Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Behind The Seams


Behind the Seams / Esme Young

I first encountered Esme Young via the Great British Sewing Bee, and had a vague idea that she was a fashion person brought on to the show. I feel some affinity with her as a fellow short person with a similar hairstyle, too ;) 

So when I saw this title I was very interested, and fortunately a friend gave me a copy! I really enjoyed reading this relaxed memoir. It has stories about her life from young girl to present day, but it's not just a chronological progression. It covers various times in more detail; the highlights are her years running Swanky Modes, a design house/storefront with 3 friends -- they were one of the first to use Lycra as a fashion fabric, not just for workout gear -- as well as her work with Central St Martins as a pattern cutter instructor. And of course, there are the years of the Great British Sewing Bee! 

The style is quite relaxed and fun; if you are familiar with her from the Sewing Bee, you'll recognize her 'voice' as it is the same in her writing. She has some great anecdotes from her time in the fashionable crowd in London, especially in the years of Swanky Modes - like meeting David Bowie, or even the small, homely details of how she built relationships with the children of her business partners. I found this different from other fashion memoirs in that she had a different relationship to fashion -- she wasn't a trained designer trying to make it in couture, she was a rather down to earth pattern maker who decided to start a boutique with three of her friends and just had fun with it.  

And sewists will enjoy reading about her pattern work and the way it shaped her career. At Central St Martins she mentored designer Ashish Gupta, and talks about their work together even now -- one of her most memorable outfits on the Bee was a sequined granny square pattern jacket made by Ashish so it all makes sense! I enjoyed this story of a woman who followed her passions and did it all on her own. She talks about work as a key element of her life, and when she was asked to be on the Bee she seemed surprised that she was invited to audition; there was no snobbiness or sense that she was assured anything due to her history or connections. And she seems happy with this new gig - as she says, she wants (and needs) to work until she dies, and this is just one more new experience for her that has brought opportunity. 

This was an enjoyable read. The tone felt very natural and entertaining, and I learned quite a bit about her life, and fashion in England over the past few decades. There's nothing too dark in it, and you get a sense of her habit of just getting on with things. Recommended for any fan of English fashion personalities or the Great British Sewing Bee! 

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle


The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle / Jennifer Ryan
NY: Ballantine Books, c2022.
411 p.

This was a very enjoyable novel, set on the home front in England, mid-WWII. It follows the fortunes of three women as they adjust to the new patterns of life in their small village. 

Grace Carlisle is the vicar's daughter, and she's trying to fix her deceased mother's wedding dress for her upcoming nuptials. But she's as uncertain about the wedding as she is about the repairs, especially after she runs into Hugh Westcott, a childhood friend and member of the local aristocracy who she hasn't seen in years.

Cressida Westcott is a successful, London based fashion designer who left the village when she was young and had no intentions ever to return. But her fashion house and her home have both just been destroyed in the Blitz -- she had a narrow escape. She has nowhere left to turn other than her old home. Her nephew Hugh is now in charge, and she can only hope that both Hugh and her niece Violet are more welcoming than her late brother was. 

Meanwhile, Violet is excited by the idea of her famous aunt coming to live with them -- but shortly after Cressida arrives, spoiled Violet receives a conscription letter. She's off to train for a position in the women's corps, but doesn't know what she will end up doing. 

The three women learn to be more empathetic, build their relationships, create meaningful activity that draws the women of the village together, and of course, find true love. 

It was a straightforward story with not too many surprises. It was pretty easy to see the direction that the story was taking as it went along, but it was an enjoyable read with interesting characters. When they start the Wedding Dress Sewing Circle, spurred on by Cressida's arrival and Grace's need for help from the ladies of the already existing sewing group, it livens up the village and allows for some great sewing talk. As mentioned in the notes to this book, and in the last book I read, Fashion on the Ration,  a Wedding Dress lending circle was actually a real thing in the war, started by Barbara Cartland (yes, the romance novelist) who was upset to think that women in the services would have to marry in their ugly uniforms. There is a lot of fascinating historical content in this book, which was so intriguing. 

The parts I was most drawn to were the fashion bits; I thought they were the most unique parts of the story, and of course the whole idea of clothing availability and design in wartime is of interest to me -- I just read a whole book about it! There is info about the clothes rationing schemes rolled into the story quite naturally, and Cressida, as a designer, is asked to participate in the (real life) design challenge given to a handful of fashion designers by the British government when they were trying to figure out how to make Utility clothing more appealing. The scenes at the challenge event were fun to read, especially since Grace was one of Cressida's models -- it was entertaining to see our characters inserted into an historical moment. 

