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Archive for the ‘Women’s Nonfiction’ Category

Nothing speaks teatime more than freshly baked scones, slathered with strawberry jam, and topped with cream.

RoyalTeas

In my world real scones are plain and stodgy objects which I learned to bake a long time ago, first at Brownies and then as “quick breads” in Cooking class at Intermediate School. When I have made them ever since, I used my Grandmother’s ancient and annotated Edmonds Cookery Book. In the antediluvian antipodes I learned that, as the name quick breads suggests, they are meant to replace bread in a meal, not something sweet, so they are mostly flour and milk and never have eggs. But I am game to try most things once (especially if it involves baking), so tradition be hanged, I exactly followed the Basic Scones recipe from Royal Teas with Grace and Style.  These were not my grandmother’s scones, but light, airy, with cranberries and a crunchy sugary top–they were well worth making (and consuming!)

Author Eileen Shafer has run teashops and tea tours for many years and it shows in this engaging idea, etiquette and recipe book. Almost half the book is hints and advice for making the perfect elegant tea party, and with chapter headings like “Setting a Beautiful Table” and “Creating an Inviting Atmosphere” there is a lot to work with. It is full of exquisite photographs of table settings, tea sets, dignified rooms and (my favorite) food. Eileen Shafer lives part of the year in Williamsburg and the book is part of Williamsburg Regional Library’s Local Author Project.

Royal Teas with Grace and Style has smaller selection of savory tea time recipes such as sandwiches, but comes into its own with a great selection of cakes, cookies and slices. I got carried away one day and made so many cookies and cakes that the chocolate cake didn’t get eaten (unusual in my teenager-filled household). The book gives the splendid idea of using the left over chocolate pound cake to make trifle, but the recipe for trifle calling for cool whip and instant pudding didn’t sound nearly so splendid. This time I stuck with tradition and used whipped cream and custard from imported custard powder for a scrumptious trifle. I also made the lemon drop cookies and they were mouthwatering – strongly lemon flavored and slightly astringent. I like lemon flavor with other flavors so I had the idea of rolling the dough out with a batch of chocolate cookie dough to make lemon and chocolate swirl cookies, with triumphant results.

Try Royal Teas with Grace and Style for great recipes and wonderful ideas about stylish teas. My colleague Janet wrote a lovely review of Eating Royally, by Darren McGrady in 2012, which features how the British Royals really eat. Royal Teas with Grace and Style may not have the British authenticity of Eating Royally but it has plenty to inspire fans of baking and fans of elegant tea parties.

Check the WRL catalog for Royal Teas with Grace and Style.

sconesLemonCookies

And here are some of the lemon cookies and scones that I made.

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painSylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.

In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue.  She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.

Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt.  Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.

Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.”  Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.

Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure.  The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors.  These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar.  The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.

Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s.  The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue.  Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals.  These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.

Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work.  Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.

Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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InfidelCoverOn the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s.  We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties.  Beyond that our lives diverged completely.

I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.  She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam.  She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.

Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh.  Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses.  The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador.  After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament.  Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.

Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation.  Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life.  Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches.  She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime.  She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.

Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.

I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story.  Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.

Check the WRL catalog for Infidel.
Check the WRL catalog for Infidel as an audiobook on CD.

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UnapologeticFatGirlHanne Blank is most definitely “unapologetic.” One of her earlier books was Big Big Love: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them).  In The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts her premise is that “the culture we live in is so hateful and abusive to everybody and every body that doesn’t measure up to its constantly shifting targets for ‘perfect’” that many women are ashamed to be seen exercising, although “it doesn’t seem to matter what size someone is. The beneficial side effects movement has on the body’s ability to maintain a healthy physical equilibrium appear to be among the few things in the world that seem genuinely to be one-size-fits-all.”

Hanne Blank has a witty, irreverent, and conversational style. She refers to her readers as “my glorious plumpling” and advises us to “flail proudly.” She claims to be “as intrinsically athletic as an oyster” and entitles a chapter about unsolicited, mean-spirited comments about size “Chub, Sweat and Jeers.”

The book includes lots of practical advice on things like how to choose a gym, bearing in mind factors like size of toilets stalls and general concerns like parking, friendliness and hours. Also how to choose a form exercise that you will enjoy and therefore continue doing. She gives two sample workouts and practical advice for swimsuits such as Aquatards you can buy if you prefer more coverage than a traditional swimsuit, and includes a Resource Guide with more books, DVDs, exercise programs and equipment.

