Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

101. The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, by Carl Smith

The year 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, and, boy, did Chicago celebrate. There were lectures and exhibits and installations. Smith's book, a revision of the interpretive digital essay he wrote for the electronic version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago, is the story of how it all came together.

The city was exploding. In the 20 years before the Chicago Fire, the population grew from 30,000 to ten times that. By the time of the plan's publication, it was two million. It was exploding in other ways as well. The conflict between labor unions and capital often erupted into violence. The urban poor were crowded into dense and unhealthy tenements. And the city was governed by what Smith calls a "profoundly crooked group" in the city council.

But the city was also home to a group of civically engaged businessmen, people like Montgomery Ward, who fought to keep the lakefront "forever open, clear and free". Through private civic organizations, the Commercial Club and the Merchants Club, they determined to create a plan to alter the city's built environment. And the man they hired to create this plan was Daniel Burnham.

Burnham was by no means an unknown. He was one of them. He had been the architect behind the "White City", Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893. He designed their homes and their office buildings. He was joined in the endeavor by Edward H. Bennett.

Much of what we see in Chicago today is the result of this plan. The lakefront and the Museum Campus:
Museum Campus

the Michigan Avenue bridge, that joined the streets on either side of the Chicago River:
The city and the river

and so much more we owe to Burnham and Bennett's work.


100. Keeping House: a novel in recipes, by Clara Sereni (Translated from the Italian by Giovanna Miceli Jeffries and Susan Briziarelli)

The title of this book in the original Italian is "Casalinghitudine", a word for which there is no English equivalent. It combines "casalinga", homemaker, with the noun ending also found in "abitudine" (habit), "solitudine" (solitude) and "negritudine" (negritude). It could perhaps be described as the embracing with pride, and from a feminist standpoint, of those things that are perceived as constituting "keeping house".

Cooking and food, for Sereni, represent a form of caring. The recipes here are placed in conjunction with events in the narrator's life, from her childhood, raised mostly by a grandmother and aunts, through her youth and involvement in radical politics, to her marriage and motherhood. Her relationship with food also reflects her relationship with her father, a journalist, politician and member of the Italian Communist Party, who also wrote about the history of food in Italy (a quotation from one work of his in fact ends this book).

In the recipes (many of which I have copied down to try), we find patience, love, complexity and simplicity, exactness and improvisation, like life.

I found this book quite engrossing, perhaps because I am of an age with Sereni and, albeit in the U.S., share some political experiences with her. I do think that readers with at least some knowledge of Italian culture and recent political history will be better able to appreciate this book than those who don't.

Read more about Clara Sereni.

The Dot & the Line: a romance in lower mathematics

99. The Dot & the Line: a romance in lower mathematics, by Norton Juster

A sweet little romance, in which a sensible straight line:

falls in love with a dot, who spurns him for a squiggle:

But it all turns out right in the end.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The People

94. The Allure of Chanel, by Paul Morand

Morand first met Coco Chanel in 1921, and in 1946 was invited to visit Chanel in St. Moritz, where he had extensive conversations with her, with a view to help write her memoirs. That project never came off, and the notes were put away and did not surface again until after Chanel's death, and were published finally in 1976.

It's pretty well known by now that Chanel created herself in more ways than one, inventing stories about her childhood and upbringing, but the reality of a young woman who broke loose from that past, lived in the era of Picasso and Sert, and changed the face of fashion in a career that spanned the world wars, can't be anything other than fascinating. No longer were clothes designed only for women whose lives were "worthless and idle"; they were for women who led busy lives and who, therefore, needed to feel comfortable in their clothes. Tossing out corsets and introducing menswear tailoring, Chanel anticipated the needs of women as the 20th-century advanced.

Because these are Chanel's own words and thoughts, this book provides an insight into the thinking of a woman who was not only a great couturier, but a woman whose influence still resonates today. I cannot help but be reminded of the Chanel exhibit I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. The exhibit juxtaposed Chanel's work with that of Karl Lagerfeld, who became head of the House of Chanel in the early '80s. The difference was stark. Nearly everything of Coco Chanel's could be worn today without hesitation, so classic are they. The designs of Lagerfeld, on the other hand, could have the date of design written on them.

The book is not, however, confined to Chanel and the world of fashion. She talks, also, about her private life, her amours, which would be a book in and of themselves.

95. D.V., by Diana Vreeland

I really adored this book. It's not written. Instead, it's rather obvious that the editors, George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill, just sat down with Mrs. Vreeland and let her talk, and then pretty much transcribed the conversation as it had happened. And, boy, can she talk! A mile a minute is a conservative estimate. You zip through this book because you find yourself reading it as quickly as it was said. And it's full of italics! Vreeland's excitement and enthusiasm for whatever it is she's talking about are evident on the page.

