Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor

the natty professor

Gallery Books, March 24, 2015

 

To say that I am a huge fan of Tim Gunn is an understatement. In the same way that a Chanel suit is on my bucket list (as revealed last week when I reviewed Mademoiselle Chanel) so is a week spent in New York City with Gunn reworking my style and taking me shopping for a new wardrobe. If we became great friends so much the better. The good news is that while I’m waiting for this to happen (meaning: never going to) I had a chance to read his new book, Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor, in which he shares lessons he’s learned in his career as an administrator at the Parson School of Design. His previous book, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, was a fun and fascinating combination of the history of clothing and what-not-wear but The Natty Professor goes beyond the world of fashion to explore Gunn’s experiences as an educator.

The Natty Professor is divided into parts that correspond with Gunn’s T.E.A.C.H take on mentoring: Truth Telling, Empathy, Asking, Cheerleading, Hoping for the Best. In each he combines lessons from his career at Parson’s with stories from his personal life. In doing so, he gives the book a conversational feel that makes the teaching aspects as enjoyable as the anecdotes. The book reads like a conversation and flows like one as well. There are the teaching moments:

 One can say, “What we wear doesn’t matter.” But I always say, your clothes send a message about you. Without necessarily being conscious of it, you make snap judgments all the time based on appearances—and whether or not you think it’s right, people are judging you, too. 

interspersed with the dishy sorts of things only someone in Gunn’s position could know, but which we all want to hear. As in, Anna Wintour raised the ticket price to attend the Met Gala from $15,000 to $25,000 AND dictated that all men must wear white tie (very old-fashioned and difficult to find or have made). Gasp! No!

Given that Gunn’s teaching and mentoring career spans forty years The Natty Professor could come off as a heavy-handed treatise on the problems of the education sector but that doesn’t happen. Instead for every instance where Gunn puts forth his opinion on the state of education in America there are two where he shares how he has learned from his experiences. This is the crux of his message—in order to teach you have to be willing to learn. This openness extends to the situations in his life that made him the person he is now, including the difficulties he faced while a teenager. Gunn’s candor about both his personal and professional life infuses The Natty Professor with personality, making for reading that is humorous and gratifying for fashionistas and non-fashion lovers alike.

This book is available for purchase online at:

Rodin’s Lover: A Novel

rodin's lover

Plume, January 2015

 

I have been intrigued by the life of Camille Claudel since watching the 1988 movie by the same name. She was a sculptor, living in Paris in the late 1800s, a time that was not conducive to female artists of any kind. At seventeen her talent was already such that, because of her father’s belief in her, he hired a real sculptor as a tutor for her. This is where Heather Webb’s novel, Rodin’s Lover begins and through it we follow Camille as her talent grows and her subsequent relationship with Auguste Rodin feeds both the best and worst in her.

In her choice of title for the novel Webb echoes the sentiments of the time, in that, for the most part, Claudel was largely known for her affair with Rodin. Despite having an enormous talent of her own, her art would never begin to achieve the fame that his did and, as shown in the novel, what success she did have was due to his persistence in forcing critics to review her pieces. For her, this was a painful necessity and one that contributed to her growing sense of paranoia and agitation. She wanted her work to stand on its own and to be acknowledged as Camille Claudel, sculptor, not Rodin’s lover.

Webb goes even further in Rodin’s Lover by exploring Claudel’s psychological issues. What as a child and young girl were simply tumultuous outbursts become, as a young woman, explosive and disruptive. They are not always against others but erupt even against herself and her work.

She didn’t always remember her actions during a tirade. Rage welled from her toes and swept over her, but she couldn’t seem to control it.

This is the part of Claudel that is hardest to read about, but like so many extraordinary talents she was beset with mental illness. Was it exacerbated by the strictures against women of her time? Yes. Did her relationship with Rodin help? It would seem not, for even as he tried to promote her professionally, his personal life with a longtime companion caused her great pain. Webb layers these tormented facets of Claudel’s life against the beauty and excitement of France’s Belle Époque to give the reader a full sense of how both external and internal forces combined to keep her from achieving her exceptional potential.

rodin's lover

Claudel’s sculpture, The Mature Age, depicting Rodin’s abandonment of her for his companion, Rose.

