Showing posts with label History. Show all posts
Showing posts with label History. Show all posts

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Good Housekeeping Housekeeping Book

It's been stickily hot all day today, so, after a morning spent painting trim (I'm about halfway through with the dining room!), I retreated to the couch with a sweating glass of iced tea and a fascinating book I found in my collection.  I have no recollection of where it came from, but it's a very fascinating read!

Published in 1947, this book really should be used as a historical primary source.  It's such a glimpse into the world of post-war American homemakers.  With more clothes and re-modeled/new houses and that fancy new washing machine comes a lot more housekeeping.  And so the editors of Good Housekeeping decided to put together a definitive book full of advice on keeping a house spic-and-span.

There's a chapter on moving day made easier, removal of household pests (we're entering the era of liberally poisoning every living creature in sight...there actually is a section on obtaining the right kind of DDT), how to care for books properly, doing laundry, must-have cleaning utensils for the new housewife, and how to thoroughly clean every room in a house (let me just say that the editors of Good Housekeeping would have a heart attack if they walked into my house).

The house cleaning chapter particularly fascinated me and, after much musing, I've decided to follow their housekeeping calendar for a week and see if it's actually feasible today or whether I will end up rolling my eyes over the amount of time those women spent making sure that their houses were immaculate.  I suspect that I will find the latter true (really, who cleans their kitchens three times a day?), but maybe I will surprise myself.

As I write this, I realize this isn't so much a book review as a reflection on an era.  I find this book so fascinating because, with the vantage point that I have, I can see how these new standards are going to lead insane standards of domestic perfection and, ultimately, boredom for women everywhere.  Because this kind of housecleaning is not true homemaking, but just keeping a house clean.  The kind of homemaking that people like the editors of Good Housekeeping were rejecting-doing good, creative, challenging work in the home-got shuffled aside in favor of shiny houses and ridiculous levels of perfection.

When I look at this book, I get chills thinking of the women that, in just a short ten years will finally start speaking up about the intense loneliness and meaninglessness that was a part of their lives as they followed the strict rules of the likes of Good Housekeeping.  I want to go back to these editors and shriek, "No!  No!  Stop right this instant.  These standards and rules are going to take you nowhere good."

No history textbook can paint a picture quite as well as a book written at that period of history can.  And that is how, on a hot Monday afternoon, I found myself taking a history lesson.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How I'm Writing These Days

Recently, I've undergone a bit of a blogging shift.  It all started when I read this article.  I instantly went back to the hours spent on handwriting books, my crooked 3rd grader cursive, the blister on my third finger from writing too much.
The handwriting method I learned.  I can't
believe how many memories it brings up looking at that book!

My handwriting through the years has become a pretty illegible scrawl.  It's kinda cursive-kinda print and to the point where it's almost a code that only I can read.  But somewhere in the back of my brain is the memory of how to write that neat, swirly cursive, mixed with some calligraphy that I learned years ago.  And so I've been writing in cursive like crazy.  All of my blog posts are written out by hand on a nice notepad now and I take satisfaction in the pages of posts and post ideas which are on paper.

The other reason that I really wanted to get back into remembering those early cursive days is that I've been reading that people have lost their ability to read the letters and other primary documents of generations earlier.  It makes me sad to think that we might lose that ability and so I'm more eager than ever to spend time honing that skill.  Because the best way to learn to read cursive, or so I've read, is to keep writing it.
Unrelated, but pretty.  A picture from a misty morning this week.

So here's how it works. I sit down most mornings, coffee cup in one hand, and a note pad and a nice ball point pen in the other, and think of post ideas and then write them out.  It might be something that flashed through my head and I thought would make a nice post, or it might be a review of the latest book I've been reading.  Then I outline general thoughts and ideas.  What is amazing me is the sheer number of ideas and observations I'm having that I really didn't notice before when I was just looking at the computer musing on what to say next.  I started doing it with the Little Women posts and I haven't looked back since.

