Monday, November 30, 2020

The Rarest Blue


The Rarest Blue / Baruch Sterman & Judy Taubes Sterman
Guildford, CT: Lyons Press, c2012
305 p.

This book is a mix of ancient history tracing the path of Murex dyes across the centuries, a scientific treatise of dye and colour perception, and specific tiny points of Jewish law and history. It works, to a point.

It looks at the search for tekhelet, a specific sky blue dye that is required in Jewish law to dye threads to attach to one's prayer shawl. Sterman goes into what the dye was, why it was important to Hasidic Jews, how it was made in ancient days (discovered by the Minoans, traded by Phoenicians, worn by Roman elites, used in Jewish religious tradition), and the effort by Hasidic rabbis over the last two centuries to recover the secrets of how this dye was made. 

The search for how Murex dyeing works was fascinating, even though it's also quite disturbing, being dependent on mutilating live sea snails and discarding them after the one precious gland is harvested. There was no real discussion about the ethics of this practice or any moves toward a more sustainable method of harvesting the important chemical, just a mention near the end of more sustainable options being desirable.

The history of blue and purple dyes is interesting and exciting; I recall Lydia, the seller of purple, in the bible and how that mention always intrigued me as a child. And of course the history of Minoan and Phoenician culture is always fascinating, at least to me. The details of how the dye is made is both compelling and disgusting -- who knew that the smell was so bad that a woman whose husband became a dyer after they were married was entitled to a divorce if she wanted one! I found these parts great reading and very informative. 

However, there didn't seem to be strong organization in this book, it talks about a lot of different things and sometimes themes and timelines get mixed up, at least for this reader. It also feels like it goes on a little too long; the chapter on the physics of colour perception could have easily been dropped without being missed. And some of the finer points of Talmudic interpretations of the use of tekhelet are lost on a more general audience.

If you are interested in dyes and their cultural relevance, this is a good read. Keep in mind that the authors are also head of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, an organization dedicated to selling this rediscovered tekhelet dye and the threads required by this obscure biblical directive, so they might not be as objective about its importance as another person would. But they do know what they're talking about when it comes to how this dye was recovered from the mists of history and put back into production. 

(this review first appeared at FollowingTheThread)

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Last Collection


The Last Collection / Jeanne Mackin
New York, NY : Berkley, 2019
340 p.

Another novel with fashion at its heart, this one was a clear winner for me. Lily Sutter is a young widow, and a teacher who leaves her post when her brother Charlie writes that he needs her in Paris. She's also an artist, and her eager rediscovery of Paris in 1938 is full of colour and painting and fashion...alongside the looming threat of war. 

She arrives in Paris to find that her charming brother wants to offer her a dress by Chanel, but she prefers the more artistic flair of Schiaparelli. Charlie's married girlfriend Ania, a rich society wife, follows Lily's lead and starts wearing the upstart designer's clothing, putting Lily in the middle of a rivalry between Chanel and Schiaparelli. This rivalry is not only about their differing views of the role of fashion, but is exacerbated by their views on prewar politics. 

I'm not always impressed by books that take real life people as characters; I find it akin to stealing someone's life in many cases. But here the two designers, while important to the story, don't seem to act outside of their historically known characters. And the author focuses much more on Lily's journey and how these two people are important to her story than on trying to recreate the internal lives of these real people. And I found that it worked because of this focus.

The emotional arc of the story is all Lily -- the early loss of her husband, her relationship to her brother, the role she plays when she gets a job at Schiaparelli's salon and also interacts with Chanel, and her own burgeoning love affair that is complicated by the presence of Nazis in France. The war is a key part of the book, but I still wouldn't call this a War Story. It's a different angle on this time in history, as Lily, an American, sees things from the outside. 

I really enjoyed the solid historical context of this story, as well as the accomplished writing. Mackin tells this story without sentimentalizing or exaggerating historical facts. She also represents the nuance in the decisions that both designers made at the start of the war, and the unexpected effects of their decisions on others -- for example, that Chanel closed up overnight to remove to a hotel with her German officer lover for the duration of the war, which immediately put 200 employees out of work at a difficult time. That was one aspect I hadn't immediately considered, being more focused on Chanel's association with the Germans in the war. 

The strength of the book lies in the focus on Lily's storyline; it has the emotional weight and complexity to stand on its own. The author could have invented designers or even had Lily working at something else and it still would have worked without the 'celebrity' aspect. Although I must say I really liked that part of things. Lily, as an artist, sees in colour and feeling, and her impressions of the fashions and the fabrics were satisfying to read. She refers to colours as leitmotifs in both designers' lives (Schiaparelli is synonymous with Shocking Pink while Chanel is known for her Little Black Dress, for example), and the real collections of both designers in these years are discussed and described. Lily also ties colour to emotion, reflecting her own interactions with Paris and her new life. There is a lot of engaging description of outfits, designs and even Lily's own paintings, with colour and line at the forefront. 

