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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

I enjoyed The Second Empress which tells the dramatic story of Napoleon's second wife, Marie Louise, in a colourful and vivid way.  Poor Marie had to cope not only with the tyrant, Napoleon.  She also had to put up with Napoleon's wild sisters, Pauline and Caroline.  They were both against the marriage and decided to dislike Marie from the start.  Caroline made Marie leave her dog behind in Austria.

Michelle Moran tells the tale of the Bonaparte's from several different points of view, including the promiscuous Pauline's and her black chamberlain, Paul Moreau.  This was confusing at first but she manages to define each character well and give their stories from a sympathetic angle.  I liked switching from one character to the other after I'd got used to this method of writing which is becoming increasingly popular.

Some of the scenes in the book seem pretty way out, such as Pauline fantasizing about marrying Napoleon, however Moran has an interesting Afterword in which she provides evidence that this was true.  I did find this aspect of the book rather sickly.

I highly recommend The Second Empress for anyone who likes historical novels.

Content is Currency by Jon Weubben



Revamp your website and your blog with this wonderfully useful book.  Content is Currency covers everything, including SEO, social media, and Press Releases.  Wuebben also has a small section on ebooks. 

I have been avoiding reviewing this book because it requires a lot of time and attention if you really want to absorb it.  It's interesting and written in a lively manner so it's not 'textbook-ish'.  However, I feel that I need to read it properly, write notes and analyse my website and blogs.

My main problem with the book is the ebook section.  This suggests topics and ways in which to use ebooks.  It wasn't any help with formatting or publishing them, however.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Great American Foreclosure Story by Paul Kiel

The Great American Foreclosure Story by Paul Kiel of ProPublica tells the miserable story of Sheila Ramos.  She once lived in a three-bedroom home.  Now she lives in a tent.  Unfortunately, her tale is typical.

This is a horrifying story of fraud, errors, incompetence and deception. One cause of the problem is that mortgage servicers made more money by foreclosing on mortgages rather than modifying them.  Attempts to help people modify their mortgages appear to be doomed to failure.

Other causes include false documents, fake companies which forged signatures on mortgage documents and exaggerated incomes on mortgage documents.  The Appendix of cases in the back of the book is especially interesting in this regard.  These summarize the gist of the book and tell some devastating tales.

I found this book rather difficult to read.  It's short but it's fairly technical and a bit dull.  This is a pity because the book makes excellent points about the power of Wall Street and the banks and how hard it is to take action if you are threatened with foreclosure.

Unfortunately, these financial disasters have been occurring in Australia as well.  I sometimes wonder whether we are on the verge of the same sort of property collapse here, despite the way that the government brags about our wonderful economy.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Daring Life, A Biography of Eudora Welty by Carolyn J. Brown



A Daring Life
is an engaging biography of this famous short story and novel writer from the Deep South.  I must admit to not having read any of Welty's stories or novels but I will certainly be looking them up now!

Although the Pulitzer Prize-winning author lived a relatively quiet life, she also lived an interesting one which encompassed the civil rights era. She spent her time mainly writing and travelling - she met other writers on her travels.  Welty was also a talented photographer and held photography exhibitions in New York. Her paintings also look wonderful.  Amazingly, these were only discovered after she died.

The much-loved Southern author had a large circle of friends.  They enjoyed listening to jazz, playing literary games and discussing fascinating topics.  Welty went out with one of these friends for a long time - a handsome young man called John Robinson.  However, she never married.

The Eudora Welty House

The most interesting part of the book, I thought, described how Welty used her personal experiences in her work.  For example, she stayed on a farm and saw the crops covered with sheets, blankets and towels when she woke up. This was to protect the crops from the frost.  She never forgot this unusual sight, an indication of the great poverty in the South, and used it in one of her short stories.

Welty was a courageous supporter of the battle for civil rights.  One example of her courage was her story, "Where Is The Voice Coming From?", inspired by the assassination of the secretary of the Mississippi NAACP.  The publication of this story in The New Yorker could have affected her safety.  However, Welty was mostly concerned that any hostility might affect her ability to find caregivers for her sick mother.

Welty wrote that  she lived a 'sheltered life' but that 'a sheltered life can be a daring life as well.  For all serious daring starts from within'.  This book is an enjoyable biography of Eudora Welty's daring life.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline

Most of us are dressed in rags.  This is what someone in the fashion industry told an astonished Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed.  Even many of the clothes made by leading designers are relatively poor garments made in third-world countries.  Most garments of excellent quality cost thousands of dollars!