It's also appeared to make my blog writing frequency better.  It's a lovely little early-morning ritual before work starts to sit down and just write and write.  I have such a pile of posts now, written so neatly that anybody who wants can easily read them.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Family Circle's Complete Book of Beauty and Charm

Yep.  That's the title.  Wanna guess the publish date? 1951.  Knowing my inordinate love of all things vintage, my dear mother got me this book for Christmas.  I saved it for my Sunday afternoon reading and I just finished it this past Sunday afternoon.  And now I'm going to show it to you.

First of all, I took pictures of the inside of the book, so you get an idea of what it's like:


See?  The book tells you comfortingly that glasses can, too, be attractive, if you carefully
read their chart.

This caption says, "Even housewives need to take care of their hands!"

Properly applying foundation.
Necklines depending on your face shape.

I love books like these-books that are simply for the purpose of providing a window into another time, the purpose of inspiration.  This kind of reading is what I call Sunday Afternoon Reading, also known as inspiration reading.  Sunday Afternoon Reading is generally nonfiction, usually filled with pictures, always chock full of inspiration for the coming week.  I don't normally read for the sole purpose of getting good ideas or just for enjoying something for its prettiness.  Books normally have to hold something more for me, but not on Sunday afternoons.  That is when I pick up books just because they're pretty and inspiring and fun.  And while I wouldn't love to read like that all the time, it's actually very lovely to have that one day a week set aside where I do read like that.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Read in 2014

I read a lot this year.  I think I read so much because I had this blog that was quietly tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me to take the time to read and write on my blog.  Yes, there was my (brief) hiatus from blogging, back in the fall, but I could never completely leave this blog and, so, I'm committing to a brisker blog schedule and even more reading this year!  I thought I would compile a list of what I read this year.  I was so pleased, readers!  The list starts in March because that was when I started blogging and, honestly, I have absolutely no memory of what I read before that.

March

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (And my first blog post!)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Still one of my favorite works of fiction)
The Penderwicks Books by Jeanne Birdsall
Two Sherlock Holmes Books
Canterbury Tales
Kilmeny of the Orchard by L.M. Montgomery
Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes
Don't Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier (NOT a hit!)
The Beginning of Flavia de Luce
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays
The Life of Pi

Friday, October 31, 2014

Peggy Parsons at Prep School

My latest read has been a very indulgent one-Peggy Parsons at Prep School-one of those boarding-school-girl books from the teens and 20s that were a dime a dozen back in the day.  I have a certain fondness for these books and found this particular one in a dusty little, out-of-the-way bookshop that was housed in an old mill.  I think the charming setting went to my head, because I bought three or four of this genre of books, I read all of them except for this one, which I finally got around to reading just this past week.

Peggy Parsons, etc. etc. is, of course, about Peggy Parsons and her multitude of wholesome adventures at her charming prep school.  Of course, there are the characters who have to be won over by Peggy's charming personality.  And there is the problem that is cheerfully solved by the resourceful heroine.

In this book, the main problem is the joining together of a handsome college boy (who conducts a serenade with the glee club for the prep school girls in the first chapter, by the way…that part was pretty fabulous) and his long-lost,  gruff grandfather who has a soft spot for Peggy.  But, along the way, there are picnics and midnight fudge parties and matinee shows at the local theater and strict headmistresses to win over.

Here are two excerpts from the book, so that you get a picture of what this book is like to read:

"The domestic science class, well under way with an excellent teacher, decided to have a 'bacon bat', after the custom of the Smith College girls, all by themselves on some bit of rock that jutted into the river….There was a jar of bacon strips in a paper bag, the bottle of olives in another paper bag, and two dozen rolls, a generous supply in the biggest paper bag of all.  There was a tiny box of matches, too, that Peggy slipped into the pocket of her rust colored jacket."