The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts is affirming whether you consider yourself “a fat girl” or not. Hanne Blank points out the simple truism that, “your body will inevitably change in shape and size, contour and proportion over the course of your life.” And as an antidote to the constant harping she has experienced throughout her life, she counsels that, “Hunger is not a moral issue. It is not your body’s way of trying to trick you into doing something that is bad for you” and significantly, “the number on the scale… does not measure virtue or goodness.”

I recommend this book for anyone who has ever curtailed any activity because they feared others judging their body. Read it alongside books like Fat! So? : Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size! by Marilyn Wann.  And always remember what Hanne Blank says in her introduction, “Apologizing for having a body is basically the same thing as apologizing for being alive. “

Check the WRL catalog for The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts.

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NLNella Last was a 49-year-old housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness, a shipbuilding town, when England declared war on Germany in 1939. Her husband was a joiner; her sons were just leaving home, one to be a soldier. From rationing to volunteering with the Women’s Voluntary Service, through bombing raids and fear for her sons, Nella Last kept a thoughtful, detailed record of life on the home front.

Her account comes to us courtesy of the ominously titled Mass-Observation Archive, a national writing project that solicited diaries from civilians. Whether it’s because the diaries have been expertly edited (the entries in this volume represent only a portion of Last’s reams of writing) or because she was consciously writing for the understanding of strangers at Mass-Observation, Nella Last’s War reads much like a novel, albeit a quiet, domestic sort of novel. She didn’t have much formal education, but she has a way with words:

“[Her neighbor] says she prays God to strike Hitler dead. Cannot help thinking if God wanted to do that he would not have waited till Mrs. Helm asked him to do so.”

A thrifty cook and seamstress, Nella practices the domestic arts to an extreme that I thought existed only in Good Housekeeping, including actually warming her husband’s slippers by the fire. At some point in the not-too-distant past, Last has had a breakdown; exactly what it entailed, she never tells, but the lesson she’s taken away from it is that she must learn to stand up for herself. Both the War Office and her husband come in for a fair dose of criticism, and the husband seems mystified by her newly-discovered need to state her own opinions, sometimes IN CAPITAL LETTERS. “After all these peaceful years,” she writes, “I discover I’ve a militant suffragette streak in me, and I could shout loudly and break windows and do all kinds of things—kick policemen perhaps—anything to protest.”

Well, kicking policemen may be taking it a bit far. But after years of deferring to the criticism of her in-laws and husband, she finds validation in her war work—sewing blankets and dolls for evacuated children, staffing a soldiers’ canteen, raffling crafts, and eventually coordinating a thrift shop. Despite her house cracking on its foundation from nighttime bombing raids, she is the very model of “keep calm and carry on,” doing her best to provide for husband, sons, and strangers, and priding herself, when it was hard to come by a matched set of anything, on serving visiting soldiers a proper tea with matching silverware.

While I spent much of the book psychoanalyzing the author, it’s also full of curious details about everyday life during the war. I hadn’t realized that in addition to outdoors Anderson shelters, there were indoors Morrison shelters, like a chicken coop for your family, designed to withstand the collapse of a two-story house. Take a look, and imagine being shelved in there with your loved ones while the house is shaking.

The title is definitely one with a double meaning. Of course it’s a story of World War II, as experienced by one relatively insignificant civilian; but you can’t help notice that Last is also waging her own, personal war to find her own strengths and peace of mind. It’s very easy to extrapolate from her comments to larger issues of women moving into the work force (not to mention wearing pants!) and what life might be like for them after the war when all is supposed to go back to “normal.”

Last’s diaries were dramatized by Victoria Wood in the film Housewife, 49, which is well worth seeing if you enjoy the diary.

Check the WRL catalog for Nella Last’s War

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YarnGirlsCoverKnitting is enjoying a resurgence, and the library owns dozens of books about it. Many are beautiful books with sparkling colorful photographs of wonderful projects of wonderful complexity.  Every now and then I check one out with great intentions to knit. The last time I actually finished a project of any size was when I was pregnant (and my children are now starting to leave the nest). Back then, my late mother helped me with the tricky bits and (I am embarrassed to admit) did the tedious sewing up.

