Cover Image: The Ugly History of Beautiful Things

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things

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Member Reviews

Thank you to Net Galley and Simon & Schuster for an ARC in exchange for my honest review. I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful writing filled with the many beautiful things we cherish - mirrors, flowers, pearls, gems, perfume, makeup to name a few - that also have significant downsides. These are separated into chapters and include the history of the item, how they were used and the detrimental effects they caused whether they be harm to animals or the environment, the use of the foul to create a beautiful scent, to causing one’s death in the pursuit of beauty.  It still has me noticing and thinking.
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𝙄 𝙬𝙖𝙨 𝙖 𝙘𝙝𝙞𝙡𝙙, 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙄 𝙛𝙚𝙡𝙩 𝙚𝙣𝙩𝙞𝙩𝙡𝙚𝙙 𝙩𝙤 𝙖 𝙘𝙚𝙧𝙩𝙖𝙞𝙣 𝙖𝙢𝙤𝙪𝙣𝙩 𝙤𝙛 𝙥𝙧𝙚𝙩𝙩𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙨𝙨.

Such entitlement doesn’t fade, many of us desire prettiness and more of our precious objects, not because we carry some evil intent to destroy nature or other people. We like things that emanate beauty, that make us feel good, it’s a part of our humanity. In fact, even our most harmless objects can have a pretty gruesome or mean past. It’s easy to think, these days, what difference does it make anymore, even the clothes I wear is likely made from slave labor, do I go naked? It’s nothing new either, there has always been a dark history attached to our consumption. This is a fascinating, engaging read that makes me look at flowers, mirrors, and hell, even seashells differently. It’s not all depressing but it is a loaded history. Consumerism is molded by our culture, we are manipulated by it, to be sure. Doubt me? Read about diamonds.Why do we claw to obtain things that generally aren’t worth a damn? There is no shame in beauty, and we could run out of breath arguing what beauty is, but it seems there is a price to pay for our desires, whatever they may be. Slave labor is alive today, just how responsible are we when the things we crave maim, harm, abuse other human beings, creatures, and the very earth itself? It’s not an easy question to weigh particularly when children enter the equation.

In striving to be beautiful, we do damaging things to our health too. Yes, beauty can be quite destructive. Women, it’s no surprise, have always been first in line to torture themselves based on the desires of others, the current fad and popular images. Is it better to bury our heads in the sand and not know how things are made? Katy Kelleher admits in her introduction that she believes beauty is a necessary part of life, and she isn’t shaming the reader, it’s meant more to expand how we consume and experience objects. None of us will live in this world without having a negative impact, but it is positive too. There is a very heavy history within these pages, but it humored too thinking about human beings and things we have gone wild for throughout time. The heated passions over orchids, the risks we take to secure the objects we covet and the business ventures created to milk us for all we are worth. In fact, I delighted in the writing about turquoise and our ridiculous beliefs about native culture. I sank into this book learning things I didn’t know and have ended the read thinking heavily about this endless wanting, especially as I reach for a plate wondering if it’s bone china or spray some perfume on my skin, checking the ingredients for toxicity.

To be noted, it’s not all about money, those of us who struggle with finances and have to buy things on the cheap (not by choice) are inherently a part of the problem too. We are all trapped in this damning web.

Her career isn’t going to make her enough money to afford the lavish dwellings, the beautiful marble counters in the homes she visits for work but beauty and happiness can still be secured. There will still be ‘private luxuries’ and beauty is an important part of that. Intelligent and provocative, a great read!

Published April 25, 2023

Simon & Schuster
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I genuinely enjoyed the essays contained within this collection; each one focuses on objects, which highlights beauty and ugliness. I found I could connect with this book well, which isn't typical for essay collections, and tha tit had a lot of insight to offer the reader.
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I’m so torn on this book. I think I desperately want to like it more than I did, but I don’t hate it and enjoyed reading it more than I didn’t. 

The positives - this is a collection of essays that muses on some of the beautiful things people love. It looks at the history, often full of oppression and death, of those beautiful things and the modern problems associated with the creation and consumption of beautiful things. I really enjoyed this part and even learned some interesting things about objects I teach that I didn’t know. I liked the variety of things - from flowers to perfume to glass - and I thought the author’s opening personal remarks in each section added to the overall essay every time. 

