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review 2017-05-14 10:11
Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation - Judith Mackrell

Is it possible to be both ambitious and balanced?


The answer is yes, of course it is; there are manifold examples of men and women who have achieved great things while maintaining balanced, rational lives.


Reading books like Flappers though, one can't be blamed for wondering.  No doubt that the more outrageous lives make more exciting reading, but as seems always the case after reading these omnibus biographies, I'm left with the feeling that these women - who inarguably achieved great things in the face of extraordinary obstacles -  are not the ones we should be holding up as shining examples of success.  At least Flappers doesn't outright label them as heroines as one similar recently published book hailed its subjects.


But boy, does the outrageous make for delicious reading (if you can overlook the numerous and egregious copy-editing errors).  These women were rebellious, emotionally starved, unstable sometimes to the point of madness, and ambitious.  Their determination and stubbornness were admirable, if their lack of moral compass was not.  I'm not referring here, by the way, to their collective sexual escapades, of which I can only sit back and applaud with awe.  It's more the way they all believed, no matter how humble or grand their beginnings, that the rules didn't apply to them.


About the only woman I came out of this admiring was Josephine Baker.  While her compass most certainly did not point north, the author seems to chalk up some of this to naivety and ignorance (although I'm pretty sure she knew bigamy was a no-go and just didn't care).  Diana Cooper might have also made it to a happy old age, but Josephine showed the most ability to adapt, to learn, to grow, and to do it all without seeming to compromise her dignity.  


Take all this with a grain of salt, of course; condensed biographies like these are necessarily incomplete and leave out a lot of details that might change the reader's perspective, but the writing is engaging and Mackrell manages to connect all five women's lives into a relatively cohesive narrative.  The women themselves do the rest.

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review 2017-05-01 11:49
The Odditorium: The Tricksters, Eccentrics, Deviants and Inventors Whose Obsessions Changed the World
The Odditorium: The Tricksters, Eccentrics, Deviants and Inventors Whose Obsessions Changed the World - Jo Keeling,David Bramwell

This one should have been a 5 star, but I knocked 1/2 star off for some shocking editing blunders and another 1/2 star for occasionally crossing the line from humorous commentary into editorialising.  And really cheap, newsprint type paper stock. 


Otherwise it is an excellent read; most of the people profiled were unknown to me, so there was a lot of new information.  Those I'd heard of before were shown here from a different perspective, giving me a more rounded view of them.


The book is divided by types:  Tricksters and Subversives, Creative Mavericks, Wild at Heart, etc. with 8-10 people profiled under each.  The emphasis is on profile; these are not comprehensive by any stretch, but each chapter ends with suggestions for further exploration of each person via books, excursions, movies, etc..  I can't think of any of them that I didn't find fascinating in their own way and quite a few of them got the "read out loud" treatment.


If you like off-the-beaten-path knowledge and see this one out in the wild, check it out - it's worth a read.

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review 2017-04-25 07:42
The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures
The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures - Carla D. Hayden,Library of Congress

 This is probably the most pleasant, and by extension, interesting, history of something as mundane as a card catalog as I'm likely to ever run across.  From the first example of a book catalog, pressed into clay in cuneiform, to the modern day usage of MARC records, the text flows in a tight, succinct narrative that is neither chatty nor dry (and I'm sure nowhere near comprehensive).


Where the book truly shines is in its photographs and illustrations.  The author and publisher were generous with the photographs and they fill at least 1/3 of the pages.  Most of them are photos of the old cards and the books they belong to, but there are many old pictures of the Library of Congress and other related images.  The number of cards the Library of Congress had to deal with daily in the mid-50's is staggering.  I can't even imagine the logistics.


Did you know that the Library of Congress still has their old card catalog and it's still in use?   (Most of it.)  I think that's wonderful and the perfect example of how old and new methodologies can complement each other instead of competing.  


This isn't the kind of book that's going to have wide appeal, but for those that find the subject interesting, it's a beautiful book, thoughtfully put together.



Page count: 220
Dollars banked: $3.00

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review 2017-04-21 12:47
Fifty Days that Changed the World
Fifty Days That Changed The World - Hywell Williams

A beautiful book, with 50 well chosen, although as the editor freely admits, subjectively chosen, days that inarguably changed the world.


But the writing was dry, and overly focused on battlefield/military statistics for my personal tastes; I quickly lost track of who did what to whom, and when they did it - especially since the writer(s) often went back and forth in time in an attempt to flesh out events.


I was also surprised by the poor editing; call me naive but I expected better from a Folio Society publication.  Spaces missing between words and sentences that were incomplete or nonsensical did nothing to improve my opinion.  It's not a bad read; it's just not as good as I'd hoped.

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review 2017-04-06 05:10
Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties
Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties - Rachel Cooke

Just what it says on the wrapper, this book is an encapsulated look at the lives and careers of 10 British women at their professional peak during the 50's, a decade that, in my entirely biased opinion, was the beginning of the end in so many ways.


But not for women; they were just starting to gather momentum.  Rachel Cooke writes about these women in an extremely casual, laid-back style that is often funny and always easy to read and entertaining.  She manages, in just a few dozen pages at most, to give the reader a really good feel for these women, their lives, and the trails they blazed.  


For at least half of them, I have to say, that feeling is that no matter how successful they were, they were also a hot mess.  There is a long trail of deceit, neglect, and dishonesty behind some of these 'extraordinary' women; at least 3 of them should have had their children taken from them (although that's just my opinion of course).  By the third chapter, I was wondering why, as much as I was absolutely loving Cooke's writing, I was continuing to read about these women; they may have achieved great things professionally but they hadn't done it with any grace or integrity.


But perhaps Cooke wanted to get the brilliant, scandalous, and brilliantly scandalous out of the way at the outset, because the remaining 70% of the book highlights women who were able to achieve great things and make a name for themselves without neglecting their children or cheating on their partners.  Mostly.  Well, ok, they did it without neglecting or abandoning their kids.


The highlights for me were reading about Margery Fish and Rose Heilbron, gardener extraordinaire and the first female QC, respectively.  Margery's subversiveness towards her husband was hilarious and her ethos on gardening is exactly the same as my own; building and maintaining 2 acres of gardens by herself, however, is way out of my league.  I loved, though, that she didn't even begin what she would become so famous for until she was in her 40s.  


Rose Heilbron, however, was truly the most inspiring woman showcased in this book.  Not only were her achievements truly extraordinary by any standard, not just 'for a woman', but the manner in which she went about achieving them makes her truely worthy of admiration. The way Cooke writes it, she went through her life with such grace, integrity, intelligence and rationalism, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some huge scandal to be revealed, which is a sad commentary on what I've come to expect from 'achievers'.  Fortunately, no such scandal was revealed.  This woman should be the role model of every female (AND male) in the world; not for what she achieved, but for how she achieved it.  


As far as these books go, I think Her Brilliant Career would appeal to a broad audience.  Cooke manages to write about history without causing chronic drowsiness, and about feminism without beating the reader over the head with it.  Instead she allows these women's lives to tell the stories they need to tell and in the process both entertain and inform the casual reader.

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