Bad Girls from History: Wicked or Misunderstood by Dee Gordon

Guest post by Laura

This compilation of notorious female historical figures in Bad Girls from History is intriguing. Some are so infamous they are still well-known today, such as Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde, but most were new to me. The chapters are divided into “Courtesans and Mistresses,” “Madams, Prostitutes and Adulterers,” “Serial Killers,” “Gangsters, Thieves and Con-Artists,” and “The Rebel Collection.” It was fascinating to note how many of the ladies in the murderous category had life insurance policy payouts as their motive! Apparently there weren’t any fraud divisions at insurance agencies back then?

I was in awe of some of the rebellious ladies such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Grace O’Malley, and Fanny Campbell. Each of these defied conventions of the time and led the lives they wanted. I wish I could have known more about the lady pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read but perhaps there are scant historical records.

As I began reading each biography in the first chapter, I noticed similarities between them. It became clear that in the paternalistic systems prevalent in most societies for millennia, women had fewer rights and opportunities to earn a decent living than men. It was a blessing to be born beautiful and it would appear beauty was one of the few marketable and profitable characteristics one could bank on. So many women in this chapter became mistresses or courtesans to men of high society as the most advantageous route to earn a living. It also became clear that child marriages as well as lack of government oversight of children led to abuse, child-trafficking, and even murder.

Since this writer is British, I found a few phrases and references unfamiliar but overall I enjoyed the book. Gordon did an excellent job with her extensive research and the result is an interesting peek into the lives of misbehaving (Western) women throughout history.

Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha

Guest post by Laura

This book title, Flat Broke with Two Goats, is one of the catchiest I’ve seen in a while. In this memoir, MaGaha finds herself in foreclosure due to self-admitted willful ignorance of the family finances, which her accountant husband oversaw. My favorite part of the book was the author’s move to Macomb, Illinois to teach at “the University”. I had visited a college friend at Western Illinois University in Macomb decades ago, and more recently spent the day there attending a business meeting for a different job so I was a bit familiar with the place. This section of the book was a bit like a mild version of Eat Pray Love, only with cornfields, a boxcar, and sweltering Midwest heat.

At times I found the author annoying in her unwillingness to take responsibility for her actions and for not thoroughly researching the care and feeding of her animals. I also would have found the cabin less disappointing and more potentially exciting. All of those acres of natural timber and a beautiful waterfall view? Sign me up! Sure, the house was a dump and there were poisonous snakes and wolf spiders, but the couple made the house hospitable with some improvements. As for the critters, I admit I would be treading carefully and somewhat anxiously because of the snakes, but I already deal with wolf spiders in my neck of the woods.

The couple went on to raise chickens and goats and slowly transformed from people who lived beyond their means into rural farm people living a simpler life. I liked how she found making yogurt and soap fulfilling. She realized she’s gone back to some of the practices of her ancestors on these same lands, minus the constant backbreaking work and potential to go hungry with a crop failure. I give MaGaha props for bravery in being brutally honest about her life, which must have been difficult. She’s an accomplished freelancer but in looking at her website it appears this was her first published book. I think she will continue to find maturity in her novel-writing voice with subsequent books.

audio version available through Overdrive

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check In

Hello All!

How is your month of 1800s era reading going? Have you found anything particularly wonderful? Please share what you’re reading!

I, sadly, am not faring too well. I’ve tried a couple Victorian-times mysteries and could not get caught up in either one. Admittedly, I usually don’t read mysteries, so it’s not a big surprise that they didn’t work for me. I’m still searching, but I may decide to simply indulge myself a bit and re-watch some favorite Jane Austen movie adaptations. It sounds lovely (to me!).

If you’re still looking, here are a couple more suggestions for the 1800s.

A new book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Fitzharris Lindsey should be creepily fascinating. Medicine was still pretty primitive in the 1800s. It’s thanks to the efforts of John Lister that many, many more people didn’t die and that medicine advanced to much safer measures. Lister introduced anesthesia for use during surgery, pasteurization and a greater understanding of bacteria and infection. A fascinating, gory look at the history of medicine!

