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28th-Feb-2015 12:19 pm(no subject)
The Battle of Versailles, by Robin Givhan. Flatiron Books, 2015

In 1973, Versailles, the fabulous palace created by Louis XIV, was falling apart for lack of funds. Eleanor Lambert, the publicist for American fashion designers- a job she created out of nothing- had the idea of a big fashion show, using both French and American designers. The French, of course, were skeptical, because at that point in time, American designers were not considered to be anything but copyists- people who came to Paris to see what was new there and then went home and copied it for American buyers. This actually worked well; most rich Americans couldn’t get haute couture no matter how much money they had. They had to be Somebody. American designers created clothing that was ready to wear, not fitted expressly to the woman’s body through multiple fittings and the most costly techniques.

Five French designers and five Americans agreed to put on the fund raising show. Immediately the arguing started- what models would be used? What order would the designers show in (everyone wanted to be the grand finale)? What would the presentation be like?

In the end, the show changed not only the minds of the French about American designers- they really could create new looks! – but how fashion shows were presented. The Americans brought life to the runway though music and dance; they took the unprecedented step of using many women of color as models; they showed that clothing for business women could be just as exciting as clothing for the ladies who lunch.

Givhan gives us a very detailed look not just into this one show, but into the fashion industry of the time. She follows the lives of the designers and models, the fashion trends, and what has happened to fashion shows today. Givhan grounds the fashion in the social changes of the 70s; this book is as much sociology as it is fashion. As someone with a strong interest in both, I found the book fascinating.
21st-Feb-2015 05:36 pm(no subject)
librarian ook
Moo, by Jane Smiley. Ballantine Books, 1995

Moo U. is a land-grant university in one of the mid-Western states. The author presents us with a huge cast of characters: students, academics and bureaucrats. In this farcical send up of academia- albeit agricultural academia rather than the ivory tower sort- everyone is avid for something, be it sex, tenure, grades, money, power, food, or a way out of the life they have. The living metaphor of this greed sits at the very center of the campus, physically and symbolically: a huge hog named Earl Butz (this is set in the Reagan era, btw). He is an experiment, the focus of a study to see how large a pig can get if his needs are constantly met. His sole job is to eat, and he does it well. His existence is a secret from all but a few; no one suspects that inside the concrete walls of an old, unused building is an avid consumer, any more than the longings of the people are visible to their peers.

Smiley takes on racism, sexism, and classism as well as the academic life. This is a gentle satire. Pretty much all of her myriad characters are treated as flawed humans rather than evil doers or other caricatures. It’s like these people are friends and family of the author and she looks on them with smiling indulgence. While not uproarious as the blurb on the cover said, it was amusing and engaging.
14th-Feb-2015 03:21 pm(no subject)
The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts, by Lee Baer, Ph.D. Plume, 2002

When people think of OCD, they will most often think of people hoarding, washing their hands, and checking locks repeatedly- the visible signs of OCD. There is another side of OCD, though, that isn’t visible- obsessional thoughts. While it’s possible for someone with OCD to ruminate on neutral thoughts, the one’s that can make lives miserable are ones of violence, sex, and blasphemy.

These aren’t thoughts that just come and go. They become fixed in the mind of the sufferer, repeating themselves- and horrifying the person. That’s key to these thoughts- they are of things that the person would never conceive of doing. Thoughts of harming or even killing their babies may come to young mothers. A person may be driving and the thought comes that they might hit someone. People have images of themselves performing sex acts they have no interest in – and sometimes are revolted by. People with deep religious feelings may find themselves imagining yelling obscenities in church, defiling the altar, or having sex with Jesus or Mary. And while most everyone has a few thoughts like that drift through their mind sometimes, the majority of people are able to dismiss the thoughts as just thoughts. To the person with obsessions, though, the thoughts are signs that they are intrinsically bad, and that they represent a real threat- even though the person is repulsed by these thoughts.

This short book goes over the three classes of these thoughts, and them presents ways of dealing with them: medications and exposure therapy (it *is* possible, even though thoughts are not physical things), the same things that work on regular Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The author even gives self-help instructions- very valuable since people with obsessive bad thoughts rarely want to confide in anyone, for fear of being thought a menace.
Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia is a fascinating and exhaustive account of the political rivalry between Russia and Britain in central Asia in the 19th century. The book was published in 1990 with a revised edition appearing in 2006.

