28 March 2023

Review: Shoes by Rebecca Shawcross

Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

I've always been interested in shoes, and as each year passes I find an increasing interest in history and social history in particular. Fortunately, these interests collide in Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross.

First, let me start this review with my impressions of the design and presentation, because this is a stunning hardback book with a beautiful dust jacket featuring a pair of shoes designed by Noritaka Tatehana in 2013. Filled with museum quality photographs on high quality paper and considerably weighty, Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross is a treasure to read and would make the perfect gift for those with an interest in fashion or history.

Shawcross gives us an entertaining tour through the fashion choices of the middle classes, wealthy and elite across Europe over the centuries, and it never ceases to amuse me how fashion cycles around, and every new design or trend is inspired by an old one. Typically speaking, those at the forefront of the trend are usually the young, while those approaching middle age and their senior years are less likely to keep up with the Joneses and tend to stick to what they like, which is often what they wore when they themselves were young. Hearing that an old man was referred to as 'old square toes' because he was still wearing square-toed shoes long after they were fashionable, reminded me of older men I knew growing up who were never seen without a hat.

Armed with only a basic knowledge of shoes and their construction, I was eager to understand the ins and outs - and rights and lefts - of the shoes being presented, but was occasionally left scratching my head. Did buckles really pierce the silk fabric of the latchet ties each and every time they were secured? And what's a vamp?* Many of my questions would have been easily answered if there had been a diagram or two pointing out the basics of footwear construction. As it was, I had to Google all of my queries which interrupted the reading flow and slowed down the overall reading process. *The vamp is the part of the shoe that covers the toes, also called the upper.

You might have heard about pattens - elevated clogs that you wear over your existing flat-soled footwear like snow shoes to keep your feet clean and dry - but have you heard of the slap shoe?

When high heels became popular, wearers could no longer wear pattens (which have a flat sole) however the high heel of their shoes sunk easily into the muck if it was the slightest bit wet. In the 1600s, in an effort to combat the problem without having to give up their heels, people started wearing their high heels slipped into a backless shoe, which we would call a slipper or a mule. Understandably, this made it cumbersome - and arguably dangerous - to walk, so a new shoe was designed, the slap shoe. If you can image a high heel shoe with the ball of the shoe stuck to a raised sole and the heel of the shoe free to lift from it, you have the slap shoe. Wearers would make a slap sound or clacking noise when they walked, similar to the sound some people make when they slap their thongs or flip-flops, hence the name. The sound indicated wealth and prosperity and became the height of fashion. Some slap shoes even had velvet on the sole to soften the sound. Sounds counterintuitive, but altogether fascinating doesn't it?

I was reminded reading this that shoes were once uniform in design and called 'straights' until the early thirteenth century. They could be worn on either foot, here's more:
"In the early thirteenth century, a shaped or waisted sole (the waist being the narrow part under the arch of the foot) appeared, which meant that shoes could now be made with left and right versions. Such an innovation probably increased the comfort of wearing shoes, too." Page 25
I can't imagine wearing straights now, I hope that fashion trend never resurfaces.

Another new to me shoe fact I loved learning about was the WWII invention of the escape boot. The escape boot was:
"... a high-legged leather boot with a fleece layer over a shrapnel-proof lining consisting of loose layers of silk. The boot's unique feature was that the leg section could be cut away from the vamp using a knife that was concealed in a pocket inside one of the boots." Page 190
Wearing these boots, British pilots were instantly recognisable to the enemy. However, if a British pilot was shot down or landed in enemy territory, they could take the knife from its hidden location and cut the tops off each boot. This transformed the boots into a normal looking pair of black shoes, giving the pilot a better chance of escape. Ingenious!

Other personal highlights in Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross included learning Terry De Havilland designed the shoes Tim Curry wore in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I'm going to see this show in June and am keen to check out the shoes worn by the show's new star, Jason Donovan. In fact I was surprised how many times I thought about this book in the normal course of my day while reading it. I attended the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the NGV this month, and was excited to see several pairs of McQueen's infamous 'Armadillo' boots worn most memorably by Lady Gaga in her Bad Romance music video in 2009.

I will say Shoes by Rebecca Shawcross isn't a quick read, you definitely need to take your time and I challenge you to read 30 pages without Googling. While I would have loved some diagrams laced throughout the book, I do understand the editing choice to leave this type of material out. The author covers a specialised topic, and most readers may already be familiar with the 'basics', however it would have made a huge difference for the layperson reader like me, particularly when it came to construction.

Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross gave me what I wanted from High Heel by Summer Brennan and was a luxurious and indulgent reading experience. From wide-toed footbags to long-toed poulaines; stilettos to winklepickers; plimsolls to pattens; and brogues to Birkenstocks, Shawcross has cobbled together a comprehensive overview of the history of shoes here and I loved it.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

15 March 2023

Review: The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges

The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges book cover

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

In January 2022 I attended the Doll House: Miniature Worlds of Wonder exhibition at Como House in Melbourne which featured over 40 dollhouses from the 1890s to the present day. The dollhouses in this exhibition were front and centre in my mind while reading this delightful debut novel by Audrey Burges.

The premise of The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone instantly captured my imagination. Myra Malone of the title is a reclusive blogger who writes from her attic in Arizona about the Mansion; a miniature dolls' house given to her by a loved one. Myra is an online sensation with thousands of subscribers and fans who enjoy her blog posts about the Mansion, the rooms and their decoration and subsequent redecoration. Fans send her items hoping they'll be featured in one of the rooms and Myra has cultivated a safe and fulfilling existence for herself.

The house is a huge hinged trunk with brass buckles and originally belonged to her step grandmother Trixie. The descriptions of the Mansion in the novel were so detailed I could easily visualise the structure.
"It's hinged, by the way." Lou pointed to brass buckles on the house's backside, shut tight. Myra already knew. "It opens up like a clam on its side, and there are little rooms on hinges inside, too - it kind of unfurls. Damnedest thing I've ever seen." Page 18
More than just a dollhouse, the Mansion has a touch of magic Myra has never understood but which she associates with the original owner Trixie. Sometimes Myra can hear music coming from the Mansion and rooms in the house can suddenly appear or disappear without warning.
"The Mansion is a miniature house - some might say a dollhouse, but please don't, it takes slights very personally - in an eclectic architectural style that embraces Victorian and Gothic influences, as well as a few other mishmashed elements thrown in just for the hell of it." Page 99
We're soon introduced to Alex who works in his father's furniture business and he's a likeable character. However Alex is shocked beyond belief when he inadvertently stumbles across Myra's blog because the Mansion looks exactly like his house! Why does Myra Malone have a miniature model of his house and a replica bedroom with his furniture inside?

The plot is driven by a mystery surrounding the original owner of the Mansion and I enjoyed the dual timelines and touch of 'other'. The novel cleverly incorporates Myra's blog posts to tell some of the story (as in the quote from page 99 above), although I did find the connection between the characters across time a little hazy at times, but thankfully it became clear.

Presented in a delightfully designed cover, and containing a very light romance with strong generational links, I fell in love with this uplifting, feel good tale.

Highly recommended!

P.S. If you're into miniatures, check out my review of Dolls' Houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood by Halina Pasierbska.

P.P.S In writing this review, I've just discovered that the exhibition I mentioned (Doll House: Miniature Worlds of Wonder) is now an online immersive experience. Organised by the National Trust, you can find out more here.

My Rating:

08 March 2023

Review: Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy audiobook book cover

Apologies are complex. A well-worded apology can soothe hurt feelings, save a failing relationship or repair one, while a bad apology can exacerbate the situation or end up causing further insult. Hopefully we've all been recipients of a good apology and remember how it made us feel. I can still remember an unexpected apology at a reunion once that blew me away and healed a hurt I'd long since forgotten I even had. I've also been the recipient of terrible non-apologies, some of which still make my blood boil if I pause to think of them again.

Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy are the brains behind SorryWatch, a website dedicated to analysing apologies in the news, media, history and literature. They 'condemn the bad and exalt the good' and it's easy to spend an age on their website, browsing everything from sports apologies and political apologies, to bropologies and true crime apologies.

Together, Ingall and McCarthy have published Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies in an attempt to educate the reader on what constitutes a good apology and the pitfalls to avoid delivering a bad one.

Some highlights on the do's and don'ts of apologising include apologising without rehashing past insults, like: "I'm sorry I criticised your terrible new hairstyle".* Another pitfall to avoid was the 'sorry you', for example "well I'm sorry you keep forgetting our anniversary". Time was also spent on avoiding the 'if' and 'but' apology: "I'm sorry if I made you feel that way", or "I'm sorry, but I never meant to offend anyone".

Attempts like: "anyone who knows me knows I'm not a racist / homophobe / insert slur here" also indicate efforts to dodge responsibility or accountability for our actions. These always sound like weasel words to me, but now I have a clearer understanding of why they never sound like genuine apologies.

In Chapter 3 (Sorry If, Sorry But, Sorry You: Things Not to Say), I learned about performative utterances. A performative utterance is a statement where the words are the action, like "I insist" or "I promise" or "I swear". "I'm sorry" is a performative utterance and saying it feels like an admission of wrongdoing. This makes us feel uncomfortable and we often don't want to admit fault, especially if we don't believe we've done anything wrong. Just ask any 4yo. Another strategy is the sarcastic apology: "well sorry for not checking with you first, I guess nobody's perfect," is a passive aggressive apology.

