Category Archives: Non-Fiction

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…


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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…

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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 …



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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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The Unfinished Game – Keith Devlin


The Unfinished Game - Keith Devlin

The Unfinished Game – Keith Devlin

In my previous (before children) life I taught maths and I still like maths (learning it, tutoring it, etc.).

First, this book had an easy conversational style – you don’t have to be into maths to understand or enjoy it. It was about a series of letters written between Fermat and Pascal that lead to probability theory. It is hard for us to imagine a world without probability, but people thought it was impossible to predict future events (it was the will of god).

Blurb …

Before the mid-seventeenth century, scholars generally agreed that it was impossible to predict something by calculating mathematical outcomes. One simply could not put a numerical value on the likelihood that a particular event would occur. Even the outcome of something as simple as a dice roll or the likelihood of showers instead of sunshine was thought to lie in the realm of pure, unknowable chance.The issue remained intractable until Blaise Pascal wrote to Pierre de Fermat in 1654, outlining a solution to the ?unfinished game” problem: how do you divide the pot when players are forced to end a game of dice before someone has won? The idea turned out to be far more seminal than Pascal realized. From it, the two men developed the method known today as probability theory.

In The Unfinished Game, mathematician and NPR commentator Keith Devlin tells the story of this correspondence and its remarkable impact on the modern world: from insurance rates, to housing and job markets, to the safety of cars and planes, calculating probabilities allowed people, for the first time, to think rationally about how future events might unfold.

Mr (Dr?) Devlin presents a piece of the correspondence and then explains it – he does a great job of simplifying complicated ideas. I found this book fascinating. The different writing styles of Fermat and Pascal, the fact that Pascal struggled a bit with probability (that was quite reassuring).

More reviews …



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Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale

I have read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House  which made me keen to read Ms Summerscale’s next work. I checked out a large print version from the library and there wasn’t any images – were the images in the normal version? Anyway, this was quite a fascinating story. Did she commit adultery (I suspect so) or did she just write her fantasies in her journal? The time the story took places also adds to its appeal. Divorce is easier to obtain now than ever before, the pseudo science of phrenology and hydropathy (and what is uterine disease?)  plus the other famous people in the story (e.g. Charles Darwin).

Here is the blurb …

 Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.
No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts—and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane—in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted—passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella’s intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of “a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal.” Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.

 This book gives a snap shot of what life was like in educated circles in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. It is clear that a lot of research went into the novel, but it is easy to read and very entertaining. It is definitely worth reading if you like social history, women’s history or the victorian era.

More reviews …





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The Pattern in the Carpet – Margaret Drabble

I read a review of this book somewhere (probably The Australian Review) and thought it sounded interesting and then I found a copy on sale at Borders – it was meant to be.

The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws is an original and brilliant work. Margaret Drabble weaves her own story into a history of games, in particular jigsaws, which have offered her and many others relief from melancholy and depression. Alongside curious facts and discoveries about jigsaw puzzles — did you know that the 1929 stock market crash was followed by a boom in puzzle sales? — Drabble introduces us to her beloved Auntie Phyl, and describes childhood visits to the house in Long Bennington on the Great North Road, their first trip to London together, the books they read, the jigsaws they completed. She offers penetrating sketches of her parents, her siblings, and her children; she shares her thoughts on the importance of childhood play, on art and writing, on aging and memory. And she does so with her customary intelligence, energy, and wit. This is a memoir like no other.

This was a lovely book to read – part memoir part jigsaw history. There were anecdotes  from her friends and acquaintances about their ‘jigsaw puzzling’. Drabble uses a chatty style – it is like you’re sitting at her table doing a puzzle together.

And yes, I did feel motivated to do a  jigsaw puzzle. I like the idea that it is always possible to complete the puzzle you just need time and a bit of discipline.

I liked this book so much I’ve moved on to The Witch of Exmoor.

Here are some more reviews … 

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Coco Chanel The Legend and the Life – Justine Picardie

Firstly, this is a beautiful book. The pages are thick and the photographs and illustrations (by Karl Lagerfeld) are beautiful.

This was an accessible and easy to read biography. Each chapter covers a different phase/aspect of Chanel’s life. The information is well-grouped and draws attention to recurring patterns in her life that might have been missed in a more strictly chronological account.

I would definitely recommend this biography to any one interested in Chanel’s life.

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Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

I chose to read this book because I read about the necessity of 10 000 hours of practice to master something; music, computer programming etc, and I was intrigued.

Gladwell has a very accessible and entertaining style. Here is the blurb …

Why do some people achieve so much more than others? Can they lie so far out of the ordinary?

In his provocative and inspiring new book, Malcolm Gladwell looks at everyone from rockstars to professional athletes, software billionaires to scientific geniuses, to show that the story of success is far more surprising than we could ever have imagined. He reveals that it’s as much about where we’re from and what we do, as who we are – and no one, not even a genius, ever makes it alone.

In the first section of the book Gladwell looks at individual success – starting with professional sport. He noticed in the NHL that most players have birthdays in the first three months of the year. It turns out that the cut-off for junior hockey is the first of January. A child born on the first of January is in the same competition as one born on the thirty first of December. At the beginning years of hockey the January children will be a little bit bigger and a bit more mature. They will be picked for teams more often and get extra coaching and practice thus improving and going on to be picked for more specialist coaching, etc. Gladwell isn’t implying that the children born earlier in the year don’t have talent, they do, but they also have an added opportunity. This bonus opportunity is also used to explain software geniuses, scientists and extremely successful lawyers. However, it’s not only opportunity that makes the difference – these people also work hard. Ten thousand hours to be precise. Gladwell also looks at IQ and determines that IQ alone isn’t enough to determine success. You need to be ‘smart enough’, but after that it’s more to do with opportunity, personality and hard work.

The second section of the book is all about cultural legacy. Even though we may have moved countries patterns of behaviour set by our ancestors influence us today – sometimes in positive ways and sometimes not. There is an interesting section on the relationship between Captains and First Officers. First Officers from some cultures find it very difficult to tell the Captain they think he has made a mistake. They hint at the issue, but often the Captain simply ignores them. This reticence has lead to crashes. There are positive legacies as well. Descendants of the rice farmers of China value hard work (apparently being a rice farmer is very hard). Gladwell argues that the Asian tendency to be good at mathematics is in part due to their high work ethic – they work hard therefore they achieve success.

I found this book to be fascinating. I like to think that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded with success. If you’re interested in popular culture, human nature or education, then I think you would enjoy reading this book.

Here is more information ..

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Superfreakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner


This was one of my husband’s Christmas presents and I thought I would read it too.  I’ve never been particularly interested in economics – I studied it at school and that was enough. However, this book is fun and interesting almost makes me want to go back and study economics. Although it appears microeconomics rather than macroeconomics is the interesting stuff.

Here is the book description from Amazon …

The New York Times best-selling Freakonomicswas a worldwide sensation, selling over four million copies in thirty-five languages and changing the way we look at the world. Now, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner return with SuperFreakonomics,and fans and newcomers alike will find that the freakquel is even bolder, funnier, and more surprising than the first.

Four years in the making, SuperFreakonomics asks not only the tough questions, but the unexpected ones: What’s more dangerous, driving drunk or walking drunk? Why is chemotherapy prescribed so often if it’s so ineffective? Can a sex change boost your salary?

SuperFreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as: 

    • How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
    • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
    • How much good do car seats do?
    • What’s the best way to catch a terrorist?
    • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
    • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
    • Are people hard-wired for altruism or selfishness?
    • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
    • Which adds more value: a pimp or a Realtor?


Levitt and Dubner mix smart thinking and great storytelling like no one else, whether investigating a solution to global warming or explaining why the price of oral sex has fallen so drastically. By examining how people respond to incentives, they show the world for what it really is – good, bad, ugly, and, in the final analysis, super freaky.

This is book is a fun read. The authors have a conversational style and they write about witty, interesting (and slightly bizarre) things.

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