Welcome to July’s Women to Read: Where to Start. One of my reading goals in recent years has been to read more non-fiction, so it seemed only appropriate to put together a Women to Read column focusing on just that very thing. Here we go!
Tracy Beach is a Colorado author, and my recommended starting place for her work is My Life as a Whore: The Biography of Madam Laura Evens 1871-1953. I picked this book up on a whim while visiting Colorado. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of colorful local history? This book certainly doesn’t disappoint. Beach writes in a very engaging style, often using dialog provided by Laura herself from a series of interviews conducted by another local historian, Fred Mazzulla, before Laura died. She also builds the story from her own interviews conducted with those who knew Laura, and a wealth of primary sources including letters, diaries, and photographs kept by Evens’ family. Laura Evens was very firm about calling herself a whore, dismissing euphemisms such as “soiled dove” or “lady of the evening”. Beach honors that with the title of her book, and invites readers to meet Laura, a headstrong, funny, caring woman with an occasionally violent temper, who was not opposed to a bit of mischief and chaos. Beach chronicles Laura’s journey from her choice to leave her husband and become a whore, to her purchasing her own parlor house and becoming a Madam. Had Laura been alive in the age of internet memes, I suspect she would have made liberal use of “Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it, and see that it is barren”, and variations thereupon. The book paints a fascinating portrait of the lives whores lived in Salida at the time, from the auditions to earn them a place in the houses, to their lodgings, and the way they spent their spare time. Laura was careful with her money, and was able to afford a certain degree of luxury for herself. She was also generous, buying the local school football team brand new uniforms. Her savings allowed her to purchase her own house, and become her own boss. She spent her life refusing to back down, and refusing to apologize to anyone. She wasn’t above throwing a punch if she felt a man was disrespecting her, and she wasn’t above causing property damage in the name of fun. One particularly charming (or possibly horrifying depending on your perspective) incident recounts how she brought her horse, Charlie, into a bar at the Ice Palace set up for a winter fair, and the ensuing chaos he caused when he spooked and kicked over a four foot tall ice display. It’s a fun book, and an enlightening one. It shows the humor and joy Laura found in aspects of her life, but doesn’t shy away from the hardships either. Overall, it’s a fascinating look at a slice of history, and a worthy starting place for Beach’s work.
A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau is another book I picked up on a whim, and it’s my recommended starting point for Carolyn Morrow Long, who specializes in books dealing with religion, spirituality, and the history of New Orleans. In contrast with Tracy Beach’s writing, Long’s accounting of the life of Marie Laveau is often very dry. Rather than a narrative style, her writing reveals her research process, presenting legends and rumors about the famed Voudou Queen, and laying out the meticulously-researched evidence to support or refute those stories. Reading through the book is almost like watching a detective at work, as Long digs through old birth records, baptism certificates, marriage announcements, property records, newspaper articles, and more. Like Beach, Long refers to interviews with those connected to Marie Laveau, and does her best to reconstruct a life largely lost to myth and sensationalism. The ultimate conclusion of Long’s research is that some details may forever be unknown. One of the most fascinating things about the book is that it reveals how easily truth can be lost under layers of imperfect memory and incomplete record keeping. The amount Long is able to reconstruct is amazing when you see her sources and methods laid out. During Laveau’s time in New Orleans, everyone seemed to be known by at least ten different names, and the spelling of those names was highly inconsistent. Long’s dry style actually helps in reclaiming Laveau from the sensational legends that have grown up around her since her death, and even within her own lifetime. Long reminds us that there was a real woman behind the stories, one with a family and deep ties to her community. Long also gives readers a glimpse into the unique history of New Orleans, its racial politics, and its blend and clash of cultures. The thoroughness of Long’s research and the precise way she lays it out makes this an excellent starting place for her work, and has me wanting to read her other titles.2424
Sticking with the theme of books picked up on a whim that illuminate some aspect of local history, my recommended starting point for Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work is Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. Today, Dr. Thomas Mütter is best known for the Philadelphia museum that bears his name, a museum of medical oddities containing anatomical casts, skeletons, medical instruments, and jars full of specimens. Rather than typical medical specimens, the collection focuses on unusual cases, and includes a plaster cast of the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, the tallest skeleton on view in North America, and “the soap lady”, the exhumed remains of a woman encased in adipocere, a fatty substance formed in rare cases under certain burial conditions. Like Beach, Aptowicz writes in a very engaging and easy to read narrative style. Far more than a collector of unique medical specimens, Aptowicz reveals Mütter as a deeply compassionate and highly innovative man. He pioneered delicate facial reconstruction surgery in North America, using techniques learned in Europe, and giving new hope to those who injuries and birth defects were considered un-treatable by most surgeons at the time. He was also a fierce advocate for many things we take for granted today – anesthesia, basic hygiene in the operating room, including the revolutionary idea that doctors should wash their hands in-between treating patients, after-care and recovery rooms, and working closely with patients at every stage of their surgery, before, during, and after so that they understood the process. The book is as much the story of early medicine in North America, and particularly Philadelphia. It is occasionally horrifying, but always fascinating, showing how the pioneers of modern medicine shaped hospitals, surgical facilities, and even medical schools. Due to the subject matter, it’s not a book for the squeamish, but it is an excellent and informative read, and a wonderful starting place for Aptowicz’s work.
Natalie Luhrs is a writer, reviewer, editor, and finalist for this year’s Hugo Award in the Best Fan Writer category. She is co-founder and co-editor of The Bias, and her reviews and essays are thoughtful, informative, and well-researched. My recommended starting place for Luhrs’ work is her essay, Failures of Empathy, which perfectly captures the type of issues she writes about, and her style. The essay opens with an incident on twitter, where a writer brought up an issue with their copy editor, and another writer called them out for being unprofessional and threatened them with a “blacklist” that would damage their career. Luhrs uses this as a starting point to talk about larger issues of privilege, marginalized voices – who is publicly chastised or threatened for their actions and who is not – and the idea of empathy as a whole. She relates the situation to topics discusses in Daniel Goleman’s Focus, which outlines three types of empathy, along with how empathy relates to wealth. Within the SFF community (as a microcosm of society as a whole) there are imbalances of power. Luhrs outlines how imbalances of power can create the same gap in empathy that Goleman describes. It’s an excellent essay, taking a relevant, current situation and placing it in a larger context. This is something Luhrs frequently does in her essays, which is why I recommend it as a starting point. I also highly recommend her reviews, her essays at The Bias, Uncanny, and elsewhere, and her excellent weekly links curation posts. What I’m saying is – follow Luhrs and read her work wherever you find it.
That wraps up my non-fiction edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. I’ll be back with more fiction recommendations next month, but in the meantime, I’d love to see your recommendations for non-fiction books and essays by women in the comments.