What a life she led. Raised in a rawther social family, in London and Paris and New York, she married banker Reed Vreeland at the age of nineteen, and he was clearly the love of her life. She knew everyone, from Josephine Baker to Jacqueline Onassis with the Windsors in between, practically invented red, was fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar for twenty-six years and editor-in-chief at Vogue for eight, and ended her career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

Remarks like "Unshined shoes are the end of civilization" and the famous "Pink is the navy blue of India" make Vreeland seem superficial. And, indeed, she herself said that she adored artifice. But she was also a very insightful, practical, intelligent and hard-working woman. She rightly says that the books one has read are the way you find out about a person. And although she says, "I stopped reading -- seriously reading -- years ago, she can talk about Tolstoy and kept The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon next to her bed. (More on Vreeland's books.)

If Chanel brought fashion kicking and screaming into the 20th-century, it was Vreeland (who adored and patronized Chanel) who made it part of the life of the woman-on-the-street.

96. Silver and Gold, by Norman Hartnell

Norman Hartnell left Cambridge without a degree, intent on becoming a fashion designer. With the financial assistance of his father, and the practical assistance of his sister, he established his own house, and ultimately became dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II, among other royal and noble ladies.

It's popular to sneer at Hartnell, to call his clothes "dowdy" and "frumpish", but that's really wrong. Much of his work, particularly his evening wear, could, to the contrary, be called "over-the-top", with embellishments of jewels, fur and heavy embroidery. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, "For me, simplicity is the death of the soul." While his daywear for the Queen has been deemed "matronly", one must not forget that, when she was young, it was common for young, married women to dress in an older style. And Hartnell also talks about the various constraints that exist when designing for royalty: the use of pale colors to stand out in a sea of people wearing darker colors, a design that allows for the wearing of Orders, the need to "set an example" (as with wartime restrictions). As he puts it in describing the choice of colors for Queen Mary's visits to bombed sites, "Black does not appear in the rainbow of hope."

In many ways, Hartnell put English fashion design on the map. Most people would be hard-pressed to name an English fashion designer before Hartnell. There is, of course, Charles Worth, but he made his name in Paris. After Hartnell, the names keep coming: Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood and so on.

This memoir is a must for anyone interested in fashion history, whatever their opinions of Hartnell's designs.

The Things

97. The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping: Insider Tips, Helpful Hints, Hip Shops, by Melody Fortier

This little book is an excellent guide for anyone who is interested in vintage clothing, whether it be to wear or to collect. Fortier provides many useful tips for buying in a variety of stores, online or at auction, and she clearly knows what she is talking about.

While no one book can make you an expert at identifying vintage clothing and materials, this is a fine start. Fortier discusses how to date clothes by the type of closures and the labels, how to determine what fabric a garment is made of, what construction to look for, general rules of pricing and how to care for your vintage find. I appreciated the sections devoted to hats, shoes and other accessories, because, as a self-styled "accessory queen", I believe that these items lend the finishing touch to any outfit. That pair of vintage gloves gives a certain "je ne said quoi" to any modern suit.

One area that I haven't seen mentioned in other books on the subject is "reinventing" vintage. If a garment is damaged, or a very common style, Fortier sees nothing wrong with customizing and updating it, and shows several examples.

The only real quibble I have is that I would have liked more illustrations to supplement descriptions of technical terms. But overall, this is definitely a book I'd recommend for inclusion in the library of anyone with a serious interest in buying vintage fashion.

98. The Classic Ten: The True Story of the Little Black Dress and Nine Other Fashion Favorites, by Nancy MacDonell Smith

One need not consider it necessary to own all of Smith's "classic ten" to agree that they are, indeed, classics. Many women lead happy and fulfilled lives never having put on a pair of jeans or sneakers. Others wouldn't dream of letting a pair of high heels into their closet, and many simply cannot afford pearls or cashmere sweaters. Nevertheless, the history of all these items makes for a fun read.

Smith not only discusses where these items originated and how they developed, but also describes their place in popular culture, particularly film (such as Audrey Hepburn's iconic little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Lana Turner's image as "the Sweater Girl").

But somebody needs to tell her that Harriet Vane was never Peter Wimsey's "paramour"!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sicilian Tragedee

93. Sicilian Tragedee, by Ottavio Cappellani

The theme is star-crossed lovers, but Shakespeare would be a bit startled at the casting. It's not in fair Verona that we set our scene, but hot Sicily. And the households are alike in their lack of dignity.

