Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Dressed in Fiction – Clair Hughes

Dressed in Fiction – Clair Hughes

I am not sure where I first heard about this book, but I bought a second hand copy from Abe books (it’s probably a second because the first chapter is in backwards!).

Here’s the blurb …

When we look closely at dress in a novel we begin to enrich our sense of the novel’s historical and social context. More than this, wealth, class, beauty and moral rectitude can all be coded in fabric. In the modern novel, narratives are increasingly situated within the consciousness of characters, and it is the experience of dress that tells us about the context and the emotional, political and psychological values of the characters. Dressed in Fiction traces the deployment of dress in key fictional texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from Daniel Defoe’s Roxana to George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Covering a range of topics, from the growth of the middle classes and the association of luxury with vice, to the reasons why wedding dresses rarely ever symbolize happiness, the book presents a unique study of the history of clothing through the most popular and influential literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This book (non-fiction) is the intersection of literature and fashion history. I found it fascinating and very readable. I haven’t read Daniel Defoe so that chapter didn’t appeal to me as much as the others, I particularly enjoyed the ones on Middlemarch and House of Mirth. I now want to go back and (re)read these novels.

If you enjoy Victorian literature and fashion, then you will enjoy this book.

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Filed under 4, Non-Fiction, Serious

Exactly – Simon Winchester

Exactly – Simon Winchester

I has this languishing on my Kindle (was it a daily or monthly deal?).

Bestselling author Simon Winchester writes a magnificent history of the pioneering engineers who developed precision machinery to allow us to see as far as the moon and as close as the Higgs boson. Precision is the key to everything. It is an integral, unchallenged and essential component of our modern social, mercantile, scientific, mechanical and intellectual landscapes. The items we value in our daily lives – a camera, phone, computer, bicycle, car, a dishwasher perhaps – all sport components that fit together with precision and operate with near perfection. We also assume that the more precise a device the better it is. And yet whilst we live lives peppered and larded with precision, we are not, when we come to think about it, entirely sure what precision is, or what it means. How and when did it begin to build the modern world?

Simon Winchester seeks to answer these questions through stories of precision’s pioneers. Exactly takes us back to the origins of the Industrial Age, to Britain where he introduces the scientific minds that helped usher in modern production: John `Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, and Joseph Whitworth. Thomas Jefferson exported their discoveries to the United States as manufacturing developed in the early twentieth century, with Britain’s Henry Royce developing the Rolls Royce and Henry Ford mass producing cars, Hattori’s Seiko and Leica lenses, to today’s cutting-edge developments from Europe, Asia and North America.

As he introduces the minds and methods that have changed the modern world, Winchester explores fundamental questions. Why is precision important? What are the different tools we use to measure it? Who has invented and perfected it? Has the pursuit of the ultra-precise in so many facets of human life blinded us to other things of equal value, such as an appreciation for the age-old traditions of craftsmanship, art, and high culture? Are we missing something that reflects the world.

It has 9 chapters based on a level of precision:

  • Stars, Seconds, Cylinders and Steam.
  • Extremely flat and Incredily Close
  • A Gun in Every Home, a Clock in Every Cabin.
  • On the Verge of a More Perfect World
  • The Irrestibible Lure of the Highway
  • Precision and Peril, Six Miles High
  • Through a glass, Distinctly
  • Where am I and What is the Time?
  • Squeezing Beyond Boundaries

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the Hubble Telescope (and its issues) and the shrinking of transistors on chips.

I think there is a lot we take for granted in a world of mass production; we expected parts to be interchangeable, i.e. we can just replace a part when it breaks down and not have to hand-machine something specific to replace the broken bit.

This is a fascinating book with a lot of information about precision, but also about the people who make precise things and who are trying to push the boundaries of precision.

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Filed under 3, Non-Fiction

Behind the Seams – Esme Young

Behind the Seams – Esme Young

This was given to me as a gift, and as a fan of The Great British Sewing Bee, I was very keen to read this book.

From adventures at Central Saint Martins to The Great British Sewing Bee , go behind the scenes of Esme Young’s amazing life…

At age five, Esme was asked to write in her notebook, but instead, she filled it with drawings – the only way she knew to express herself. At seven, when it was discovered she was partially deaf, she found refuge in her sketchbooks. Shortly after, Esme made her first garment and a passion for sewing and designing was born. As a teenager, she made her way to London where her creative journey truly began.

