29 February 2024

Review: Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson audiobook cover

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson was an interesting read. I listened to the audiobook read by Stephanie Cannon and while I have a passing and somewhat shallow interest in the history of pockets, I was reasonably entertained here.

According to her bio, Hannah Carlson teaches dress history and is a conservator with a PhD in material culture, so she knows her subject matter.

After the medieval period when the purse was a separate item, men wore their purse hanging from their belt, while women wore theirs hanging around mid thigh, meaning that it swung when the wearer walked. In addition, the placement of one's purse could be provocative, and held a surprising (to me) amount of erotic appeal.
"How you wore your purse distinguished between masculine and feminine dress, but the purse itself did not belong to a single gender." Chapter 5
Carlson tells us the word 'pocket' is a borrowing of the French word for bag, and moves through history touching on the fashion for cod pieces, the dagger purse and the dangers of men carrying hidden weapons and pistols in their newly concealed pockets.

What about women's fashion? In Chapter 8, the author tells us that pockets for women have never been as popular in women's clothing as in men's. I was surprised to learn that in the 1800s, some dressmakers created hidden pockets in the bustle of ladies skirts. Located in the middle of the lower back in an early form of bum bag, women would turn themselves in circles trying to twist and retrieve items impractically stored in their bustle pocket.

I enjoyed the commentary about men and courtiers standing and walking with their hands in their pockets and the uproar and claims of indecency made by fellow citizens at the time. I couldn't help but smile in recognition here, as I recall ranting about the trend in the 1990s that saw baggy pants worn low enough to display the wearer's briefs/boxers/g-string and in some cases so low as to cause the wearer to adopt a ridiculous style of walking to prevent their pants from falling down.

The gender politics of pockets and fashion inequality don't really interest me, but the introduction 500 years ago of pockets sewn into men's pants had an unexpected impact on the way men walked and even the way that they stood, some choosing to put a hand inside their pocket or their waistcoat.
"In a pose promulgated by fashionable people, and upheld by professionals, the aristocrat standing at his ease appeared as if he had wrapped himself in a loose embrace. In Britain, painters seized on the hand in waistcoat gesture as a popular portrait formula, believing it depicted qualities of modesty and reserve." Chapter 7
It's interesting to see this pose now and not wonder what the 'portrait pose' is for our time; perhaps it's the flamingo pose or the bambi pose. (Both legitimate poses trending on Instagram right now, but that's 30 mins of valuable reading time I'll never get back after searching 'portrait poses over time').

Back to the book, and Carlson swiftly moves towards the present day, describing the shift from pockets to purses and handbags and the endless battle between functionality versus fashion.

I enjoyed the author's assessment of the explosion in pocket popularity in the 1990s with the resurgence of cargo pants, but perhaps my favourite line from the book was the optimism in going out without pockets or a handbag to carry necessities like keys, tissues, phone, lip balm etc.
"In pared down designs, the person announces their unconcern; their belief that nothing is required and that nothing will go wrong." Chapter 11
That's it exactly! I'm never that optimistic and always take more than I end up needing.

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson is recommended for readers with an interest in micro history, fashion and gender politics. This 3 star rating is largely reflective of my interest level in the topic and not representative of the author's knowledge of the subject, which is deep. 

I still have The Pocket - A Hidden History of Women's Lives, 1660–1900 by Barbara Burman on my virtual TBR pile but I think I might have well and truly scratched that itch here.

My Rating:

22 February 2024

Review: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris audiobook cover

After a ripping introduction to the work of David Sedaris in 2021 via Calypso, his work has been hit and miss since then. Naked was a 2 star read, Me Talk Pretty One Day a 3 star read and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim earning a mere 2 stars despite the catchy title.

I decided at the end of 2021 to put the brakes on my Sedaris tear for a while, knowing I'd probably come back to his oeuvre at some stage in the future.

Years later and enough time has passed that I now miss listening to a good Sedaris story told in his unmistakable lilting voice with his white gay privilege proudly on display. So it was, that I picked up Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris published in 2013.

Immediately better than the last 3 books from him I've read, I was soon chuckling to myself and enjoying his inimitable style of storytelling. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris is a return to his droll sense of humour and genuine interest in other people that kept me engaged in Calypso.

Sedaris has previously written about health care in America and France and their differences, although I never tire of his content around dentists. Chapter 2 is entitled Dentists Without Borders and the reference to his 'good time teeth' and his doorbell response to being asked if he was okay was easily my favourite story in the collection.

The unflattering accounts that had me frowning with budding disapproval in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim were thankfully absent here. This collection was more self deprecating and even included a few live recordings with audience laughter and applause convincing me I'd also enjoy seeing the author live if he plans another tour Down Under.

