn’t just find these women’s lives interesting, but I also cared about them. They came alive on her pages, and I found myself hungry for still more information on them when I was done.

As I read this book, I kept returning to the ideas of the ups and downs of life, and legacy as the ripples we create. There’s also a beautiful mixture of realism and hope here. As the war ended and McCarthyism took hold, many of these women had their work eclipsed, and are still sadly obscure today. Yet the work they did was still important to what would come later. They spoke out, they lived life their way, and they shaped their communities in powerfully positive ways.

The whole book was engaging, thought provoking, and I finished it in about three days because I couldn’t put it down. I can’t recommend it enough, and I will definitely be reading and recommending more of her work. We all need books like this in our lives.

Content Warnings

Some references to lynchings and other anti-black violence, as context for their work. Otherwise you’re fine.

A Banquet For Hungry Ghosts, by Ying Chang Compestine

A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

  • Genre
    • Horror, Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • In Chinese folklore, one of the classic ghost story forms is of a hungry ghost; a person who, having died hungry, must be fed by the living, or it will feed on them. This is a collection of short, spooky stories based on that tradition, each centered around a dish in an eight-course feast. 
  • Characters
    • Some stories have tragic protagonists, who were victimized in life and return for revenge. Some are despicable, brought to a messy end by their own flaws. Some are clever enough to narrowly avoid a rough fate. Some are sweet and well-meaning, but horribly unlucky. All of them make for excellent stories.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The fun of a campfire urban legend, but without all the cliche. I can enjoy a well-told creepy story even if I know where it’s going, but with a few exceptions, in this book I generally didn’t. She used all the classic tropes but kept taking me by surprise.
    • One reason the stories were so unique is that she drew on her memories of the Chinese Revolution and the various ensuing abuses of power. It adds an extra shiver when you remember that, hidden among the ghoulishness and drama, there is some element that real people suffered under. And I think that’s part of good horror, even the campy sort. There should be a real human feeling underneath, not just gore for gore’s sake. I thought this book got that balance perfectly right.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • After each story, in which she makes you agonizingly hungry for a dish and then creeps you out so fast you get whiplash, she gives you the recipe for the featured food. And you realize that as horrified as you were, you still want to try that goddamn murder dish. It’s pretty sadistic… and I need to buy this for myself to get those recipes.
    • Before returning this to the library, I did get to make tea eggs, long-life noodles and eight treasure rice. They were all great, and the recipes were easy to follow (although I did have to look up how to steam sweet rice for the eight treasure rice recipe).
    • She also includes notes on recent Chinese history, which was fascinating and got me curious to learn more. I know a lot more about ancient Chinese history than the more recent struggles, and I think that’s a massive problem in our education, especially considering what a huge player China is internationally.
    • Beautiful, ghostly, atmospheric illustrations.
  • Content Warnings
    • Multiple gory deaths, and if animal cruelty is too much for you, you might want to skip the tofu chapter.
  • Quotes
    • “When she looked up, the small figure of a girl stood in front of the henhouse, dressed in silk the color of moonlight. Her eyes pierced the storm with flames of hatred. As she bent down to pick up an empty bowl, her long wet hair, dark as ink, draped across her face.”

Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac

Code Talker

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Ned Begay, veteran of WWII, tells his grandchildren stories from his days as a Navajo code talker with the Marines. 
  • Character Empathy
    • Ned tends to view people through the lens of culture first, and then sketch them out as individuals, but this doesn’t result in stereotyping or simplifying. Instead, Ned has an eye for the complexities of culture; how it influences people for good and ill, how it can share knowledge but also limit perspective. Through his eyes, you see his love for his own Navajo culture, his affinity for other marginalized groups, and his ability to see the difference between an oppressive culture and the individuals who make it up. He’s able to do the latter without minimizing the crimes or neglecting the victims.
    • At the beginning of the story I thought of Ned as a mere neutral storyteller, but by the end I was intensely attached to him. He sees the worst of humanity and reports on it accurately, but he is also determined to look for the best in humankind. He’s one of those characters that my brain won’t let me treat as a fictional character. He’s real, dammit! He’s real!
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s understated, in a good way. On the surface, it’s the voice of an old man, pragmatic rather than poetic, recounting the facts as best he’s able to for the sake of his family’s history. Beneath, it’s full of love, sympathy and insight. It never beats you over the head with its points, nor does it bandy about with false complexity. It is simply authentic.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The research is incredible, both the military history and the portrayal of the Navajos. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, was especially determined to get the latter especially right, and sought out as many Navajo code talkers to interview as he could find. I’ve looked at a few different reviews, both from Navajo perspectives and non-native history geeks. Everybody says it is dead on accurate; I’ve yet to find someone mention a single error. This book will probably teach you more than most non-fiction books. 
    • The bantering friendships between him and his fellow Marines. So many warm happy feels! Also, although he mentions that people die, he doesn’t usually torture you with in depth gory deaths of individuals you love, so that’s a nice change. It doesn’t feel cheap; more like Ned just didn’t want to spend time dwelling on the sad parts. These were his friends, and he doesn’t want to remember them dead. He just wants to pass on the happy memories.
  • Content Warnings
    • Obviously there’s violence, though he tends to skim over it. As I said, it seems to be that, as a narrator, Ned doesn’t want to dwell on the bad. The most intense description actually isn’t of the war at all, but his time in boarding school, when his mouth was scrubbed with soap for speaking Navajo. 
    • Racism against the protagonist and other Navajos, running the gamut from intentionally harmful programs like the boarding schools to unintentional microaggressions like the ubiquitous nickname “Chief.”
  • Quotes
    • “Never think that war is a good thing, grandchildren. Though it may be necessary at times to defend our people, war is a sickness that must be cured. War is a time out of balance. When it is truly over, we must work to restore peace and sacred harmony once again.”
    • “Strong words outlast the paper they are written upon. ”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  • Genre
    • Memoir, Autobiography
  • Summary
    • Frederick Douglass describes his resistance and ultimate escape from slavery in Maryland. 
  • Information
    • In a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, an influential abolitionist of the time, he talks about claims, commonly touted by slavery advocates, of well-treated slaves and bans on excessive punishment. Frederick Douglass, even as a slave, grew up with relative luck. Everyone agreed that Maryland was far less brutal than the deep south, and furthermore he typically got to work as a skilled laborer, rather than grueling field work. Even so, he saw enough violence and brutalities to shock anyone. On top of that, he lays out for his readers the dynamics of psychological abuse, and the ways that even the supposed “kindness” of nicer owners were ultimately just tools to dehumanize. Today, we still hear the same arguments, used to justify white supremacy as “white heritage” and other such nonsense. This book destroyed white supremacist bullshit back then, and it still does today.
    • Plus, the man’s life was fascinating. The way he not only survived but constantly improved himself, in the face of a world where his basic humanity was attacked daily, is incredible. He learned to read despite the fact that it would get him beaten or even killed, just because he wanted to, which pretty much makes him the patron saint of badass bookworms.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I think most people would, without knowing better, assume this book is historically significant, but old, dull, stuffy, and ultimately not worth reading unless you’re an actual historian or taking a class. If you’ve thought that, let me tell you, you are completely wrong. Frederick Douglass was the furthest thing from stuffy. His prose hits this perfect balance of crisp and straightforward but expressive and moving, and despite how time and language have marched on he is still remarkably readable. It’s a short book, but there is so much in it, you will probably find yourself reading more than you intended to every time you pick it up. In other words, this book isn’t just going to enlighten you about an essential part of our history that we’re still embarrassingly bad at talking about; you will actually like reading it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The part where he recalls how he taught himself how to read. I don’t want to spoil it but basically he figured out how to trick snotty white boys into teaching him the alphabet and it’s hilarious. 
    • When he goes on rants, it is a fucking joy to read. He comes up with the most devastatingly constructed and beautifully cutting ways to say “fuck you.”
  • Content Warnings
    • I mean, it’s the life of a slave. If you think he’s not going to describe beatings and gaslighting and people being murdered while they beg for their lives, well, you’re probably exactly the kind of person who needs to read this book. 
  • Quotes
    • “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
    • “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”