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Great Game2
8th-Feb-2015 03:56 pm(no subject)
In the Night Room, by Peter Straub. Ballantine Books, 2004

Author Tim Underhill is having a bad day. He gets weird emails that come from dead people- and also emails from an exceptionally rude angel. He sees his dead sister. A ‘fan’ approaches him as he has lunch, asking him to sign a whole bag full of books, proceeds to rant about finding the ‘real’, perfect version of books, and then stalks Underhill.

Willy Patrick, author of children’s books, is also having a bad day. She is convinced that her daughter is being held in a warehouse. But her daughter, and her late husband, were killed some time ago. She is well aware that this is a kind of madness, so she goes back home, to her incredibly wealthy fiancé’s house that she is moving into in preparation for their wedding. Her fiancé is very secretive about what he does and is a control freak. Quite by accident she finds that her fiancé may have had something to do with her husband’s and daughter’s deaths, and she finds herself on the run. She winds up meeting Underhill, and they both flee the area.

I found this book to be rather frustrating. Straub played with reality in ways that I found hard to follow for a good long time- which is okay for a while. Patrick is said to be the author of the book “lost boy lost girl”- which of course Straub wrote (and I suspect that ‘Night Room’ would be a lot easier to follow if one has read ‘lost boy lost girl’ first.) Some things are said to be from his imagination, but other things are supposed to be ‘real’. The plot takes its time to get anywhere, with many things introduced that ultimately don’t go anywhere and left me, at the end, wondering what that bit was all about and if I’d missed something. For example, the emails from Underhill’s dead acquaintances seem to merely function to let him know that something weird is happening; they have no impact on the story itself. But the thing that bothered me the worst is that the story completely failed to scare me.
4th-Feb-2015 06:48 pm(no subject)
Grumpy cat
The Cat Who Saw Stars, by Lilian Jackson Braun. Jove Books, 1999

Many years ago, when I was a teen and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I read the very first “Cat Who” book: “The Cat Who Could Read Backwards” and enjoyed it. Decades later, I discovered that Braun had written a whole series of ‘Cat Who’ mysteries. So I picked this book up when I saw it.

The protagonist, a news reporter named Qwilleran, is still the same. He’s a recovered alcoholic with literate tastes and a sixth sense for news. The cat, Koko, (the one who could read backwards) is still with him (Koko also has a sixth sense for news and finds ways to communicate these things to Qwilleran), and has been joined by Yum Yum, another Siamese. Qwilleran and cats have moved from a big city to a small town. The cats are not like the ones in the Mrs. Murphey Mysteries by Rita Mae Brown- Brown’s cats talk amongst themselves like humans; Braun’s do not. The only thoughts we are privy to are Qwilleran’s.

Sadly, this book was not like the first one. It’s the 21st book in the series, and Braun seems to have lost her touch on this one. It’s disjointed and lacks any tension. A person turns up dead near the beginning, and that mystery is never solved- barely mentioned later. There are a couple of instances where a scene starts and goes a ways, then there are a few sentences that contradict what just happened. While the ending is dramatic, it has nothing to do with the murders at all. It all has an air of “And then this happened. And this. And this” and very little of it advances the story other than in time. It’s fitting that it occurs in summer, because it really reads like “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” by a 6th grader.
4th-Feb-2015 06:15 pm(no subject)
The Silver Witch, by Paula Brackston. Thomas Dunne Books, 2015

Tilda, a widow of one year, has finally moved into the remote Welsh cottage that she and her husband were going to live in until an accident put an end to their plans. She hopes to work on her pottery and find peace. Once there, however, strange things start happening. Modern things- whether it be the electricity, gasoline engines, or simply mechanical things like a grandfather clock- start refusing to work when she is around them. Then she sees a vision on the lake- three people in a canoe, not dressed in modern attire. Finally, she is seeing a horrific vision of a mutilated woman- a very angry mutilated woman- threatening her. And it all seems to be connected with an archeological dig next to the lake.

In the novel’s second point of view, Seren lives in a hut by the same lake, more than a thousand years before Tilda’s time. Seren is a witch and a shaman who prophesizes for the local prince, who lives on a man-made island in the lake. She and the prince are in love, but the prince is married- a marriage made to cement an alliance.