I was inspired to pull out my needles to contribute to a granny square project for a colleague’s upcoming happy event. I found it very therapeutic making granny squares and soon turned out enough squares for a Queen-sized crib (I must need a lot of therapy). I needed a new project and the word “Simple” in this book’s title grabbed me.

The book starts with basic techniques and useful line drawings. Their drawings show hands, yarn, needles and finished work as the knitter will see her own hands looking down.

The one problem I found with the directions is that each pattern gives only one brand and make of yarn to use. Many of these yarns are gorgeous! And some of them also contain mohair, angora and other luxurious fibers, which make them very expensive. Others are a discontinued line. With my beginners knowledge of yarn, I had trouble working out substitutions, although I managed with the help of Google searches. To give them credit, as in all instructions of this sort, the knitter has to use the exact yarn they suggest to get the results that they illustrated, but I am sure I am not the only person interested in substitution!

I decided to start with a small and simple project, a hat with the appealing name of “Feeling Fuzzy.” I planned it as a gift to my daughter, being aware that at my pace she may be wearing it next winter! My hat is going very slowly, but I know that displays a lack in my skill, not a lack in the book! (I will post a comment later when it is finished).

I recommend this book for people who, like me, are returning to knitting after a long break. It will also help absolute beginners.  For the experienced knitter the book also offers attractive, quick projects that they may be able to complete in a weekend.
Check the WRL catalog for The Yarn Girls’ Guide to Simple Knits

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The popularity of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs has brought interest back to old books like Below Stairs,  first published in 1968, and Rose, My Life in Service from 1975, not to mention older TV series like Flambards.

Another half-forgotten book in this category is Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Hands from 1939. Monica Dickens was the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, but this isn’t her main claim to fame in her series of books about her forays into the working world in the 1930s.

Monica Dickens is unusual in the stable of domestic servant memoirists as she didn’t have to take on domestic servitude to prevent herself or family from becoming destitute. She came from a wealthy family and was a debutante who came out with all the glamour of a debutante ball. She became bored with her social existence and thought, “Surely… there is more to life than going out to parties that one doesn’t enjoy with people one doesn’t like?”. She was thrown out of drama school and had taken a class in French cooking, so she decided to turn to cooking.

I have difficulty believing that anyone would do the dishes who didn’t absolutely have to, let alone scrub a stone floor on their hands and knees using a wooden handled pig’s hair brush and harsh ammonia. As I said in my October post about Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes, our ancestors had to work very hard in the domestic sphere. My children often claim (with good reason) that I seem to like the Roomba and the dishwasher more than them. It’s really that I appreciate how much work those esteemed appliances do for me, freeing up my time and energy to pursue more interesting tasks like writing blog posts (which is not something I can truthfully say about my children).

Her tone is light, but as I said, she does have the choice to go home to the comfort and support of her parents’ house. In her gentle way she sums up the cruelties acted upon the powerless servant class by saying “my jobs at various houses only served to convince me that human nature is not all it might be.” Her jobs are generally short term, but she does quit one job when a sleazy Butler tries to blackmail her.

The book is often funny as Monica Dickens points out the foibles of the personal lives of the people she meets. She makes even her most obnoxious employers amusing and shows the human side of the people below stairs.  “I threw down my sodden dishcloth and went to gatecrash the most wonderful party that was being held in the kitchen. The Butler, a sporting old devil with white hair was taking advantage of his possession of the wine cellar key to celebrate his birthday in the best champagne and port that the house could offer. There he sat, jigging one the the parlourmaids on his knee.”

Unfortunately this is the only book by Monica Dickens that our library owns. She also wrote books about her other jobs as a nurse, One Pair Of Feet (1942,) and in a newspaper office, My Turn To Make The Tea (1951), and later went on to become a successful novelist and children’s book writer. One Pair of Hands will suit people interested in the upstairs/downstairs conflicts of Downton Abbey, but it will also be appreciated by readers of domestic humorists like Erma Bombeck.

Check the WRL catalog for One Pair of Hands.

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Bud gets this Halloween week started with a post that goes back to the dark side of the silent film days:

A small-town girl comes to Hollywood looking for stardom. She hits the big-time in her first starring role and fame and fortune are hers forevermore. It’s the old Hollywood fable. But there is another old Hollywood story, one that is far more common. In this scenario, the ingenue hits town, maybe has some success, maybe not, but there is no happy ending to her tinsel town tale. Booze, drugs, poor choices in men, personal problems or simple bad luck sends her on the downward slide to obscurity where the ending is almost always tragic.

