Anna Spydell

We’re all familiar with the method of discrediting women by making allegations against their mental health whenever they dare to stand up to a man in power. As Radium Girls author Kate Moore ably demonstrates in her new book, The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear, this particularly pernicious tool of the patriarchy has been in use for a very long time.

Elizabeth Packard was a housewife, mother and champion for the disadvantaged and underserved. In the middle of the 19th century, she was involuntarily committed to an Illinois asylum by her husband, a controlling, Confederate-sympathizing Presbyterian minister with whom she had begun publicly disagreeing. At that time, female madness was defined in part as any unladylike behavior, such as arguing one’s case or expressing unhappiness at one’s situation. Anyone who committed these transgressions could be “sent to the madhouse” on nothing more than her husband’s say-so. Packard discovered two terrible truths from her own experience of this tactic: Married women had no rights or legal recourse, and neither did the inmates of asylums.

Once within the walls of the asylum, women were subject to filthy conditions and horrifying physical abuse and torture. As Packard noted, it was as though these asylums were designed to encourage insanity, not heal it. Faced with this seemingly hopeless situation, Packard set out to prove her own sanity and liberate herself and her fellow sisters in a gripping and improbable battle against rich, powerful men.

Packard’s story is, incredibly, not simply one of a woman who survived three years of imprisonment in an asylum for disagreeing with her husband’s religious views. She didn’t throw her energy into merely freeing herself, clearing her name and being reunited with her beloved children. Instead, the brave, brilliant and unshakable Packard went on to pen multiple books on subjects such as emancipation, women’s rights and the rights of people who are mentally ill; to get bills passed asserting the basic human rights and liberties of married women and mentally ill people; and to gain notoriety for confronting injustice no matter the odds.

The Woman They Could Not Silence is compelling not only because of the way it creates an alliance between the reader and the courageous Packard, but also because of how it forces the reader to examine once more the language and attitudes around women’s mental health. In Packard we see a foremother of the female leaders of today: intelligent, tenacious and impossible to cow.

In the 19th century, a brave, brilliant and completely healthy woman named Elizabeth Packard was involuntarily committed to an Illinois asylum by her husband.

Spirit mediums have been capturing imaginations since the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century. A veiled woman commanding the attention of a room, speaking in the voices of the beloved dead as tables tilt, loud mysterious knocks echo from the corners and unlikely objects materialize out of thin air—such a woman is either an ethereal figure from a ghost story, or she is a charlatan, a silky smooth con artist who exploits the grief of others.

But what if there were a third option, one of revolution and rebellion? In Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, Emily Midorikawa unveils the triumphant, tragic and deeply unconventional lives of six of the Victorian era’s best known spirit mediums.

Midorikawa roots her story in both the history of spiritualism and the powerlessness of Victorian women like the Fox sisters—Leah, Maggie and Kate—who were left to grasp for influence in seemingly manipulative ways. As the book proceeds through the extraordinary lives of Emma Harding, Victoria Woodhull and Georgina Weldon, we witness women masterfully wielding the public’s fascination with the revelations of the dead. They capitalized on this fascination not only to improve their own lives but also to uplift other disenfranchised people across the United States and Great Britain. Strident orations on abolition, women’s rights within marriage and suffrage, which would have been ridiculous coming from a constricted and disregarded 19th-century woman, suddenly gained gravitas when spoken by the all-knowing dead.

Midorikawa breathes life into these long-ago women in ways that make them feel contemporary despite their extraordinary circumstances and distance in time. Her description of Harding enduring an incident of stalking resonates with chilling familiarity. You’ll feel these women’s frustration and conviction, and you’ll cheer at their progressive empowerment.

It’s remarkable that none of these women seems disingenuous. Throughout Out of the Shadows, they occupy a liminal space between genuine belief in supernatural forces and the ingenious ways they used those forces to their own ends. By the book’s end, it no longer matters whether you believe these six remarkable spirit mediums were hoaxes or not; you’ll certainly believe in them.

Emily Midorikawa unveils the triumphant, tragic and deeply unconventional lives of six of the Victorian era’s best known spirit mediums.

This period of cloistering at home has made bird lovers everywhere more attentive to their backyards. Millions of us have hung bird feeders, ordered bird identification cards and glued ourselves to the windowpane to watch these tiny emissaries of the sky. Yet for all the joy that birds bring us, they face grim and unprecedented dangers as their numbers dwindle. To better appreciate the beauty, delicacy and tenacity of our aerial friends, these books will put you on the right crosswind.

