The Lost Apothecary

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Sarah Penner
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

Sadly, this was one of my most disappointing reads so far this year. Not that it was a particularly bad book or anything, I just thought the plot held so much promise and it was one of most anticipated books. So when it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was definitely disappointing. 

The Lost Apothecary is set in the late 1700’s and tells the story of an apothecary, Nella, who dispenses both remedies and poisons to her solely female clientele. The goal of her apothecary has always been to help women, but after the death of her mother, Nella decides to branch out to offer women a different kind of help, that of murder. Her one rule is that her poisons are never to be used against women, only against men. 

At the same time, we have a modern day story of Caroline Parcewell, a young housewife who has just discovered an upsetting secret about her husband and decides to travel to London on their 10 year anniversary, alone. While there, she discovers about the existence of the old apothecary and sets out to learn more about it.

The plot sounds intriguing right? So why didn’t I like it? Honestly… I didn’t see the point. I thought I was going to get a nuanced story about women in tight places who seek help to improve their difficult situations. I wanted a morally ambiguous story about women and sisterhood, but instead I got a lightweight drama about a blackmail scenario that I struggled to believe wouldn’t have already happened to Nella at some point during her career as a dispenser of poisons.

There is one interesting story in the beginning when we are introduced to Eliza, but after that, I felt the author didn’t do anything new or interesting with the plot. I struggled to relate with any of the characters because I don’t think any of them were given the depth they deserved. We’re given a surface level story about Nella that I think is intended to be shocking and sad, but Penner never manages to quite connect you with her characters in a meaningful way. It’s a debut novel and she falls into the classic trap of “show don’t tell”.

I feel like I make this complaint about a lot of books, yet authors keep making the same mistake. Penner had a great idea for the book, but the execution and character development just weren’t enough to really give this story wings. It’s a great idea, but I don’t really know what Penner was trying to say, what was the point? I felt like I was getting so many conflicting messages. One of Nella’s key motivations is that she wants to keep her register alive to give voices to women instead of silencing them, but if that puts the women at risk of DEATH, then that is the strongest way of ensuring you do actually silence them. Then Caroline further silences women by keeping what she discovers about Eliza at the end a secret as well. The messages were contradictory and it really made me question what point the author was trying to make.

So let’s talk about Caroline. Why do so many historical fiction books insist on having the modern day timeline. No one cares about it! People are almost always more interested in the historical timeline as learning about the past is generally what inspires someone to pick up historical fiction in the first place, so why do so many books have modern day timelines. I was initially intrigued with how the apothecary was going to link to Caroline, but it ended up just being a fluke and I thought the scenario of events that occurred in her timeline were so outlandish and unlikely that it was hard to take her story seriously at all. 

Anyways, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a totally bad book, but it also wasn’t a great book. I’m somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. I read it with my book club and we were all disappointed, so despite the intriguing-sounding plot, I wouldn’t recommend this one.    

The Woman They Could Not Silence

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: Non-Fiction, History
Pub. Date: Jun. 21 2021 (read Jan. 2021)

To all the women who have had someone call them crazy.

I stumbled across The Woman They Could Not Silence on Netgalley and immediately put in a request because I loved Kate Moore’s last book, The Radium Girls. In a similar vein, her new book shines a light on an important part of women’s history that has been somewhat lost to time. Moore excels at writing this kind of journalistic memoir in a way that is riveting to read and immediately connects readers to the protagonists. Despite this being a non-fiction book, it reads like fiction, bringing historical figures to light in a way that makes readers really empathize with their plight. In short, Moore knows how to ignite righteous anger at the injustices that have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against women.

This story starts in Illinois in 1860 and centers around one woman, Elizabeth Packard. After 21 years of marriage and bearing 6 children with her husband Theophilus, he has Elizabeth committed to the Illinois State Insane Asylum against her will. Her crime? Questioning Theophilus’ bible study teachings in the church in which he is a pastor. Pushing back against your husband, questioning religion, and being intelligent in general were all signs of mental illness in the 1860’s, and as such, Theophilus has no difficulty in getting his wife locked up.

Elizabeth immediately fights back against the claim that she is insane, but recognizing that such pleas will only make her look more insane, she does her best to maintain her dignity at the asylum and after her first meeting with the state hospital director, Dr. Andrew McFarland, with whom she develops a good relationship, she is sure her release will not be long in coming.

Though Dr. McFarland is unable to determine the root of Elizabeth’s insanity, he is convinced it is there and will be revealed in time. Due to her intelligence, she is granted special privileges at the hospital. However, despite these privileges, Elizabeth soon becomes aware of the level of abuse that is being perpetrated by hospital aides within the walls of the hospital and starts stirring up trouble with the other inmates. This results in the revoking of Elizabeth’s privileges and life at the hospital soon becomes very hard for her.

