Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Encounters with Harriet Martineau – Stuart Hobday

Encounters with Harriet Martineau – Stuart Hobday

I hadn’t heard of Harriet Martineau until someone in my Victorian Literature study group announced she wanted to do a presentation on her – so in the interests of being prepared (I am still reeling from knowing nothing about Jane Austen’s military brothers and being put on the spot to lead that session) I decided to read something. I searched on my Kindle and this book came up and it was a good choice – well written, easy to read and containing a huge amount of research.

Harriet Martineau was a woman ahead of her time who has largely been forgotten by history because she was writing in time that was dominated by white christian men. She believed in universal human suffrage, education and evidence based science. She knew and influenced an enormous number of Victorian era luminaries – Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell …

She was out-spoken and radical and investigated things for her self – slavery in the US, religion in the middle east, etc.

We need an amazing historical novelist – Hilary Mantel perhaps? – to write about her and bring her to the world’s attention.

I haven’t been able to find any reviews of this book, but you can read more about it at Unbound

 

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The Button Box – Lynn Knight

The Button Box – Lynn Knight

I loved this book – social history, fashion history, contemporary literature and buttons! Here is the blurb …

I used to love the rattle and whoosh of my grandma’s buttons as they scattered from their Quality Street tin.

An inlaid wooden chest the size of a shoe box holds Lynn Knight’s button collection. A collection that has been passed down through three generations of women: a chunky sixties-era toggle from a favourite coat, three tiny pearl buttons from her mother’s first dress after she was adopted as a baby, a jet button from a time of Victorian mourning. Each button tells a story.

‘They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ said Virginia Woolf of clothes. The Button Box traces the story of women at home and in work from pre-First World War domesticity, through the first clerical girls in silk blouses, to the delights of beading and glamour in the thirties to short skirts and sexual liberation in the sixties.

I first heard of this book here and was intrigued – a quick pop to the book depository and a copy was winging its way to me. It then languished in my pile… however, I have been going through my pile picking and choosing what I want to read.

Each chapter starts with  a button (Jet button, glove button etc) but moves onto what is happening in the world at that time and also what was happening in women’s lives at that time. I particularly enjoyed the references to literature and now have a stack of new novelists I want to read – Barbara Comyns, Rosamond Lehmann, E. M Delafield and many more.

If you are at all interested in social history, fashion history or women’s history, then this is the book for you.

Another review …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/10/the-button-box-lifting-the-lid-on-womens-lives-lynn-knight-review

 

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The Good Life – Hugh Mackay

The Good Life - Hugh McKay

The Good Life – Hugh Mackay

A bit of a departure from my normal fiction reading – this was recommended by a friend and I took a long time reading it. I read a little bit at a time taking copious notes.

Here is the blurb …

“No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.”

Hugh Mackay has spent his entire working life asking Australians about their values, motivations, ambitions, hopes and fears. Now, in The Good Life, he addresses the ultimate question: What makes a life worth living?

His conclusion is provocative. The good life is not the sum of our security, wealth, status, postcode, career success and levels of happiness. The good life is one defined by our capacity for selflessness, the quality of our relationships and our willingness to connect with others in a useful way.

Mackay examines what is known as the Golden Rule through the prisms of religion, philosophy, politics, business and family life. And he explores the numerous and often painful ways we distract ourselves from this central principle: our pursuit of pleasure, our attempts to perfect ourselves and our children, and our conviction that we can have our lives under control.

Argued with all the passion and intelligence we have come to expect from one of Australia’s most prolific and insightful authors, The Good Life is a book that will start conversations, ignite arguments and possibly even change the way we live our lives.

I think reading it a little at a time really helped me to absorb Mr Mackay’s message, which ultimately distills down to ‘do unto others as you would have done to yourself’. It is very readable with the occasional real life example.

Here are some quotes …

If you adopt a rigid world view – religious, anti-religious, political, economic, academic,  aesthetic or otherwise – you tend to see everything through the filter of your convictions, and, not surprisingly, you see what you are looking for.

Fundamentalism, religious and otherwise, is like a steel trap that imprisons the soul and inhibits freedom to wonder.