While there are many serious and difficult moments in this book, it ends with a satisfying resolution that won't leave you depressed for days -- it's not that kind of WWII novel. It's a smart, fashionable story with a strong emotional heart. If you have someone in your life who enjoys well structured historical fiction and loves fashion and/or art, I'd highly recommend this as a perfect holiday gift. 

(this review first appeared at FollowingTheThread)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Moment of Tenderness


The Moment of Tenderness / Madeleine L'Engle
NY: Grand Central, c2020
285 p.

This is a collection of previously unpublished short stories ranging over the earlier years of Madeleine L'Engle's writing career, now gathered by her granddaughter. It's an interesting project, and shows the development of some of L'Engle's themes and her style. 

There are 18 stories, mostly all written in the 40s and 50s, moving from her early writing years in college to just before the publication of A Wrinkle in Time. They are different in setting -- from rural locations to her familiar New York -- and reveal some of her preoccupations with faith and her own personal experiences transmuted into fiction, much of which shows up in the novels of her later career as well. A thorough introduction by her granddaughter Charlotte examines the place of these stories in both L'Engle's life and her writing career. 

I enjoyed this -- I am a L'Engle fan, have been for years, and have read nearly everything she's ever written. So this was a nice addition to the collection! I appreciated how this collection ranges from realism to more speculative stories too, showing her interest in science and fantasy and how they combine. 

The evolution of her style was fascinating to see too, although even her early college stories are already really good and show her control of language and the relationships that are a strong element of her subject matter. The prickly mother-daughter relationships of a couple of the stories are clearly drawn, while a couple of the later stories are more speculative and focused on ideas. The range is wide, within her clearly defined style and subject choice. The concept of the collection is interesting, and I think it really worked. 

A couple of my faves from this set: 

The Foreign Agent, about a young woman under her mother's thumb who blossoms when she meets her mother's new, young literary agent when they move to New York.

Poor Little Saturday, a fantasy with a witch and a camel and an abandoned plantation house, which reads almost like a Ray Bradbury story

The Fact of the Matter, set in a little town much like L'Engle's rural Connecticut, which is the one that felt most grounded in a specific place and time to me. About outsiders and belonging and facades and people in all their complexity.

If you've read this, or will, I hope you'll share your favourites too. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020



Rebecca Burgess & Courtney White
White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, c2019
281 p.

As some of my readers here know, I really love sewing and textiles. So when I saw this book at my library I picked it up right away -- and read it over the course of one day. It was fascinating! Written by the founder of the Fibershed movement, it explains what a Fibershed is, and how it works, explaining along the way about sustainable agriculture, the false promise of synthetic fibres, and how a regional system of production helps fight fast fashion, climate change and precarious industries.

So what is a Fibershed? It's a place-based textile system, as she says in the introduction:

Similar to a local watershed or a foodshed, a fibershed is focused on the source of the raw material, the transparency with which it is converted into clothing, and the connectivity among all parts, from soil to skin and back to soil... It is place-based textile sovereignty, which aims to include rather than exclude all the people, plants, animals, and cultural practices that compose and define a specific geography.

She introduces us to her own background, and the organization itself. She talks about natural dyeing, and her journey to farming her own indigo as well as other natural dyers in the area (really fascinating!) There are also featured farmers who raise specific breeds of sheep that are best for the microclimate their farm is in;  and a cotton farmer, Sally Fox, who breeds and grows naturally coloured cotton -- did you know that cotton grows in colours other than white? I didn't! 

There is talk about local mills (few and far between), how growing different kinds of fiber crops like flax, hemp or even nettle can work as regenerative agriculture and increase the ability of the soil to sequester carbon -- a very in depth and illuminating chapter that digs into the facts and felt really outside my knowledge and experience. From animal fibres to plant fibres, from the growers to the processors, to dyers, weavers, knitters, and sewists, she moves from the source to the end product and shows how and why it's important.

And then shares a bit about the organization and how it works with other groups interested in the same things, and how this might be replicated (they even have an affiliate system). 

It's a great read, illuminating and inspiring. I felt hopeful when I was done, and very intrigued by all the information about local producers in her Fibershed, leading me to wonder about my own region. Fortunately for me, there is an affiliate Fibreshed group in my area, the Upper Canada Fibreshed! 

If this kind of thing interests you, be sure to give this book and their website a look. It's encouraging and brings up a wide range of subjects all connected to a new Textile Economy. 

(first published at Following The Thread)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower /
Brittney Cooper
NY: St. Martin's, c2018
288 p.

This is one of the books by Black women that I found in my library last month, and I really, really liked it. Brittney Cooper is indeed eloquent, and lets the rage fly. I learned so much. 