While I live in hope, part of me wonders if all of Sedaris' stories and anecdotes are true - did he really holiday in a nudist camp or have that strange encounter at the taxidermist shop? - or are they cleverly constructed fiction presented by a humourist as fact for our entertainment or his amusement?

Either way, I've found myself firmly back onboard the David Sedaris train and there are still plenty of collections and books to discover. What should I read next?

My Rating:

20 February 2024

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite book cover

Two sisters live together in their family home in Nigeria. Korede and Ayoola. The older sister is a hardworking nurse in a hospital and her sibling is a killer.

Ayoola is beautiful and manipulative and when things go wrong she calls her big sister Korede to help her 'fix it'. Korede has a crush on a doctor at work, but when he meets Ayoola and falls for her instead, it creates a painful wedge between the sisters.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite has a brilliant and engaging premise but I'll admit reading it was a little stressful. Ayoola's conduct was incredibly frustrating and I really felt for Korede and the complicated relationship with her narcissistic sister; seething with sibling jealousy yet bonded by familial love.

Braithwaite successfully ramps up the tension and it seems as though she took out all the stops to make the reader squirm. I don't recall squirming so much for the main character since reading Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater and wanting to shout out some pointed life advice at one of the characters.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a quick read packed with dark humour as Korede must decide where her loyalties lie. Is she an enabler, an accomplice after the fact or her sister's willing victim? Will she choose family or justice? Can she choose both? The setting in Nigeria was refreshing and I enjoyed the scenes taking place in the hospital and in particular, the relationship Korede has with a coma patient.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was popular when it was published in 2018 and reading it more than 5 years later, I can see what all the fuss was about. If you enjoy your domestic thriller light with a dash of black humour, you'll enjoy this!

And if you like books about sisters, check out my post entitled 4 Books About Sisters on my TBR. One down, three to go!

My Rating:

17 February 2024

Review: The Madman's Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching

The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching book cover

The Madman's Library - The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a weighty yet stunning hardback book bursting with glorious images and plates showing the books - and their pages - described within. According to his bio, Edward Brooke-Hitching lives in London and is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, which may shed light on his interest in unusual books, obscure books, famous and forgotten books.

It's immediately clear that the author is a well-researched book lover and bibliophile, and it doesn't take much effort for the reader to match his enthusiasm for books and of course reading them.

The author gives us a tantalising sample of what we can look forward to early on:
"Invisible books, books that kill, books so tall that motors are needed to turn their pages and books so long they could destroy the universe. Edible books. Wearable books. Books made of skin, bones, feathers and hair. Spell books, shaman manuals, alchemist scrolls, sin books and the ancient work known as the 'Cannibal Hymn'. Books to communicate with angels, and books to summon treasure-hunting demons. The lawsuit filed by the Devil, and a contract bearing his signature. Books worn into battle, books that tell the future, books found inside fish or wrapped around mummified Egyptians. Leechbooks, psychic books, treasure-finding texts and the code-writing hidden in the Bible." Introduction Page 16
The writing strikes a comfortable balance between being well researched and well written while never tipping over into the dry and academic style of writing that often ruins my interest level in books like this. Brooke-Hitching really gets it.
"But these books breathe. They hold thoughts, knowledge and humour otherwise long gone. Their stories - and to a degree, their authors - are alive upon opening them, undiminished by the violence of time." Introduction Page 16
Tell me you haven't shared these thoughts too. The use of hornbooks pops up in my reading from time to time, and while I'd once Googled to clarify what they were, I don't recall ever seeing one, until now, which was a joy.

And while I knew what a hornbook was, I'd never heard of a xylothek or a wooden library, have you? According to the author, Xylotheks:
"... record arboreal biodiversity by forming a library from the trees themselves. Each volume is made of the wood of a different tree, their spines composed of the bark... and their contents containing specimens of the tree's leaves, seeds, branches and roots." Books that Aren't Books, Page 34
I defy any reader to view the accompanying photograph in the book and not instinctively want to reach out to touch and smell the volumes. Apparently xylothek collections of native flora can be found around the world and we have one here in Australia! Who knew?

I enjoyed studying the sheer ingenuity and variety in the emerging designs for the typewriter, and of course reading about the Voynich Manuscript; a book that has been studied around the world, but never been successfully decoded or deciphered.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Madman's Library and have already made plans to read his follow up published in 2022, entitled The Madman's Gallery - The Strangest Paintings, Sculptures and Other Curiosities from the History of Art. Here he turns his eye to the 'greatest curiosities from the global history of art' by gathering together more than a hundred 'magnificently eccentric antique paintings, engravings, illustrations and sculptures, each chosen for their striking beauty and the wonderfully bizarre story behind their creation.'