As Tilda learns more about the past, she also gains control over the powers she seems to have acquired by coming to the lake. But can she gain control well enough to defeat the very powerful ghost that is rising from the grave the archeologists are excavating?

I enjoyed this book a great deal, although it took me a while to get into it. I loved the setting and season; winter in the secluded lake area puts Tilda largely on her own, despite a love interest. The ending managed to surprise me; it was obvious that the grave was very important but who was in it was not who I expected! Great atmosphere and I liked most of the characters, although some were rather flat, there to just serve a function. I’ll be looking for Brackston’s previously published books now.
3rd-Feb-2015 05:42 pm(no subject)
lights through the trees
The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Anchor, 2001

In this short story collection, Divakaruni explores the lives of Indians facing the differences of the American way of life versus the Indian way. A mother living in America with her son’s family finds herself with no real place there while her friend in India thinks she must be living a wonderful life of leisure in America. A young Indian-American mother fights with her feelings about the father who abandoned her to go to America, who now wants to meet his only grandson. A young woman strikes out on her own, only to find herself in the middle of a soap opera situation- living with her boss’s ‘second wife’ and having two people fall in love with her. The expectations of the elders is that woman will be subordinate and do all the child care and housework; the younger generation- especially those born in America- think that is nonsense. The older generation embarrasses the younger with their old country ways. Traditional Indian ways hit up against the tide of change. These are lovely little stories of the juggling acts that immigrant families sometimes have to face.
31st-Jan-2015 12:52 pm(no subject)
The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan. Crown Publishers, 2015

Callanish is a Gracekeeper; she lives alone on a tiny, remote, island and gives water burial to the dead brought to her. North lives on a circus boat with her trained bear; she performs with the bear when the circus docks at a large island, at the shore line. Boat living people- damplings- don’t go ashore willingly, nor are they welcomed by the landlockers. Both these teens have secrets they are keeping, secrets which will change their lives once they are known- and their secrets link them to each other. Their fates are both arranged by others; neither sees a good way to change their fate. A bad storm shows them other options, though, if they will have the strength to try for it.

Logan has created a world where there is little land left; the seas have risen dramatically. No one alive remembers the world as it was before, only that some people known as ‘the bankers’ caused the change. With so little land, farming is very limited and food is constantly scarce, especially for the circus damplings, who rely mainly on food ‘tips’ from their audiences, seaweed, and a few fish. I think because of the circus and the young protagonists with secrets, the book reminded me in ways of Laura Lam’s ‘Pantomime’- this is a good thing! I loved ‘Pantomime’! I really liked both of the main protagonists; they are strong young women. There is no real villain- although there is one extremely self-centered woman in the circus who threatens to derail North’s life even she is a developed, well rounded personality not a caricature. Logan has detailed her world with scents, tastes, sounds, and textures that bring it to life. I read this book in a day and a half, not wanting to put it down. I don’t know if this is the start of a series- it did end rather abruptly; if it is, I definitely want to read more.
28th-Jan-2015 08:32 pm(no subject)
Final Journeys: A Practical Guide for Bringing Care and Comfort at the End of Life, by Maggie Callanan. Bantam Books, 2008

Maggie Callanan, along with Patricia Kelley, wrote “Final Gifts”, a groundbreaking book about how people die. “Final Journeys” is a companion book and focuses on the care giver’s role and how they can best help the dying and take care of themselves at the same time. She explains how entering hospice care is not ‘giving up’, what paperwork the dying (which is all of us, really) should have completed to make things easier for themselves and their loved ones, that it’s okay for the dying and the family to laugh and joke, and why you shouldn’t call 911 if the person does not want aggressive resuscitation.
Callanan is a veteran hospice nurse with 27 years of experience working with the dying at the time she wrote this book. She’s helped innumerable families as a member passes on, and has seen all sorts of scenarios. In this book, she answers a lot of the questions that people have about giving care to a family member facing death. She doesn’t just dwell on the dying person, but on what the care giver experiences; how different people react to the impending death of a loved one; how they grieve; and various options for end of life care. The book is written in an easy to read style, even when dealing with medical details. I’m not a stranger to caregiving and dealing with death and I learned a lot from this book, especially about family dynamics.
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