And there was also a bit of historical detail shared at the top of each chapter; the explanation of the design requirements for a piece of Utility clothing was my favourite bit.

If you enjoy a sweet historical romance with a Happy Ever After and lots of period colour, as well as a lot of fascinating fashion tidbits, I'd recommend this read. 

Sunday, December 04, 2022



Clothes-Pegs / Susan Scarlett
London: Dean Street Press, 2022, c1939.
206 p.

For December I'm going to share some of the lighter reads I've been exploring over the last while - this week it's a few of the fashion/sewing related ones that I've already shared over on my sewing blog, Following The Thread. 

I'm starting with a vintage read! This is a reprint of the first romance by Susan Scarlett, the pen name of well known author Noel Streatfield. She wrote a dozen romances under this name, and I was obviously drawn to this one! 

It's the story of Annabel Brown, a nice girl from a middle class English family who works as a seamstress at Bertna's, a higher end fashion house, to help with family finances. Annabel is also young, slender and lovely, which works in her favour when one of the mannequins (models) from downstairs quits, and the owner needs a quick substitution. She decides to pull Annabel from the sewing room to the front lines, so to speak, and gives her a quick training to become of one of the four models showing off new collections. 

Two of these models are catty, the other is fairly mysterious but kind to Annabel. And on one of Annabel's first turns in her new job, she sees wealthy Lord David de Bett in the audience and falls for him at first sight. Of course she also catches his eye, despite the fact that he's there with the Honourable Octavia Glaye, who isn't very honourable in real life; she is really quite awful! This scene reminds me a little of the beginning of The Grace Kelly Dress by Brenda Janowitz. 

A cross-class romance ensues, with ups and downs and misunderstandings, as in all good romance novels. But Annabel's goodness overcomes class lines, as well as David's obsession with the madonna/whore complex. He is the sticking point in this book for me; he's not good enough for Annabel, jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions about Annabel near the end and only relenting when he finds out the truth accidentally from someone else. It felt a little icky for a reader of today, really. Other than his character, though, this story was charming - the Brown family is the heart of it and Annabel's work as a seamstress and as a mannequin are both frothy with clothing description and the way clothes make a woman feel. Bertna's was a delight to read about and while the romance felt a little clunky, the rest of it - especially the family interactions - was enjoyable and engaging. Definitely worth a look. I found this one through my library's online collection so perhaps you will be able to as well! 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Fight of Our Lives

The Fight of Our Lives / Iuliaa Mendel
trans. by Madeline G. Levine
NY: Atria/One Signal, c2022
208 p.

This is a fantastic read, one that hits the current moment perfectly. It's an engaging read, a mix of general politics, a closer look at Zelenskyy's character, and the author's own life. She combines them to create an informative and easy-to-read political memoir. 

Her story is pretty fascinating - she worked as Zelenskyy's press secretary for two years, after winning a competition for the role. From her inside vantage point, she talks about how Zelenskyy's election was a turning point, a rejection of the Russian focused oligarchs and a loud call for a European government. And she shares the hard work required to change entrenched corrupt practices, including things like hiring the right people, making processes more transparent, and the huge shift in digital access to government services (right now it's easier to access government services online in Ukraine than in most of North America, for example). 

Her own life was disrupted by the war, as her fianc├ę went to the front lines in the beginning of the invasion. Her view as a young professional woman who was directly involved in the Ukrainian government is fascinating and thorough. She isn't speaking on anyone else's behalf; she is clear about the positives and the flaws involved in such a huge turnaround effort. But you can also feel the respect she has for Zelenskyy's leadership and the care he puts into every interaction.

It's a great read if you're interested in current events and how Zelenskyy came to power, and where the country wants to go. It's also very useful in getting a feel for the realities of Ukrainian life now and in recent decades. I feel that reading this will enlighten and inform anyone who is trying to understand Ukraine more clearly now. And it's also well written, with a narrative that flows and carries you forward. Recommended!

Monday, November 28, 2022

Souvenirs From Kyiv


Souvenirs from Kyiv / Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

Now something different; this is a set of six linked stories set in Ukraine during WWII, written by an American with Ukrainian family ties. It's quite similar to many historical novels written about this period in tone and description, but it differs in its setting (this isn't a Paris WWII novel) and in its exploration of the little known political realities of Ukraine as it was being overrun by Nazis and Soviets alike.

