Can We Ever Learn from Our Mistakes? (Some Thoughts on and Beyond Damnation Island by Tracy Horn)

IMG_0548One of the reasons I love reading nonfiction is that I get to learn so much. Not only does the book itself satisfy my mind’s need for new information, but an excellent nonfiction book will also lead me to topics outside the main subject of the book. I will go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and find myself down there two hours later and realize it’s one in the morning and I need to go to sleep.

Tracy Horn’s Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th-Century New York did not disappoint. It gave a detailed history of the horrors of what was once called Blackwell’s Island but also introduced me to political figures and historical events in New York that I looked up on my own. I have lived in New York for almost ten years now, and I appreciate it when an author focuses in on one part of the city but provides historical context so that I can learn more about the city I love.

But even though I love this city, it’s hard to deny that it has a dark and somewhat shameful past, especially after reading this book. The conditions that existed for New York’s sick, poor, and mentally ill were atrocious and allowed to be so for years. I imagine that this was true in a lot of areas but was exacerbated by the city’s enormous population.

But still, when reading this, I found it hard to fathom how this could be tolerated for so long, especially when it came to the treatment of women on the island. Horn spends a lot of time talking about the female patients at the asylum because it was a mostly-female facility. The most striking thing to me was that many families committed women as a way to get rid of them, and not because they were indeed mentally ill. When I read that, I have to wonder how many suffered because they may have had a dissenting opinion or were just “different.” At another location of the island, the Almshouse, widows found themselves overcrowded because they had nowhere else to go after their husband’s died.

And yet, is it really that hard to believe? While I don’t think there is a practice of warehousing widows in facilities with abusive staff with little food and no space or privacy of their own, it is easy for me to see that a lot of the ideas about women that existed in the 19th century still perpetuate today. Many women who report sexual assaults and abuses are not believed. We are often accused of being “moody” and “too sensitive.” This is not to say that nothing has improved for women, because I know that is not true. The last 100+ years have obviously brought about a lot of positive change for women, but there is still a long way to go.

We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to the more vulnerable members of society. I mentioned in a previous post that I often see a homeless man on my commute who is clearly mentally ill. I have to believe there is a better option to be had for him than being on the street or in a facility like what was on Blackwell’s. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I hope we find one soon.


Photo credit: I can’t remember if I took this, or if it was my fiancé, but this is the abandoned Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island (formerly Blackwell’s Island).  The island is now full of condos and academic facilities, but some of it’s past is still present.

On Reprioritizing Reading


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


Has it ever taken longer than you expected to finish a book?  That’s what’s happening with me and Becoming.  I respect Michelle Obama so much, and am enjoying her story each time I get to it, but it’s just taking me forever to get through.  Part of it has do with the fact that it’s been a long couple of weeks at work, and I am exhausted when I get home and just want to go to bed rather than read for too long.  Another part is that, starting recently, I’m writing more about books than I am actually reading them. Which is ironic, right?


Obama seems to be the queen at handling busy schedules and making sure she keeps her priorities straight.  Yes, she has a team to help her with all this, one that grew as she became more successful and in the public eye, but the way she addresses this shows some internal conflict.  I was struck by her anecdote about hiring a chef to make meals for her family. While she knew it would mean healthy meals for her family, it also meant taking advantage of a level of wealth and privilege that a lot of people do not have, and grappling with that.  Her family’s health and convenience won out, but I appreciated seeing her weigh the balance and make the decision even if she struggled with it.


Everyone has packed schedules these days, each new thing to do a piece in a constantly changing puzzle.  How do we balance the necessities with the fun and relaxing aspects of life? No matter your income, there always seems to be more to do.  For me, reading books blurs the line between necessary and relaxing, and not doing it on a regular basis leaves me feeling like something’s missing.  Paying someone to cook for me so I can read is a little extreme and unrealistic (I can’t pay for that, and I like to cook), but I can make other changes in my routine.  I don’t have to watch something on Netflix tonight.  I can put down my phone and the endless Instagram scroll and pick up my book.  


Do you have any tricks that help you make time for reading?


5 Great Books By Women, About Women, That You Should Read


Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash

I am still reading Becoming, which I posted about a few days ago.  But while I’m wrapping that up and gathering my  thoughts on it, I wanted to share some books I read last year I thought you might enjoy! I have always tried to prioritize reading books written by women, even before taking on this year’s project, and there are so many wonderful titles out there that I can’t help but highlight a few extras.