If you are having trouble untangling the manners and customs of Austen and Dickens and the Victorians of England, be sure to pick up a copy of What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Danial Pool. This book is great fun, easy to dip in and out of or read cover to cover. All kinds of subjects are covered including society, fashion and the home. There’s also a handy glossary at the back to explain the more obscure (to us) terms like quadrille (a card game) or camel leopard (a giraffe). This book really helped me to understand primogeniture, a law which prevented the Bennet and Dashwood sisters from inheriting from their father. It also helped explain the restrictions and limitations put on women.

And now over to you – what are you reading this month?

The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Guest post by Laura

Gardening and mixology are two hobbies in my household. I’m the gardener and my significant other is the bar-builder and cocktail-crafter. We both dislike drinks with inferior and artificial ingredients. This book seemed to be perfect for the two of us. In The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart provides historical and geeky botanical details about the plants around the world used to create drinks. She includes a multitude of cocktail, syrups, infusions, and garnish recipes as well. At home, we sometimes bring our personal copy of this book out to entertain our guests with trivia about some of the ingredients in the libations my S.O. creates and serves.

On a different botanical journey, Stewart tackles poisonous and intoxicating plants in Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. Over the years I have found lily of the valley, pokeweed, and snakeroot (see page 213 about Lincoln’s mother) in my backyard. They’re all poisonous when ingested and I wear gloves when pulling the first two. Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ illustrations are gorgeous and perfect for this subject.

From the origins of current illegal drugs to the possible botanically-related cause behind the Salem witch trial, Stewart explores the varied use of plants, including as murder weapon, judge and executioner, recreational, and religious. She provides a list of poison gardens but didn’t include the one I unexpectedly visited on the Blarney Castle grounds in Ireland. It was fascinating. Stewart also name-drops some well-known historical figures along the way in this book.

I enjoyed Wicked Plants but I have one major complaint. I understand using the terms “wicked” and “evil” are provocative and great promotional terms, but I strongly disagree with that characterization. Just as a wolf or other predator is not wicked, but rather has a natural role in its ecosystem, these plants are creations of nature and they evolved these defenses against predators. They shouldn’t be villainized because people are using these plants in ways that are wicked or illegal in our human cultural context.

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd

I stumbled upon The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd when scrolling through RiverShare OverDrive looking for my next read. I spend a lot of time commuting for both my work and my fiancé’s job. Having books easily accessible whenever I need them is one of the major reasons that I use the RiverShare OverDrive app available through the Library. (It sure beats having to haul a backpack full of books when a weekend work trip for my partner pops up at the last minute!) Anyway, I found The Innocent Wife on our last road trip and decided to give it a try.

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd tells of the burgeoning love between Samantha and Dennis. Their love isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and flowers though, as readers are quick to realize. Samantha lives in England and spends her time outside of work obsessing over the case of Dennis Danson. Dennis is a prison inmate who, over twenty years ago, was arrested and thusly imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl in Florida. Dennis’ case is full of mysteries as it comes out that multiple other girls disappeared in the same area around the same time. No one was ever arrested for those disappearances though, nor where any of the missing girls’ bodies found. Many residents of the area believe that Dennis abducted and killed the girls, but that police only had enough evidence to convict him of the murder that landed him in prison.

Dennis is now the subject of a true-crime documentary that has succeeded in grasping the attention of the  national media and social media. People online and in person have come to believe that Dennis was wrongly convicted and that they are the only ones who can uncover the truth. Samantha finds herself on these message boards and reaches out to Dennis to talk to him about his case. As the two communicate through letters, Samantha quickly finds herself wooed by his charm and kindness towards her. Uprooting her entire life, Samantha decides to travel to Florida, meet Dennis in person, and begin campaigning for his release.

As soon as Samantha steps out into the balmy Florida heat, she begins to feel uneasy. She continuously pushes her feelings to the back burner in order to put Dennis and the campaign for his release first. After all, everyone would have cold feet meeting someone in person for the first time, right? That would be awkward for anyone. Nevertheless Samantha decides to marry Dennis(NOT A SPOILER, GUYS! It’s called The Innocent Wife after all…). After they are married, major developments happen in Dennis’ case and Samantha is forced to face some uncomfortable realizations about both Dennis and herself. Her confidence in Dennis’ innocence begins to waver, but with the intense media scrutiny and their marriage, she still feels the need to stick by him. Samantha doesn’t know Dennis as well as she thought she did despite her initial unwavering support of his innocence. The more time she spends with Dennis, the more she realizes that she might not want to know the real truth about his past.

