Saturday, March 27, 2021

 Betsey: A Memoir, by Betsey Johnson and Mark Vitulano. Viking 2020

I was thrilled to see this book on the “New Books” shelf at the library. I have a large interest in fashion (despite being completely unfashionable myself) and am a fan of Betsey’s work. I settled in with it, expecting insights into her life and creative process, as well as learning more about how the fashion world worked during her heyday. I read the book over one night.

At the end, I was kind of sad. The book did not live up to my expectations. I figured it would be a really exciting tale. Parts were, of course, but a lot of the story was oddly flat. I don’t know if this was a result of two people telling her story (perhaps her style and that of Vitulano didn’t mesh? I don’t know), or if Johnson was under a time crunch to get the book done, or what. But there were very few places where I felt her emotions, her creative fire.

Her early life at school and home came across well; there is a good deal of detail in that section. The part where she moves to New York and is working for Mademoiselle have a sense of exhilaration; how could it not when things move as fast as her early career did? Her professional life seems to have always been moving fast, leaving the reader to wonder if Johnson can keep up with it. Her private life also moves fast; she admits that she was in love with the idea of love and falls fast- sadly, for the wrong men. Her first three husbands are emotionally abusive (and sometimes physically so), which led me to thinking “RUN NOW” and being amazed at how long she stayed with a couple of them. Given how open she is about it being abused, I think she’s learned her lesson. She’s been with her current husband for 23 years now (she does not mention this man in the book) so things seem calm from the outside.

Her professional life was one of ups and downs; her clothes exploded on the fashion scene, different from what anyone else was doing. Trying to get out from under working for others, she had trouble borrowing money to start her own store- and paid it back in record time. At one point she had 66 retail stores. Then some bad business decisions were made, the economy went down the tubes, and she lucked out when Steve Madden bought her company. She is still creative director, so her fashions still live for yet another generation of girls. Sadly, I can only give the book 3 stars.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England, by Gemma Hollman. Pegasus Books, 2020

In the 15th century, if there was a rich woman whose wealth you craved, you accused her of witchcraft. Powerful woman in the way of your advancement? Accuse her of witchcraft. Powerful man who you want brought down? Accuse his wife of witchcraft. None of these women were witches, although one did admit to seeking out a wise woman for a charm to help her conceive. What they were, were powerful, rich women who stood in the way of powerful men. Witchcraft was an easy accusation to make, since it’s impossible to prove one didn’t do it.

Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, and Elizabeth Woodville are the women this book examines. The author gives the first two each a section of their own; Jacquetta and Elizabeth, being mother and daughter, share the last half of the book. I have to admit; Woodville was the only one I was familiar with. I had never even heard of Cobham. Turns out that they were fairly important to the War of the Roses and how it turned out, yet historians have ignored them.

I found parts of the book riveting, and others lost me. Part of the problem is the fact that so many people had the same names- Henry, Richard, Joan, Elizabeth- that I would have trouble keeping them all straight in my mind. The writing was uneven, too; parts seemed like they could have used a good editor to smooth them out. The strange part, however, is that the book is basically biographies of the four women, and of the men they were attached to, rather than concentrating on the witchcraft aspect. The witchcraft trials are a very small percentage of the book. I give the book four stars.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

 Hippie, by Barry Miles. Essential Works Limited, 2003

Covering seven years- 1965 through 1971- this book gives good picture of the main hippie era. Yes, hippies still exist, but these were the years when they flooded western culture with new music, new social movements, new clothing and new ways of living. Some of it wasn’t entirely new- the movement was rooted partly in the Beats of the 50s and in the intentional communities that went back some 100 years.

I really enjoyed this book; while I’ve read a good deal about the era, Miles really brought it to life. Pretty much every page has an illustration on it: photos, posters, ads. The main subjects are music and concerts, drugs, and protest movements. While “Hippie” is the title, the author also covers the Beats, the Black Power movement, Gay Pride, the Mods, and more. It’s all part of the era. I lived through the era, but I was a child and my exposure was limited to TV, radio, and magazines. This book made me wish I had been just a little older. I would have loved to have gone to a Be-In, a Dead or Joplin concert, seen the Merry Pranksters with their bus. This book isn’t just the pretty stuff, though. He exposes the meth and heroin use, the Hell’s Angels becoming an unwelcome force at concerts, the ODs and the VD, and all the ugly parts. Five stars.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

 Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh. Gallery Books, 2020

We waited a long time for Allie Brosh’s second book, but it was worth the wait. She has presented us with 514 full color, glossy pages that share her unique look at the world with us. After her first book, Brosh went into a period of major depression, adding that to her long standing ADD (and, I believe, anxiety). This may have been triggered by her sister’s violent suicide, as well as escaping from an abusive relationship. This volume doesn’t have the manic hilarity of her first book; it’s deeper and more thoughtful. The humor is still there, though- the book starts with how, as a toddler, she got stuck inside a five gallon bucket- multiple times- because she became obsessed with getting completely inside it. The art has become a little more sophisticated, although her depictions of herself are the stuff of nightmares (seriously, no one is jointed that way, but it WORKS). She pokes fun at her mental health issues, dogs, relationships, family, everything. All of this is new material, as she hasn’t updated her blog in… forever. As someone with depression and anxiety myself, I relate to a lot of the things that have happened to her. I brought the book home in the middle of the afternoon, and finished at 2 in the morning because I didn’t want to stop turning pages- all 514 of them. Read this book!

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Lost Girls: Love and Literature in Wartime London, by D.J. Taylor. Pegasus Books, 2020

From about 1939 to 1950, a literary magazine called “The Horizon” ran. It employed many of the best talents of the day, as well as a loose group of young women for doing the everyday donkey work. During this time, many relationships formed and broke in a sort of incestuous web (Lucien Freud, the painter, was involved with three of the girls). In the center of this web sat Cyril Connolly, the owner of “The Horizon”. He had relationships with most of the girls, whether it be romantic, sexual, or simply business. These girls were bright, good looking, and chafing at the restrictions placed being placed back on women now that the war was over. They hadn’t had an easy time during the war, and most counted on men to provide them with dinners and gifts, going between their falling-down flats and the most expensive restaurants in town. They stood somewhere between the flappers of the 20s and the hippies of the 60s. Lys Lubbock, Barbara Skelton, Sonia Brownell, Janetta Parlade, and others,  stood to make the most of their lives in the perilous time of the war and right after. They tended to be tall, skinny, and broke. Some modeled, some typed, some painted; one was the mistress of the King Farouk, and one married George Orwell. 

The book brings to light the intellectual parties, the world of the magazine office, the artistic milieu. The author researched the lives of the women and tells us what he learned, but the book is as much a biography of Cyril Connolly as it is of the young women. More than either, it’s a work of literary gossip, delicious if you like the writers of the era; boring at times if you don’t. Four stars.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy can Teach Us About Building Better Communities, by Caveat Magister (Benjamin Wachs). North Atlantic Books, 2019

Burning Man has gone from two families on a beach to a huge annual gathering of artists, spiritual seekers, partiers, sex-positive groups, volunteers, and much, much more. I don’t think you could possibly call it any one thing; it contains multitudes. I wanted to know more about it, so when this book was offered, I grabbed at it.

Sadly, I was disappointed. I figured that anything about an event that sounds as fascinating as Burning Man does would be extremely interesting, but I didn’t find this book to be interesting at all. It was not totally uninteresting; I did learn some things, but I suspect that it’s one of those things that is hard to describe.

The philosophy of Burning Man could help us build better communities, where everyone can follow their passion- but they also have to help pick up the trash. It requires some really heavy volunteerism and participation. Which is really how I wish the world was run. But I suspect that the event has to be experienced, not described.  I had to force myself to finish the book.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Tall Tales and Wee Stories, by Billy Connolly. Two Roads, 2019

There is no plot to this book, but that’s okay. Connolly is one of the funniest people I know of, and his style of funny is not jokes or terse anecdotes; he starts talking about one subject, veers off in a Grandpa Simpson way (except the detour actually has a point), goes back to the main thread, veers again, finally gets to the end, in the process saying “f***” about 500 times and bringing sex into the story at least once. By the time I get to the end of the story, I’m lying on my side, tears running down, gasping and wheezing and trying not to wake my husband, because I stayed up  a good deal of the night reading, unable to quit. So, yeah, I liked the book. I wish I could have seen Connolly perform live, but at least I’ve seen him on TV enough that, as I read the book, I heard it being told in his voice.