Living in a squat with other young creatives, Esme made the most of her time; studying at Central Saint Martins, launching a clothing line called Swanky Modes with three friends and £50 each, watching Notting Hill Carnival with David Bowie, and altering a dress for Cher. The ’90s saw a career move into costumes for films, where she designed outfits for Trainspotting , Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Beach , before she moved onto the small screen herself.

A celebration of a creative life lived differently, Behind the Seams is a reminder that it’s never too early, or too late to pick up a needle and start stitching in a new direction.

This was great, so much that I didn’t know or expect. From the sewing bee, I knew about her work at Central Saint Martins, but nothing about the rest of her career. And what an amazing career it is; fashion and costume design, fabulous collaborations.

The driving impulse seems to be to say yes (almost all the time) to all opportunities.

If you’re interested in textiles, fashion, sewing, pattern cutting or the sewing bee, then this book will interest you.

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Filed under 4, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Anne’s World – A New Century of Anne of Green Gables, edited by Irene Gammel and Benjamin Lefebvre

Anne’s world – A New Century of Anne of Green Gables

I bought this soon after it was published (way back in 2010) and I finally read it. It’s a series of papers written around the time of the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Anne of Green Gables.

Here’s the blurb …

The recent 100 year anniversary of the first publication of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables has inspired renewed interest in one of Canada’s most beloved fictional icons. The international appeal of the red-haired orphan has not diminished over the past century, and the cultural meanings of her story continue to grow and change. The original essays in Anne’s World offer fresh and timely approaches to issues of culture, identity, health, and globalization as they apply to Montgomery’s famous character and to today’s readers.

In conversation with each other and with the work of previous experts, the contributors to Anne’s World discuss topics as diverse as Anne in fashion, the global industry surrounding Anne, how the novel can be used as a tool to counteract depression, and the possibility that Anne suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Anne in translation and its adaptation for film and television are also considered. By establishing new ways to examine one of popular culture’s most beloved characters, the essays of Anne’s World demonstrate the timeless and ongoing appeal of L.M. Montgomery’s writing.

It covers a diverse range of topics; from translations to adaptations, bibliotherapy, etc. I skipped some of the chapters – the one on Fetal Alcohol syndrome for example, if anything I think Anne has ADHD. But this was an interesting selection of papers, and made me want to read the novel again and dig into LM Montgomery’s journals.

It is quite an academic book, but don’t let that put you off, it’s easy to read. And there are lots of foot notes you can explorer for extra reading.

I can’t find a review of this book, but here is a link to an article Margaret Atwood wrote about Anne of Green Gables.

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Filed under 3, Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

Mrs Gaskell and Me – Nell Stevens

Mrs Gaskell and Me – Nell Stevens

I first heard of Nell Stevens on the Backlisted podcast – they were discussing Mrs Gaskell’s North and South (one of my favourite books – and there is a fabulous television adaptation). And this sounded right up my alley – I have already read something similar about George Eliot, and there was My Salinger Year, not to forget My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Now I need someone to write one about Austen.

Here’s the blurb …

In 1857, after two years of writing The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell fled England for Rome on the eve of publication. The project had become so fraught with criticism, with different truths and different lies, that Mrs Gaskell couldn’t stand it any more. She threw her book out into the world and disappeared to Italy with her two eldest daughters. In Rome she found excitement, inspiration, and love: a group of artists and writers who would become lifelong friends, and a man – Charles Norton – who would become the love of Mrs Gaskell’s life, though they would never be together.

In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her Ph.D. – about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century – and falling drastically in love with a man who lives in another city. As Nell chases her heart around the world, and as Mrs Gaskell forms the greatest connection of her life, these two women, though centuries apart, are drawn together.

Mrs Gaskell and Me is about unrequited love and the romance of friendship, it is about forming a way of life outside the conventions of your time, and it offers Nell the opportunity – even as her own relationship falls apart – to give Mrs Gaskell the ending she deserved.

I enjoyed both stories – Mrs Gaskell’s and Nell’s. I had no idea that Mrs Gaskell was in love with a man who was not her husband. I have always pictured her as a religious women who lived through some tragedies (didn’t her son die young?). Both Nell and Mrs Gaskell were longing for me who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) return their feelings. It’s about keeping going when you can’t have what you want and you don’t know what to want instead.

A review

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Filed under 4, Biography, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Threads of Life – Clare Hunter

Threads of Life – Clare Hunter

This book has been in my pile for quite some time. I have read Embroidering Her Truth, I think this one just got buried under the pile of new books. Eventually I listened to it.