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels by Michael Ankerich explores this dark side of the film industry with short biographies of fourteen silent movie actresses who found moderate success in the 1920s only to hit hard times in the ‘30s. For these poor souls, the Depression years really were depressing. Among the ladies detailed are:

Agnes Ayres: This once popular actress is best known for co-starring with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. But she put on weight, lost her looks and was prone to diva behavior and nervous breakdowns so the film industry gave her the heave-ho. She died alone at the age of 48, physically and emotionally depleted from years of struggling to regain the spotlight.

Barbara La Marr: La Marr, who played seductive vamps onscreen, was known as The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful. In her brief, scandal-plagued life she burned through five husbands, numerous lovers and a vast quantity of drugs and alcohol. She died at 30 from some mysterious wasting disease leaving behind a child and an unmatched reputation for living hard and fast.

Mary Nolan:  Mary had a hard knock life, much of which she brought on herself with her predilection for stimulants, drama and bad, bad men. After a brief stint as a Ziegfeld Girl she went on to become an international film star. But Mary had masochistic tendencies and her rendezvous with sadistic men did not lead to 50 Shades of Grey love affairs.  Instead, unsurprisingly, they resulted in scandal, severe physical injuries and continual pain that she numbed with narcotics. Poor Mary wrecked her career, lost her money and ended up singing in cheap saloons before the inevitable sad fade out at the age of 42.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the dark nature of these stories they are compulsively readable, poignant scandal sheets from the early years of the film industry.  The depressing nature of the stories is mitigated somewhat by the writing which is not mean-spirited or salacious. The author Ankerich is clearly sympathetic to these ill-fated starlets.

Each section is sourced, includes the actresses’ filmography and there are plenty of illustrations.  Recommended for film buffs or anyone with an interest in women’s history or celebrity scandals.

Check the WRL catalog for Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels

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I like making food from scratch and I have been cooking almost all of my family’s meals from scratch for 20 years. My favorite cookbooks are splattered and grease stained–my favorite chocolate cookbook with a recipe for Black Forest Cake, even more than most. The finished cake is wonderful, but I am not sure if I am really willing to go to all the effort of melting, mixing and measuring for the finished product or the gustatory pleasures of licking out the bowl!

Cookbooks are perennially popular, and books about food (with or without recipes) are experiencing a boom. I like reading about food but find some of the recent books pretentious and sanctimonious.  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch–Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods doesn’t take itself too seriously and has some great recipes. I don’t agree with all of Jennifer Reese’s pronouncements on which items should be made and which should be bought (buy rice pudding?) but I can’t go past any book that says: “Here in Northern California, where you can’t throw a Birkenstock without hitting an artisanal bakery, it’s still hard to find finicky butter-based pastries like the croissant. “

I decided to rise to the challenge of croissants since I currently bake most of our own bread (with the help of a bread maker) and made croissants from scratch many years ago. I had some difficulties with milk that was too hot for the yeast and an oven that was too hot for the bottoms of the croissants on the lower tray but the five petits pains au chocolat that I made were just right. As Jennifer Reese says, it was an “unbelievable hassle” but the results were worth it.

Since I firmly believe that chocolate cookies should be in a food group of their own, another recipe I found intriguing was for homemade Oreos. Growing up in another country, I came to Oreos as an adult. I find them tasty in small doses, but somehow artificial tasting. Homemade has to be better, right? I think my first attempt at Homemade Oreos was a resounding success. My kids and work colleagues pointed out that I didn’t make Oreos because “real” Oreos always come in a packet. But everyone, including me, thought my creation of a rich crumbly, deep chocolate cookie with a creamy filling was much better than anything “real.”

This book is great for people who are thinking of making more of their own food from scratch and need recipes. It is also full of entertaining tidbits that started out in Jennifer Reese’s blog, The Tipsy Baker. I enjoy her lack of pretentiousness. In one story she talks about one of her dearest family memories consisting of blobbing in front of the TV to watch The Lord of the Rings on DVD while eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. She compares it to an occasion when she proudly and successfully made delicious and healthy homemade fried chicken from scratch, imaging a Waltons-like family gathering, including “corn likker,”  only to see everyone eat and disappear to their own affairs like the meal was nothing special. The take-away message from this amusing book is make the bread from scratch when you can because it is cheaper, tastier and healthier, but don’t beat yourself up for needing to run into the supermarket to grab Wonder Bread.

