I read 10 books in July (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 65.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, Sarah A. Chrisman
Description: On Sarah’s 29th birthday, her husband presented her with a corset. Although she had been in love with the Victorian era all her life, she had specifically asked her husband not to buy her a corset. Sarah explains how a garment from the past led to a change in not only the way she viewed herself, but also the ways she understood the major differences between the cultures of 21st-century and 19th-century America. The desire to delve further into the Victorian lifestyle provided new insight into issues of body image and how women, past and present, have seen and continue to see themselves.
Who knew wearing a corset could bring such a sense of empowerment? Sarah’s corset-wearing started gradually, but within a short period of time she was wearing it 24 hours a day (yes, even to bed). Wearing a corset changes the shape of your waist, so wearing it at night ensures she stays at her preferred shape. Within a few months, she had to buy a new corset because the first one was too big.
I liked that Sarah started doing this (and as far as I know, continues to do it today, eight years later) simply because she wanted to. She loves the Victorian era; wearing a corset ensures she has the body shape of a Victorian-era woman and can fit into the style of dress that was popular back then. She endures a lot of questions about this choice, and sometimes verbal abuse, as well as unwanted physical touch (when people reach out to grab her waist without permission).
On the negative side, she did tend to come off as judgmental toward people who dress in cheaply made, reproduction Victorian-era costumes (especially those made of polyester). She expressed disdain for the prevalence of people who use orthodontics to straighten their teeth, but she later admitted to feeling self conscious about her own crooked teeth. When she broke her foot, she refused to take any painkillers, comparing doctors in the Emergency Room to drug pushers of the 19th century.
I learned a lot about the history of corsets and their (undeserved) negative reputation. She debunked some myths, like the one about women removing their bottom two ribs in order to make their waists smaller. I also liked when she scoffed at the depiction of corsets in the movie Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett O’Hara grasps a bed post while being laced into her corset. Sarah said: “Tying the laces of a corset, like tying any variety of thin cord into a slipknot, requires a bit of dexterity, but no exertion, and it is really best to leave the furnishings out of it. Groping an article of furniture and adopting the breathing patterns of someone in the early stages of foreplay is no more necessary in order to tie a corset than it is to engage in such activity to tie one’s shoes.”
Description: In her first book, Chrisman recalled the first year she spent wearing a Victorian corset 24/7. Now Chrisman picks up where she left off, documenting her complete shift into living as though she were in the 19th century. From Victorian beauty regimes to 19th-century bicycles, custard recipes to taxidermy experiments, oil lamps to an ice box, the more immersed she became in the late Victorian era, the more aware she grew of its legacies permeating the 21st century.
This book is a follow-up to the one above, taking Sarah from Victorian-era corset wearing to embracing many more aspects of life from that time period. She and her husband move into an 1889 Victorian fixer-upper and start collecting as many period pieces as they can on their limited household budget.
The house has electric lights, but they exclusively use oil lamps unless they have company. Neither of them has ever owned a cell phone. Sarah sews her clothes by hand, even after acknowledging that sewing machines were used in the Victorian era (she just prefers to do it that way, even if a dress takes a year to make). She even made her own mattress to fit an irregularly-shaped bed (it involved buying massive amounts of cotton balls and feathers). She washes her hair using castile bar soap.
I wouldn’t want to live this way but I’m very interested in people who choose to live outside the norm. You really have to love something a LOT to go as in-depth as they have. Someone should make a documentary about these people.
3) Paris Letters, Janice Macleod
Description: “How much money does it take to change your life?” Unfulfilled at her job, Janice doodled this question at her desk. Then she decided to make it a challenge. With a little math and a lot of determination, she saved up enough to buy two years of freedom in Europe. But she had only been in Paris for a few days when she met a handsome butcher—and never went home again.
This is a fun tale of a woman in her mid-30s who realizes she can save enough money to buy herself a few years of freedom from her job. I enjoyed reading about how she gradually downsized her life, paid off all her debt, and sold everything she owned except the essentials (all of which fit in a single suitcase). She expected to stay in Europe for a few months, but ended up staying much longer when she met a man and later married him. Happily, she was able to change her life enough to never return to that advertising job.
4) A Pig in Provence: Good Food and Simple Pleasures in the South of France, Georgeanna Brennan
Description: Thirty years ago, James Beard Award-winning author Brennan set out to realize the dream of a peaceful, rural existence in Provence. She and her husband bought a small farmhouse, goats, and pigs. Filled with local color, this evocative and passionate memoir describes her life cooking and living in the Provenal tradition.