Take: Tino Cagnotto, theatre director, who is trying to stage an unusual production of Romeo and Juliet, while battling depression and wooing his younger inamorato, Bobo. Add: Alfio Turrisi, mafioso, in love with Betty Pirotta, daughter of a rival, said rival being all too happy at the prospect of getting the spoiled brat off his hands.

Mix in: various aristocrats, dueling cultural commissioners, and actors (never forget the actors!)

Result: plots, counter-plots, confusion, hilarity and un libro molto divertente!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do Nothing But Read Day - The Execution

I normally would have begun the day reading the Sunday paper, but it hadn't been delivered! So I started right in on book reading along with my breakfast. I then ensconced myself in my sunroom, with cozy socks and a pot of tea:

At various times, I had assistance:

I admit to the occasional lapse. I put up my Christmas tree yesterday, so every time I passed it on the way to the kitchen (to heat up more water for tea, fix lunch or dinner, etc.) I'd add a couple of more ornaments. The newspaper finally came and I deserted the books for a bit to read that. And I popped onto the computer to check my email and to post my progress in the LibraryThing thread.

By dinnertime, I had five books in the "read pile":

And here's the final result:

It's not really as much as it looks. I was already close to finishing three of the books (Vintage Shopping, J.M.W. Turner and Keeping House) and The Dot & The Line can be whipped out in about five minutes, as it's mostly images and very little text.

Reviews will be coming, but a few quick words on the books are in order. Vintage Fashion is a nice, practical guide to buying, The Classic Ten provides some history on classic fashion pieces, and D.V. is a hoot and a half! I'll be trying some of the recipes in Keeping House, which also provides an interesting glimpse into Italian leftist politics. The Dot & the Line was quite clever; I'll scan some of the illustrations when I review it, as they really make the book. Fun Home is a biographical graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel ("Dykes to Watch Out For"). J.M.W. Turner is one of Ackroyd's "Brief Lives". So it was quite a variety, but with an emphasis on fashion.

This was fun! I look forward to DNBRD 2010!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Do Nothing But Read Day - the plan

So here's the plan.

Get up at my usual time, eat my oatmeal and read the paper.

Make another cup of tea.

Curl up in my comfy chair (see previous DNBRD post) and commence to read.

I have a couple of books that I have almost finished, so if I haven't completed them by Sunday, they are first up. Then I have put a couple of piles of books on the table you see next to the chair. There are basically two themes: fashion (because it's fun) and Florence (because I'm going there in April).

Now, I obviously am not going to read all of these, probably just a couple, but I wanted to have some choices depending on my mood. The options are:


Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence, by Gene A. Brucker
Florence in the forgotten centuries, 1527-1800, by Eric W. Cochrane
The city of Florence : historical vistas and personal sightings, by R.W.B. Lewis
A Traveller's Companion to Florence


The classic ten : the true story of the little black dress and nine other fashion favorites, by Nancy McDonnell Smith
The fashion conspiracy : a remarkable journey through the empires of fashion, by Nicholas Coleridge
Silver and gold, by Norman Hartnell
D.V., by Diana Vreeland

(If anyone's read any of these, comments are welcome!)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Florence, a Delicate Case

92. Florence, a Delicate Case, by David Leavitt

David Leavitt divides his time between Gainesville, Florida, where he teaches, and Florence, Italy, which residence has resulted in this charming little book, part of Bloomsbury's The Writer and the City series.

Leavitt concentrates on the expatriate experience in Florence, particularly the expatriate homosexual experience, even more particularly the expatriate English homosexual experience, in the person of folks like Norman Douglas (author of South Wind), E.M. Forster and Ronald Firbank. He does not entirely neglect the ladies, however, noting that "the English ladies who have gone over to Catholicism . . . may be the loudest presence of all."

Neither a guidebook nor a history book, though there is a touch of each, this book rather provides an atmosphere, a feeling about the city, from the point of view of one who is at one and the same time an insider and an outsider. It's full of delightful gossip, and one gets the sense that, like Alice Longworth Roosevelt, Leavitt thinks that "if you can't say something nice, come sit next to me."

And, if nothing else, reading this book has confirmed me in my desire to visit Florence.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What are you doing on Sunday, December 20th?

Amanda Hyphenated has come up with this brilliant idea: Do Nothing But Read Day! Avoid the Christmas-shopping crowds at the mall. Have dinner delivered (pizza is always good). Make a dent in your TBR pile. (Lord knows, though, one day won't be enough for mine.)