Check the WRL catalog for Make the Bread, Buy the Butter.

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This last post of BFGB Fashion Week is for the Jane Austenites. When you’ve paused your latest BBC rewatch or turned the last page of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, this catalog from a Milan exhibition is just the eye candy to take you back to the era of Empire waists, flawless white muslin, and feather headdresses. Taken from a private collection of original Napoleonic-era dresses and accessories, exhibit photographs are accompanied by plates from Costume Parisien, the Vogue of the Empire period, and a handful of essays.

Taking their inspiration from the tunics of classical Greece and Rome, ladies put away their corsets in favor of thin-to-transparent cotton muslin gowns that fit the figure. If you associate Empire dress primarily with novels of manners, as I tend to do, it’s easy to overlook what a wild, sensual freedom these dresses actually represent. Gone were the panniers, farthingales, and other heavy infrastructure of earlier court dress—now one could actually dress oneself without a maid… in a gown that silhouetted one’s actual body!

Illustrating trends from 1795 to 1815, this catalog is a great browsing book. Photographs of the preserved and restored clothing are its chief draw, but the essays touch on many topics to do with fashion, trade, and daily life:

  • The exhibition demanded specially-made mannequins, because the made-to-measure dresses—worn by women whose ribcages and shoulders were shaped by years of corsetry and deportment lessons—wouldn’t fit properly on a modern silhouette.
  • Napoleon assigned uniforms for all official positions partly in order to plough some money back into France’s silk and lacemaking industries, still reeling from the beheading of many of their main clients. He also encouraged consumer spending by cultivating a fashionable horror of being seen twice in the same dress, and was not above publicly ridiculing women who dared to repeat an outfit.
  • Where men’s fashion was judged by its close tailoring, a woman’s loose dresses were distinguished by her accessories. First among these was the cashmere shawl, which represented as many as three years of craftsmanship, not counting traveling time from Kashmir to the shops of Paris. Fashionistas like this woman, artfully draped in red, were sporting the financial equivalent of a new car… thus leading to shawl theft, a shawl black market, and, not to be missed, “the affair of the infernal machine” (pages 125-126) in which a shawl saves Joséphine’s life! while Mlle Beauharnais receives a slight hurt on her hand! and an unnamed fashion magazine founder is regrettably killed.

You can preview some of these elegant outfits at the exhibition web site.

Check the WRL catalog for Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion.

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Bud continues BFGB Fashion Week with this review: 

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Valentina Schlee was one of the most famous and successful fashion designers in the world. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, by Kohle Yohannan, details the life and career of this now forgotten woman in a fine book that’s an interesting amalgam of fashion history and gossipy biography.

Born in Russia in 1899, Valentina’s early years are rather mysterious. Throughout her life, she told conflicting tales about herself in order to engender an aura of mystery, but by 1919 she was working as an actress in a theatre in the Crimea. It was here that she met George Schlee, the man who would be her lifelong companion and business partner.  Fleeing Soviet Russia, the Schlees emigrated to the U.S. and in 1928, she opened Valentina Gowns, Inc. on Madison Avenue in New York City. Immediately successful, the business was financially profitable right up till the salon closed in 1957.

From the start, Valentina fashions targeted the upper echelons of society. No crass, ready-made for her. It was café society, Broadway, and motion picture actresses and the glitterati only. Within a few years she only designed for clients she approved of, cavalierly dismissing all others with the simple phrase, “I’m afraid my gowns would not please you, Madame.”

How did a dress designer achieve this kind of clout?

Primarily by being an expert at self-promotion and as much a celebrity as the movie stars and socialites for whom she designed. She created a public persona that was exotic, mysterious, imperious, and intriguing. A globe-trotting sybarite, she socialized with the right people, went to the right clubs, and routinely dropped colorful quotes. Her innate sense of glamour, style, and drama drew publicity, making her a favorite of the gossip columnists and fashion pages. She further cultivated her image by being the primary model for her design line in advertising layouts.

Of course, the clothes themselves also played a role in her success. Valentina’s couture emphasized clean, simple lines and had a timeless quality. They were chic, void of elaborate embellishments, and always comfortable to wear. She despised fashion trends and did not follow them. Her inspirations were often drawn from classical Greek gowns, nun’s habits, and simple peasant styles. She was skilled at using bias cuts to achieve lovely draping effects. Each outfit was designed specifically for the individual client to suit their particular figure, coloring, and lifestyle, minimizing flaws and emphasizing their best features. Examples of her fashions are found throughout the book, which has many large, lovely photos.