The bad - toward the end of each essay these got *really* preachy. I understand the ugly parts that need to be pointed out - like child labor in silk manufacturing - but this preachy bit went on for way too long. It also almost always ended with how the author wasn’t fully participating in the consumption anymore and that made each essay feel like a way she was patting herself on the back for being better than the rest of us. Without this preachy bit, this book would have been over 4 stars for me. 

Overall, I liked this collection of essays more than I didn’t like it and I’m always down to learn more, so if the preachy parts won’t get to you or you can skip them, you may enjoy this collection which comes out later this month!
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In The Ugly History Of Beautiful Things by Katie Kelleher I was excited and couldn’t wait to read this book as I thought it was history and nonfiction it turns out it is more like an autobiography and I almost stopped reading in the first chapter reading about her love for mirrors of all things but as the book goes on and we hear about her eating flowers her love of perfumes and digging for rocks every chapter is about her with tidbits from history thrown in almost every senates started with call or my or some other possessive starter I’m not a big fan of biographies and for some reason don’t care to hear people talk about their self it’s just not something I am into and so I really can’t say I like this book or that it went itself to any kind of history I did enjoy the chapter called bone white and paperthin is that was the only one that started off about someone else and although it quickly came back to her I still enjoyed the beginning. I know a lot of people like this book and that’s great I did not. I love history but don’t care to read about peoples favorite things and not only that I didn’t  see what this was even called the ugly history of beautiful things because the only thing visible in this book was her love of mirrors. I received this book from NetGalley and a publisher but I am leaving this review voluntarily please forgive any mistakes as I am blind and dictate my review.
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For me there was too much memoir/ personal opinion and too little history/ facts. I love history, but dislike naval-gazing memoirs, so this wasn’t my sort of book.  Other readers may enjoy it more than I did. 

Thanks to NetGalley for providing an ARC for my review.
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I found The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher absorbing and disturbing. I enjoyed every single essay and learned more about things I knew only a little about. It was beautifully written and intriguing. Even if I wanted to forget some of the details about topics Kelleher wrote about I don't think I'll be able to.
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I love random niche history and this really fed that hunger. I appreciate the authors well rounded opinions and storytelling. The Diamond chapter was really eye opening! All in all, a really interesting read.
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This is a wonderful look into our need for things. For all kinds of things. Why we consume. Why we need. Kate’s writings bring us to the place where we ask ourselves why do we want this or that? What compels us to love shiny things. It was a good read. Recommend as a gift too for others.
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The book description drew me in right away, but the book itself couldn't hold my attention. The chapters were too long, too monotonous, and I found I never wanted to pick it back up. Made it 1/3 of the way and stopped.
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Wanted to love this one! I felt that the mix of memoir and research weren't woven tightly enough, or maybe more of one or the other would have worked better for me. It was strongest when it veered fully into memoir (e.g. the intro) or firmly into historical account. I wish there was more space for Kelleher to expand upon her clearly deep research and passion, as to tip the scales further into analysis vs. facts on facts on facts. Still glad I checked it out though!
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The best literature feels like you’re swimming around in someone’s mind for a few hours and this collection of exquisite essays floating Katy Kelleher’s curiosity in the name beauty, is precisely that.   

Kelleher is masterful at what she does — personal essay writing  (just make sure you’re in the mood for this type of prose before you jump in!) — where an author takes a throughly researched topic and applies their opinion, juxtaposing a dollop of their personal history into the mixing pot of recorded facts/figures/falsities. The chapter on glass is glorious —  the reader is taken on a journey from the glass blowers of Murano (Venice) to mercury reflection of Kelleher’s family heirlooms. Like many before her, Kelleher deftly recalls how mirrors reveal more about society than just our own facades — but that journey is all her own (and an absolutely worthwhile chapter to devour). Other missives about growing up & the aesthetics of American traditions & their false histories (from finding Prom dresses, with a tangent for the silk worms who created them — to turquoise found surreptitiously in the playground sand pit) are worth your time. 