 

This novel can be purchased online at:

Rodin’s Lover
by Heather Webb
Powells.com

Mademoiselle Chanel: A Novel

mademoiselle chanel

William Morrow, March 17, 2015

 

When you think of Chanel it is likely as a luxury brand of clothes, accessories, and perfume. I know for me it is because owning a vintage Chanel suit is on my bucket list. Forget seeing the pyramids, I want that boucle jacket with the gold chain sewn into the lining to make sure it hangs straight. It is fascinating, then, to read C.W. Gortner’s novel, Mademoiselle Chanel, about Gabrielle Chanel’s life and to learn that a brand synonymous with opulence was born out of a childhood devoid of any kind of ostentation whether it is emotional or physical. Her mother died when she was twelve and her father left her and her two sisters at an orphanage run by nuns in a small town in France. This gave her the security of enough food to eat, warm clothes to wear, and a place to sleep but it was a cold and austere environment. The greatest gift the nuns gave her was encouragement of her outstanding sewing skills. As soon as she was eighteen she left and after years of living hand to mouth was finally able to pursue the dream that became the house of Chanel.

Mademoiselle Chanel chronicles Chanel’s unwavering belief in her own vision, not just in her professional life but in her personal life as well. What is most fascinating about Chanel, beyond her innate ability to know what women wanted before they even knew it, was her unwavering belief in her own abilities. At a time when a woman  wanting to succeed in business was unusual she went even further and refused to consider marriage. She knew what it would mean to her chances of success. Not only was this unusual, it was considered aberrant behavior to not want marriage or children and yet, she strode ahead, ignoring convention and feeling

…exasperated that even as I worked my fingers to the bone to liberate women from our cloth chains, our minds remained as closed as ever to the possibility that we might deserve more than a husband, children, and growing old cooking sausage.

Gortner goes beyond Chanel as a fashion icon and delves into the details of her life and those around her. Despite her determination not to marry she was deeply in love at one point in her life with a man who loved her and fully supported her aspirations. When he dies in an accident at age thirty-eight, she seals the door to that part of her life and immerses herself in her work. As her fame and reputation grew she became close to a very elite segment of European culture, one that clashed with her earlier group of friends. The latter were artists and bohemians while the former were aristocrats—many of whom were very close-minded in their views. When Chanel’s empire is threatened by her relationship with an influential Jewish family she lets her personal fears dictate her stance on the Nazis and becomes a collaborator. It is this unflinching honesty in sharing the best and worst of Chanel that gives Mademoiselle Chanel credibility beyond the standard fiction. Aided by careful research, Gortner delves into the true woman with all her flaws and baggage. His embroideries on the cloth of her life are as perfectly executed as the stitches she herself made when constructing a garment. Whether you are a fashionista or not, Mademoiselle Chanel is not-to-be-missed reading.

 

The book is available for purchase online at:

Mademoiselle Chanel
by C. W. Gortner
Powells.com

Hausfrau

hausfrau

Random House, March 17, 2015

Anna is an American, married, mother of three who lives in a suburb of Zurich with her Swiss husband. Despite her efforts she cannot acclimate to Switzerland and exists in a state of low-level depression that expresses itself through having multiple affairs. She is the wife in Jill Anderson Essbaum’s Hausfrau, a new novel that is evoking a plethora of vigorous response, largely against Anna. A response that I can’t quite get behind not because I agree with Anna’s actions but because Essbaum’s portrayal of her from early on is such that her actions are not unexpected. Even as the plot unfolds to a level of catastrophe, there is little that comes as a surprise. Not nothing, because there are two events that come out of the blue but they only serve to reinforce Anna as created by Essbaum.

