Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

cover of the five by hallie rubenhold with blood red rosesA lot has been written recently about the way in which serial killers are treated like macabre geniuses, while the victims of their crimes are forgotten.

The most famous of these is undoubtedly Jack the Ripper, who having evaded capture has become something of a modern myth, and the Jack the Ripper folklore has spawned a micro-economy which trades on the death of his victims for profit; tours of the Whitechapel scenes of the murders, numerous films and television adaptations, even souvenirs with t-shirts and mugs displaying his victims corpses as if they were artworks created by a master craftsmen, not women who lived and breathed.

In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold seeks to go some way towards reclaiming the names of his victims, exploring their histories to restore their identities and humanity. It makes it clear that it doesn’t matter who Jack the Ripper was now, what matters were the complex and varied lives that he snatched. One by one she goes explores the lives of the canonical five victims; Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, from their births to their deaths, revealing far more complex lives than any film or documentary purporting to explore the history of Jack the Ripper has ever revealed.

Rubenhold’s The Five is as fascinating as it is heart-breaking, showing the various factors that brought the women to be living such precarious existences in Whitechapel, and reminding the reader just how precarious life could be in the Victorian era, where an extra mouth to feed could tip a family into poverty, or the loss of a male relative could leave a family of women incredibly vulnerable. Where if you were born into poverty, you had little to no hope of escaping, and even if you were born into the middle classes, one mistake or one small upset would be enough to derail your life.

The Five not only returns a sense of the victims as real people but gives a clear picture of what life was like for women and the poor in the era. I found it a really moving read, and although I enjoy a crime novel as much as anyone else, thought it was an important counter voice to the sensationalism of violence against women for entertainment.

 

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Humankind by Rutger BregmanMost people, deep down, are pretty decent.

Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History

People are fundamentally good. It’s a difficult idea to sell at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic with the planet teetering on the brink of climate crisis. All the evidence suggests the contrary doesn’t? Humans are the possessors of the selfish gene, acting only out of self-interest, aren’t they? You don’t have to look far to find multiple examples of people being awful. Five minutes on Twitter should do the trick.

Despite this, Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, has published a book arguing the contrary, claiming in Human Kind: A Hopeful History that not only are humans fundamentally good, but that our success as a species is a result of our willingness to trust one another and work together to achieve the common good.

Has this description given you an overwhelming attack of Whataboutism yet? Hang back on that, because Bregman has done his research, and the book is a whistlestop tour of history, psychology and philosophy examining cases such as the London Blitz, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment, and the mysterious fate of Easter Island to debunk the myth of man as a purely selfish creature and to reframe them as case studies in his new philosophy of hope. As much as I’d like to believe that all people are fundamentally good at heart, I’m not entirely sold on this, but I don’t think that Bregman is either. Rather, he makes a powerful argument that the relentless negativity of the news that reaches us every day gives us a skewed perception of how bad the majority of humanity are, and this has the opposite of a placebo effect, making us feel worse and expect the worst of out fellow humans, trapping us in a cycle of negativity and cynicism which will make us behave in the spirit of mistrust.

To Bregman, cynicism is just another word for laziness, and a cynical world view is just a self-deceptive trick which gives the cynic an excuse to opt out of working to make the world a better place, and the book is compelling in challenging our cynicism about the average person’s intentions.

It ends with ten rules to live by to readdress the balance and go someway to thinking the best of others to create a positive feedback loop, in which people connect, understand and treat one another better. And maybe it will. What’s to lose in trying?