Monday, March 28, 2016

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, by James Howard Kunstler. Touchstone, 1993

This very interesting book looks at city planning and architecture, and how they have both failed to produce cities that people actually want to live in, and that are sustainable over the long run. He hates suburbs and shopping malls and big box stores; most of all, he hates privately owned automobiles. He likes small towns. He likes mixed use areas. He likes public transit.

I agree with him on almost all these things. Kids in suburbs are kind of trapped with no place to go unless mom drives them. There is no corner store or movie theater a few blocks away they can walk to. If you need a carton of milk when you live in one of those developments, you have to get in the car and drive to the nearest shopping center, which sits in a sea of parking spots. Because stuff is so spread out, public transportation won’t pay for itself, and no real community is built between people.

Modern zoning doesn’t allow mixed use- there are no apartments over little stores so people can live close to a job. There are no small factories in between eating places and stores. When faced with undeveloped or farm land, planners think to preserve the rural feeling by making building plots of 5 or 10 acre minimum, but this doesn’t work. It’s really hard for a farmer to keep using that 5 or 10 acres when it’s fenced off from other plots, and is bisected by a driveway, and has a house in the middle with a lawn and garden. We face that where I live; owners want their 5 acre lots hayed but farmers find the odd shaped plots that are left after people build too difficult to maneuver cutting and baling equipment in. It’s green space, but it’s not feeding anyone anymore. And it’s not green space that the public can use, either.

Written more than 20 years ago, Kunstler’s observations are still valid. Nothing has changed other than that we’re even closer to running out of fossil fuels and urban slums are getting bigger. Municipal buildings and shopping areas are still ugly. More suburban developments have been built. More big box stores have run small business out.  The problem with the book are two things: one, the author presents few solutions although he does show a few; and, two, he’s a bloody snob. He puts down the majority of the population as not having any taste or class; he makes statements about the poor that make me, a poor person all my life, wish I could have a few harsh words with him. But despite these things, I feel his book should be required reading for anyone going into architecture, city planning, or being a small town/county politician. What he points out should be obvious, but people just don’t see it because they are so used to it. There *are* options to the way we live today.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour, by Dita Von Teese with Rose Apodaca. Dey Street, 2015

This is not your typical beauty book. It has elements of the typical beauty book: putting on makeup, hair care, skin care. But it’s also a bit of an autobiography of Von Teese, filled with photographs. Most of the photos have nothing to do with the written content, but they show Dita in her glory, and are great fun to look at.

By ‘eccentric glamour’, Dita is referring to going against the usual rules of beauty and doing what makes YOU happy, whether you look like everyone else or not. She wants you to find your own, personal, look- to make your mark on the world with your beauty. As someone who was wearing dark red lipstick in my teens when everyone else was wearing white lipstick (yes, I’m old), I can totally appreciate her attitude!

While Dita looks like an image from a fantasy, she’s actually down to earth. She’s in love with vintage and retro glamour, but does her own hair and makeup (including dying her hair every two weeks- she’s actually a blond!), uses mainly drugstore brands for skin and hair care, and works her ass off to keep her body in great shape. She’s busy all the time, not laying around eating bonbons.

She gives advice on diet and exercise, because beauty is based on good health. She covers everything from hair removal, fragrance, well-fitting undergarments, doing one’s eyebrows and putting on that wonderful cat-eye liner, the half-moon manicure, and how she does those fabulous retro hair styles. She even devotes a chapter to stage make-up, not that most of us will need that information. It’s still fun to read!

If you’re into retro looks this book is a must. If you’re looking for a basic beauty book with lots of cool photos, this book will work for you. It’s almost 400 pages of good stuff. 

Drive! Henry Ford, George Selden, and the Race to Invent the Auto Age, by Lawrence Goldstone. Ballantine, 2016

Contrary to popular belief, Henry Ford invented neither the automobile nor the assembly line manufacturing process. The truth is, no one person invented either one of those things. What one person did invent, however, was the idea of a gasoline internal combustion engine. George Selden came up with that, and filed to patent it in 1879 (it wasn’t granted until 1895). Then he never developed the idea further, other than to collect patent royalties from those who actually built and sold gasoline engines.

By the time Henry Ford became interested in automobiles, they were being built and raced in Europe. The development of the car was a group effort, with people all over contributing bits that added up to something that ran under its own volition, and, if one was lucky, also stopped when you wanted it to. Ford was a visionary who could see what an inexpensively made automobile could be, and who had the ability to find and hire people with the skills to make his vision come to reality- even when he didn’t like the people. Ford chose to ignore the Selden patent and fight it out in court, while a large number of independent car builders joined together to form General Motors, paying the royalties and pooling their resources. They figured Ford would go under. We all know how that one worked out!

I chose this book because both my father and my father-in-law were both auto mechanics. My father was born in 1905 in Detroit, and so saw the car industry in its infancy and watched it grow. I wanted to see what he saw. It is an interesting book even though I don’t really understand the technical details. The book doesn’t go deep, but it gives a good overview. It could have used more photographs of those great old cars. The automobile changed the world- roads needed to be built that cars could handle, fueling stations needed to exist, mechanics to handle breakdowns, road laws needed to be made, people could spread out- and this book shows some of the problems encountered along the way. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from Net Galley in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, by Naomi Ragen. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998

I admit I picked this book off the shelf because of the beautiful cover. Also, it had a ghost. And memoir 500 years old, that there is a search for. What’s not to love?