A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

This book focuses on friendships between women and how they can be wonderful, fulfilling, and complicated all at once.  It was fascinating to read about some of my favorite authors and their writing processes and support systems, and I’m thinking a lot about that as I integrate writing back into my life with this blog.  I love the fact that Mirdorikawa and Sweeney are writing friends. The introduction by Margaret Atwood is also great!


The Amputee’s Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise

I have never been a huge poetry fan.  It usually feels over my head. But this slim volume packed an emotional punch that I really appreciated.  I have mild cerebral palsy, and it is difficult to find books with characters and voices that I can relate to when it comes to navigating dating and sex when you have physical differences.  Weise is bold and brave in her honesty about finding and maintaining physical relationships with partners. It is a level of honesty I crave when I read.


The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

What I initially thought would be a fun, laid-back read quickly turned into a smartly-woven tale covering mental health, domestic abuse, love, and family.  Lovejoy Cardew is smart but guarded, and I loved following her as she overcame her past to create a happy future for herself. Plus, the story takes place mostly in a bookstore, which was fantastic.  Because, come on, who doesn’t love a bookstore?


The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I was excited to read this one when I heard that the protagonist was a female attorney in 1920’s Bombay.  Massey’s writing is intelligent and gripping, and Perveen Mistry is a strong woman who is not afraid to use her brain. I am so excited for the second book in the series to come out in May.


The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

This is a great pick if you have a long weekend coming up when you know you just want to curl up with a good, long book.  I loved the two timelines between contemporary and 1660’s London, and I learned so much about a Jewish community there that I never knew existed.  Ester and Helen are both fighting for respect for their academic achievements, and Kadish weaves their stories together beautifully.


What are some titles by female authors that you’ve read?  Are there any that I should add to my TBR?  I am really enjoying reading only women so far this year and seeing the diverse stories we have.  I would love more suggestions!



Current Read: Becoming by Michelle Obama


IMG_3007 copy

It was raining most of the afternoon, so I had a lazy Sunday reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.  I feel like this book has been staring at me since I got it on pub day, screaming, “Read me!”  I am so glad I moved it up in my TBR. It lives up to the hype. But I am also feeling incredibly self-conscious, because this woman has accomplished so much in her life, and while I think I’m doing pretty well (good job, good relationship, supportive friends and family, all that good stuff), this book is giving me a lesson in perspective.  I’m not sure Michelle Obama gets to have many lazy reading afternoons anymore, or that she ever did.


I’m about half-way through, and I’m sure I will have so much more to write once I finish the book, but there are a few ideas I want to put out there now.  One is that Obama never lets you forget her roots, and she makes it very clear that each individual’s experience matters. She takes pride in her family and their work ethic and example, and makes sure the reader knows it.  Her writing puts the American family, and what it means to be an American family, into perspective.


I grew up in an upper middle-class,  predominantly white town and went to mostly white schools.  I was taught from a very young age that I had strengths, and that I had opportunities.  Coming from a black, working-class family in Chicago, this was not how Obama was raised. Her parents were clearly supportive and wanted her to succeed, and worked incredibly hard to help her get there, but they did not have the safety net that I had that allowed them to tell their children to find themselves, even if it meant taking a pay cut.  They had to work harder, and I know that race played a huge role in that. This isn’t to say that my parents did not work hard, and that I don’t either, because we do, but white privilege is a real thing, and I’m glad that Obama highlights it. 


Another point she won’t let me forget is that there is no one “black experience” in America, and that everyone deserves to be seen as individuals, which I know is a challenge for many to do.  It is a sad and unfortunate part of this country that we need to grapple with. Obama shows us two very different lives just by comparing hers to Barack’s, and yet there is a tendency to group all people of color into one narrative.  Individuality is not allowed or expected.  But if we granted everyone the right to their own stories and lives, I think we’d have a much richer, deeper experience of each other, and I think Obama is trying to show readers how valuable that can be.


And the thing is, she is so nice about it.  She is able to lay out her story as it was and draw attention to the unfairness of certain parts of our system without pointing fingers or prescribing blame directly.  The book provides a safe space for open and honest reflection about how race and class and gender are discussed in this country.  This woman has overcome a lot of barriers, and she is going to make sure your remember that.  


But there is so much more to this book, and I’m not giving it enough credit by focusing this post only on issues of race and class.  It is a major component, but not the whole thing.  Obama has dealt with both adversity and success with a dignity most of us can only hope to emulate, and she still knows how to have a good time and connect with others.  As a woman, she had been the target of many criticisms yet still continues to live her life and be an example to her two daughters.  I am so excited to finish this book soon and write down some more thoughts on it later.