I do believe public apologies have changed over the decades, with PR companies and spin doctors writing statements and apologies that address an incident, event, oversight or mistake while not directly admitting any fault. Sorry, Sorry, Sorry includes some interesting examples of bad apologies like this from CEOs, police officials and politicians. I listened to the audiobook, which meant I was unable to visually enjoy the apology bingo tables that frequently accompanied the text. Since finishing the book though, I'm recognising lame apologies all around me, with plenty of 'sorry if' and 'I regret' and 'it was never my intention' examples.

No doubt we've all delivered a range of apologies that have missed the mark ourselves. So, how do we do better?

Here's the SorryWatch approach:
1. Use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologise.”
2. Say specifically what you’re sorry for.
3. Show you understand why the thing you said or did was bad.
4. Be very careful if you want to provide explanation; don’t let it shade into excuse.
5. Explain the actions you’re taking to insure this won’t happen again.
6. Can you make reparations? Make reparations.

Sounds simple enough doesn't it? When the topic of the apology is emotive, or the insult very grave, it can be hard to take the six steps outlined above. Fortunately I wasn't reading Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy in preparation for a huge apology in my own life, but we can all improve the interactions we have with people, and I don't think I'll ever stop wanting to do that.

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy was an informative read and met the requirement for the Non Fiction 2023 Reader Challenge prompt for relationships.

*All examples in this review in italics are my own.

My Rating:

05 March 2023

Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett book cover

I was on holiday recently and put the word out to see if there were any fellow Aussie reviewers who'd like to do a buddy read for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It's always fun to read a classic with a buddy so you can chat about it, but it turned out many of us have had this book sitting on our shelves for far too long!

Joining me in the buddy read was: Veronica Joy - The Burgeoning Bookshelf,  Ashleigh Meikle - The Book Muse (with her Grandmother's copy), Claire - Claire's Reads and Reviews and Suzie Eisfelder - Suz's Space. We were also joined by Andrea and Liz over on GoodReads. Thanks to you all for joining me, it was loads of fun!

When reading The Secret Garden, a few words caught me by surprise, including the frequent use of the words 'fat' and 'ugly'. As I write this, the media is full of articles about the censorship of Roald Dahl's books. While it's a shock to see words you wouldn't ordinarily read in children's dialogue published today, it's a timely reminder that this book was published more than 100 years ago in 1911. I don't think publishers should be attempting to apply today's sensitivity standards retrospectively to a book published so long ago and I do hope The Secret Garden is safe from censorship in the future. That said, onto the book!

Precocious young Mary is orphaned in India and sent to live with her Uncle in his English mansion on the moor. Spoiled and sickly, Mary is a sour faced young brat who slowly starts to turn her lonely little life around. One of the first people Mary meets is the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and the scenes between him and Mary in the beginning were sublime:
'Tha' an' me are a good bit alike,' he said. 'We was wove out of th' same cloth. We're neither of us goodlookin' an' we're both of us as sour as we look. We've got the same nasty tempers, both of us, I'll warrant.' Page 45
Published in 1911, Mary's story has gone on to become a children's classic, so I'm going to be reviewing this story in full, with spoilers. If you are sensitive to spoilers and have yet to read the book, and honestly believe you'll do so one day, and that you'll remember the spoilers in this review, and readily recall I was the one who did that to you, then please close this tab.

Misselthwaite Manor has more than a hundred rooms, all of which are out of bounds until Mary covertly discovers a young boy also living in the house. The big family secret is that Colin is ill and bed bound and vulnerable to the most terrible tantrums. The children are cousins and both have had a privileged and indulgent upbringing as only children while also experiencing loss. Colin's mother is dead and Mary has recently lost both of her parents. The coming together of Mary and Colin was my favourite part of the book.

Both characters realise they're lonely and decide to become friends, despite a few false starts. The children begin enjoying each other's company which is a surprise to them both.
"And they both began to laugh over nothing as children will when they are happy together. And they laughed so that in the end they were making as much noise as if they had been two ordinary, healthy, natural, two-year-old creatures - instead of a hard, little, unloving girl and a sickly boy who believed that he was going to die." Page 168
Colin is ill and believes he'll die, making everyone's life a misery until he befriends Mary and meets her friend Dickon. Mary tells Colin there's nothing wrong with him and convinces him to get out of bed and outside in a wheelchair to live life and experience nature. Mary has discovered a secret garden and together with Dickon, the trio seek to bring it back to life.

The secret garden of the title is the walled garden where Colin's mother died, after which it was locked and abandoned for 10 years until a robin shows Mary the door and the key. As the children overcome their vast differences in class to help bring the garden back to life, Mary blossoms into a thoughtful and caring young girl, and Colin grows to believe he will live and is determined to show everyone he can walk again!