The rest of the novel is about Elizabeth’s struggles in the asylum and her fight for freedom. Elizabeth is very intelligent and an accomplished writer, and though Dr. McFarland tries to silence her within the walls of the hospital, she is determined to record and share her story. She makes friends within the asylum and keeps a secret journal of all the abuses she witnesses. I couldn’t help but compare her to Alexander Hamilton because the woman constantly wrote like she was running out of time!

However, her goals are not only to record history, but to change it. Elizabeth is strategic in going about this. She knows that raging against the machine will get you nowhere in an insane asylum and so she goes about cultivating relationships and manipulating those around her, including McFarland. I found it really interesting to read about Elizabeth’s experiences and progression while at the asylum.

The whole system is completely unjust for so many reasons, but the two that stand are that, first, almost no proof is required to lock a woman up in an asylum. All Theophilus needed was 2 certificates of insanity from local doctors, which he was easily able to procure thanks to his influence as a man and pastor. Unmarried women are entitled to a trial before being shipped off to the asylum, but married women need only the desire of their husbands. As they are considered his property, they are not permitted any voice of their own. Many of the other women in the asylum were in the same situation as Elizabeth and had been sent there without any legal rights.

Second, the whole premise of what qualifies a person as insane or cured is entirely stacked against the patients. Like I said, women could basically be committed for showing any inkling of self thought or governance. Theophilus didn’t like that Elizabeth was questioning things or flouting his authority, so he quickly put an end to it. But what’s really enraging is that women who push back against the diagnosis of insanity only further the diagnosis. Showing any kind of indignation at anything is basically a sign of insanity. Women were only considered cured when they would finally submit to everything: the will of the abusive attendants, their doctor, and their husbands. The injustice of the system is that it literally conspires to make you insane and then only release you at the moment when your spirit is finally irreparably broken.

I say Elizabeth’s progression is interesting because she somehow manages to hold on to this one thread of truth throughout the entire ordeal, the idea that ‘I am not insane’. She is determined to be free and she is determined to be free under her own will, not through submission. The longer she is imprisoned, the more frenzied she becomes in her desperation to get out. She documents her experiences and ideas in a kind of manic fervour that you can’t help but question if maybe she is going a little bit insane. Rather than diminish, her ideas of justice and equality of women only grow more and more ambitious to the point where she envisions women as totally equal to men and able to even hold public office, something that is quite radical in 1860 and unlikely to get you released from an insane asylum.

I don’t want to give away the whole book because even though it’s historical, it’s still a story and I did take joy from the experience of having no idea whether Elizabeth was going to succeed and to what degree. She inspired a book to be written about her, so I knew she was going to have some level of success, but it was honestly so bleak, it was hard to imagine how a woman would ever recover from either the trauma or the stigma of such an asylum.

But Elizabeth is a fighter and I honestly can’t imagine a woman with more spirit. She had a lot of influence on early American politics and it is a shame that her name is virtually unknown, even among the roll call of suffragettes. But such is the way of women’s history and I love that we keep hearing about more and more women who have contributed greatly to our society but who’s legacies have been little preserved.

The author added a post script at the end of the book that I really liked. The book will make obvious the impact Elizabeth’s writings and efforts had on the women’s rights movement, but it also highlights how these same ideas are still present in today’s society. The idea of insanity is still used today to threaten, discredit, and silence women. Men have always used the excuse of ‘craziness’ to belittle women. The idea that fault lies only with women is still wildly believed by many men and women, even if only subconsciously. When men don’t like the ideas or actions put forth by women, it’s only too easy for them to dismiss them entirely with the callously thrown away phrase “she’s crazy”. I think we see it used most often by men to either dismiss the actions or requests or a partner or to speak of their ex. But even women use it to describe other women, particularly in scenarios where it relates to how other women interact with men (I’m thinking of reality television here).

But the idea is everywhere. Moore draws attention to its presence even at the top level of the American government when Trump once screamed at Pelosi for being wrong in the head. Powerful men still seek to silence women through the threat of insanity. For this reason, I thought this an extremely important read. A lot of the content didn’t surprise me, but experiencing it through Elizabeth’s eyes did help to put it into perspective. Even after all the work that Elizabeth did, Dr. McFarland is still kindly remembered by the eyes of history while Elizabeth has more or less been forgotten.

This wasn’t a perfect book. I thought the writing was a little simplified in the beginning, though it got much stronger as the story went on. I also thought the story could have been shortened, some parts are a little over indulgent and I fear the length may deter some readers from this. But overall, still an excellent read and I would definitely recommend!

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cho Nam-Joo
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2016 (read Sep. 2020)

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a small book that packs a punch. I think this has only recently been translated to English (although I’m not totally sure), but I’m so glad it was because it’s such an interesting read about the lives of Korean women and how relatable sexism is all over the world.