The integrity of any theory lies in its falsifiability – that is, its openness to the possibility of repudiation in the light of more evidence, fresh insights or a more creative interpretation of data whose significance was not previously understood.

Certainty is the enemy of reason and reasonableness. It fuels our complacency and arrogance, wrapping us in a cocoon of self-confidence, perhaps even self-righteousness.

Intelligence is not an achievement to be admired, or a goal to aspire to; it is mainly an accident of birth, plus or minus a bit of training and encouragement. We all have it, and some people have more than others, but intelligence in no way predicts the kind of person we are likely to become, the level of contentment we are likely to attain or the influence, good or bad, we are likely to exert on the lives of others.

The thing to nurture in our children – is not only the maximising of our intellectual potential, but the maximising of our potential for goodness.

[…] those who plug away, year after thankless year, doing their best to be faithful partners, loving parents, good neighbours and responsible citizens. These are the unsung heroes…

Painful as it can be to admit, an overly busy life – rushing here, rushing there – can be a highly effective insulation from engagement with the very people who made need you to stop running, listen to them and take them seriously enough to spend time with them.

Self-absorption is not a recognised path to goodness.

At its heart, that’s all morality is about; co-operation, mutual respect, a sense of community, a spirit of egalitarianism …

[…] we can nurture the goodness in us by associating with people whose goodness we recognise and admire, avoiding the close company of those whose self-interest infects everything they do and may infect our own thinking in the same way.

Here are some of the things I learnt while reading …

Power, wealth, status and fame have the potential to corrupt us in three ways
1.  Encourage a sense of entitlement based on an assumption of superiority
2.  Fuelling our greed.
3.  We judge people by the same criteria we use to measure our own success.

Each life has the meaning we ourselves choose to invest in it.

This book is well worth reading, but read it a chapter at a time and give yourself a bit of time for reflection before moving on to the next chapter.

Another review …

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-good-life-20130517-2jrtb.html

 

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H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald

H is for Hawk - Helen MacDonald

H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald

Several people suggested that I read this, but I resisted. The blurb (see below) didn’t really appeal to me – I am not all that interested in birds and I had a terrible relationship with my Dad, so I didn’t want to be reminded of what I didn’t have, but eventually I gave in and read it. I am glad I did because it is not just about birds and grief, it is about finding your way to live in the world.

Here is the blurb …

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer, Helen had never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk, but in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.
Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

So this is about Helen MacDonald overcoming her grief by training a goshawk, but it is also a memoir of T.H. White. And both of those are about making peace with yourself (accepting your nature and desires) and making a contented life for yourself.

I am quite nosy so I do like reading about other peoples’ lives – how they live and what they thought etc. This is a very personal story – I am in awe of anybody who can put so much of themselves into the world.

More reviews …

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/04/h-is-for-hawk-review-helen-macdonald-taming-goshawk-mabel

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/books/review/helen-macdonalds-h-is-for-hawk.html?_r=0

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The Joy of X – Steven Strogatz

The Joy of X - Steven Strogatz

The Joy of X – Steven Strogatz

In my real life I have a Maths degree (a double major; one in Pure Maths and one in Applied) and I like to read the occasional maths book – like this one. I’m always hoping to find a better way to teach my students.

Here is the blurb for this one …

Maths is everywhere, often where we least expect it. Award-winning professor Steven Strogatz acts as our guide as he takes us on a tour of numbers that – unbeknownst to the most of us – form a fascinating and integral part of our everyday lives. In The Joy of X, Strogatz explains the great ideas of maths – from negative numbers to calculus, fat tails to infinity – and shows how they connect to everything from popular culture and philosophy to current affairs and business practice. He is the maths teacher you never had and this book is perfect for the smart and curious, the expert and the beginner.

I really enjoyed this book it is split into six sections: Numbers, Relationships (I made everyone in the house try the bath filling question), Shapes, Change, Data and Frontiers. Each chapter is quite small and written in a very accessible style (there are Notes at the end for anyone who wants to delve further into the maths). I’ve also watched some of Vi Hart’s You Tube clips – like this one on the infinity elephants.

I would say this book is for people who are interested in Maths, but haven’t studied that much of it. It is an overview – entertaining and interesting and I hope it encourages people to further reading.