The entire time this is going on, Colin's father (Mary's uncle) is away on business, and I was worried he would return any minute and go ballistic about the garden, which was off limits. This created a sense of dread as eventually household members discover the children's secret and join the plan for Colin's big reveal moment.

Dickon's mother is the Mrs Weasley of the book and Mary and Colin gravitate toward her generosity of spirit and maternal love in the same way a sunflower follows the sun.

It's clear to the reader that the driving force behind Colin's recovery is the relationships between each of the characters - which boils down to love - as well as the garden, but Colin refers to it all as 'magic'. The author seems to have combined the laws of attraction, the power of positivity, and worship of nature to produce the essence of the 'magic'. To ask for your heart's desire, you just need to chant in a prayer like fashion and all the characters pull together to aid in Colin's restoration.

The 'magic' becomes a symbol or marker for nature, love and faith that is immediately obvious to mature readers, but innocuous for young children in the same way The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis does. The young characters in the novel reminded me of Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter and if you loved that, then you'll definitely enjoy this.

I love a good makeover, and in The Secret Garden we have three! Mary's transformation is the first to begin, then the garden is discovered before change is afoot to restore it to its earlier magnificence. Colin's recovery is the most radiant of makeovers, as he goes from being a spoiled, hysterical hypochondriac who thinks he's dying to a confident and enthusiastic young man, respectful of his elders and kind to all staff with the desire to carry out scientific experiments and live life to the fullest!

If you're a fan of up-lit (uplifting literature), feel good stories about nature as medicine and the power of friendship then The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett will enchant you.

My Rating:

04 March 2023

Review: On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King book cover

My first impression after reading On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, is just how hard the author has worked to get where he is today. Many readers know Stephen King was raised by his single Mum and grew up poor, but he also worked his arse off from a very early age doing all kinds of jobs; working in a laundry and washing sheets being one of them.

I enjoyed the stories he shared of his childhood antics with older brother David, and in recounting his upbringing, I'm reminded just how old King's references are. His US centric pop culture references are decades before my time, and his love of old movies and books lead me to suspect that even those within his immediate generation might miss a few titles here and there. This is a memoir as much as a treatise on the craft of writing and it was an enjoyable read.

There's a tonne of advice in here for aspiring and established writers, like this:
"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." Page 56
King is a powerhouse and an absolute work horse, even when the writing isn't going well:
"Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position." Page 82
Stephen King is incredibly relatable, and this is a conversational how-to from a willing mentor rather than a dry rule book or style guide from a fusty professor.

The author is up front about his years of addiction although few lines are dedicated to it. His wife Tabitha King is an established author in her own right, and together with family members staged an intervention. There is no pity party and no excuses. Eventually King got clean, but it was a hard road to sobriety. Throughout his life, Stephen King has dedicated his all to his writing, and after receiving more rejections in his career than we can possibly imagine, started seeing success. He soaked up every piece of advice along the way and readily shares lessons large and small with the reader.
"What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I'll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don't spend actually doing it. I'll be as encouraging as possible, because it's my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well." Page 163
There are some basic rules on grammar, but above all, King's message is that you learn by reading and by doing. By writing.
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." Page 164
When reading, watching or listening to author interviews - or conducting them for Carpe Librum - I'm always surprised when a writer says they don't have time to read. Some say they're too busy writing, or they don't want to be accused of plagiarism or stealing another person's work, but I'm not buying that. Some writers choose to read a different genre from their own while working, or switch to non fiction or the reverse if applicable. I agree with the author, if you want to improve your vocabulary and writing style, you must read and you must write. You must evolve. There are some helpful examples of good writing and bad writing, and I was able to learn a lot from these comparisons.
"In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling." Page 207
Yes! This explains how King can make a 500 page novel such a page turner. He isn't vain or 'self indulgent' and believes in cutting content that isn't necessary.

Hit by a van while out for his regular walk in 1999, I was reminded of just how lucky King was to survive the accident. King's injuries included a collapsed lung; 4 broken ribs; a spine chipped in 8 places; hip fracture (his lap looked sideways); broken left leg (in 9 places); broken right knee cap and a scalp laceration that took 20-30 stitches. I was interested in the author's recovery from multiple surgeries and subsequent rehab but didn't learn if he has any residual injuries or ongoing chronic pain.

Like me, King reads 70-80 books per year, and this 2012 edition of On Writing includes two lists comprising more than 180 books he personally recommends. King is generous with his time and praise for his peers but I was surprised to find how few I've read.

Known to fans and members of the publishing world as the King of Horror, he's also the King of Persistence. This is a recommended read for those interested in the man or his craft.

My Rating: