A History of the Paper Pattern Industry, Joy Spanabel Emery
I don’t think this book would be of great interest to someone who isn’t interested in sewing at all, but you don’t have to actually sew to take an interest — a couple of episodes of the Great British Sewing Bee should set you up with all you need to know for background, if you feel you need to know a little more. Mostly, what you need to know is explained in the text, as the history goes through the development of early patterns from “rock of eye” to printed patterns showing various different sizes.
It seems that paper patterns have a surprising amount to tell fashion history: although paper patterns for home sewers were behind the fashion by a little, they couldn’t be that far behind or they’d be pointless, so they did follow fashion and sometimes inform it (for instance, in the length of mini-skirts). Patterns have survived well, despite the flimsy paper, because the paper was acid-free, and often systems of notches and punched holes were used instead of ink. Carefully unfolded, very old patterns are still useable and useful.
It’s surprising to me that the companies which established themselves early in the history of providing patterns for home sewers still exist! It was a little odd to meet their names back before printed patterns became possible, for instance.
The book is richly illustrated with images of the fashions and pattern-packets discussed, showing the trends through time very visually as pattern companies started putting the pattern pieces in envelopes, providing more instruction, and expanding their ranges to tempt younger sewers into following fashions. It also comes with some vintage patterns, which make no sense to me, but might interest people with a less academic interest in sewing and actually making garments.
This is a short primer to various concepts that inevitably come up when you want to sit down and talk about race: how race affects people, your relationship to it, privilege, cross-sectionality, microaggressions… If you’ve been wondering what some of those concepts or buzzwords mean and you need a little more detail, this book has your back. It’s very readable, and well-organised into chapters that develop and build up an overall understanding of some of the major issues you’re likely to encounter.
I fear that if you’re not willing to go into it with an open mind, you won’t get anything out of it. The author asks the reader to sit with some pretty uncomfortable concepts, and goes to some pains to try and make that palatable, to try and convince the reader to open up to it. She’s very aware that people find it difficult to let go of their own preconceptions and their own view of themselves and dig into whether they might be contributing to racism in some way (or benefitting from it, or all unwittingly helping it along)… so if you’re already affected by racial issues, you might find that aspect a bit frustrating. She does mention it being for everybody, but it’s pitched at people who are largely unaffected by race.
I found it useful, though sometimes not very in-depth. Certainly a starting point, though.
Life in Miniature is a bit of a survey of dolls’ houses, mostly a descriptive one, which talks about some key examples in order to illustrate trends over the years, and ends with a chapter of advice for those interested in collecting dolls’ houses themselves. I’m not; I was more interested in this as a microhistory, and it does do a little of that, discussing the things dolls’ houses stood for, for those who owned them, and how trends developed.
For me, though, it was a bit too much plain description, too many descriptions of particular houses rather than the higher-level trends. Maybe there isn’t more to analyse about dolls’ houses, or the style is different to other microhistories I have loved… but it just didn’t turn out the way I hoped.
That said, if you’re a big fan of dolls’ houses and you’d like to know more about what’s out there, this book would be a great guide.
I feel like this book wasn’t quite sure what it was. History of the book? History of access to books? History of what people think about books? Autobiography of Martin Latham? There’s some genuinely interesting stuff sandwiched in between Latham making sure we know that he worked for Tim Waterstone and knew a bunch of famous people before you could Google them. Sometimes his anecdotes work to illustrate the narrative he’s trying to spin… and sometimes he’s telling us about weird dreams he had.
It was also full of this… reverence for the codex (not the contents) as a physical object, and being passionately in love with the physical form of a book. He’s a fan of physical books you can fondle, annotate, spill things on, write your name in… And I can get it, to some extent, but you’d think people aren’t real readers if they don’t like to caress books or crease spines or whatever. He does bring across the sensual enjoyment of books, and what a delight that can be for some people, but, yeah, just not sure about this absolute lionising of the codex-form of books above all else, above even the contents (which he rarely discusses in detail).
I expected to love this, but found myself fairly nonplussed. Overall, I can’t say I really enjoyed it — something about Latham and me just didn’t click, for a start.
As with Accessories: Bags, this book caught my interest less because I have an inherent interest in the subject, or even fashion more generally, but because it suits my current rabbit-hole interest. I was here for the titbits about why certain shoes went hand-in-hand with certain dress fashions, and the book certainly had plenty of that kind of titbit — like the fact that the very long points of shoes like poulaines were somewhat eschewed by women at the time; they just weren’t practical and would tangle in the long hem-lines of dresses.
The book is beautifully presented with full-colour photographs/reproductions of art, and it’s structured well as a chronological dash through shoe fashion. It’s much better about women’s fashions than men’s (which is not, of course, because women have always had the reputation for being obsessed with their shoes — I refer you to top boots and Hessians, not to mention the aforementioned poulaines!) because of a survival bias in the existing shoes, and it is much stronger on more recent shoes… which are perhaps least interesting to me.
Definitely interesting, and one I’d recommend if you’re interested in the subject.
Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr
Sorry, that really is the title of the book! And it’s kind of central to Mohr’s premise: that there are two axes of swearing, the ‘Holy’ and the ‘Shit’… or the profane and the obscene, or swearing and cursing — however you best see the distinction between “for God’s sake” and “for fuck’s sake”. She sets this up by discussing various different cultures (all familiar to a Western audience), starting with the Romans and Greeks (mostly the Romans), then moving to the development of Judaism and the rising importance of oath-taking… and then round the full circle back to obscenity.
It’s a fascinating history, though it really is brief when you consider the potential scope for investigating swearing throughout history. I found the chapter on the Old Testament Yahweh fascinating — Mohr charts the development of monotheism through the way oaths are taken and the importance of oaths in the Old Testament, and it makes a lot of sense. (Reassuringly, it’s also well-sourced, and includes quotations and examples.)
It was slower-going than I thought, when I look at my reading time records, but I found it very absorbing. My only complaint would be that the ending felt rather abrupt, even with the later postscript (which briefly discusses an analysis of swearing on Twitter). Recommended!
This short volume is from the V&A Museum, discussing the trends in fashion for bags and purses, with a bit of an insight into pockets as well. In many ways it’s a very feminine story, since men retained pockets in clothing and haven’t been such targets of fashion for much of the time. It’s a very Western European history of bags, but nonetheless, it’s interesting to see how they developed and what was considered important or essential in a bag through time. The text is descriptive and refers to items from the V&A collection to illustrate their points, photographed beautifully and carefully labelled to help you match up the two.
I’ll admit, some of these bags are just weird to me, which is an entertainment factor all its own — mostly I mean the newer fashionable ones, like the one which looks like a bag of Walkers crisps. Why?!
Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle, Amelia & Emily Nagoski
Burnout is a self-help book, so no surprises here: there’s a rather chummy writing style with simplified, bitesize “science” (some of it feeling more dubious than other bits), and there’s a fair bit of colloquial, “relatable” stuff like saying “(ugh)” every time they write the word “patriarchy”. The book is focused on women, or at least people who were assigned female at birth, and throughout it assumes that it’s speaking to women and that women are the only people who would benefit from the advice contained therein. I don’t think that’s true, though I think some aspects of burnout that they discuss tend to impact women more.
There are some interesting ideas and bits of advice in here, and the ways in which it emphasises exercise — or doing some kind of analogue for exercise, like lying down and tensing each muscle sequentially — are fairly doable for anybody, without an undue emphasis on fitness/weight. There’s a section about body positivity which is probably useful for some folks, and which emphasises the ways weight loss is a con.
Overall, I’m probably never going to be a huge fan of self-help books, but this one has useful information and is probably accessible to just about anyone who can put up with the sex/gender assumptions being made. It is probably not going to fix your brain; it certainly didn’t fix mine… but it can offer a useful perspective.
Meteorite: The Stones From Outer Space That Made Our World, Tim Gregory
Most of the science in this book is not my field at all (some touches on biology a little bit), so I come to this as a complete layperson… and I wasn’t entirely enthused by the idea of a book about meteorites, admittedly — or at least, not sure it would work out to be my kind of book — because it’s not my field, and that’s for a reason! But Tim Gregory writes so clearly and with transparent passion about what he’s doing that I was immediately absorbed. You can tell that he loves his subject, and is eager to communicate it — and he’s a great communicator. You can make any subject boring if you’re not good at writing, and likewise, I think perhaps you can make anything interesting with the right style.
As far as the actual science and history he discusses goes, I’m not really qualified to comment, but everything seemed to hang together and make sense. I didn’t notice anything that jarred against what I actually know or could quickly look up. If you’re interested in space, and in cosmochemistry, then I think this is probably one for you!
I really loved Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds, so I was expecting something pretty readable and entertaining here. Godfrey-Smith is using the opportunity to dig further into how he thinks minds are formed, and it’s a mixture of science, speculation and philosophy, as was Other Minds. I found, though, that it just didn’t keep my attention very well. It felt like he was taking ages to dig into each point, and like this was a much more self-consciously Serious Book instead of something that shared the wonder and excitement of an animal he loves.
Where he does lean on science, I don’t know anything to his detriment, but it’s not really a field I enjoy very much. I did have a module in my undergrad called “the science of the mind”, but it didn’t really go into this area much at all. There are definitely interesting anecdotes, but sometimes I wanted him to dig into them more — for instance, split brain patients.
A bit disappointing for me, overall, though probably enjoyable for someone who likes grappling with the problem of the evolution of minds.