Anna’s depression is not new, but it is exacerbated by living in a foreign country with a difficult language and small children. Essbaum allows us into Anna’s experience of the German language with prose that can feel curt and abrupt. Her husband Bruno goes one step further by insisting she speak a Swiss-German hybrid called Schwiizerdütsch and by speaking this hybrid with their two sons in front of her, making her feel isolated in her own home. Bruno is a good provider but not in any emotional sense. In this way, the scales are balanced—neither Bruno nor Anna is particularly likable. However, in his brusque way, Bruno tries to help Anna by getting her to take German classes to feel more comfortable. Essbaum does a marvelous job of echoing Anna’s interior plight with her study of the German language. She learns that the conditional in German is used for if-then situations and

Anna found little relief in this. ‘If I am caught…then I am f*ed.’

At the same time, other aspects of Anna’s nature are treated with a flippancy that muddles the case for adultery as a result of her depression. She thinks

These men were simply the embodiment of urges she no longer wished to deny herself. ‘It’s just a handshake, really. A casual greeting with alternate body parts.’

It is these kinds of inconsistencies that work both for and against Anna as a fully formed protagonist. For each sentence that defines her there is another that obscures her. She comes off as sad and entitled, hopeless but willful, depressed and impulsive. It is her appreciation for the Swiss Reformed church (a branch of Calvinism) that is the most telling aspect of her personality.

There’s nothing we can do to free ourselves. So the fate of every soul is foreordained… Prayer is pointless. You’ve bought a ticket but the raffle is fixed…So, whenever this crisis presented, Anna would remind herself that, one way or another, it didn’t matter. Either her fate was predecided or she had no fate. There was nothing she could do to change it. Therefore when she worried it was never for very long.

She is being acted upon and therefore has no control over her actions or their consequences. This is just one of the ways in which Hausfrau is a novel that judges as much as it is judged. Through the themes of psychology, religion, interpersonal relationships, language and even maternal love Anna is character likely to evoke an opinion. Whether by design or happenstance Essbaum presents a woman who forces the reader to judge her, one way or the other. Either she is to be sympathized with or blamed. In doing so, we are saying as much about ourselves as we are about her.

Have you already read Hausfrau? If so, you know there are spoilers I did not discuss here but I’m part of a great new site, The Socratic Salon, where we’ll be discussing books, including their plot twists, in greater detail. On Wednesday we’ll be talking more about HausfrauBe sure to stop by—it’s all about conversation and we want to hear from you!

 

Hausfrau
by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Powells.com

Time to Listen

Ideally, I’d love to read all the time. All right, check that. I mean, all the time I’m not watching bad television because, yes, I do watch bad television. Namely, almost anything on Bravo but… I digress. There are times when reading a book is not advisable, like when driving, and times when it’s not so easy: waiting in line, doing chores (which I don’t advise doing but to each their own), exercising, and walking. When I’m doing any of these things I like to listen to podcasts (you know, what we used to call radio). There are so many out there, I thought I’d share a few of my bookish favorites as well as some others I really enjoy. All are free on iTunes.

 

time to listen

Literary Disco: This is easily the funniest and best bookish podcast out there. Tod, Rider and Julia have amazing rapport and it comes across in every episode. They discuss new releases, backlist books, and goings-on in the publishing world. They are no holds barred.

Dear Book Nerd: Rita Mead is the genial host of this podcast that covers a wide variety of book topics ranging from All About Book Clubs to Tell Me What to Read

Books on the Nightstand: Michael and Ann are friends who work in the publishing industry. Their love of books comes through every episode. It’s also great for book ideas because it’s weekly.

That Stack of Books: Nancy Pearl is a librarian who has written several books about books. She’s from Seattle and this podcast takes place with an audience at a local café and covers all kinds of literary topics. There is a lot of interplay with the audience as Nancy recommends books based on their likes and dislikes.

 

time to listen

Because it’s nice to have at least a passing knowledge of what’s going on in the world I also listen to three of the Slate podcasts. They are the best bet for getting a quick fix in a number of areas because the hosts for each are all outstanding–well-informed without being overbearing, humorous and work really well together.

The Political Gabfest, though it leans a little left, provides great political and legal discussions on current events.

The Culture Gabfest covers what’s new and happening in the arts—music, books, and movies.

Double X Gabfest looks at current events, pop culture and any other issues of interest to women.

 

time to listen

These three podcasts cover the balance of my listening life.

Serialfrom NPR, which runs in seasons (unlike most podcasts that are ongoing). Season 1 is complete and YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO IT. It is one journalist’s exploration of a 1999 murder case in Blatimore. A young man was convicted and she goes through the evidence and speaks with witnesses and the killer himself. It is addictive and unpredictable.

Motley Fool Money is a bunch of dudes talking about stocks, businesses, and the economy in a way that doesn’t make your head hurt. If you have a 401K or buy stocks, this guys are reliable and interesting.

Invisibilia is another NPR podcast that is quirky and fabulous. Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explore human behavior and how it is shaped by invisible forces–forces that we are learning more about through science and new technology. Could be dry but they use storytelling so well it’s fascinating.

Do you have time to listen? If so, what are some of your favorite podcasts?

Our Endless Numbered Days

our endless numbered days

Tin House, March 17, 2015

 

There are few things more important to little girls than their fathers and Peggy is no exception. Her German mother is a famous concert pianist but she is often brusque and busy while her father has friends who come over and hang out, smoking and talking about exciting things she doesn’t fully understand. He plays, calls her Rapunzel and has projects that involve her. He is at once mysterious with the many lists he writes and a free spirit who tells her

“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off.” 

When he says this it is August 20, 1976 and little does Peggy understand, but it is the last date she will know for nine years. This is Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and Peggy is the narrator whose journey with her father is not one you’ll soon forget.

Despite her love for her father, Peggy knows, in the way children often do, that something between her parents is not quite right. Her mother has earned all the money that makes their life possible and allows her father to indulge his increasing interest in surviving the end of the world. His London friends are all of the same mindset as is the one American who hangs around their house and fills his head with tales of a bucolic life in a cabin in the woods, faraway from all that is soon to fall into chaos. In preparation for the end days, her father spends all his time turning their basement into a shelter but when her mother leaves on tour, he decides they need a vacation and they depart for the wondrous cabin. It is only when her father tells her, first that her mother is dead and later that the world has been destroyed, that she knows their time here is forever. That the ‘cabin’ is a falling down shack only cements her belief that the world has ended and that this is all they have left.

Our Endless Numbered Days does more than cross the span of nine years in a young girl’s life; it travels a panoply of situations and emotions. Peggy is an intelligent girl but through her Fuller shows how a child can be isolated enough to mentally forego what they know to be the truth. It isn’t until years later, when she sees a pair of boots walk by her forest hideout, that Peggy begins to question her father’s story and to contemplate the fact that she does have options.

Just as panoply means wide-ranging, it also means “a protective covering” and in many ways this is Fuller’s truth in Our Endless Numbered Days. Peggy’s panoply is so well designed that we can follow her through the years in a remote forest to her re-integration with the outside world and be as emotionally shielded as she is. It is only when Fuller, like a master magician, sweeps the cloak away in the final pages that we see how deftly she has rearranged the objects of Peggy’s life. And like any spellbound audience, we are left shocked and surprised.

All of the things around us belonged to a different person, someone whose bedroom I had temporarily taken over until I could return to the forest.

 

This book is available for purchase online at:

It’s Monday, March 16th: What Are You Reading?

Last week involved wrapping up some big reading and then trying to corral my thoughts into something articulate. I’m referring to A Little Life, one of the most difficult but poignant books I’ve ever read. To compound things I read Our Endless Numbered Days last week and it’s another complex piece of literary fiction (my review will be later this week). That’s why it may not be too surprising that I’m staying in quieter waters for my fiction reading this week.
 
what are you readingMademoiselle Chanel: Historical fiction about Coco Chanel because even if I know her story by heart, I still love hearing it again.

 

what are you readingTim Gunn: The Natty Professor: Tim Gunn. Do I need to say more? I didn’t think so.

 

what are you reading
Do Your Om Thing: heard about this and thought it was time to try and get back to my yoga and meditation practices. Too much long term stress and age (yuck!) mean I’m not handling things with the ease I used to.

 

what are you reading
Midcentury Houses Today: Because at long last we bought a house here in Seattle. It’s not been easy (see book above) but now we need to bring a 1958 house into the 21st century while not obliterating its heritage. If you like all things remodeling, I’ll be writing about our experience on my lifestyle blog Inside Out.