Here’s the blurb …

A globe-spanning history of sewing, embroidery, and the people who have used a needle and thread to make their voices heard 

In 1970s Argentina, mothers marched in headscarves embroidered with the names of their “disappeared” children. In Tudor, England, when Mary, Queen of Scots, was under house arrest, her needlework carried her messages to the outside world. From the political propaganda of the Bayeux Tapestry, World War I soldiers coping with PTSD, and the maps sewn by schoolgirls in the New World, to the AIDS quilt, Hmong story clothes, and pink pussyhats, women and men have used the language of sewing to make their voices heard, even in the most desperate of circumstances. 

Threads of Life is a chronicle of identity, protest, memory, power, and politics told through the stories of needlework. Clare Hunter, master of the craft, threads her own narrative as she takes us over centuries and across continents—from medieval France to contemporary Mexico and the United States, and from a POW camp in Singapore to a family attic in Scotland—to celebrate the age-old, universal, and underexplored beauty and power of sewing. Threads of Life is an evocative and moving book about the need we have to tell our story. 

It is split into 16 chapters (each chapter is the theme by which the needlework is discussed):

  • Unknown
  • Power
  • Fraility
  • Captivity
  • Identity
  • Connection
  • Protect
  • Journey
  • Protest
  • Loss
  • Community
  • Place
  • Value
  • Art
  • Voice

For example, embroidered banners are discussed in the Protest chapter (mining unions, the women’s suffragette movement)

If you are at all interested in social history and/or textiles, then you will find this book fascinating and inspiring. The research is impressive, but not overwhelming. And there are some personal anecdotes as well, which I always enjoy.

A review

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Filed under 4, History, Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction, Recommended

Power and Thrones – Dan Jones

Power and Thrones – Dan Jones

This book has been languishing in my digital pile for quite some time (along with some of his other works, not to mention the novel Essex Dogs). I finally decided I had to read it, and I have a new regime of reading for 30 mins a day.

I really enjoyed it, it’s obviously well-researched, but easy and entertaining to read. I have also read/listened to Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler, so I feel that I am slowly building up an idea of the medieval western world. Now I am quite keen to read Femima by Janina Ramirez to get a feminist persepective on the middle ages, but I have a large number of unread history books in my pile.

Here is the Goodreads description

An epic reappraisal of the medieval world–and the rich and complicated legacy left to us by the rise of the West–from the New York Times bestselling author of The Templars.

When the once-mighty city of Rome was sacked by barbarians in 410 and lay in ruins, it signaled the end of an era–and the beginning of a thousand years of profound transformation. In a gripping narrative bursting with big names–from St Augustine and Attila the Hun to the Prophet Muhammad and Eleanor of Aquitaine–Dan Jones charges through the history of the Middle Ages. Powers and Thrones takes readers on a journey through an emerging Europe, the great capitals of late Antiquity, as well as the influential cities of the Islamic West, and culminates in the first contact between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century.

The medieval world was forged by the big forces that still occupy us today: climate change, pandemic disease, mass migration, and technological revolutions. This was the time when the great European nationalities were formed; when our basic Western systems of law and governance were codified; when the Christian Churches matured as both powerful institutions and the regulators of Western public morality; and when art, architecture, philosophical inquiry and scientific invention went through periods of massive, revolutionary change. At each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting–or stealing–the most valuable resources, ideas, and people from the rest of the world.

The West was rebuilt on the ruins of an empire and emerged from a state of crisis and collapse to dominate the region and the world. Every sphere of human life and activity was transformed in the thousand years of Powers and Thrones. As we face a critical turning point in our own millennium, the legacy and lessons of how we got here matter more than ever.

A review

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Filed under 4, History, Non-Fiction

These Precious Days – Ann Patchett

These Precious Days – Ann Patchett

I bought this as a present for a friend (I don’t think she was that impressed), but I was keen to read it, so when I saw the book on Borrowbox I downloaded it.

Here’s the blurb …

The beloved New York Times bestselling author reflects on home, family, friendships and writing in this deeply personal collection of essays.  

“Any story that starts will also end.” As a writer, Ann Patchett knows what the outcome of her fiction will be. Life, however, often takes turns we do not see coming. Patchett ponders this truth in these wise essays that afford a fresh and intimate look into her mind and heart. 

At the center of These Precious Days is the title essay, a suprising and moving meditation on an unexpected friendship that explores “what it means to be seen, to find someone with whom you can be your best and most complete self.” When Patchett chose an early galley of actor and producer Tom Hanks’ short story collection to read one night before bed, she had no idea that this single choice would be life changing. It would introduce her to a remarkable woman—Tom’s brilliant assistant Sooki—with whom she would form a profound bond that held monumental consequences for them both. 

A literary alchemist, Patchett plumbs the depths of her experiences to create gold: engaging and moving pieces that are both self-portrait and landscape, each vibrant with emotion and rich in insight. Turning her writer’s eye on her own experiences, she transforms the private into the universal, providing us all a way to look at our own worlds anew, and reminds how fleeting and enigmatic life can be. 

From the enchantments of Kate DiCamillo’s children’s books to youthful memories of Paris; the cherished life gifts given by her three fathers to the unexpected influence of Charles Schultz’s Snoopy; the expansive vision of Eudora Welty to the importance of knitting, Patchett connects life and art as she illuminates what matters most. Infused with the author’s grace, wit, and warmth, the pieces in These Precious Days resonate deep in the soul, leaving an indelible mark—and demonstrate why Ann Patchett is one of the most celebrated writers of our time.

I have listened to Ann Patchett on various book programmes and I have read The Dutch House and Commonwealth, so I was keen to read these personal essays. I enjoyed it, particularly the knitting one and the one about the friend with cancer coming to stay.

A review

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Filed under 3, Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

Any Ordinary Day – Leigh Sales

Any Ordinary Day – Leigh Sales

I have become a fan of listening to books on Borrowbox and I noticed that this one was available (years ago I gave it to someone as a gift). The audio books is read by Leigh Sales, so it feels like you’re just having a chat with her.

Here’s the blurb

As a journalist, Leigh Sales often encounters people experiencing the worst moments of their lives in the full glare of the media. But one particular string of bad news stories – and a terrifying brush with her own mortality – sent her looking for answers about how vulnerable each of us is to a life-changing event. What are our chances of actually experiencing one? What do we fear most and why? And when the worst does happen, what comes next?

In this wise and layered book, Leigh talks intimately with people who’ve faced the unimaginable, from terrorism to natural disaster to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Expecting broken lives, she instead finds strength, hope, even humour. Leigh brilliantly condenses the cutting-edge research on the way the human brain processes fear and grief, and poses the questions we too often ignore out of awkwardness. Along the way, she offers an unguarded account of her own challenges and what she’s learned about coping with life’s unexpected blows.

Warm, candid and empathetic, this book is about what happens when ordinary people, on ordinary days, are forced to suddenly find the resilience most of us don’t know we have.

Terrible things happen to people (losing your entire family, losing both your first and second wives) and some people bounce back and get on with living and others don’t. What does it take to keep going after an enormous, life change? This book tries to answer that question. She also reflects on her role as a journalist and the times when she might have, inadvertently, done harm. Which is something we should all think about.

What I took away from this book is that terrible events are random and unexpected (also reasonably rare), so its probably best to appreciate the moment right now.

A review.

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Filed under 4, Non-Fiction, Recommended

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

I listen to the backlisted podcast and have done so for a few years, so I bought this book on my Kindle (Andy Miller is one of the presenters) and it languished and finally I decided to listen to it. Andy is the narrator and I highly recommend listening to it.

Here’s the blurb

A working father whose life no longer feels like his own discovers the transforming powers of great (and downright terrible) literature in this laugh-out-loud memoir.

Andy Miller had a job he quite liked, a family he loved, and no time at all for reading. Or so he kept telling himself. But, no matter how busy or tired he was, something kept niggling at him. Books. Books he’d always wanted to read. Books he’d said he’d read that he actually hadn’t. Books that whispered the promise of escape from the daily grind. And so, with the turn of a page, Andy began a year of reading that was to transform his life completely.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: classic, cult, and everything in between. Beginning with a copy of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that he happens to find one day in a bookstore, he embarks on a literary odyssey. From Middlemarch to Anna Karenina to A Confederacy of Dunces, this is a heartfelt, humorous, and honest examination of what it means to be a reader, and a witty and insightful journey of discovery and soul-searching that celebrates the abiding miracle of the book and the power of reading.

I think this is quite a masculine selection of novels, but are we all going to agree on what makes a book great? I enjoyed this personal approach to reading and I particularly enjoyed the more personal sections – how his parents took him to the library on Saturday mornings, all his meetings with Douglas Adams, he and his wife reading War and Peace together.

If you enjoy reading, and reading about reading, then you will enjoy this reading adventure.

A review

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Filed under 4, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Recommended