And…one of those fudge scenes that are so frequently talked about in this type of book:

"The room, with the little whispering group of girls in it, some on couches and some on the floor, garbed in all the delicate shades of boudoir attire, pale blue, pink, and rose, saffron yellow, lavender, and dainty green; with the tiny spurts of golden candle flame dotted here and there on table and mantlepiece; with the hot, chocolate-smelling fudge bubbling away in the chafing dish, looking like some fairy meeting place…When the fudge was done they put the pan out of the window and hoped that it wouldn't fall down and all be lost.  It didn't, and before it had fairly cooled, they cut it and lifted the squares in their eager fingers and ate them with greedy pleasure, down to the last, last crumb."

The book by no means displays good writing and is quite formulaic, but there is something so charming about such adventures, full of pretty 20s clothes and archaic food the likes of which I have never heard or seen.

I don't quite know why these books hold such charm for me.  They are often sub-par-ly written and, after you've read one, you've read them all, but for some reason, that doesn't disgust me.  They were also obviously a huge money-maker (rather like the Nancy Drew books) back in the day and written in large part to secure the attentions of girls for years on end while more and more books were churned out.  In a modern book, I would not hold with any of these things and would firmly refuse to ever pick up such a cheap bit of book, but something about the age of this book keeps me from throwing it out or refusing to read it.

I wonder, did these boarding schools actually exist, or were they romanticizations of a certain school-girl lifestyle that rarely, if ever, existed?  I don't know the answer to this question, but I do know that these authors always present these stories as if every other girl was going to one of these boarding schools that are always full of fun and games and little education.

If this sounds like something that you would enjoy reading, purely for a little enjoyment and light reading, I highly recommend seeking one of this type of book out.  They are fast reads and are an interesting, much-forgotten bit of fiction.  Unless you just happen to stumble upon a few of these at some cheap bookshop, they can be very hard to find and, when found, ridiculously expensive.  Also, most libraries don't have them anymore.  So if you happen to find one, like I did, snap it up and enjoy yourself!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

This book was fantastic.  It's written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who wrote fiction back in the 1920s.  She was quite controversial and, apparently, shocked quite a few people with her educational/political/philosophical beliefs.  This book, The Homemaker, amazed me at its surprising currentness.
I love this cover, by the way.  Isn't it cozy?

The Homemaker is about a husband and wife who both despise their roles.  Evangeline Knapp tries to be the perfect housewife-scrubbing everything in sight every minute, creating perfect meals, hating it all and, subsequently, being terribly mean to her 3 kids.  Lester Knapp works at a store in a job that he hates.  He has no freedom and what he really wants to do is read poetry and hang out with his children.   The children all have various health problems and are nervous wrecks.  After Lester is fired from his job, he falls off of the roof, breaking his back and forcing his wife to go out and get a job at the very store that fired him.  Evangeline finds out how much she loves working in the clothing department, advising people and organizing everything, and becomes generally a kinder and happier person.  After his back begins to heal, Lester realizes how much he loves being home and taking care of his family.

But once Lester recovers, the Knapps realize how much they love their new way of life.  They all have an unspoken dread of returning to the way things used to be, but they know that if Lester does not return to a new job and Evangeline does not come home, society will completely disapprove.

I'm not going to tell you the ending, but I promise that it's good.  This book amazed me with its modernness.  We have to remember that in 1924 this would have been a message that would have left most people reeling.  I can only imagine the shock that this book must have caused.  It's obvious that Fisher was well ahead of her time.

I loved this book for the cozy domestic details, the fabulous story line (Fisher is a fantastic writer), and the way that the characters were presented.  Fisher is very, very good at writing sympathetic characters that you instantly begin to identify with.  I grew to love these characters and genuinely hope that they would find a way to be happy.

I really recommend this book to anybody and, really, this book could still produce a thought-provoking discussion today about men's and women's roles and how they do and do not work.  The book is a very fast read (I read it in a day).  It's a perfect book to curl up by the fire with.  I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Tea With Jane Austen

I'm finally getting around to doing some Austen in August posts.  On August 30th.  Oh well.  My Austen in August writing will probably go into September, but that's fine.