Even if you have no real interest in couture, this book is still worth perusing for the many colorful anecdotes about Valentina’s uber-sophisticated private life, including details of  the long term ménage a trois she and George were rumored to have engaged in with actress Greta Garbo.

Author Kohle Yohannan, an art and design historian, has done a wonderful job in resurrecting a forgotten fashion diva. His book will be enjoyed by anyone interested in 20th century social history, fashio, or stories of remarkable women.

Check the WRL catalog for Valentina.

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The runaway popularity of the BBC’s Downton Abbey has rekindled an interest in all things upstairs-downstairs, including this memoir, first published in 1968. Reprinted and blurbed as “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey,” it’s a plain-spoken reminiscence of life in domestic service in England in the 1920s.

Born in 1907, Margaret Powell went into service at age 14 as a kitchen maid (at Downton, she’d be Daisy). She eventually parlayed her experience into a position as cook at a variety of well-to-do households. A frustrated teacher, cut off from further education by lack of money, Powell had a hard time adapting to life below stairs, with its long hours, raw-knuckled scrubbing, and circumscribed social life. The class divide between upstairs and downstairs was the worst. Polishing their brass, scouring their floors, and ironing their bootlaces, Powell never bought into the idea that her employers were all that and a bag of chips. Early on, she was reprimanded for handing her mistress a newspaper that should have been placed on a silver salver: “Tears started to trickle down my cheeks; that someone could think that you were so low that you couldn’t even hand them anything out of your hands…”

“The employers always claimed that the training they gave you stood you in good stead when you left and married and had a family of your own. When I left domestic service I took with me the knowledge of how to cook an elaborate seven-course dinner and an enormous inferiority complex; I can’t say that I found those an asset to my married life.”

Powell’s account is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense counterbalance to television’s soap-operatic melodramas. There’s nothing romanticized about the work or the living conditions, which she escaped as soon as she could land a husband, and the grim reality of a young, single housemaid caught pregnant plays out very differently than is likely on Masterpiece Theater. Powell’s voice comes through clearly, like a long chat with a great-aunt (OK, OK, maybe foods had more flavor back in the day, but I had to laugh at her observation that spiders used to spin more complicated webs. They just don’t make arachnids like they used to!). It’s a quick read and an interesting window into a time and place.

And while you’re on the waiting list, you should be reading Rosina Harrison’s account of life as Lady Astor’s lady’s maid, Rose: My Life in Service.

Check the WRL catalog for Below Stairs.

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The early campaigning for the 2012 presidential election is well underway, which is impossible. We only just finished the 2008 election season. Hillary vs. Obama, then McCain and Palin vs. Obama and Whatshisname– all that drama took place, like, last week.

So why read a book about it? We all lived through it. We were there. We were active at the polls; we were engaged in discussions about race and gender and politics. We voted in primaries, for crying out loud, primaries. We already know what it was like.

Or do we? Television and the internet deluged us with election info in 2008, but mostly with “sloppy synopses and cartoonish characters at a rat-a-tat pace,” recalls Salon writer Rebecca Traister, whose prose is disgustingly quotable. “Many of us, struggling to keep up, were happy to just get the Cliffs Notes version. But in the ceaseless cycle of revelation and analysis we lost depth, clarity and perspective on the story that was unfolding around us, as well as on how that story was itself changing and reshaping itself.”

Traister delivers on the depth, clarity, and perspective in a book that is compulsively readable. If you thought you had a firm grasp on the events and personalities of the 2008 presidential campaigns, prepare to be taken down a peg. Traister has rummaged through the glut of information from America’s recent history and emerged with a narrative that will enthrall anyone who cares about sex, power, gender, or the media.

Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin all feature prominently in the book, but this story is not just about them. It is about Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem and Tina Fey. It is about the older feminists who flocked to Clinton and the younger women who flocked to Obama, and the young men who loathed Hillary but who swore they weren’t sexist. It is about understanding feminism as it related to a vice-presidential candidate who balanced marriage, five children, and a powerful political career while remaining staunchly anti-choice. It is about the eighteen million pro-Clinton voters whom Clinton so eloquently thanked in her concession speech: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about eighteen million cracks in it.”