Surprisingly, this is one day over the next couple of weekends that I don't have a get-together of some sort on my calendar. The goddess of books must have known something was up! So I plan to brew a pot of tea, curl up in that chair you see in the picture, and read! Why not join me?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Connections: Our Selves - Our Books

91. Connections: Our Selves - Our Books, by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern

Miss Rostenberg and Miss Stern were an amazing couple. They met in the early '30s, teaching Sabbath School, and became partners in life and in the rare book business. I wonder how many young women today have any conception how difficult their path was. Feminists, scholars, entrepreneurs, unmarried, in a world where women were expected to be none of those things, they lived, in the words of the New York Times obituary of Miss Rostenberg, "in a universe in which it was not possible to live the way she wanted to. She simply ignored that impossibility, created her own universe and, in a small but exquisite way, changed the world."

Between them, they wrote or edited upwards of thirty books, and innumerable sale catalogues. This book is rather special, though. Here, they describe books that they have bought and sold over the years, but these are all books with special meaning for one or the other or both. For Leona, who had been told by a college professor not to set her sights too high because she was "a woman and a Jew", and who was distantly related to Alfred Dreyfus, finding Émile Zola's pamphlet, "L'Affaire Dreyfus. Lettre A La Jeunesse", was a dramatic reminder of intolerance. Madeleine, who is, of course, best known for her work editing collections of Louisa May Alcott's potboilers, writes of the acquisition of the first edition of one of Alcott's earliest works, Flower Fables (stories she created for Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter, Ellen).

There is the book that they never sold, the 1591 Parma imprint of Angeli Bonventura's La Historia della Citta di Parma, with a binding embossed with the arms of George Carew, Earl of Totnes, a book Leona had lusted for ever since she had apprenticed with the antiquarian bookseller, Herbert Reichner. And there is the book they never wrote, a proposed biography of Belle da Costa Greene. The proposal was rejected, as Anne Haight was in the process of writing a biography. In fact, that biography never appeared, though Haight did write a biographical entry on Greene for Notable American Women. (There is now a biography of Greene, Heidi Ardizzone's An Illuminated Life, which I have previously reviewed.)

What books have gone through their hands! What places they have scoured and found! What stories they have to tell! To find a copy of the first Hebrew edition of Theodore Herzl's Der Iudenstaat (the book that inspired the Zionist movement) is one thing. To find it on Erev Rosh Ha-shanah is quite another.

I could go on and on about these connections, the serendipitous finds, the books that escaped only to be found again, but you might as well read the book, enjoy the stories, and marvel at the full and fulfilled lives of Miss Rostenberg and Miss Stern.

Madeleine B. Stern (from the New York Times)
Leona Rostenberg (also from the New York Times)

The Heather Blazing

90. The Heather Blazing, by Colm Tóibín

In this quiet novel, Eamon Redmond, a High Court judge in Dublin, looks back, reflecting on his life. The troubled history of Ireland is there in his reminiscences and the turmoil of the modern world and a changing country is reflected in his own family.

The structure of the novel is deceptively simple. It is in three parts, each beginning as the law term ends, with a final case being heard or judgment being carefully crafted and delivered. Then Redmond leaves the courts to summer with his wife, Carmel, in Cush, County Wexford, the area where he grew up. I say "deceptively simple" because there is, in fact, a complex interconnection between the scenes in the law courts and the judge's summers, among the three years covered by these parts, and between the judge's present and his memories of the past.

The first and third parts begin with the same two sentences: Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the color, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow." That phrase, "small currents and pockets of movement within the flow", is a rather good description of this book, as Redmond recalls the "small currents and pockets of movement" within the flow that is his life.

I have seen Tóibín compared to Joyce, and it's not a bad comparison. His ability to show people's relationships and characters through the simple description of the mundane events of their daily lives, yet leading to a moment of realization, is very Joycean. His language is neither fancy nor stilted, but polished to a gem-like luster, each word perfectly chosen, and all strung together like a matched set of pearls.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Monster: Gay Adventures in American Machismo

89. Monster: Gay Adventures in American Machismo, by Brian Bouldrey

In these essays, Bouldrey chronicles the world of the macho man from the point of view of a self-confessed "part-time opera queen" who once killed a bear (he wasn't only three, though). From rodeos to car racing, from bullfighting to boxing, Bouldrey analyzes male bonding and homoeroticism with wit and affection.

Despite the title of the book, it isn't all about "American" machismo, as Bouldrey also writes about his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, conversations with a spa attendant in the Azores, and the aforesaid bullfighting.