REVIEW: The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

Every so often, a book scratches an itch that you didn’t even know was there, and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is such a book. Those of you who have either been around for a minute or know me in the real world are aware that an earlier version of me wanted to be a college professor. I triple majored at IU, in Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, and Psychology, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, which is where I hit a wall when I realized that I liked being in class a hell of a lot more than I liked independent research. But I still have a couple of bookshelves about religion, and along with that is a fair number of volumes about Jewish history.

The Weight of Ink tells two parallel stories about two women scholars, a young, unmarried Jewish woman in the mid-1600s, when women knowing how to read and write much less participate at the highest levels of scholarship was forbidden, and a modern-day scholar of seventeenth-century Judaism, suffering from Parkinson’s and nearing retirement. A cache of documents is found in a seventeenth-century home, and the owner calls his former professor in to look at them, and the book takes off from there. Ester and Helen’s stories are interwoven throughout the book, along with Helen’s assistant Aaron, a postgraduate who she more or less grabs at random because he is able to read the right languages to help her with her research.

Mix in some Shakespeare, some Spinoza, a blind rabbi, the Inquisition, Sabbatai Zevi, and a little bit of fire and plague and you’ve got yourself a hell of a book. I’m making this sound a bit more like a detective novel than I probably should; this is indisputably capital-F Fiction, and may indeed be a litratcher, as (I hope) Hilary Custance Greene described it when she recommended it to me. But … yeah, if you’re going to drag me away from nonfiction and genre fiction, writing a book about seventeenth-century Jewry, making translation a bigger part of the action than one might expect, and making the two modern-day figures scholars is a key with a very specific shape that nonetheless opens one of my locks.

Or something; that may be too overwrought of a figure of speech, I’m not sure. At any rate, while it’s a bit slow-moving, which may not be surprising to those of you who just read the description, and it’s a bit on the dense side– it took me over a week to read, which is really rare for a 560-page book– I loved this book a whole lot. Kadish writes about seventeenth-century London like she lived there, and everything about this really worked for me. I hope to hell it actually was Hilary who recommended I read it, because I can’t find the comment anywhere, but I owe her one.

#REVIEW: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

The internet has spoken, and several of you seem to think I should be watching this new program. I shall refer the matter to subcommittee, and a feasibility study shall be prepared. I will get back to you once it’s completed.

So: the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover is bullshit. Yeah, yeah, I know, deeper meaning and all that, but you actually can judge a book by its cover. In fact, that’s literally what the fuck the cover’s for, beyond the obvious physical necessity of aiding in binding the pages together. And every so often I read a book where I really feel like all I should have to do is show you the cover, and a few of you may immediately choose to make a buying decision based on that cover, and that buying decision is the correct one, regardless of what it is. Because … well, look at the cover, and look at the title, and that’s exactly what this book is, and you already know whether you’re interested in a book like that, and if you are, you will enjoy it, and if you aren’t, you should probably buy it anyway, and maybe your tastes will improve while you read it.

Being poor and female in the late 1880s in London suuuuuuucked, y’all. I was thinking about the Dust Bowl the other day; I have said before, and I will stand by this, that there is no other time or place I am less interested in hypothetically living in than poor and in Oklahoma in the 1930s, because the histories I’ve read of that time are terrifying, well beyond anything I’d have suspected before reading them. And while this isn’t on that level, this is definitely one of those books that gets deep enough into the basic day-to-day lives of its ordinary subjects that you will absolutely be glad to be living— most of you, at least— in America in 2020, despite the current Worst Timeline shenanigans going on. I am impressed at just how much information is available about the Ripper’s five victims in the first place; each of the five women gets a roughly equal piece of the book’s 300 pages, and the common thread is poverty, either from birth or because of the loss of a husband or father. It was easy as hell to tumble into penury in England in the 1880s, particularly if you were a woman and if you had children, and once you got there, you weren’t ever getting back out again.

This is not, to be clear, a book about Jack the Ripper. In fact, very little attention is actually paid to any of these women’s deaths beyond what is absolutely necessary, and their deaths are the one place where the details are mostly omitted. For the most part, each woman is traced up to their final night, and then the book skips along to something from the inquest, or what happened with their bodies, leaving the story of the murder more or less untold. It’s an interesting, but I think necessary, authorial choice– the book is about reclaiming and retelling the lives of the women the Ripper murdered, not yet another book about the man who murdered them.

Also, fun fact: did you think Jack the Ripper murdered prostitutes? You probably did; most people do. There is no evidence that three of the five women were ever sex workers, and only the fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, appears to have pursued prostitution deliberately, as opposed to having been forced into it by circumstances. Most of them were simply poor and unhoused, at least temporarily– and while it’s a throwaway detail and not really pursued, Rubenhold suggests that the reason none of them appear to have fought back was that they were killed when they were asleep. He wasn’t grabbing women off the street and hauling them into back alleys; he was looking for women who were already living rough and had found a quiet place to sleep and killing them where he found them.

Strong recommendation, y’all, for a ton of different reasons. You’ll hear about this one again at the end of the year, I think.

7:57 PM, Thursday May 21: 1,576,542 confirmed cases and 94,661 American deaths.