Via Giphy


Some thoughts on and beyond The Dark Bride, by Laura Restrepo

flavia-carpio-770955-unsplashPhoto by Flavia Carpio on Unsplash

I read this book in February before going to Colombia on vacation.  Whenever I’m lucky enough to travel outside the US, I always try to read books by authors from the countries I’m visiting.  I was especially excited for this trip because this was my first visit to South America, and I know I have only just begun discovering amazing works from that part of the world.  An obvious author to read would have been Gabriel García Márquez, and while I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera and loved it, I knew I wanted to read something by a female author.  Actually, I knew I needed to read one, given my reading project for the year.  Some internet research led me to a great article about female Colombian authors, and that’s how I found Laura Restrepo and The Dark Bride.

The sentences in this book twist and turn, and I got lost in them more than once and would have to double back to make sure I absorbed the nuanced language and emotions.  There is so much packed in about life, love, identity, and family that I would find myself pausing mid-paragraph to let the words marinate in brain for a little while.  Restrepo introduced me to a society of oil workers and prostitutes that I would not have known otherwise.

This book takes you into the world of people who work very hard for very little.  They experience a lot of love, death, jealousy, and poverty, which is a world away from what most tourists, including myself, see from their tropical beach vacations and the candy-colored streets of Cartagena.  I did get glimpses of “real life” when I visited a local market, but I was with a guide, and it was very clear that I was separate from the people working there. Class and race are complicated topics in the US, and but I didn’t know what to expect in Colombia.  The intersection of Spanish, indigenous, and Caribbean culture has led to a diverse population with its own unique hierarchy that I was unsure how to navigate and yet simultaneously felt familiar. Whiteness is valued and respected highly there, and much of the wealth lies with that population.  But at the same time, I feel like there was a higher level of diversity than I am used to, even in New York. It was a different and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me to stand out for being one of the few light-skinned people in a room. And I am pale and sunburn easily and have red hair, so I REALLY stood out.  Or at least, that’s what it felt like. For all I know, no one noticed me at all and I need to work on being less self-conscious and more comfortable being in diverse spaces.

I was also very conscious of the women in Cartagena.  Short dresses in heels were everywhere, along with stores selling bikinis and accessories for the beach.  It’s a different kind of woman than those I read about in The Dark Bride. These women have formed their own small community and rely on each other for support in a society where their presence and professions are frowned upon but tolerated.  They come together and fight a government attempting to exploit them. It was bittersweet to me to read about this camaraderie. I have close female friends and feel a strong bond with them, but women are so often taught to compete against one another when it comes to looks, wealth, and marital status.  There is a fend for yourself attitude that can be exhausting, and I wonder what life would be like with that level of commitment to a group of women. The portrayal of prostitution was also interesting to me. On the surface, most of the women defended their livelihood and their decision to stick with it, but how much of that is actual choice and how much of that is circumstance?  How much are any of our choices driven by circumstance? It makes me consider the debate about if prostitution should be legal. I am all for protecting women and advocating for their health care, but when I think about the women who did not choose prostitution, is legalization the way to go? I do not have any answers to these questions, and it is a much more complicated topic than what can be addressed in a blog post (or at least, this blog post).  But this book pushed me to grapple with these questions in a way that I hadn’t before, which made me enjoy the experience of reading it even more. I’m looking forward to reading more of Restrepo’s books and learning more about her country through her writing.


Some thoughts on My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite


I underestimated the power of My Sister, the Serial Killer before I read it.  Its small size and flashy title led me to believe I was reading something light and “fun” (I use quotes because serial killers are not fun. And I say that as a lover of My Favorite Murder), but I was quickly convinced otherwise.  Braithwaite’s writing is clear and to the point, laying out exactly what happens with little metaphor, but simultaneously has many layers to strip back to get a full picture of the story.


Korede takes being a protective big sister to the next level.   I love my younger brother, but I cannot imagine myself covering for and cleaning up after him after he killed multiple people (sorry, bro, you’re on your own there).  Korede’s behavior was even more confusing to me once I learned more about her relationship with Ayoola and how the world treats them.  The blatant favoritism that everyone shows Ayoola was maddening to me, and I wanted to shake Korede for allowing it to happen. I think I was forgetting the power that internalized self-doubt or self-hatred can have on people, which is ridiculous because it is absolutely something I have allowed to get in my own way more than once.