More reviews …

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9839254/The-Joy-of-X-a-Guided-Tour-of-Mathematics-from-One-to-Infinity-by-Steven-Strogatz-review.html

http://math-frolic.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/joy-to-world-of-math.html

 

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Colette’s France Her Lifes Her Loves – Jane Gilmour

Colette's France - Jane Gilmour

Colette’s France – Jane Gilmour

This was a Christmas present – I have been learning French in part because I want to be able to read french novels. This is a beautiful book – thick pages and lovely illustrations. I have read the Claudine novels but nothing else and knew very little of Colette’s life.

Here is the blurb …

A lavishly illustrated biography of the lively and often controversial life of Colette, the French writer, artist, and intellectual. Colette’s France is a beautifully illustrated biography of French writer Colette, a key figure in French radical, artistic, and intellectual life in the early twentieth century. Told through the locations in France where she lived, worked, and loved, her lively life story moves along through her many different relationships and homes—from Burgundy to Paris to Brittany to St. Tropez and more—revealing her deep and personal love of France and the natural world. Colette’s life and writing spans a special time in French literary history, the renowned artistic period of Belle Époque Paris. Her companions were the great French writers, artists, actors, and intellectuals, and her life plays out against a backdrop of great creativity and style, liberation and rebellion. Colette wrote about love and experienced love in the most independent, sometimes outrageous, sense—numerous lovers, several marriages, a lesbian affair, and an affair with her seventeen-year-old stepson. Told through the authoritative voice of Jane Gilmour and complimented by stunning, rarely seen photographs and illustrations, Colette’s France brings Colette’s story to life and evokes the style and fashion of the times.

This book was quite an eye opener – she wrote this to her ten year old daughter…

‘I am waiting for something of your father and your mother to appear in you. And I find that I am waiting a long time. Do what you can so that this expectation is no longer disappointed. […] We didn’t bring you into this world to be just an ordinary little girls, to be mediocre’

I think this is a good first biography of Colette – it is quite short and not packed with information, so if you already know a bit you might know all of this. However, it is beautiful and might be worth a look just for the illustrations.

Another review

http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/books-feature/9032491/colettes-france-by-jane-gilmour-review/

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The Domestic Manners of Americans – Fanny Trollope

Domestic Manners of the Americans - Fanny Trollope

Domestic Manners of the Americans – Fanny Trollope

We read this for my Victorian study group. I knew it was going to be a slog and I made myself read 2% a day – although in the last week I had to read 5% a day (I must have slacked off at some stage).

Here is a description …

Frances Trollope, mother of the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote more than 40 books in her lifetime, including landmark novels dealing with important social issues. She is best known today, however, for this witty, entertaining, and controversial account of American life and culture. Published in 1832, this book presents a lively portrait of early nineteenth-century America as observed by a woman of rare intelligence and keen perception. The author left no stone unturned, commenting on American dress, food, speech, politics, manners, customs, the landscape, architecture, and more.

Mrs Trollope didn’t find much to admire in America – the manners were bad, too much spitting, too much drinking, strange religious practice, no culture, poorly educated populace and possibly their worst fault was a prejudice against the English. The scenery, however, was occasionally breath-taking particularly Niagara Falls. She tried to be an impartial observer, but it just felt cold and distant (and very judgemental). I would have preferred a more personal account. The descriptions of various places in America was interesting – particularly with the passage of time. I often got the atlas out to trace her journey.

At my group discussion it became clear that some biographical information and knowledge about the circumstances of the American trip would have enhanced the reading of this book.

I can’t say that I will be adding any Fanny Trollope’s to me to be read pile.

Here is a review I found…

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/book-of-a-lifetime-domestic-manners-of-the-americans-by-fanny-trollope-1828445.html

 

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How to be a Heroine – Samantha Ellis

How to be a Heroine - Samantha Ellis

How to be a Heroine – Samantha Ellis

This is a reading memoir – what various different novels meant to Ms Ellis.

Here is the blurb …

Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre? Petrova or Posy? Scarlett or Melanie? Lace or Valley of the Dolls?

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way. And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane.

So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live. Some of them stood up to the scrutiny (she will always love Lizzy Bennet); some of them most decidedly did not (turns out Katy Carr from What Katy Did isn’t a carefree rebel, she’s a drip). There were revelations (the real heroine of Gone with the Wind? Clearly Melanie), joyous reunions (Anne of Green Gables), nostalgia trips (Sylvia Plath) and tearful goodbyes (Lucy Honeychurch). And then there was Jilly Cooper…

How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, just as we do.

I have read quite a few of the novels in this book (not all although maybe I will try to track down a Jilly Cooper!). There are chapters on various different heroines from Elizabeth Bennet to Anne Shirley and Lucy Honeychurch. It was interesting to read about what these heroines meant to the author and how her opinions changed as her age, experience and circumstances changed. I read a similar type of book My Life in Middlemarch and it worked better for me. I suspect that is a personal preference.

If you like reading and talking about books, then this book is a fun, light read that might motivate you to re-read some old favourites.

More reviews…

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/08/how-be-heroine-samatha-ellis-review

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10592923/How-to-Be-a-Heroine-by-Samantha-Ellis-review.html

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My Life in Middlemarch – Rebecca Mead

My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead

My Life in Middlemarch – Rebecca Mead

I read about this book in The Australian on the day we had a guest speaker (Tim Dolin – he was fabulous) coming to speak to my group, so obviously I had to get a copy.

Here is the blurb …

New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth–Middlemarch— and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot’s masterpiece–the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure–and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot’s biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead’s life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.

I really enjoyed this book – part literary criticism part memoir – I’ve thought more about Middlemarch and I think I have gained a greater insight into the novel. I want someone to write something similar about all of the books I read.

I do think you need to have a passing knowledge of Middlemarch to read (or at least appreciate) this book.

More reviews …

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/books/review/rebecca-meads-my-life-in-middlemarch.html?_r=0

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/rebecca-mead-reads-meaning-into-george-eliots-middlemarch/story-fn9n8gph-1226814705811

 

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The Coat Route – Meg Lukens Noonan

The Coat Route - Meg Lukens Noonan

The Coat Route – Meg Lukens Noonan

I first heard about this book at a school fund raiser and I was intrigued by the whole coat making process.

Here is the blurb …

In today’s world of fast fashion, is there a place for a handcrafted $50,000 coat?

To answer that question, Meg Noonan unravels the story of the coat’s provenance. Her journey takes readers to the Sydney studio of John Cutler, a fourth-generation tailor who works magic with scissors and thread; to the remote mountains of Peru, where villagers shear vicunas (a rare animal known for its soft fleece); to the fabulous Florence headquarters of Stefano Ricci, the world’s greatest silk designer; to the esteemed French textile company Dormeuil; to the English button factory that makes products out of Indian buffalo horn; and to the workshop of the engraver who made the 18-carat gold plaque that sits inside the collar.

These individual artisans and family-owned companies are part of the rich tapestry of bespoke tailoring, which began in 17th-century London. They have stood against the tide of mass consumerism, but their dedication to their craft is about more than maintaining tradition; they have found increasing reason to believe that their way is best — for customers, for the environment, and for the workers involved.

Fascinating, surprising, and entertaining, The Coat Route is a timely love song to things of lasting value in our disposable culture.

As I am interested in textiles, I found this book fascinating. I hadn’t even heard of Vicuna, but I now appreciate why it is so expensive (although I do want to know if it is available in colours other than black, navy and brown). All of the steps involved in making the coat were interesting and very labour intensive. It is quite unsettling that these people might be the last people to make these objects. Surely the world will be a worse place if all we have is cheap fashion made by people who don’t earn a living wage. And what a fabulous opportunity for John Cutler – to be able to make the perfect coat (with no financial considerations).

I know it does sound a bit obscene a $50 000 coat, but what about a $6 000 coat the lasts for thirty years? I can understand the argument for good quality clothing that lasts a long time.

As an Australian, I found Australia being described by an American a bit odd. Robert Hawke who’s that? Oh she means Bob! And John Thompson? Surely she means Jack and I don’t think I have ever heard of Manly being described as a resort town six miles north of Sydney. But, this book is written for a global audience and not ‘know it all’ Australians.

I think if you are interested in Textiles, Bespoke Tailoring, Slow Fashion or just traditional crafts, then I think you will find this book interesting.

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