The book is a set of personal essays, ranging between topics like sexuality, anger, women's friendships, respectability politics, exceptionalism, religion, and more. In every essay, black women's lives are centred. As the book's blurb says, 
Far too often, Black women’s anger has been caricatured into an ugly and destructive force that threatens the civility and social fabric of American democracy. But Cooper shows us that there is more to the story than that. 
She certainly does. She is both justifiably angry about a lot, and extremely eloquent. It was a pleasure to listen to this on audiobook and hear her arguments and reasoning about so many things. I appreciated having to move out of the way as not the intended audience for once, which I usually am as a white middle aged female reader, and listening to her words that are completely and thoroughly based in black women's lives. 

I found her powerful in her analysis and pointing out of social absurdities, and also often very funny. Her intelligent sarcasm was refreshing and the kind of conversation I can really engage with. There were experiences she discussed, especially those of a good girl growing up in the church, that I really resonated with myself, and recognized issues that resulted from that upbringing. This isn't a churchy book, though; there's lots of swearing, discussion of sex, women's desire, and the not so great aspects of religion, even while she recognizes faith as an important element of her life. I love the way that everything is there, and not siloed off into separate things that pretend not to co-exist. 

This was both a purely enlightening and enjoyable book. Maybe not enjoyable in terms of the subject matter, when she's bringing up racism, sexism, daily microaggressions, and oppressive history, but in the way she talks about it, shines light on it, and leaves the reader with a sense of her power and personal presence in it all. A great read. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Godmother

The Godmother / Hannelore Cayre
trans. from the French by Stephanie Smee
Toronto: ECW Press, 2019, c2017.
184 p.
I'm finishing up my #WITMonth reads with this crime novel from France. I really enjoyed it!

Patience Portefeux is a translator, Arabic to French, for the judicial system in France. She's 53, and becoming an "invisible woman". She's underpaid, living in a small apartment, and not very close to her two daughters. 

She's also the daughter of two outsiders who lived on the edges of French society when their own original countries were no longer there for them to return to. They made their living on the edges of legality, well, quite far over at various points. So she knows the routine, even though she's become respectable in her own life, for her own daughters. 

But then something happens. A crime family transporting hash to France, whom she's been following via her police translations, has a crisis. Patience is connected with them in another unexpected way, when she discovers that one of them works in her own mother's old age home. So she warns them. And then has insider knowledge that she suddenly decides to make use of. 

Patience becomes The Godmother, a mysterious drug dealer who appears out of nowhere and confounds the police, including her own sometime boyfriend, a cop himself. And what she does and how she does it is a clever reflection of societal expectations and prejudices, and the social stratification in France. 

Throughout this crime book (and don't worry, if you're like me and don't like dark gory crime, this is for you) there are statements about the corruption of the state -- how some Arabic drug dealers are arrested with great pomp and publicity, but others, including the police who profit from the same drug trade, are left to do as they please. How some people are punished for crimes that others profit by, how some people make a lot of money, but begrudge anyone else a cent. How judgments are made, both social and judicial, with a very uneven hand. This adds a strong flavour of social critique to the book, which, while it doesn't necessarily excuse some of the action, does give it more context. 

And the conclusion was satisfying, to me at least. To see Patience's decisions, to see how she reads the situation and adapts instantly, how she provides for her daughters first and then takes what she needs -- it all adds to her character. 

I really liked this one. Patience was an unusual and very believable character, and this novel has a sense of modernity and expands on a woman's role in all levels of contemporary life. Lots of issues are brought in, in a natural and fitting way, but it still reads like a crime novel and is full of interest and suspense. A great genre read to finish off this month with! 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Bitter Rose

Bitter Rose / Martine Delvaux
trans. from the French by David Homel
Montreal: Linda Leith, 2015, c2009.
105 p.
This little book is really more of a novella; it's very short. And impressionistic too, in short chapters examining years of the narrator's childhood. Although Delvaux is a Quebecoise writer, this book feels a bit France-French as well. 

A young French girl moves to a Francophone community in rural Ontario; it's awful, dreary, depressing. Her friends have names like Manon-just-Manon and are generally neglected or outcasts. And girls go missing from this town, too. The years in this village are described with calm detachment, although it's clear she wants out of this dead-end place. 

When one girl too many disappears her mother decides it's time to leave, and they move to a shiny new suburb of Ottawa. The house, the other girls nearby and the lifestyle are described in much the same tone as the earlier part of the book. And after she leaves home to strike out on her own, she discovers that one of the girls she befriended there has also gone missing. 

This is a strange little story. Not much plot, just the slightly rambling discussion of childhood to adolescence to early maturity. The years fly by with a couple of impressions pinning them down. There doesn't seem to a real point to it, and the tone is so detached that I didn't really connect with it. It's a very cool French narrative, but I felt that this theme is one that's a bit overdone, and the style didn't really catch me either, despite the writing itself being very smooth and careful and well done. 

It's like a mix of Quebec Gothic and prairie realism, but unfortunately it left me a bit cold in the end.