This book reminded that women all over the world are judged by their looks and marital status, and it can be so easy to feel like a failure if you don’t achieve the expectations that others have set for you.  It infuriated me to see these sisters pitted against each other because one is considered beautiful and the other is not.  I’m having a hard time writing this, because it feels naïve and selfish to say that I needed a reminder of the struggles of women with different backgrounds than my own.  But I think that it can be easy to get stuck in your own bubble and forget that the problems you are feeling can often be universal.  I hope it’s not just me that feels this way.


When I read more about Korede and Ayoola’s childhood, the picture behind their relationship, and perhaps how they present themselves to the world, became clearer to me.  I am not a psychologist nor do I have any training in mental health care, but I know enough about childhood trauma to understand that it has powerful influences on you throughout your life.  I found myself sympathizing with, believe it or not, Ayoola the serial killer, wondering if this behavior was the result of childhood abuse and if she would have turned out this way had she gotten some professional support.  Meanwhile, Korede’s straight-laced albeit somewhat quirky personality becomes more and more bizarre as the story continues.  Her cleaning habits seemed like obsessive-compulsive disorder at first, but when I finished the book, I felt it was more than that.  Maybe it’s her way of compartmentalizing and dealing with stress.  Or perhaps she knows it’s one way she is helpful in a world that underappreciates her. Maybe it’s a little of both. Either way, I felt her priorities are skewed at the end as she maintains the status quo and allows Ayoola to continue her dangerous and lethal behavior.  It might be that the life she has now with her mother and sister is the only one she can imagine having.


Speaking of that life, there is a final thought I wanted to noodle on, and that is how Korede addresses those who work for her.  Her internal thoughts led me as the reader to believe that she considers herself to be above the other nurses and cleaners at the hospital.  What struck me as even more arrogant is that she never addresses the family’s maid, or house girl, by her first name.  Admittedly, I know nothing about Nigerian class structure, but it struck me as odd that I never learned this person’s name, even though she has a day-to-day role in Korede’s life.   I cannot figure out if this is the standard attitude for people of this class, or if Korede is so wrapped up in her own head and family situation that she can’t be bothered to use this person’s name.  If there is something I have learned in the Trump era, it is that just talking to someone from a different background can be an eye-opening experience that reminds you that we are all human, just trying to make things a little better for ourselves in this crazy world.  Maybe if Korede was able to think that way and connect with other people, especially the women, around her, she might not feel so isolated and forge a path beyond her family.

Some Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

tree-46766_1280I chose to start the year with these two because I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird in January.  Like most (okay, maybe all) American students, I had read Mockingbird in my eighth grade English class and truly did enjoy it.  When Go Set a Watchman came out a few years ago, I was hesitant like so many others because I had heard so many conflicting opinions of it.  But in an era where race is a constant (and necessary) topic to engage, and because I was going to see the play, I thought it was time to read them both together.  I am so glad I read Watchman first and To Kill a Mockingbird second.  It allowed me to get the painful part over with and then move on to the more enjoyable stuff!  Watchman is clunky and I really disliked the third person narration (which is weird, because I usually prefer it).  I think I just enjoyed Scout’s voice so much in Mockingbird that the later book did not live up to my expectations at all.

But going back to this small town in Alabama as an adult did remind me that discussions about race become so much more complicated as you get older.  As a child reading Mockingbird, Atticus was just doing the right thing by defending Tom.  But as an adult, it did seem like Atticus was conflicted about what his true motivations were, which Watchman does shed some light on.   As I have gotten older and explored more about race in this country, everything seems to become so much more complicated.  This book reminded me that I am not the only one who feels this way.

I was also so interested in the women in both of these books, which was so great given my goal for this year’s reading theme!  As a white woman, it was fascinating to read about the power that women do and do not have in this small Alabama town.  Mayella Ewell has zero power in her home life, and yet her race gives her so much power over Tom’s life.   But is that even her power, or is it white men using her to wield their own? Meanwhile, Scout rejects the town’s norms regarding femininity during childhood, eventually rejects the town altogether.  Her desire to leave town clearly has roots in her rejection of the blatant racism she encounters there, but I also see how it can be her desire to escape for the more traditional gender roles expected of her.  I enjoyed the reminder that women have been fighting to be themselves for a long time, and have gained a lot of momentum since the 1960’s.  Obviously, there is still a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to exploring that in future posts.