I hope you remember that line– it still makes me tear up to read it– but you can be forgiven if you don’t. The mainstream media spent most of their time focused on the other part of Clinton’s concession speech, the not-news that she would be endorsing Obama. That decision to focus on Clinton’s capitulation, rather than on her astounding feminist success, speaks to the subtle sexism in the media and at large. This is where Traister truly shines. It is easy to cry sexism when newscasters criticize a candidate for her ankles or the pitch of her laugh rather than her policies. (Not that many people did cry sexism when that happened, alas.) It is harder to perceive sexism when it is nuanced and subtle, but Traister recognizes it for what it is and cries foul.

Does this sound like feminist screed? It’s not. Traister is in her thirties. She identifies less with the trailblazing feminists of her mother’s generation and more with younger women, many of whom felt uncomfortable at even considering gender when evaluating a candidate (because that sort of thing would be sexist, right?). Instead, Traister teases out the subtleties of feminisms old and new, creating her own fiery perspective.

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Vicki Forman, having successfully delivered her daughter Josie after an uneventful pregnancy three years prior, thought her cramps were no big deal; the twins were only six months along. But within a matter of hours, she was delivering two very premature babies, weighing about a pound each.

“These babies were born at the worst possible moment—not before twenty-three weeks, when they certainly would have died, nor after twenty-five weeks, when their prognoses would have been so much better,” explains Forman. Envisioning a wretched quality of life for her new babies, she begs the doctors to let them die gracefully, but the laws in California trump her wishes. All of the most advanced medical technologies are used to keep Evan and Ellie alive.

Nothing can save Ellie, who dies four days later. Evan pulls through, but not without a litany of severe developmental problems—blindness, lung disease, heart disease, seizures, mental retardation, breathing problems, eating problems.

Forman’s honesty is astonishing. She does not paint herself as a saint, does not suggest that she accepts her role with grace and charm. She speaks candidly about her grief and her struggles as a mother of a special-needs child. She yells at doctors, she snaps at friends, she sinks into depression, she resents her son.

She also loves her son. Learning to love Evan unconditionally, learning to be his mother, does not happen overnight; that Forman has the courage to describe it as a process makes her story all the more powerful.  Rendered in straightforward, lovely prose, this is a searing story of one woman’s grief and growth as she raises a most unusual child.

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Alan Bernstein of Circulation Services shares today’s review:

My first real job after serving in the army began in 1966, when I started working for a small privately-owned bank.  One of its policies was that no female employee could earn more than $125 per week. However, if such an employee could convince the bank’s president that she needed more money, he would personally pay for it out of his own pocket. I am also old enough to remember when The New York Times and other newspapers segregated their help-wanted ads by sex. I also did not know of any female lawyers, doctors, accountants, veterinarians, ministers, rabbis, astronauts, diplomats, or television anchors. I did know of female teachers, nurses, librarians, secretaries, and shop girls.

Why and how all this changed is the subject of Gail Collins’ illuminating, fascinating, and interesting social and gender history When Everything Changed. Successfully integrating individual life stories and anecdotes of women of all ages from all parts of the country and from all social, economic, and educational strata within the broader context of our nation’s laws, traditions, and customs, Collins has written a lively history of the changes in American society over the past 50 years that have literally affected directly or indirectly half of this nation’s population.

All of the highlights are discussed:  the impact of the Civil Rights movement; the birth of the Women’s Movement; the decline of the Double Standard; the flowering of Women’s Liberation; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was amended to include women in the groups who would be protected from job discrimination; the passage of Title IX in 1972, which banned sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds and was interpreted in 1974 to require schools to give women students comparable athletic opportunities to men; the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment; the abortion and birth control wars; the increased numbers and visibility of women politicians as state and federal legislators and credible candidates for the highest political positions; female Supreme Court justices; and the realization that even for the most high-powered, successful, and liberated women, life is still a juggling act between the demands of career and home. All of the important people are here also: those early suffragette and Civil Rights pioneers, such as Alice Paul and Ella Baker, who lived into the 1960s and beyond; Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Schlafly, and those who benefited, such as Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

In short, this book will help those of a certain age to relive a tumultuous and exciting time in the American experience and those who are much younger to realize what their mothers and grandmothers faced and how they responded to an inequitable situation.

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In an ideal world, somebody would have already written a comic book in which Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Caroline Kennedy decided to suit up in spandex and fight crime. This has not been done yet. I am waiting.