A World on the Wing

Scott Weidensaul, a Pulitzer finalist for his book Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds, returns to the topic in A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, though much has changed in the intervening 20 years. For one thing, tracking technology has improved, with devices shrunk to a size that even the smallest songbirds can wear. Weidensaul describes a minuscule transmitter fitted to the small of a bird’s back by two small loops around its legs, and this is charming to think about—first, of birds having a small of the back, and second, of their wearing transmitters like tiny underpants.

In 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group proposed that humanity had left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene, an era defined by the ways humans have destabilized the natural world. Weidensaul addresses migratory birds’ changing reality and the scientists who work tirelessly to learn more about them and advocate on their behalf to the powers responsible for decimating these birds’ lives and rhythms. The plight and toughness of both birds and their human defenders will move you in lasting ways.

A Most Remarkable Creature

According to Jonathan Meiburg, a South American falcon called the caracara is both the most and least likely animal to survive the world to come. Personable and wickedly clever, the caracara’s greatest strengths are its adaptability, intelligence and ability to forge connections, even with humans. In his debut book, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, Meiburg travels across South America in pursuit of this little-known falcon that seems to either enchant or chagrin anyone who crosses its path.

So intimately does Meiburg acquaint his readers with this inquisitive, curious, sometimes playful thief of a bird that it’s startling when he adds “doomed” to that list of adjectives. Meiburg’s fondness for the caracara is plain, and he can’t help but dream up a plan to rescue this odd winged creature from its steadily shrinking habitat, encroached upon by forces both natural and human-made. What’s more, Meiburg lodges the caracara so deeply in readers’ hearts that by the end of the book, they will feel ready to participate in whatever scheme he proposes to save this peculiar dinosaur-descendant.

The Glitter in the Green

At the other end of the avian spectrum lies the hummingbird, that glamorous, sugar-high pugilist of the garden. Natural history writer, photographer and hummingbird obsessive (within the first hundred pages he crosses both a bear and a puma in pursuit of this tiny, glimmering bird) Jon Dunn has written a book that is both an ode to hummingbirds and a remarkable piece of travel literature. In The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds, we travel with Dunn to Alaska, Mexico and across South America as he follows in the hummingbird’s wake.

Dunn gives us the facts about hummingbirds—for example, their long tongues coil inside their skulls when not in use and split at the end to allow for rapid-fire nectar gathering—but he also explores the places where hummingbirds intersect with the world they inhabit and the people they affect. The story of hummingbirds intertwines intriguingly with Mexican witchcraft, James Bond, plane crashes, economies around the world and the lingering legacy of Aztec power. We come to realize that these familiar visitors are astonishingly mysterious: They perform impressive migrations to arctic climes for breeding, their feathers have been valued as currency, and some cultures believe they bring love and guard travelers. From the narrative of Dunn’s excursion, we learn that a backyard hummingbird sighting is actually an exotic visit from the wide, strange world.

To better appreciate the beauty, delicacy and tenacity of our aerial friends, these books will put you on the right crosswind.

"My anger against machismo started in those childhood years of seeing my mother and the housemaids as victims," writes Isabel Allende in The Soul of a Woman, her reflection on how feminism has shaped her life. "They were subordinate and had no resources or voice. . . . My feelings of frustration were so powerful that they marked me forever."

Allende, a fixture of Latin American storytelling since the publication of The House of the Spirits in 1982, is well qualified to deliver a feminist manifesto. Those who have followed her career are familiar with the number of times she has struggled defiantly to overcome roadblocks in her path. The House of the Spirits, which addressed the ghosts of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, was rejected by Chile's macho publishing culture. (Eventually it was published in Argentina instead, to great acclaim.) While many critics have praised her work, comparing her to Gabriel García Márquez, she's also had many detractors, mostly male writers who seemed determined to dismiss her. In The Soul of a Woman, Allende describes these experiences and others that imbued her with the grit and tenacity that define her today.

Allende discusses her past matter-of-factly and directly, without losing her piquante humor. Her mother was an unconventional and vivacious woman who grew bitter under the heavy hand of patriarchy and misogyny. Allende decided to adopt a different way of life for herself, despite the misgivings of her mother and stepfather, the Chilean ambassador to Argentina. She details her career from its roots in feminist journalism through the literary pursuits that made her a success in spite of adversity and personal tragedy.