Colour me interested!

My Rating:

15 February 2024

Review: The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley

The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley book cover

If you love fairytales and historical fiction set in France, then The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley will interest you. Set in the salons of Paris and commencing in 1699 during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV, this story is based on the life of Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy and her friend, socialite and heiress Madame Nicola Tiquet.

Marie Catherine was a storyteller and author known for coining the term 'fairytale' and The Bee and the Orange Tree focusses on her life, in addition to that of her daughter Angelina and friend Nicola Tiquet. Those familiar with the fate of Madame Angelique-Nicole Tiquet may be interested in this fictionalised account of her life, while simultaneously finding the conditions of her circumstances hard to process.

Imagining the literary salons of Paris in the seventeenth century was intoxicating and the list of family and character names at the beginning of the novel was extremely useful. In this novel about female agency and the power of story, our characters struggle with overbearing males in their lives:
"She'd lost count of the conversations they had shared about brutish husbands. She repeated the advice she always delivered at their end: you are more capable - of creating meaning, of finding pleasure - than you allow yourself to believe." Page 22
While seeming more appropriate for today's characters than 300 years ago, this advice is freely given, yet has surprising and unintended consequences for our characters.

The writing in The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley is luscious and evocative and reading it felt like an indulgence. We're also treated to some striking moments like this one:
"As the only tree standing in the field of her mother's fury, she was preparing to be lashed by strong winds, vulnerable to a fiery lightning strike." Page 291
Written by an Australian author and published in 2019, the title of this book comes from a fairytale of the same name written by Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy and published in 1697 and it really works. My reading experience would have been enhanced if I'd known the book was based on real figures from history; that understanding only arrived afterwards with the Author's Note at the end.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to visit one of the literary salons of France in the 1600s or enjoy the work of Kate Forsyth with regard to fairytales, The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley is for you.

My Rating:

08 February 2024

Review: Vital Organs by Suzie Edge

Vital Organs - A History of the World's Most Famous Body Parts by Suzie Edge audiobook cover

Vital Organs - A History of the World's Most Famous Body Parts by Suzie Edge has a nifty concept to pull in readers eager to discover the quirky stories behind 'history's most famous limbs, organs, and appendages'.

With creatively titled chapter headings like Queen Victoria's Armpit (Chapter 16), King Louis' Fistula (Chapter 25) and Napoleon's Pen*s (Chapter 32), medical doctor and historian Suzie Edge grabs your attention and provides an interesting conversational style overview of each case, supported by history and science.

Listening on audiobook and narrated by the author, I enjoyed learning about Miss Emily Wilding Davison's Skull in Chapter 3, while cases I was already familiar with still entertained. Alexis St. Martin survived being shot in the stomach and after undergoing lifesaving surgery, the open wound failed to heal closed. This wound created a 'window' of sorts directly into the stomach, allowing an Army surgeon to study the digestive process for years afterwards.

Chapter 10 was a dazzling deep dive into dental health, looking at the famous Habsburg Jaw acquired after centuries of inbreeding; Marie Antoinette's early form of braces; George Washington's gum disease and false teeth made from ivory and stolen teeth from slaves; and teeth stripped from dead soldiers laying on Napoleonic battlefields known as Waterloo teeth.

If that wasn't suitably informative and enGROSSing enough for you, Chapter 38 Yao Niang's Toes was all about Chinese foot binding, yes please! I've always been fascinated by the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding, an interest recently renewed when I read Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See last year and further satisfied here.

In the author's own words, Suzie Edge tells stories about 'gory human body history' and this has made her a sensation on Tik Tok. I'm not a regular user of TikTok or BookTok - an online community focussing on books and literature - but this isn't the first time I've read a book or listened to an audiobook about medical history.

Some of you might remember and/or enjoy:

With a few books of this nature still waiting for me on my TBR, including Severed - A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson, I'm also keen to read the author's book on Royals in Mortal Monarchs - 1000 Years of Royal Deaths as well as her upcoming release, History Stinks! Poo Through The Ages.

In Vital Organs, Suzie Edge condenses vast amounts of history into short sharp chapters making the history engaging and digestible in a readily accessible writing style and I recommend it to non fiction readers with an interest in history, medical history and anatomy.

My Rating:

 * I'm not a prude but Carpe Librum has been the victim of censorship (outrageous) that I haven't been able to remedy, and two of my book reviews are hidden behind warnings for sensitive content. What's so sensitive about books and reading I hear you ask? In short, reviewed two books with the 'S' word in the title, so rather than leave out the mention of Napoleon's appendage, I've used an asterisk in the hope this review won't be flagged.