Meanwhile, Neal Bailey has delivered a collective graphic biography that explores the lives of these four American public figures. There are no invisible helicopters* like Wonder Woman drives, but there’s plenty of intrigue and drama and at least one scene with a gun. (Spoiler: it doesn’t turn out well for the moose.)

*Actually, there may have been invisible helicopters. I didn’t see any, but that’s the point of invisible helicopters.

Biographies often leave me bored, but Bailey homes in on the interesting parts and leaves out all the mind-numbing details that plague so many life stories. He touches lightly on the family, childhood, and backgrounds of the four women, deftly weaving in threads of modern American history, but the focus is on the women’s careers: Clinton’s tenure as First Lady, presidential candidate, and Senator; Obama’s legal work and First Lady activities; Kennedy’s intensely private work in law, politics, and charity; and Palin’s service as mayor, governor, and would-be Vice President. (Bailey wrote the section on Clinton prior to her appointment as Secretary of State, so those bits aren’t in here.)

This is suitable for tween and young adult readers, though I recommend it for adult readers who want to know more about some of the most powerful and influential women in the country. I would also encourage teachers to let their students use this text as a resource for school reports. It’s true that it’s a comic book graphic novel, but don’t let the pictures fool you: this is high-quality, well-researched biographical writing.

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Shortly after she graduated from Smith College, Piper Kerman had a short-lived love affair with a woman embroiled in the exotic and dangerous world of international drug trafficking. Kerman herself was a tangential figure—her tiny role was to smuggle drug money through an airport one time—and before long she had moved on, settling into a respectable career and finding love with a guy who knew nothing of her past.

Years later, the Feds caught up. Kerman’s crime had been relatively inconsequential, committed in the distant past of her youth, but drug conspiracies have a pesky tendency to eventually unravel. Kerman plead guilty and self-surrendered to a federal women’s prison in Connecticut to begin serving her thirteen months.

This is an articulate, insightful, and thoughtful account of a year behind bars, a memoir of a lifestyle that most of us will never encounter. Kerman has a shrewd and darkly funny way of explaining the intricacies of prison, from the social layers (most of the women sort themselves into ethnic strata) to illicit pleasures (food can be smuggled out of the kitchen) to the ways to kill time (one inmate runs a popular yoga class).

Readers should be aware that this is not a typical prison memoir. Kerman is educated, pretty, successful, and white, and she gets privileged treatment because of it (though she has the good grace to acknowledge the unfairness of her privileges). Furthermore, she has an excellent support group on the outside. Innumerable friends send her letters and books, and her fiance visits once every week, for three hours at a time, with physical contact allowed. (For comparison, if you drive to the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail just down the street, you get a maximum of thirty minutes and a thick wall of plastic between you and the inmate—and you aren’t allowed to bring in books for them to read.)

But though Kerman has an easier time of it than most convicts, it is still a thoroughly unpleasant way to spend thirteen months, especially with that last part spent among 10,000 other inmates in a horrible jail in Chicago, with Kerman waiting to testify against a former co-conspirator. Kerman’s memoir is not exactly the literary heir to The Gulag Archipelago, but it is a briskly-paced story that kept me turning the pages to learn more about a side of the bars I hope I never see.

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Porn for WomenThis book derives its humor from shameless heterosexist gender stereotypes. In deference to my feminist beliefs, I am going to weakly opine that no one should read this book. It perpetuates myths and drives wedges between the sexes.

Okay, glad that part’s done. On to the review:

This book is uproarious. There are four heroes, each one a young gentlemen: Adrian, who enjoys jazz saxophone and giving massages; Joe, a Big Brother volunteer who admires Gandhi; Rich, a pediatrician and yoga enthusiast; and Michael, an art gallery owner who likes chick flicks.

Each page features a photo of one of the young men alongside a quote. “I wouldn’t dream of letting you do this job,” says Rich, kneeling by a toilet, scrubber in hand. “C’mon, sit down!” says Joe, patting the couch. “There are ballgames on all the time. But how often can we watch the figure skating finals?” And Adrian– what a doll! The picture shows him offering a luscious chocolate raspberry dessert: “Have another piece of cake,” says Adrian. “I don’t like you looking so thin.”

Read this one alone, or better yet, read it with your friends.* Giggling together as a group over this book is a wonderful way to spend a few minutes.

*Your female friends, at any rate. Inexplicably, some male readers don’t find it very funny.

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