Overdressed documents the sad decline of the once-thriving U.S. garment industry, the rise of 'fast fashion'  and why we are buying clothes which are mostly made in countries such as China and Bangladesh.  Once clothes were made in America and of reasonable quality.  Now clothes are cheap and disposable. Even Michelle Obama was praised for wearing an inexpensive imported dress which was bought at Target.  I agree with Cline's recent blog post in which she writes that the American First Lady should focus more on buying less clothes. buying American-made clothes and making sure that they are well made.

Even the Olympic uniforms were made in China.   This caused a furore in the U.S. and made people more aware of the problem. I really think that Olympic uniforms should be made in the country of the Olympic team!

Australia has suffered an even bigger decline in clothes manufacturing.  Most of our clothes are made in China and we don't even have the benefit of low prices!  We usually pay much higher prices for garments than Americans.  Hardly anyone seems to care. There isn't even a fuss about whether Julia Gillard, our P.M., buys Australian-made clothes.

I recently watched the DVD of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  This showed how workers in cotton factories often suffered with poor lungs and the children working in the factories.  Conditions in countries such as China and Bangladesh are similar.  Workers in the 'fashion industry' suffer from pollution, work long hours and earn low pay - often it isn't a living wage.  They often sleep in dormitories which have six people in each room.  There have been lots of factory fires in Bangladesh.  The injuries and deaths in this industry have probably been enormous. Plenty of children work in India and Bangladesh.

Cline researched Overdressed thoroughly and her book is a real indictment of the decline of the industry, although there are signs that people are starting to care about whether their clothes are ethically made and made in the U.S.  This provides a tiny glimmer of hope.  However, I don't think that many people care about this in Australia.  I read about a new campaign to inspire people to buy Australian-made or Australian-grown products - I hope that it is successful.

Cline also discusses the new movements which are attracting people to turn away from 'fast fashion'.  These include making your own clothes, buying and repairing vintage clothes  and swapping clothes.  She certainly made me want to learn to sew properly!

This is certainly a book which will make you think.  I highly recommend it.  I only wish that someone would write a similar book about the Australian fashion industry.




Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hollywood Unknowns by Anthony Slide

In 1928 hundreds of extras were ordered to strip, marshalled into line and sprayed brown for the movie, Noah's Ark.  This was not all that they suffered.  Many were badly injured when tons of water were unleashed over them for the flood scenes.

Bess Flowers, "Queen of the Extras"
This is just one example of the ill-treatment of extras.  Their tale is mostly a sad one of poverty, bad treatment and even scandals.  Thousands of hopefuls flocked to Hollywood looking for stardom and glamour.  Forty thousand extras were registered in Hollywood in the 1920's.  They were vying for four thousand jobs. If they were lucky enough to get a job, they usually ended up working twelve-hour days for low wages.  One small group even set up a shanty town near Universal City. Many extras slept in rooms of five or six people and shared their clothes when jobs came up.  However, extras who were working were provided with meals.

Anthony Slide's fascinating and thoroughly researched book, Hollywood Unknowns, is full of such anecdotes.  This isn't just an unremitting story of misery and struggle for better conditions, however, although this is well-covered.  Slide also writes about the many interesting characters who played extras.  These included a handsome Swede who spoke five languages and fenced with Ralph Valentino each morning, a Russian princess and the daughter of the Los Angeles Grain Exchange who was tired of the society life. Sometimes army troops and even motorcycle gangs were employed as extras.

I found the saddest part of the book concerned the former silent screen stars who were often happy to find any work in the industry at all.  These included former directors and famous stars.

All lovers of Hollywood history will enjoy this book.


Friday, July 20, 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien by Mark Horne



J.R.R. Tolkien by Mark Horne is a short introduction to Tolkien's life and work but it never fails to be interesting.  I enjoyed it and it made me want to read much more about this fascinating man.

Tolkien had a sad childhood.  His parents died young.  Most of Tolkien's family cut his mother off when she converted to Catholicism. Left with little money, she was poor and worn-out because of her loyalty to the faith and ensuring that her two boys were brought up Catholic.

Luckily, she left Tolkien in good hands.  Father Morgan helped the clever young man get into Oxford.  Even after that, Tolkien had a struggle getting his career and his writing off the ground.

Probably, the saddest part of the book is that Tolkien lost all of his friends except one in the First World War.

Horne discusses all of the major influences on Tolkien's life and work - his Catholicism, his love for the beautiful English countryside, his aptitude for languages, and his friendship with the great C. S. Lewis. This is an introduction so it certainly isn't a detailed literary criticism.  J.R.R. Tolkien did make me want to read the whole wonderful saga again, however, and read more about how Tolkien's Catholicism influenced his writing.

NB: I received this book from Book Sneeze free as part of their Blogger programme.  My opinion of the book is entirely my own.

By Invitation Only: How We Built The Gilt Groupe And Changed The Way Millions Shop by Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson



Alexandra was speechless.  She put down the phone excited but stunned.  Giovanni Cafiso, the executive in charge of ready-to-wear sales at Valentino, had just rung her.  He told her that he had a large volume of Valentino inventory - about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth - that he was willing to offer her company, the Gilt Groupe.  The condition was that Gilt had to provide a cash commitment instead of the usual arrangement of paying for what members bought and returning the other items.  He only gave her one hour to make the decision.  Her partner, Alexis, was away and she had no way of contacting her.

This is the kind of tough decision that you may have to make if you run a business.  By Invitation Only, the story of Gilt, gives advice on making these decisions and the other aspects of organising a start-up business.  These include finding partners, developing a leadership style, hiring employees, and marketing and branding.

The authors, Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilson, combine this advice with the exciting story of how they built Gilt from nothing into a business valued by investors at one billion dollars. They were both barely 30 years old but they had MB A's from Harvard, experience at working in fashion and great contacts.  Written in a breathless, but interesting style, this book describes in detail how they established Gilt's business - invitation-only online sample sales of designer fashion at prices up to 60% off.

Each chapter ends with a checklist of questions designed to help people thinking of establishing a business.  Although the book is mainly designed for people who want to set up a business with a good friend, even those who are 'flying solo' will find these helpful.

Some reviewers at Amazon have criticised By Invitation Only as 'shallow', but I don't agree with this.  The founders of the business obviously conduct it with great integrity - and they emphasize the importance of doing this.  They have probably received this criticism because they deal with luxury fashion, but I feel that it is unfair.

This tale of business acumen is definitely a keeper!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age

I found this book quite heavy reading.  I didn't read it properly - I should have read some of the plays discussed again. It's really more suitable for university students studying English Literature.

However, it was interesting reading.  I agreed with the argument that Shakespeare was heavily influenced by the Bible and the Prayer Book in some of his plays. I also agreed that there hasn't been enough discussion about this. Romeo and Juliet, for example, relies on the rites of marriage outlined in the Prayer Book.

I thought that it was difficult to relate the rite of Communion to Macbeth and I found the chapters on Macbeth so difficult to follow that I gave up. I really thought that Swift made too much of a leap here, although I could see the connections with the book of Job.  (Reading the Bible again helps as well!)  Daniel Swift does warn readers that these chapters require close and slow reading.  I may read them again when I have time.

I liked Swift's writing, especially when he related his arguments to his own experiences.

NetGalley kindly supplied this to me for review.

We End In Joy by Angela Fordice Jordan





We End in Joy by Angela Fordice Jordan is a beautifully written and poignant collection of family memories.  It's a story of childhood, grief, healing, and finally joy.  This is a lovely book which is well-worth reading.

Angela Fordice Jordan is the daughter of Kirk Fordice, the first Republican governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction.  She writes about her rather conflicted relationship with this complicated man.  He was a strange mixture.  He loved nature but he also liked hunting.  He also scared the children by playing with rattlesnakes and other dangerous snakes in the yard.  However, he passed on to Angela his love of nature and animals, even though she couldn't understand the hunting.

He also took some pleasure in Kennedy's assassination, according to the book.  Jordan found this difficult to forgive, understandably.

I did think that she was a bit nasty about her father at times but the book also describes the many qualities which she loved in him.  I felt that Jordan wrote the book as a form of catharsis so this is why she wrote so much about her father.  This annoyed me at times but I found it helpful at the end.



Jordan also had a conflicted relationship with her mother.  She was a strong, well-groomed Southern lady - the kind of woman who stood by her man 'through thick and thin'.  She certainly kept her dignity and managed to forgive Fordice for his affair and subsequent marriage.

Jordan writes about her teenage rebellion and her struggle to please her mother.  Every daughter can identify with these stories in the book.

Much of We End in Joy is about Jordan's parents when they were dying and her attempts to overcome her grief.  This was highly emotional and very moving but it was also extremely miserable at times, so be warned. I found it a bit close to home but it also helped me.  I especially liked Jordan's story of travelling on a pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland where she experienced a wonderful coincidence and some healing of her sadness.

It is not all miserable though.  There are some hilarious anecdotes about Fordice's time as Governor.  I loved the one where Jordan annoyed George W. Bush and his wife.  (I liked it because it's funny - not for any political reasons!)

The major flaw in the book was the lack of photos.  I would have liked to see some photos.

We End in Joy will be launched in September.



Monday, July 09, 2012

The Grace Effect by Larry Taunton



"The Devil Is A Bureaucrat" is the title of one chapter in this depressing but heart-warming book.  Ukrainian diplomats are certainly devils, according to The Grace Effect.  When Taunton and his family go to Ukraine to adopt a little girl, Sasha, they encounter obstruction and corruption at every step of the way.  Government officials all want bribes.  The family experiences constant delays.

This is not the only problem.  In fact, Taunton paints a horrifying picture of a country in which atheism has won. There is little Christianity or humanity in post-Communist Ukraine.  Children are treated as commodities.  Life in the orphanages is grim.  The only improvements are made by Christian missionaries from overseas.  Many of the children don't even have toilet paper.  Sasha only has a shower once a week.  The food is meagre. The physically disabled are put in the orphanages with the mentally disabled.  As Taunton writes, "a society contaminated by the virus of unbelief is a pitiless one."

When the Tauntons take Sasha out, she eats like someone who hasn't seen food for days.  She is also convinced, like many orphans in Ukraine, that she doesn't deserve to be treated well.

There is an almost total lack of civility in the country.  People are generally rude.  They even demand money from tourists who want to get on buses!  Beggars are jeered at.  Public life is filled with hardness and indifference. The Tauntons do have a kind and honest 'adoption facilitator' but this seems to be their only good experience apart from spending time with Sasha.

 When the Tauntons take Sasha back to the U.S. the difference in her is amazing.  She quickly learns to regard them as her family and she is delighted to be in a home filled with Christian love.  Sasha, unlike many of us, is also just thankful to be able to have a hot shower every morning.  She prayed for a family and her prayers were answered.  Sasha has been truly saved by grace.

Taunton begins and ends The Grace Effect with discussions and debates with the famous atheist, Christopher Hawkins.  As he writes, the 'New Atheists' fail to realise the huge influence that Christianity has had on Western civilisation and the type of world that we'd live in without it.  A world without Christianity is really a world without humanity, according to this book.

This is a lovely story but it's also a very sad one.  There are many orphans who won't be adopted.  They will probably lead very miserable lives.  The government actually doesn't even want them to be adopted because they don't want people to know the truth about how the orphans are treated in the Ukraine.

Taunton makes a convincing argument about Christianity and its importance.  The problem is that he is probably largely preaching to the converted.  I can't imagine that many atheists will want to read this book.  They're probably busy reading Dawkins and Hitchens. Even Dawkins, however, seems to be beginning to realise that Christianity is a good bulwark against fundamentalist Islam.




Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Fine Colour of Rust



The Fine Colour of Rust by P.A.O'Reilly  is a real charmer! I loved this extremely Australian novel.

Loretta, the laconic heroine, fantasizes about putting her two children into an orphanage and going on glamorous dates.  A single mother, she has come to the small country town of Gunapan to get away from her nasty ex and her nagging mother.  She relies on her close friendships with Norm and Helen and her ironic sense of humour to keep her spirits up.  Here, the country sounds of kookaburras and possums disturb her instead of the rumble of traffic. Norm, a handyman, is an engaging grandfatherly figure who owns a scrapyard which is regarded as 'dirty' by some of  the richer families of the town.

Loretta has many problems when her ex turns up with his 'child bride', the school is threatened with closure and she finds out about a mysterious development.  Loretta turns her energies to saving the school and finding out about the development.

She does derive some happiness when handsome Mel arrives in town and shows some interest. The women of the town certainly start buzzing about mysterious Mel. He is rather a change from the usual country types, although there is great excitement and a lot of humour when a 'witch' shows up.

These problems will test her but not nearly as much as Norm's battle with illness.  This will show Loretta what is really important in life, such as 'the vision splendid'.

I especially enjoyed P.A. O'Reilly's ability to sum up characters quickly so that you know exactly what they're like.  She writes about Loretta's ex as 'stomping' through her life, for example.  You know exactly what he's like.  She also describes the Mayor as slipping on 'the big scarlet cloak and the gold chain whenever he gets the chance'.

The Fine Colour of Rust is hilarious at times.  For example, silly Kyleen calls squid-ink pasta 'skidding pasta' in front of the visiting government minister and the people in town call Bosnia Herzegovina 'Bosnia Herzagobbler' until they learn better.  However, this well-written novel will also make you cry.