Archive for the ‘Women’s Nonfiction’ Category

PioneerLaura Ingalls was my first heroine. Despite her tales of crop-destroying grasshoppers and bitter winters and wolves howling outside her door, there was something in her spare, vivid writing that made me want to live in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

Pioneer Girl is a handsome volume, compiled with love and scholarship by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. It presents Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first, handwritten memoir, which was later reworked by the author and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, into the beloved “Little House” series.

Many of the episodes will be familiar to readers who followed the Ingalls’s westward migration from Wisconsin to De Smet, South Dakota. Other incidents, memorably the death of a nine-month-old baby brother, never made it into the children’s series.

The manuscript has been annotated with microscopic attention to detail, cross-referencing Wilder’s recollections with census records, land records, old family photographs, and news articles. Footnotes sift fact from fiction and fill in some historical context: why were Indians hanging out in Ma’s kitchen, helping themselves to the food? Because the Ingalls were homesteading illegally on land still belonging, by treaty, to the Osage tribe.

You may not need to know the exact species of leech from the infamous incident in which Laura led her nemesis, Nellie Oleson, into the bloodsucker-infested waters of Plum Creek (Erpobdella punctata). You may not want to know that Nellie Oleson herself is a fiction, a composite character made into a villain to give the narrative a stronger structure. (Life, so frequently, lacks a strong narrative structure.) But if you are interested in these details, or in the process by which a novel is made out of memories, then this is a worthwhile book to browse through on a cold winter day.

Check the WRL catalog for Pioneer Girl.

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ArtofAcquiringEveryone’s heard of the painters Matisse and Picasso, but fewer have heard of the sisters who early last century brought hundreds of their paintings to the United States and, in the 1940s, bequeathed their huge collections to the Baltimore Museum of Art. To this day the Baltimore Museum of Art has one of  the world’s premier collections of modern art housed in the sisters’ three-thousand piece, three-story Cone Collection.

The Art of Acquiring is a portrait of sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, who were born into a large and wealthy American family around the time of the Civil War. They never married and spent a good deal of their lives traveling to Europe, particularly Paris, and spending their inherited wealth on art. They were notable for their time for their unbending independence. Claribel trained as a doctor when such things were uncommon for women and she worked as a research scientist for a number of years. Younger sister Etta appears to have lived in her big sister’s shadow but she quietly asserted her own independence by buying paintings society considered obscene and scandalous, but are now seen as artistically important such as Henri Matisse’s 1935 “Pink Nude” (Grand nu couche). The sisters can only be described as tough and single-minded. A famous family story recounts that when Claribel became trapped in Berlin after the start of World War I, she hunkered down and waited out the war, diverting and charming visiting army officers with stashed candy.

Author Mary Gabriel spent years extensively researching the Cone sisters using letters, Etta’s diaries, Claribel’s notes, oral histories, and interviews. In the time before instant communications, people–especially rich people going on European tours–wrote lots of letters, sometimes several a day. Quotes from the letters are occasionally catty (especially when Gertrude Stein was involved), sometimes poignant, but always enlightening. The book also includes extensive notes, a bibliography and an index.

The color plates in The Art of Acquiring show some of the more significant paintings mentioned, but keep an art book or two handy to look at the other art works as they are described, both as they were created by the artists and purchased by the Cone sisters. The Art of Acquiring will be of great interest to modern art lovers and readers fascinated by the Belle Epoque of Paris in the early years of the twentieth century, with real life characters such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Matisse, Picasso and more.  It is also engrossing if you like biographies of real women who went against the social mores of their times and always followed their own paths.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art of Acquiring.

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SouthernHerbGrowingI have tried gardening on several continents with many climates and soil types. I soon learned that a plant that grows well in one place may get resentful and sulk — or outright die— in another. That is why gardening books that address local conditions are spectacularly useful. Here in southeastern Virginia we are well served by Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. When I was starting to grow herbs I was looking for a book about a particular type of plant rather than tightly focused on one place, and Southern Herb Growing has turned out to be a wonderful resource to help me with our hot and humid conditions.

The author Madalene Hill was  the national president of the Herb Society of America in the 1980s and her expertise shines through. The first part of the book is called “A Herbal Primer” and covers getting started with sections on soil, mulch and propagation. A large part of it is given over to design ideas including historical knot gardens and theme gardens. The before and after photos can be a little discouraging because the full, tangled cottage-garden look that I crave may take five years to grow. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my two inch tall sprigs of rosemary to become bushes! And for those readers who can only dream of the space to grow a proper garden, the book includes container gardening (which herbs are well suited to).

Around half the book is the “Growing Guide” with hundreds of herbs listed alphabetically with advice for growing them in the hot, humid South, the herbs’ historical uses and significance, and their modern culinary and medicinal uses. Each listing has the scientific genus and species names, as well as alternate names, so from from Acanthus to Yarrow you should be able to find almost any rare or common herb you are interested in.

Southern Herb Growing is a great book for all gardeners, especially if you want prosaic advice poetically put such as “Basils go home to their fathers at the first sign of cold nights in the fall.” It includes hundreds of beautiful photographs of herb gardens growing throughout the South, so try it whether you are able to immediately use their advice to improve your current garden or look at the lovely pictures and dream…

Check the WRL catalog for Southern Herb Growing.

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somenerveSome Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave is part self-help and part memoir and a pleasure to read. Patty Anker was fast approaching forty when she realized that she said “no” to a lot of new experiences. She didn’t say “no” because she wasn’t interested, it was because she was afraid. Not wanting to leave a legacy to her daughters of not trying new things due to fear, she took up the gauntlet to approach her fears head on. Patty learns to swim, ride a bike, and surf but she also helps her friends tackle their fears of heights and driving too.

This is not a book about surviving big fears like being lost at sea or in the desert or being buried alive. It is a story about tackling the “little” and “common” fears that can have a significant impact on our quality of life and often prevent us from enjoying some of the simple pleasures in the world, such as going to the beach or enjoying the view from above or taking a drive just because you can.

With humor and grace Patty shares her own fears and insecurities interwoven with research and interviews by psychologists, clergy, and authors. She illustrates through her own story and others how tackling fears can make life more vibrant. The confidence gained by approaching fear head on often transfers to other aspects of life. Once you’ve read Some Nerve, you’ll recognize the courage it takes to tackle the small jobs and that the rewards are great, even if you “fail.”

Check the WRL catalog for Some Nerve

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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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


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.


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.

Check the WRL catalog for Big Girls Don’t Cry


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