The first book that I picked up was Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson-a slim volume devoted to life in Jane Austen's day as it pertained to tea.  There were fascinating facts, quotes from letters Jane wrote, and all sorts of charming pictures and recipes.  I quite adored the book.  

The book was arranged throughout a day, starting with tea for breakfast and finishing with tea for dinner, with stops all along the way.  The author carefully went through the steps that were taken to make tea, depending on class, and argues that tea was something extremely important to Jane.  Wilson quotes liberally from the novels with loving descriptions of taking tea and discussing tea and judging people who don't take tea seriously.  

Wilson obviously cares very deeply about tea and wants all of her readers to care as deeply about it as she does.  Now I am not a devoted tea drinker, but I love history and I love Jane Austen, so this was a perfect book.  And, really, this book was just a sort of history of that time period, seen through the lens of tea.  

The writing was not breathtaking, however.  There were some awkward, stumbling sentences and things were quoted with no clear source.  I believe that this is Wilson's first writing and so we'll credit the mistakes with a not-very-great editor and inexperience.  

I think that this book could be read as a coffee-table book; flipping through the pages at the pretty pictures and reading the quotes at the side.  However, I sat down and read the thing cover to cover and was glad I did.  Halfway through reading, I got up and made a pan of apple (the first of our own apples!), sage, and cheddar scones. I rooted around in the cupboard for a pretty, non-earthenware mug and curled up, feeling perfectly content.  Readers, it was lovely.  In fact, I think a pre-requisite when reading this book should be having a nice teacup filled with a period-appropriate tea (I chose Oolong), and a little something to eat.

One of the best parts was the recipes.  Wilson would quote from a letter or a paragraph in one of Jane's books that mentioned a recipe and then Wilson modernized the recipes and included them in the book.  I copied several down before I returned this book to the library.

If you have ever enjoyed reading anything about Austen, then this is a book for you.  It's fun and interesting...the perfect weekend read.  I quite enjoyed it.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Code Name Verity

For some reason, it's taken me forever to write this post.  It's not like I couldn't think of things to say, I just kept forgetting about it.  Anyway, here is the post.

Code Name Verity is about a young spy, "Verity", who is captured by the Gestapo in 1943.  She is given the option to reveal her mission or die a horrible, torturous death.  Verity chooses the first option and is given paper and pencils to write out her mission.  As Verity writes out her story, she weaves in the story of how she met her friend, a pilot named Maddie, who flew the plane she was in when it wrecked.  Verity writes with a desperate passion that comes through beautifully.

So here were the things I liked about the novel:

  • It is seriously the most well-written YA novel I have ever read.  I have mentioned before that I usually scoff at young adult fiction.  In my opinion, it's usually poorly written and shallow and very formulaic (sorry, young adult readers).  However, Code Name Verity defies every one of these stereotypes and manages to produce a gripping, moving, nail-biting book.  
  • The German characters are thrillingly evil.  They are bad, bad, bad, but believably bad.
  • This beautiful story of a friendship.  Maddie and Verity have a close friendship that is beautifully portrayed, simply through a confessional.
Okay, and here was the problem:
  • I didn't finish the book.  I know, I know (blush).  I read about halfway through and the extreme brutality (I won't go into details for those who haven't read the book) just was too much.  I don't usually like brutality in books and I would have stopped a lot sooner in a less well-written book.   But, see, I couldn't stop.  However, it finally got to be too much.  I just couldn't handle it and I shut the book.  I wouldn't say that I'll never finish it, but for now, I need a break and I'm going on to something lighter.  There will probably be a point where I'll be in the mood for a deep thrill and I'll wade through the gory brutality to find out the ending, but for now it's put away.  
So now I want to hear anybody's thoughts on this book.   Did you like it?  Was it too much?  I can't wait to hear about it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Evelina by Fanny Burney

This book was a lot of fun to read.  Surprisingly, it was a very easy book to get into and strangely light. So I'm going to give my reflections on this book in a slightly different style than I usually do:

Evelina, written in the 1700s, is about a young girl with a rather sad past that is kind of too complicated to explain.  To make a long story short, Evelina's mother was disowned by her rich husband, she was heartbroken, died, and left her baby Evelina in the care of a guardian, Mr. Villars.  When Evelina reaches 16 (I think that was the age), she goes to do some broadening travel under the care of the matronly Lady Howard.  She has all kinds of adventures along the way, most of them of the romantic sort, and eventually ends up with the guy who we knew was the hero from page 20 on.  That's a gross oversimplification and the story was really very well-written.  I had fun reading it and Fanny Burney did an excellent job.

And now for my reflections:


  • Evelina is a very interesting heroine to me.  We are so used to the spunky, can-do-anything, strong-willed heroine in our modern fiction and movies (and, really, it's not a new innovation...think of Lizzie Bennet).  In contrast, Evelina's most used descriptor is 'angelic'.  She is described as this gorgeous, faultless, innocent creature who charms and thrills everyone who she comes into contact with.  Surprisingly, this didn't drive me crazy, I think because I don't read about a lot of heroines like this.  And luckily, Evelina did have personality beyond her perfectness, which definitely helped.
  • In spite of my toleration of Evelina's perfection, I am annoyed by how overlooked Maria, her best friend, is.  Maria appears to exist simply to give Evelina somebody to talk to while she isn't dancing with countless suitors and to provide transportation for Evelina in the form of her mother's carriage.  Maria deserves her own personality and a few of her own suitors, bless her heart.
  • This book is supposed to be satirical.  I was surprised that I picked up some of it, such as the jabs made at the ridiculous head-gear of the time.  However, I am sure that there is stuff that I am missing. Of course there are the extensive footnotes, but it gets exhausting flipping back and forth.  
  • I am sometimes mortified for Evelina because of her naiveté and slips simply to lack of understanding.  Eeek!  *Cringe*  Evelina is supposed to be a simple country girl with a definite lack in refinement and this shows in many of her interactions in the first half of the book.
  • Okay, now for the hero analysis.  What is it with heroes?!  They are either stiffly, perfectly perfect, an absolute gentleman, and spinlessly bland, or the racy bad-boy portrayed in so much of fiction starting in the late 1950s.  Lord Orville, the hero, falls into the former category.   I'm calling for a hero reform.  We need heroes that are fully human, of course still attractive and mannerly, yet faulted, like all of us.  Heroes deserve rounding out, just like all characters do.  No wait, there are some human heroes.  The most famous one is Darcy, but I know there are others, just let me think...
  • The book's epistolary form is very enjoyable to read.  I felt just like I was looking over Evelina's shoulder as she wrote her letters to her beloved guardian.  Writing an epistolary book is a fine line to walk and I have to hand it to Fanny Burney, she did a very good job.
  • And finally, I loved this book.  If you are in need of a good summer classic, this is the one to choose.  I sped through it in just a couple days and was on to other things.  It's not preachy or dry and it's fun to read.  I highly recommend it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

I'm reading a delightfully academic book about the history of dressing well in America.  Its title is the title of this post (no, I'm not going to write out that whole, long title again).  It's written by Linda Przybyszewski, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several other history books.  In this book, she takes a new subject upon herself: what women wore in the past, the women who inspired and taught them, and what we have to learn from them.  Przybyszewski fondly refers to these teachers of good fashion as "the dress doctors".  Their leader was Mary Brooks Picken, who inspired many women to use home-sewing to their advantage to create beautiful, thrifty wardrobes.