Give this book a read and let me know what you think. I had complicated feelings toward Samantha as a main character that almost made me want to read something else. There are also several other characters that both intrigued and slightly appalled me. I’m curious about your opinions.


This book is also available in the following format:

Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave  by Rose McGowan, is not a “tell-all” but instead a “tell-it-like-it-is” memoir of growing up in a cult in Italy, moving to the United States, living life as a runaway, eventually becoming a Hollywood starlet, and then leaving it all behind to pursue art and activism. At times, I felt like an eavesdropper who was listening to things she probably shouldn’t be listening to; but I definitely confirmed my suspicion: that sexual assault victims will often be shamed for coming forward with accusations, especially about powerful or influential people. I think I’ve always known that victims risk public shaming and humiliation for choosing to speak out; but if you read the comment section on any of the videos or press releases that discuss Brave, you’ll see how cruel and dismissive people are behind the veil of the internet. McGowan discusses the cruelty of humanity and makes a special point to discuss how hurt she was to read such corrosive comments about herself online. Breaking the culture of silence and speaking openly and honestly about society’s elephants in the room (addiction, abuse, and mental illness come to mind) is truly heroic.

Maybe it’s not a totally shock that the Hollywood entertainment industry is exploitative at its core, but the kind of depravity and darkness that live there is probably unfathomable for outsiders. As consumers,  we need to be especially aware that what we consume – and what often appears glamorous, seductive, or exciting oftentimes conceals a dark underbelly of  disillusionment. For example, if you’ve ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Planet Terror”, you might not be aware that some of the movie plot bears an uncanny resemblance to some of McGowan’s personal life, and that she was made to perform feats of athleticism that would be unattainable for most women in tip-top physical condition. A more disturbing insight is that the cinema that we pay for and consume employs rape in order to tell a story, which is part and parcel of how violence, largely against women, becomes normalized. Oh, it’s just a tv show, or a movie, we say: but the unspoken truth is that it reflects social and cultural attitudes about the roles of men and women, largely that some men take what they want from women through “power” and domination. One of McGowan’s most incisive and profound questions: why are we still using rape as a method of storytelling in cinema at all?

As many people know, McGowan was one of the first women to come forward among more than 90 other women and accuse Harvey Weinstein of  rape. When she recounts her experience, she describes “depersonalization”, which occurs when you feel like you’re a stranger in your own body, viewing your life as though from the sidelines as an observer.  McGowan refers to the notoriously fallen movie “mogul” as “The Monster,” and her refusal to write or say his name, all the while spelling out other contextual details of her story, was her deliberate attempt at dethroning him. It is apparent from the tone of her voice and her unease when being interviewed on this subject that having to recall that day makes her physically ill.

McGowan has of course also been accused of being an “attention seeker” which is, in my opinion, a nasty and trite way of trying to shame her. Critics of McGowan fault her on the one hand for “telling it like it is” but in the same sentence shame for taking “hush money” and not calling Weinstein out immediately.  “Why did you wait until now to speak out?” they’ll taunt her. “You took the money,” they’ll say, without regard to any nuance or respect for her unique situation, as though the harrowing and psychologically damaging act of rape could possibly be boiled down into a black and white scenario that critics of McGowan would themselves navigate perfectly. McGowan poignantly makes her point when she says: “The only perfect rape victim is a dead rape victim and that’s a fact and it’s sad.” The simple act of speaking  is apparently so risky that it can earn you a scarlet letter; but McGowan won’t be deterred. As she says, she’s been called every awful name in the book, and worse. And still, she has the nerve and the conviction to keep her head up . I also try to keep in  mind that celebrity thrusts individuals into the line of fire and under the scope of public scrutiny.

I personally found McGowan’s candid commentary refreshing because she offers a no-holds-barred approach to honesty. In my estimation, it clearly sounds that she has spent many years thinking through these issues and can articulate herself masterfully. Brave is written by a woman who has accepted the past and wants to use her platform of celebrity to  help others, especially women, to recognize their value and to speak out when a predator is approaching.