I’ve read several books about Americans who move to Provence, but I don’t get tired of them. Brennan raised goats and sold goat milk cheese, hunted for wild mushrooms (a popular activity in that area, both for private consumption and selling for a profit), and participated in many local activities, celebrations, and festivals. Although many of Provence’s food rituals have changed over the years, it’s cool to see that so many of them remain intact.
5) 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, William Alexander
Description: Alexander is determined to bake the perfect loaf of bread from scratch. And because he is nothing if not thorough, he really means from scratch: growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and milling his own wheat. An original take on the 6,000-year-old staple of life, Alexander explores the nature of obsession, the meditative quality of ritual, and the mysterious instinct that makes all of us respond to the aroma of baking bread.
This is another book in the vein of a year-long challenge, which I’m a sucker for. Alexander’s sense of humor doesn’t appeal to me, but I was able to look past his occasional bad jokes since the story was entertaining and informative. He’s written two other books (Flirting with French and The $64 Tomato), which are both on my future reading list.
Description: Doerr has received many awards, including the Rome Prize, which came with a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year. This book describes Doerr’s adventures in one of the most enchanting cities in the world as he visits piazzas, temples, and ancient cisterns. He attends the vigil of a dying Pope John Paul II and takes his twin boys to the Pantheon. He and his family are embraced by the butchers, grocers, and bakers of the neighborhood, whose clamor of stories is as compelling as the city itself.
For a book on the smaller side, it took me a long time to finish this (I checked it out months ago, read a few chapters, then had to return it when my nine-week library hold expired). Once I finally settled in though, I enjoyed it. Doerr has an almost mesmerizing way with words — which explains the popularity of his 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He admitted to not getting any substantive novel-writing work done during his international fellowship, but he could be forgiven based on the amount of time it took to wrangle his young twin sons.
7) A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Description: After growing up in the most food-obsessed city in the world, Cheryl left home at age 18 for America—proof of the rebelliousness of daughters born in the Year of the Tiger. But as a 30-something fashion writer in New York, she felt the Singaporean dishes of her childhood calling her back. Cheryl learned to infuse her New York lifestyle with the rich lessons of the Singaporean kitchen, ultimately reconnecting with her family and herself.
I did it again. For the second time (that I know of), I finished a book that I thought I’d never read before and when I went to record it, I realized I’d already read it. I read it four years ago, but still…this does not bode well for my memory skills.
Luckily, re-reading this book wasn’t a waste of time. I enjoyed Tan’s tale of going from a non-cook to spending many hours in the kitchens of family and friends, learning how to make meals from her Singaporean childhood (along with so much more — she also teachers herself how to bake bread).
8) Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben
Description: Our old familiar globe is changing in ways no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different: Eaarth. McKibben argues our hope depends on scaling back—on building the kind of societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community that will allow us to weather trouble on an unprecedented scale.
I’ve been on an environmental-reading kick lately. I liked this one because McKibben focuses on smaller scale changes. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you know about the far-reaching problems with global warming, but his thoughts on community building and living locally provide some hope. I did like Oil and Honey better than this one, though.
9) The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, Elaine Sciolino
Description: Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, invites us on a tour of her favorite Parisian street as she celebrates the neighborhood’s rich history and vibrant lives. While many cities suffer from the leveling effects of globalization, the rue des Martyrs maintains its distinct allure. Sciolino reveals the charms and idiosyncrasies of this street and its longtime residents, making Paris come alive in all its unique majesty.
I didn’t know this in advance, but the author was born in Buffalo and attended Canisius College (the same college my husband attended). There are multiple references to her Buffalo childhood in this Paris-centered book, which was pretty cool. As for the rest of it, you could be forgiven for assuming a book about a Parisian street wouldn’t be interesting, but she makes it so — there is history, and drama, vendors coming and going, and a way of life that is different from what we experience in America.
Description: One day, Nellie falls in love with flamenco in a Sydney dance studio. Tired of her boring retail job and longing to get closer to the authentic experience, she packs her dance shoes and travels to Seville, Spain. What Nellie didn’t realize is that flamenco is not just a dance; it’s a way of life.
As much as I enjoy memoirs written by women who live abroad, this one was a little cheesy. It took place when the author was in her early 20s, and I’m at an age now where I prefer to read about ladies who are a little more mature.