Ultimately Allende tells us of a life lived fully, for better or worse. The passionate choices she has made are boldly laid out without apologies in this slim volume. Allende even reflects on the twilight of her life, though it seems unbelievable that such a vibrant spirit could ever dim. But when it does, the blaze her life leaves behind will illuminate this world for decades to come.

 

In The Soul of a Woman, Isabel Allende describes the experiences that imbued her with the feminist grit and tenacity that define her today.

The past several years have ushered in a wave of social upheaval and, in turn, a people’s revolution, whether by marching in the streets or by quietly but decisively reforming outdated values. These changes aren’t limited to the United States, however. India has also seen its share of shifting attitudes, particularly toward women, girls and sexual violence.

In 2012, though India was listed as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be female, its citizens were shocked into outrage by the rape and murder of a young medical student as she returned home from watching a movie. Mass protests and publicity stirred the government to reconsider how its justice system tried sexual crimes. 

In the wake of these events, journalist Sonia Faleiro traveled to India to investigate and document the status of Indian girls and women. Before she arrived, however, a second incident tore through the country: Two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh, a low-caste, high-poverty farming region, were found hanging from a tree in an orchard not far from their homes. What erupted afterward lay bare caste divisions, family strife, political corruption and stubborn attitudes toward women, girls and sexual purity.

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing is a thoughtful, careful narrative of these events and an examination of the many issues influencing this tangled case. Faleiro reconstructs scenes using multiple thorough interviews with the people who were present, and she takes care to never insert herself into her retelling. Through her, however, the reader comes to know the people involved. Padma and Lalli (renamed in the narrative due to Indian law prohibiting the release of the names of victims) were two girls who bear so many of the utterly familiar hallmarks of teenage girldom. Their families, friends and neighbors, in whom love, tradition and despair interweave, become familiar as well. The reader also comes to know the cultural topography of India as a country in flux, where tradition and the rigid “safeguarding” of women hold fast in some corners, while in others women wear jeans and ride public transportation while their parents plan to send them on to higher education.

Even as corruption and hope vie with one another politically and poverty touches everything, The Good Girls never loses sight of the human heart of its story. It brings us close to these people and their problems and heartaches and, in so doing, makes us examine our own.

When two teenage girls from a low-caste, high-poverty farming region in India were found hanging from a tree, it lay bare caste divisions, family strife, political corruption and stubborn attitudes toward women, girls and sexual purity.

Liz Tichenor’s The Night Lake: A Young Priest Maps the Topography of Grief surprised me. I felt surprise at the grace with which Tichenor shares her walk through shadow. I was surprised by how deeply Tichenor’s articulation of her experience of faith resonated with my own, and by her brushes with the mystical divine that jolted me and left me feeling uncertain. Some might feel surprise at priests cursing in the face of unimaginable grief.

Whatever your experience of grief, and whatever your experience of faith, The Night Lake will manage to surprise you, too. But it’s not easy reading.

On the night Tichenor raced to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying her 1-month-old son, she was a fledgling priest in her late 20s, living with her husband and their two young children at an Episcopalian summer camp. This was her first job flying solo, and her life seemed to be at that early stage when anything could blossom at any moment. But in truth, Tichenor was already acquainted with hardship before she found her son unresponsive in their bedroom. Her mother, after years of dealing with pernicious and unrelenting alcoholism, had taken her own life only a year before.

So when Tichenor’s son died suddenly due to an undiagnosed medical condition, she plunged into the deep end. In the months that followed, she was buoyed by the love and support of her husband, daughter and community of friends, but Tichenor could not always keep her head above the waves of depression, her own relationship to alcohol and an emotional hangover from years of being mothered by an addict.

As Tichenor moved through her grief, she longed simply for someone to sit with her in her pain. Early in the book, she discusses the roots of the word “com-passion” (to suffer with) and in so doing reveals an important truth: To live in connection with others in an imperfect world, we must suffer with them. Readers practice that com-passion with Tichenor as they read her story. None of its events are hurried, and so you feel suspended with her in each stage of her grieving.

This is not simply a book for those who have found themselves mired in such grief. It teaches all of us how to be with those who are going through tragedy, how to be vulnerable and how to practice com-passion.

Whatever your experience of grief, and whatever your experience of faith, The Night Lake by Liz Tichenor will manage to surprise you.

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