Underground Books: American War by Omar El Akkad

Underground Books is a monthly book club that meets at 6:00 pm on the second Monday of the month at Main. We’re readers of books that are not typical book club fare – the subversive, the under-the radar, and the controversial. Every month, I’ll give a preview of what we’re reading, questions the book raises and start a discussion online for those who can’t make in person. Welcome to The Underground!

Hello readers! This month’s book is the 2017 novel American War by Omar El Akkad. Set roughly 60 years in the future in an America ravaged by climate change and a second civil war, it’s a story about the destruction of a nation, a family and a person by war. A cautionary tale that raises serious issues about our current national and global state of affairs, and what the future may hold. A heavy subject, yes, but worth the journey.

Opening in 2075,  the earth has warmed, the oceans have enveloped the coasts and submerged what little is left after increasingly severe storms batter the land. In response to multiple environmental disasters across the continent, the federal government – now based in Columbus, Ohio – bans the use of fossil fuels. The southern states defy the ban, and after a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the assassination of the president, the U.S. is again plunged into civil war.  This is a war of modern times –  out-of-control drones, homicide bombers, guerilla warfare, detainment camps and biological weapons deployed against an entire state.

The novel follows the Chestnut family of flood-prone Louisiana, displaced from their home by the Battles of East Texas to an overcrowded refugee camp on the border of Tennessee. Here Sarat Chestnut comes of age among the mundane cruelties of war.  She and her family – her older brother Simon, twin sister Dana, and mother Martina – try to make a life for themselves while waiting for the end of the war.  Sarat, already considered an outsider because of her tall and awkward build, grows rebellious and is befriended by a mysterious older man who once fought overseas for the North, or, at least, the North when the country was whole. He feeds her a steady diet of Southern mythos, sending her on a path to become an instrument of revenge.  As the narrator says in the prologue, “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”

Assorted musings:

  • When I chose this book, I based it on, of course, the numerous good reviews it had received, and I was intrigued by concept. Given the current political climate, the possibility of another civil war in the U.S. has been raised more than once. What surprised me, however, was that the crux of the war was fossil fuels. I can understand the idea of Southern states objecting to the exercise of broad federal power, and a desire to protect mining and off-shore drilling, but what I noticed most was the absence of any mention of race or ethnicity. At the start of the novel, Sarat is described as having “fuzzy” hair, and that her father had immigrated from Mexico, but that’s the only mention of race in the entire novel. I suppose the argument could be made that by 2075, race is no longer an issue, but if we’re still arguing about red vs. blue and states’ rights vs. federal authority, I have a hard time suspending that disbelief.
  • The author is an award-winning journalist born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, now living in Oregon, and he reported extensively on Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and the Arab Spring. El Akkad’s journalistic expertise is apparent in this novel, as major aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are transported to America. In many cases, it’s a note-for-note transcription. I wonder if that works for everyone? While the purpose of the novel is, arguably, to create empathy for the very real wars happening now and to also serve as a cautionary tale, could the novel have taken more liberties? I don’t mean that it should have been a Hunger Games-esque battle royale, but something more adapted to the setting.

Quotes I would have underlined if it wasn’t a library book:

“How long ago was this?” she asked.
“Must have been around ’21 or ’22,” said Gaines.  “Around the time they sent us over there for the third time, right around the Fifth Spring.”
Joe leaned close to Sarat; he looked at the photograph again. “That’s right,” he said. “I remember, I remember when it was still your guns and our blood.” (p. 139)

She remembered something Albert Gaines once told her all those years ago in Patience. He said when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for, you can agree or disagree, but you can’t ever call it a lie. Right or wrong, he said, a man from our country always says exactly what he means , and stands by what he says.
Even that, it turned out, was a lie. (p. 278)

You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories. (p. 280)

What do you think? Let me know in the comments! And join us on April 9th at 6:00 at Main to discuss in real life! Next month, we’ll be reading Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – copies available at Main, or pick one up wherever convenient!

Online Reading Challenge – April

Hurrah! It’s April which means flowers and birdsong and springtime! And, it means it’s time for the next installment of the Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re traveling to the 1800s!

“Whoa!” I can hear you say. “1800s?! Isn’t that kind of a broad time period?! Like, everything happened in the 1800s!” OK, not everything happened in the 1800s, but I admit, a lot did happen. Which just means you have even more great books (and movies) to choose from. To make it a little easier, I’ve divided some suggestions by event/era.