It’s Monday- what are you reading?! 

All the Days and Nights

all the days

The Friday Project/HarperCollins UK, March 3, 2015

 

I continue to look at a partially formed canvas; fragile and imprecise. Just one untruth will ruin it: if I lie to myself, the painting will dissolve. The temptation to destroy clings to my skin, densely packed and impermeable. What painting is, is the temperance and determination to avoid these urges. I am only as strong as my will allows, only measuring my worth in the oil slicks I swim around; the fires I put out.

In less than 200 pages author Niven Govinden uses All the Days and Nights to construct the last days of Anna, a world-renowned artist who is trying to complete her final painting before she dies. Her struggle to do so is both physical and emotional as she is weak and needs oxygen and her muse, John, has left their house with no word of where he’s going or when he will be back. As the hours stretch into days we follow Anna as she relives their history in her mind and John as he physically tries to revisit Anna’s paintings of him in their various homes across the United States.

If All the Days is a novel about the life of an artist and their impact on the models they use then it is one permeated with bitterness. There is no feeling of love or caring between Anna and John except in the most abstract way- he in agreeing to sit for her for what amounts to years and she in making him immortal through her art. And yet, it diminishes him in real life because he is captured holding still but he is a man of motion. In real life, Anna is desiccated and cold, with little thought for the physical or emotional well-being of others. More importantly, she has no sense that she should be otherwise.

You will continue to sit and I will continue to paint you, because that, John, is why you are here.

Govinden’s prose is as highly stylized as the art he describes. Words are slashed and splattered across the page, sentences short then sweeping. This makes for reading that could be infused with motion but Govinden chooses to write in both a first person and second person narrative, which is jarring and mentally taxing. As a choice, it echoes how many feel about modern art—it makes you work and challenges the mind, but I’m not a huge fan of it. While it may have been Govinden’s motive to force the reader to hear only Anna’s perceptions it limits the perspective for anyone interested in the interplay between artist and muse.

All the Days is unusual in that it is a novel that is unlikely to evoke emotion and yet it will linger. I was not drawn in as I read it and I can’t even say I liked it a great deal but as I write this review I continue to have questions and thoughts about what Govinden was trying to do. It may be that All the Days is less about enjoyment and storytelling and more a larger statement about the isolation and fear that accompanies the artistic process. For those looking for the former, it is not likely to please but at only 176 pages anyone interested in the latter may find it to be compelling fiction.

This book can be purchased online at:

All the Days and Nights
by Niven Govinden
Powells.com

 


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Dead Wake

dead wake

Crown, March 10, 2015

 

When it comes to taking historic international events and looking behind the scenes there are few who do it as well as Erik Larson. Even when the event itself is substantial in its importance he is able to dig into it and find an aspect to make it even more momentous and, at the same time, personal. His newest work is Dead Wake and it’s about the last crossing of the Lusitania, one of the greatest ocean liners of its time.

Larson begins with insight into the maritime world of the 1900s when submarines were still a largely unused weapon of war. However, as Britain and Germany faced off in World War I, Britain’s naval advantage was such that Germany was forced to utilize it’s superior submarine technology. Where things veered off course, in the court of world opinion, was when Germany began torpedoing merchant (non-military) ships, those carrying cargo, often much needed on the island of Britain. Maritime code, as established in the 19th century prohibited attacks on such vessels but despite this being a code honored by all nations Germany chose to ignore it, culminating in the sinking of the Lusitania, a ship with only innocent human cargo.

Dead Wake gets even more interesting when Larson presents all of the tiny events and circumstances that, on their own would have no impact, but together contribute to a perfect storm. The Lusitania was the pinnacle of oceanic luxury but as a British vessel its sailors were slowly drafted onto military ships when WWI started, meaning that by 1916 its crew did not meet the normal standards of efficiency or ability. The ship also experienced several delays in launching on its final voyage and it cruised at a reduced speed in order to save much needed coal for military vessels.

A recitation of the facts, even with additional background information is not enough to create compelling reading. It is in blending the facts with the personal stories of many of the passengers that Larson hits his stride. For me, the story of Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, was particularly poignant. He was travelling to London with two priceless items—a first edition of A Christmas Carol with handwritten notes by Dickens in the margins and two scrapbooks with over 100 original drawings and illustrations by William Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair). As the ship was sinking he chose to forego getting his books in order to help other passengers escape.

With Larson’s flair for storytelling, backed by copious research, Dead Wake generates waves from beginning to end.
 

This book is available for purchase online at:

 

A Little Life

a little life

Doubleday, March 10, 2015

 

At the most basic level A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is the story of four men who meet in college, move to New York City afterwards to pursue their careers, and whose lives stay entwined for the rest of the novel. They can be easily defined by their careers: Willem is an actor, JB an artist, Malcolm an architect, and Jude a lawyer. It is also quickly evident that, despite his mysterious past and self-deflecting demeanor, Jude is the tie that binds this group. What is not easy and what makes this novel so profound, so reading-through-tears powerful is everything else.

A Little Life is an example of the best of literary fiction in that there is a story, but it is secondary to the characters within the story. And while the novel progresses through the decades it is the musings and memories, the internal workings of each of this group of men that gives the novel an epic force. To use the word “detailed” does not begin to apply to Yanagihara’s writing. It’s not just the thoughts of each character that are conveyed, it is the blink of an eye, the way a foot drags, how one smile differs from another—Yanagihara knows her characters at a molecular level. And that is what sticks with me most, the mind, the gift that gives her the ability to see her characters so thoroughly, so completely that there is never a moment in A Little Life where one can think ‘that doesn’t ring true’.

Jude is the center of the story but it is his impact on those who surround him that bring to fruition the message of the novel, for loving Jude is not easy. There are the three friends but there is also the steadfast Andy, who deals with Jude on a level the others do not know, and Harold, the professor who becomes a true father figure to him.

But this was part of the deal when you were friends with Jude: he knew it, Andy knew it, they all knew it. You let things slide that your instincts told you not to; you scooted around the edge of your suspicions. You understood that proof of your friendship lay in keeping your distance, in accepting what was told you, in turning and walking away when the door was shut in your face instead of trying to force it open again.

He is deeply damaged, far beyond what most of us can imagine, so brutalized as a child that he can no longer believe demonstrations of love and kindness. He could and would accept them but his mind discounts them and worries that if only the truth about him were known everything would be withdrawn. The tint of those previous years colors his very being and for every ounce of control he lost as a child he tries to take back as an adult in rituals that are incomprehensible to those who love him.

People had always decided how his body would be used, and although he knew that Harold and Andy were trying to help him, the childish, obdurate part of him resisted: he would decide. 

Yanagihara accomplishes an extraordinary feat in A Little Life, one that can easily go unnoticed because it falls in the shadows of a mountain of inhumanity. For every year of brutality and horror that Jude endured before he was sixteen there were twice as many years of love and caring taken and bestowed after that time. In his own way, he deeply touches the lives of many, most especially his dearest friend Willem.

And yet he sometimes wondered if he could ever love anyone as much as he loved Jude. It was the fact of him, of course, but also the utter comfort of life with him, of having someone who had known him for so long and could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was on that particular day. 

A Little Life poses one of the most difficult questions for a reader/reviewer: is this a book you would recommend? For those who read for enjoyment and escape, I would have to say no, simply because despite the perfection of Yanagihara’s prose and the tenderness that infuses many of the pages, the life of Jude will be too much. This is not to say that I am of such stern stuff and such an advanced reader that I was able to read A Little Life from a solely critical and evaluative perspective. No, I caution others because by the time I read the last page I felt emotionally bruised. I ached and had a mental weariness for days. This novel will weigh heavily on anyone who reads it, in the same way films such as Platoon and American History X affect those who watch them. They are important and critically acclaimed, providing a fictional look at what is the truth, but they drain even as they entertain. In the same way, A Little Life will fuse to the soul of anyone who reads it.

How could he tell Harold that he dreamed not of marriage, or children, but that he would someday have enough money to pay someone to take care of him if he needed it, someone who would be kind to him and allow him privacy and dignity?



This book is available for purchase online at:

A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

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