Catherine has been told she only has a short time to live. She is sad that her two granddaughters don’t follow the families Sephardic tradition, and, worse, are still single and childless. The ghost of Hannah Mendes visits her, encouraging Catherine to have her granddaughters visit Europe and find her long lost memoir. Suzanne and Francesca are opposites and not apt to work well with each other; Francesca is a workaholic who values only money, while Suzanne has given her life over to good causes. But they agree to take on the task. Once on the way, they encounter flawless men, supernatural events, and, yes, some of the memoir.

A search for literary treasure should have been right up my alley. But detective work is not the point here. This book reads like a sermon- a racy one at points, but a sermon combined with a history lesson none the less. The moral of the entire story is to value family and religious tradition above all else, never marry outside the religion, and that women need to have children to carry the traditions on. I could have – maybe – tolerated this paean to motherhood above career if the book had been better. But it’s not. The characters never come to life. I actually kind of disliked both the granddaughters; they were caricatures. Catherine has more life than them, but is absent for most of the story. The men are too perfect to be real. In fact, the entire adventure is too perfect.

Hannah’s memoir is interspersed with the present day adventure, and it’s more interesting. Born in the Renaissance in a family of conversos, Jews who have converted to Catholicism. They haven’t, really; they continue to celebrate their traditions in private. This put them in terrible danger at this point of history, with the Inquisition going hard. At first Hannah seems to live an enchanted life, but it’s only a few years before things go bad. She rallies, however, and becomes a great heroine. She is a real, historical personage and I did enjoy learning about her, but even her part is told rather flatly.

Sadly disappointing. 

The above is an affiliate account. If you click through and buy something- anything- Amazon will give me a few cents. 

This in no way influenced my review.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Dark Lady’s Mask, by Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

I greet a new Mary Sharratt novel like I would someone who brought me 5 lbs of See’s Candy and the news that I was no longer a diabetic. In this novel, Sharratt takes on the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the woman who may have been Shakespeare’s Dark Lady; the story is definitely up to the author’s usual standard.

Lanier was the first Englishwoman to be a professional, paid, poet. This, and running a short lived school for girls, was how she made her living. The cost of publishing her writing was paid by female patrons. This secured her place in history, whether or not she was Shakespeare’s muse or lover. Sharratt takes Lanier from girlhood to midlife. Her life was not easy; she frequently faced poverty. The laws of the day left women totally at the mercy of the men in their lives, and, of course, everyone was at the mercy of disease.

Aemilia was luckier than most; after her father’s death, she was fostered with a rich woman who felt all girls should be well educated. That didn’t save her from becoming mistress to the Queen’s half-brother, or from an arranged marriage to a man who drank too much and lost money constantly, though, or from having her affair with Shakespeare end in an ugly way. She is a very strong woman, though, who tries to keep the reins of her life in her own hands and succeeds as much as any woman of the time could have. In her young days, she frequently dressed in male clothing, hiding her sex to gain the freedom to go where she wanted and do as she wished. As the daughter of a hidden Jew, she also had to hide her very dangerous heritage.         

I thought this book was wonderful, even though it left me feeling that Shakespeare may have been a bit of a jerk. She gives life to Aemelia in her good times and her bad. Sadly, the other characters are not nearly so well fleshed out; the focus is all on Aemilia. But the people in the story, many of them historic personages, are still enjoyable. My favorites? The three Weir sisters who work for Aemilia- who are herbalists, and perhaps more.             

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Stargazer’s Sister, by Carrie Brown. Pantheon Books, 2015

Caroline Herschel did not have an easy life. She caught typhus as a child and it both stunted her growth and left her with facial scars. She knew she’d never marry, and thought she had no future but to continue as a household slave to her exhausted, constantly pregnant, and deliberately cruel mother. Thankfully for her, her elder brother William responded to her letter which just said “Save me” and brought her to his home in England to keep house for him, train as a singer, and aid him in his astronomical endeavors. Lina became indispensable- or so she thought. After years of serving William in all aspects of his life - being both housemaid who cleaned the chamber pots and scientific assistant who devoted every hour to his comfort- he suddenly married a rich, young, widow and Lina was unceremoniously removed from their shared house. But her accomplishments- she discovered several comets and was the first woman to be paid by the Crown for doing science-secured her place in history, despite being overshadowed by her brother.

Brown writes in the third person but always from Lina’s point of view. She presents us with a woman who works until she is bone tired but continues anyway because the work simply must be done- as well as because she is fascinated with astronomy. She also loves her brother, almost to an unnatural degree.  She takes his marriage as a great betrayal.

The writing is lovely in most places; the descriptions of dwelling, life, and work are detailed and wonderful. Life was hard back then, and Brown makes us feel every over-worked muscle. But Lina’s life had beauty as well as endless toil; the night sky in all its brilliance was hers to explore. I really enjoyed the book, except for a couple of places where Brown deviates too far from the historical record. A novelist must invent events that fit into the historical record- and Lina left extensive journals. But the author invents a big event that never happened, and excludes someone who existed from the story; not by merely ignoring the person but by explicitly stating that no such person lived. I knew enough about the Herschels that this irritated me. Still, it’s a very good read. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon they will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.