Regency. This is the time period of Jane Austen, which enough said. If you haven’t read Jane Austen, here’s your chance. My favorite is Persuasion, but I love the others of the “big four” (Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility) We could (well, I could) spend an entire reading year discussing these books and debating the merits of the many movies that have been made from them (by far, my favorite movie is Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson although I also dearly love the BBC’s production of Emma.)

If Jane Austen isn’t your thing (which I can’t even fathom), I highly recommend the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian. Set in the world of tall ships, when the British Navy ruled supreme, this is a series (20 volumes!) full of adventure, intrigue, heartbreak and humor. Highly recommended.

Civil War. There are a lot of books set during the Civil War and for good reason. It’s a time that defined the American character in many ways and it was a sharp divide between the past and the future. Look for authors Jeff and Michael Shaara and Shelby Foote. Or go classic with Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell or Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.  Another excellent option is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

Victorian. Ah, so many books. Lots and lots of mysteries in this category including Sherlock Holmes. I really liked the mysteries by Deanna Raybourn and Tasha Alexander – strong women characters and charming settings. Light and fun.

Some random recommendations include Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier about the discovery of fossils by ordinary women, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

You’ll notice that there aren’t any titles about the “Wild West” – we’ll be reading about Westward Expansion in a few months, so I’m keeping those titles for that time period.

I’m going to read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry about a young widow who moves from London to the country and finds herself drawn into a mystery. Sounds intriguing!

That’s just the tip of the iceberg – be sure to stop by one of our Davenport locations for displays with lots more titles to consider. And don’t forget to tell us what you pick!

Online Reading Challenge – March Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How was your month? What fabulous book or movie did you discover in March? Or was it an “off” month for you? Tell us about your experience!

This month I read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and it was a winner! I really enjoyed this book – thoughtful, complex, sometimes terrifying and ultimately hopeful. Brilliant.

Station Eleven takes place in the near future after a flu epidemic has wiped out 99% of the population and civilization as we know it has collapsed. No electricity, no running water, no food production, no (gasp!) Internet. Survivors are scattered and isolated, suspicious and wary of anyone they may come across.

In the midst of this landscape of the struggle to survive, the Traveling Symphony moves from one tiny settlement to another, along a circular route through what was once Michigan, bringing a reminder of life before the epidemic by performing Shakespeare and classical music to small but appreciative groups.

However, not everyone is welcoming. A radical group forms, headed by the mysterious Prophet, who proclaims that the Flu was divine intervention. Anyone unfortunate enough to run across him and disagree is ruthlessly hunted down. The Traveling Symphony at first manages to escape, but the Prophet isn’t far behind.

The book moves back and forth through time, showing life before the Flu and life after. There are connections between several characters, from “before” to “after”, which are fascinating to watch unfold and the origin of the title of the book is unexpected, devastating and fitting.

There are a lot of themes and emotions in Station Eleven. Fear, sometimes overwhelming, is often present. Grief, for the world that no longer exists and the loved ones that didn’t survive, is never far away. The grim, constant battle for survival is wearing. And yet, as the years after the Flu pass, people are drawn together, to create families and communities, to share resources and stories. The Traveling Symphony’s motto (taken from an episode of Star Trek) is “survival is not enough”. Humans need stories and history and art and connection. Even in the worst of times, humans will strive for something more.

Yes, this book depicts a dystopian world that is devastated and life is hard, but it also argues that humanity manages to rise above. (It helps that humans only destroyed themselves; Earth and nature have not been laid to waste). Yes, at times it is scary difficult to read – a devastating flu epidemic is not beyond imagination. But ultimately the feeling I came away with after reading this book was of hope and possibility. Highly recommended.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read this month?

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One … love this title … and come on … that title pretty much says it all. A bit of misandry wherein I prefer feminism (equality of the sexes) but this is a quick powerful read for that witch in all of us both male and female. Seems to be written at the height of the 2016 election and the women’s marches thereafter. Here’s an excerpt from page 127:

forget

being ladylike

(whatever

the hell that means)

& allow

yourself to

show

the world

just how

unapologetically

angry

this

inequity

makes you.

let it all

go.

-throw flames like a girl.

Thought provoking, anger provoking, female power provoking read. Very short and quick. Check it out to give yourself a bit of a punch of always needed fire.