As the name suggests, this book is a short recount of Kim Jiyoung’s life, from her childhood, school years, early career, and eventually motherhood. At every stage of her life Jiyoung recognizes how she is treated differently. How her brother was prioritized above her as a child, how she was misunderstood in middle school, how hard she had to struggle to find a job and how little her employer valued her compared to her male colleagues when she finally did start working. Then it covers the challenges of becoming a mother and the different expectations that are placed on women and how their desires and dreams are always de-prioritized.

There’s nothing shocking in this book. I was in no way surprised by the way society de-valued women or the hardships Jiyoung was up against. But I think seeing these inequalities and microaggressions spread out over the course of one person’s life really does push home the unfairness of it all. When you take into account each incident on it’s own, it’s easy to dismiss, but seeing the collective impact is really frustrating and exhausting.

It’s also easy to ignore the inequalities of those in other countries. “oh but we live in a developed country, it’s much better here”, but the fact was that even though this book takes place in Korea, everything was just so damn relatable! The mentality of boys will be boys as a child just perpetuates society’s reluctance to ever hold men accountable for their actions. Prioritizing your son’s needs feeds into a culture of valuing and rewarding men’s contributions more than women’s. And preparing only your daughters for parenthood and marriage creates a generation of men that have no domestic skills and leave women to assume all the roles of unpaid labour.

It’s a simple book and a quick read, but a meaningful one. I love what the author did with the ending and thought it was so genius. It’s easy to identify the ways in which society has failed, but how can we possibly change it when there’s so little understanding or desire from men to see any change. It’s a system that has always benefited men, so even though they might empathize with women like Jiyoung, ultimately it makes no difference to them. The system benefits them and therefore there’s no incentive to change it. I think this is one of the greatest challenges feminism faces and no matter where women are from, we can all relate.

Wild Embers

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nikita Gill
Genres: Poetry, Feminism
Pub. date: Nov. 2017 (read Nov. 2019)

I read Wild Embers as part of my continued foray into Poetry. Actually, this was the first anthology I picked up when I first got the hankering to read some poetry, but I ended up getting distracted by Andrea Gibson’s, Lord of the Butterflies when the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and ended up putting this one aside for awhile.

I do feel like my review may be a little unfair because I did really enjoy the first half of this book. I was feeling very inspired and enjoyed the feminist angle and unapolegeticness that Gill takes in her poetry. But after I set it aside to read Gibson’s latest anthology, which I think is fantastic, the second half of Wild Embers felt just a little bit lacklustre. Gill’s writing didn’t have quite as much depth for me as Gibson’s, which rings of such emotional authenticity. But I don’t want to be unfair and compare the two too much, because they are totally different and I did still really enjoy Gill’s poetry as well.

Gill is all about female independence and being the heroes of our own stories. She doesn’t want her own children to be handed down the same themes of reliance on men that she learned from fairy tales and Disney princess movies growing up. One section of her book is actually dedicated to rewriting the stories of the Disney princesses and I really enjoyed that part. I just felt some of the themes got a little bit repetitive after awhile, although I really liked how Gill also spent time writing about mental illness and the benefits of therapy.

The Witches are Coming

Rating: ⭐
Author: Lindy West
Genres: Non-fiction, feminist, essays
Pub date: Nov. 5th, 2019 (read Aug. 2019)

This is another review I should have published ages ago! The Witches are Coming was also really high on my list of most anticipated books of 2019 and I wasn’t expecting to get an arc, but then it changed publishers and I ended up swiping a copy on Netgalley.

I used to read these essay type books about feminist issues all the time, but it’s been ages since I’ve picked one up. They were starting to get a bit repetitive, but I really enjoy Lindy West’s second book. I was a little on the fence at first, but she killed it with some of her later essays and I really liked it.

I’m struggling to remember many of the essays now, but the one that stands out in my mind is ‘What Is an Abortion, Anyways?’ Abortion is so controversial and so relevant in the United States right now and I thought this was a really good thought piece about it. She also discusses the #metoo movement and how things having been changing in her essay ‘Anger is a Weapon’. Women can literally never win. We’re mobilized by anger at the status quo, only to then have that anger used against us. It’s so hard to pursue justice when you’re not allowed to be loud, angry, or passionate about it.

So please forgive me for not reviewing this sooner. I am fuzzy now on a lot of the essays, but I was definitely interested in what Lindy had to say. She’s perceptive, relevant, and relatable. I did read her first book Shrill, although I haven’t seen the TV show, but I think I may have liked this book even more than Shrill. Keep on writing and being awesome Lindy!

The Witches are Coming is available in stores Nov. 5th, 2019.