While writing this review, every time I typed the word “aesthetics” it autocorrected to “as ethics,” which in conversation with this collection of essays feels increasingly apt. Regardless of my own words (and the Apple predictive Dictionary), Katy Kelleher’s words, thoughts, opinions & stories truly shine. The only critique I can give for the next book (she deserves it!), is that some of the chapters or tangents could be broken up with subheadings. However, this is a definitive add to the cannon of millennial culture. 

Additionally, I broke up reading this book with another collection of thoughts that’s about to come out & pairs well — Alexandra Petri’s U.S. History, a satirical history of the U.S. by the equally talented Alexandra Petri (don’t you dare pit these women against each other — they both introduce readers to different worlds that are just as creative & just as warranted). Not sure if this could happen, but as writers with the same parent publishing house, both authors should absolutely have a joint signing/discussion. I would love to see how their opinions on breaking down the lines between what’s real & what’s fake; the history and present state of satire & lies —  and how misconstrued opinions can turn into falsely held facts. Both books delved into the aesthetics & realities of history and how that diversion has impacted modern thought & current culture — who wouldn’t want to delve more into that!
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I really don't know how to classify this book: a personal history?  Essay?  The ever-present catch-all of general nonfiction?  Philosophy?  

It truly is a little bit of everything.  Somehow, the work sucked me in, and again.  Thinking about the quotidian objects in our lives in a new way challenged my view of my own day to day life.  The impact of those objects may be positive or negative, but Kelleher's biggest success is making us even consider them.  I can't really say I've thought too much about the mirrors in my home, other than from the standpoint of vanity.  However, the author is able to take it deeper.  The meditations on gloss and glitter made me think about the ways in which our outside self project an argument, even if we may not intrinsically thinking about it.  Even the chapter on silk (humorously entitled "Women and worms") made me rethink fabric as well.

As a cisgender, heterosexual male, I even found a lot to ruminate about.  The implicit argument that I picked up on is that there is are deeper structures to our society that may not be noticeable without some reflection.  You don't have to wear silk to understand it
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I absolutely loved reading this book.  I was completely drawn into the topic and could not stop reading it.
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I was so excited about this book. It sounded tailor made for me and I’ve followed the author online for a long time. I love the history of objects and reading about our personal connections to them. 

I just didn’t really enjoy it. I wish she had decided to write a memoir about her mixed feelings about these objects with just a tiny bit of history or done a really well-researched history book instead. Instead we get her sort of rambling about the history of the object without really delving in because she covers hundreds and even thousands of years in a handful of pages and then shoehorns in some connection to herself, 

I also thought some of her examples and tangents were odd and not fleshed out enough. 

For example: 

In a single 20-page chapter she discusses: a friend’s story about her family in WWII era Germany,  her own pre-WWII family’s immigration from Germany, her mother’s china collection, the fall of popularity of collecting sets of expensive dishes, china vs porcelain, the Silk Road, the possible cross border history of blue and white vases/dinnerware, Madame de Pompadour’s love of pink, the vegan refusal of bone china, the rise of the woman’s magazine and the middle class, Queen Victoria’s drug habit,  the opium trade and the role of the British empire, how plates are made, the German love of porcelain and Himmler’s involvement in a porcelain factory, a  recent Seattle ceramic artist who turned out to be  a Holocaust denier, the desire for whiteness in dinnerware and elsewhere, the emotional associations with color, doll faces and how they possibly influenced a feeling of  white supremacy in the 18th century,  her discomfort in discussing whiteness, the specter of Eva Braun’s tableware despite its “cottagecore” look, contrasts a restaurant plate and a chipped Fiestaware in a dorm room (a fairly expensive and collectible dish so I’m not sure why she used to to convey shabbiness?),  her personal collections and religion and conservatism around ritualized events, how most of her collection is from Europe and not dissimilar to Eva Braun’s dish, she talks about how she could branch out into other dishware and how but she doesn’t want to, another woman’s newsletter and he thoughts around home and growing up in the LDS church, some discussion about mothers and the home. All of the chapters are like this. 

It could have worked with some detail and some editing—each of these ideas could have been a book on their own—but it needed up being a bit of a stream of consciousness mess.  As the book stands it’s not really a full memoir or history of these objects so why does it exist? Why did they chose this format? 

One of the biggest reading disappointments I've had in years.
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