The dress doctors were home-ec teachers, writers, designers, and many more things.  Przybyszewski argues that they have really important advice for us today.  It's not a secret that many American women have lost all interest in dressing for occasion and this author is passionate about bringing practical beauty through clothes back into our daily lives.  The dress doctors taught that beauty was achieved through several simple rules of dress.  The rules for dress, summarized, are:
1. Sensibility- A wardrobe that serves you, rather than you serving your wardrobe.  This means a relatively inexpensive wardrobe as a whole made up of several good-quality expensive pieces that can be used in a variety of settings.
2. Good Design Principles and Overall Beauty- Clothing that has harmony, proportion, balance, and rhythm.  The clothing should be pleasing to the eye, but needs to answer first and foremost to the sensibility rule.  Sure, a mink coat is gorgeous, but how often are you going to wear it?  That said, sensibility isn't everything and if something is strictly sensible without any beauty, there's no joy in wearing it.
3.  Appropriate Setting- The dress doctors (and the author) firmly believed (believe) that there is a time and place for everything.  Out in public, you shouldn't be wearing your plunging necklines.  That should be reserved for your family and closest friends.

I agree with these rules pretty much.  There is a rather ridiculous emphasis on colors "going" together, which I find unnecessary.  Instead of this rule, I would say, "Colors that I, personally, find pleasing to the eye."  I find the rules about, "Well, I can't wear this color because I'm too light and never wear pink and read together!" to be tiresome and not something that needs to be dredged up from the past.  But aside from that, I really wish that there were some strict dress doctors walking up and down our streets today.

The book was really well written.  It was academic, while managing to be amusing and inspiring.  The perfect kind of book.  Przybyszewski tells of how clothing has evolved from the dress doctors of the 1900s to today and its ups and downs along the way (boy, is she scathing of 70s fashion) in a truly amusing way.  Honestly, I really can't do this book justice in a measly blog post.  However, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My Latest Reading Project

I have a new reading project.   I sat down with some lovely sharp pencils and notepaper and made lists. I love making lists and planning, so this was a lot of fun.  For the next several months every evening, I'm going to be reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History of the United States (written along with Anthony Arnove).  So far, I've read the first chapter in both books.  Each chapter in each book corresponds.  The Voices book is several writings from several viewpoints in different points in American history in each chapter.  The People's History is Zinn's take on the time period with plenty of primary sources cited.  For instance, the first chapter of the Voices book has an excerpt from Columbus's diary, an excerpt from the diary of a man who was on the ship with Columbus and came to realize the evils of what they were doing, and an essay written by a Native American man in the 1980s re-imagining Columbus's arrival.  Then, Zinn offers his thoughts about the arrival of Columbus, all written in a captivating and lyrical prose.


I think this is an important book for everybody to read.  American history (particularly school textbook history) has become badly distorted in a variety of ways.   Firstly, for many years, the viewpoint of the white, European-origin male has reigned supreme and the school system seems to not have quite gotten the message yet that this is only relevant to one segment of the population.  Second, the wars, exchanges of money, and foreign policies have been the "important" parts of history for a long time.  What counts is not what the Virginia slave women were making for their meals, but what law Jefferson was passing.  Howard Zinn has set out to completely change the way we view history and I think he's done a wonderful job of it.

One thing I am enjoying about this book is the calm recognition that, yes, this history that Zinn is writing is biased.  So often, history is presented as pure gospel, like the Pythagorean Theorem, that can never be wrong.  Even though the facts themselves may be true, every historian picks and chooses when writing something and it's refreshing to have that acknowledged.  The other thing I love about this book is how truly interesting it is.  That history is boring is something that many 5th graders repeat.  And really, if you're talking about textbooks, they're right.  This book succeeds in sounding serious and intelligent, while still being fascinating.

I thought I would give you two quotes that I especially love from Zinn's books.  The first one is from A People's History, the second is from Voices.

"My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia.  It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality.  But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us.  One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a max of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.  We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks.  This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences.  It is therefore more deadly."

"To omit or minimize [the] voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations.  I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women- once they organize and protest and create movements- have a voice no government can suppress."

I strongly recommend that you read these books.  They are actually surprisingly cheap for how big they are and they are books that are worth buying and adding to your home library.  However, they are at my public library, so you could definitely check them out of the library first, read a bit, and then decide what you think.