The stories stand alone, but also connect. The first one centres around Larissa, a famed embroiderer with a shop in occupied Ukraine. A German officer comes in and wants her to make him a special shirt, embroidered with all her famous folk embroidery. This request, for a traditional shirt while the Germans are destroying Ukraine, is another example of the way folk culture is made into a quaint souvenir rather than respected in its own right. Larissa can not refuse, but she sews her resistance into the motifs. And her statements have consequences. I thought this story was very well done, and I related closely to Larissa and her decisions. I really liked this story.

Another focuses on Mykhailo, a Ukrainian who is a German solider on leave, travelling through Ukraine on Christmas Eve, hoping to get to his family. He doesn't, but he does end up being taken in by another family, and their words (along with all the things he sees from the train) change his views and also the actions he will take in future. This is a powerful story, and one to read as war rages in Ukraine at this Christmas season, to remind us of how our personal decisions can help change things. 

We also meet Marusia and her family who scatter to safety when Nazis come looking for her partisan brother. And there's Lida, a young girl forced to labour in a munitions factory in Germany. And a few more memorable characters, too. Many of these stories are based around interviews that the author did with her own family members -- she's a first generation American, with Ukrainian parents and family.

All these stories together create a wide view of some of the past events in Ukraine which people who don't already have a natural interest in the region might find very illuminating. The author really focuses on the personal and emotional costs of war, for individuals, families and the wider nation. I think it's a solid addition to the wide range of WWII stories out there, exposing a region which got the worst of both sides but is often neglected in discussions of this era. Ukraine's perspective in this war isn't often shared, so I think this is an important contribution to this genre. 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Frontier: 28 Contemporary Ukrainian Poets

The Frontier: 28 Contemporary Ukrainian Poets
ed. & trans. from the Ukrainian by Anatoly Kudryavitsky
London: Glagoslav, c2017.
416 p.

This collection is a great introduction to some of the newer names in Ukrainian poetry, as well as a couple of slightly more established ones. There is good mix of women and men, from different areas of the country. 

The poems here are fairly modernist in style - lots of short, free verse style works, focusing on current events, identity and personal experiences. There is obviously some war content, as it is a continual experience for Ukrainians. But there is also a focus on nature and the land, a big part of Ukrainian life and identity. 

I found it a quick read and not wholly satisfying, but then translating poetry is a tough job. I did appreciate discovering so many new-to-me poets, and I also find it fascinating that there is not the kind of division between poetry, prose and non-fiction that there is in the literary circles I'm familiar with -- many of these authors also write fiction, essays, and more alongside their poetry. 

It's a good find if you want to be introduced to new Ukrainian voices, and there are some intriguing pieces included. I wasn't bowled over by the poetics but I did enjoy it overall, with a couple of poems that I particularly liked. I think it's one I'll need to reread a little more slowly and go over the works with more focus to really let them sink in. I'm glad it's available! 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Subterranean Fire

Subterranean Fire / Natalka Bilotserkivets
trans. by various translators
NY: Glagoslav, 2022.
178 p.

Today's read is a bit different: it's a collection of the selected poems of Natalka Bilotserkivets. She's a well-respected Ukrainian poet with a long career, and this is a collection of some of her best known work.

It's an interesting collection, as there are ten different translators represented here, and a few of the poems are shared two or three, even four times, showing different translators' approaches to the piece. I liked this feature a lot, as I often find that poetry is difficult to render out its original language. This gave a sense of transparency and a feeling of how translators work when they are dealing with poetry. And it also shows that a poem's vibe can be altered by the word choice and rythym when shifted into a new language. It really made me think about how much we can truly grasp a poem if we don't speak or read the original language.

That said, I do very much appreciate that I can read her poetry thanks to translators who do the hard work. These poems are all quite short, full of imagery and focused on daily life experience. They are more realist than fantastical, and I find them easy to grasp as there isn't too much focus on the language/sounds over images. She's been publishing since 1976 so there is a wide range of topic choice, but many of them deal with nature, everyday life, and human relationships. I found this collection gave a nice overview of her work, and as mentioned, the multiple translations side by side were also illuminating. 

If you're interested in checking out some Ukrainian poetry, this is definitely one to explore. 

NOTE: Translators are: James Brasfield with Lada Kolomiyets, Olena Jennings, Michael M. Naydan, Dzvinia Orlowsky, Andrew Sorokowski, Myroslava Stefaniuk, and Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps