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Category Archives: non-fiction

Eight Feet in the Andes

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Dervla Murphy’s travels are always absorbing and often humorous. I’ve read her Eight Feet in the Andes thanking God I’m not on this four month trek with a mule and a 9 year old (who’s amazingly patient, uncomplaining and intelligent). I wouldn’t be able to stand all the bugs, the 25 mile hikes up worn out trails that barely hug the mountains, the eating just ship’s biscuits and canned sardines for days till the next town which could be a week away.

Yet I find the book enthralling. The Murphy’s encounter people with histories and cultures I’d never heard of, some are amazingly hospitable and some are very cold and aloof. I love how Murphy tells it like it is. She doesn’t glorify all the native cultures or demonize all the mestizos. Each encounter is related as objectively as is humanly possible.

I’ve also learned so much about the Spanish and the Incas, how they clashed and how that affected numerous ethnic groups who were in the way. I’ll add a few good quotations later in the week, God willing, as it’s time to return to my end of term grading.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2016 in non-fiction, Travel Writing

 

The Film Snob’s Dictionary

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Written by David Kamp, The Film Snob’s Dictionary is a fun little reference book with a tongue-in-cheek tone that can help readers learn to b.s. their way through an erudite conversation on film or just help readers learn a little more about filmmakers and terms related to film.

Here are a few entries, chosen randomly, to give you a taste of the book:

Film Threat. Surprisingly buoyant, unsmug Web ‘zine (originally a print magazine) devoted to independent film. Where snobs go to read fulsome appreciations of Sam Raimi and interviews of such Queens of the B’s as Debbie Rochon and Tina Krause. (N.B. The website was bought and taken offline so where will we read these articles about people I never heard of?)

Mankiewicz, Herman. Gruff, whiskey-soaked, cigar chomping, old-school screenwriter par excellence (1807-1953)who bolted from his comfy perch at the Algonquin Round Table to write titles for silent films and screenplays for talkies, famously summoning his friend Ven Hecht west with te line “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition are idiots.” A dab hand at many genres–he wrote or cowrote Dinner at Eight, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and The Pride of the Yankees . . . .

Third Row, The. The only appropriate place for a true cinephile to sit, as per the dictum of  the late snob overlord and belle-lettrist Susan Sontag. Though the third row is said to provide the ideal perch from which to comfortably take in the MISE-EN-SCENE while unobstructed by fellow audience members, New York’s Anthology Film Archives, in 1970, catered to the socio-pathology of Film Snobs by opening its Invisible Cinema . . . .

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2016 in non-fiction

 

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To Marry an English Lord

marrylordIf you like Downton Abbey, you really should read Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace’s  To Marry an English Lord. I got the audio book from the library. The narrator had the perfect voice, elegant and slightly aristocratic.

To Marry an English Lord presents all sorts of facts and vignettes about the American heiresses, and there were dozens if not hundreds, who crossed the ocean to marry well. The focus is on New York socialites, whose fathers had fortunes, but couldn’t break into the elite circle of the Kickerbockers. Kickerbockers were the descendants of the first New York settlers from Holland, these people wore knickerbockers, i.e. pants that stopped at the knees. No amount of money could get you into their social circle so those with new money headed for England where they were welcomed not just for their money (though that was key) but also because American girls were so open, confident and free. British girls were sheltered and shy. They were chaperoned everywhere, but the American parents gave their girls a lot more freedom. And they had much larger clothing allowances. A British girl would make do with 3 new gowns a season, but the American would get 18 or so spending about $500.000 in todays money (plus a 50% tariff). The British men noticed, in droves apparently.

 

The book covers every aspect of the women’s lives from dress, parents, education, hobbies and such to marriage, infidelity and socializing. I found it quite interesting that these girls had the best of all worlds because as was typical in the U.S. at the time they were encouraged to be spirited and confident as debutantes and unlike the women who married in America after they wed they could follow the custom of getting involved in politics or writing, which was normal in England.

The book is a solid and entertaining social history that makes me think a real life Cora had more meaningful work to do, more extravagant parties to give, more friendships and probably more infidelity than we see on Downton Abbey. (Mind you I’m happy Cora did not hop into bed with Bricker, the bounder.) The authors’ style is full of wit and energy.

While I enjoyed being able to listen as I drove, I think I’ll get the actual book, because I can envision wanting to fact check the history and that’s hard to do with a CD.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in history, non-fiction

 

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Images of America: Chicago’s Gold Coast

When I picked this up at the library I didn’t catch the smaller type: Images of America. So I thought there would be more text about Chicago’s Gold Coast. Once I figured out the subject of this book I appreciated the wide selection of old photos of grand houses in this Chicago district. Images of America: Chicago’s Gold Coast upped my understanding of how the city looked in the late 19th century and beyond.

Here’s a few of the homes featured.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in history, non-fiction

 

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Don’t Make Me Think

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To me, Steven Krug offers the feng shui of web design. When a site, ugly and inconvenient, ignores or rejects the principles in Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, one’s qi or sense of calm vanishes. Not only sites with garish pages possibly designed 10 or more years ago offer bad feng shui, but the sites that are just a little inconsistent or whose designers wanted to flout conventions and come up with their own cutting edge placement for search boxes and buttons, make users perceive that several small things are amiss. Soon people move on to a competitor is that’s an option or get frustrated and put off their task till they feel more patient (as I had to several times with healthcare.gov).

Written for reading in one or two short sittings, Krug’s book offers designers, professional and non, clear advice on how to design a site that people can use without frustration or confusion. The book has a breezy, sometimes humorous tone, making learning easy. Krug practices what he preaches as the illustrations and layout enhance rather than distract.

I have read this book and others before. Rereading didn’t hurt because I could use a  reminder of principles such as:

  • Take advantage of conventions,
  • Break pages into clearly,
  • Create effective hierarchies,
  • Format to support scanning,
  • Innovate when you know (for certain) you’ve got a better idea,
  • Name every page, and more.

While many of these principles seem obvious, we know that they aren’t widely followed. Some ideas Krug offers, e.g. people don’t care how many clicks it takes to get somewhere as long as they don’t feel lost, may not be obvious though they are true and should be heeded.

 

Just as writers benefit by keeping Elements of Style close at hand while working on an important project, web designers ought to have Don’t Make Me Think near to remind them of best practices.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Library and Information Science, non-fiction

 

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Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge

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Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge provides the context and biography of H. Gordon Selfridge, Harry or Chief to his loved ones or employees. Woodhead chronicles Selfridge’s life from his youth when both his brothers died and his father deserted the family to his death. “Mile a Minute Harry” was a dynamo who started working at age 15 and made his way to Marshall Field’s in Chicago where his innovations in display and showmanship revolutionized shopping. It’s thrilling to read of this era when there was so much change and when drive and imagination could, for some, propel them to great wealth. (That still happens but so many fields have matured and aren’t new frontiers. Certainly retail isn’t half as exciting as it was when Selfridge started.)

Selfridge became a partner at Field’s due to his own chutzpah by just directly asking the much more reserved Marshall Field, who was going to offer it down the road. But when Field’s was choosing a successor, Selfridge knew it wouldn’t be him so he left Marshall Field’s and tried to start a store in Chicago. While it failed because the city just did not have enough sales staff of the ilk that Field’s had, Selfridge did make money on selling his store to Carson, Pirie, Scott. Too young to retire, he opened a store in London, a city that was stuck in time with fuddy duddy floorwalkers who’d expel any browsers. As the itv/PBS program shows Selfridge’s was part department store, part theater (an a hell of a lot like Marshall Field’s down to the evergreen bags). I enjoyed the book’s detail and rooted for Harry as he devised creative means to make shopping fun and his store bigger and amazingly service-oriented (like Field’s was).

After 1918, when his wife Rose dies, Harry’s life starts to slide for me. The store was still successful, but Harry’s proclivity for women got him mixed up with such apparently shallow women. He lavishes them with jewels and money to gamble/lose that you feel the impending financial ruin coming. It’s sad because had Rose lived longer, Harry probably would not have wound up in a two bedroom flat after selling all his property and losing most of what he built up. (I so hope the TV show takes its time running through history. The man’s life is just so sad at the end.)

Woodhead offers a lot of context including what was going on in entertainment, politics and city history for both Chicago and London. She shares what his friends and relatives thought about Harry, what allies and adversaries he had. Yet I felt there was a distance between Selfridge and me, the reader. So many questions may not be possible to answer. Harry did burn a lot of his letters when he got older. It’s rather cloudy how Harry and his wife met and what their courtship entailed. I didn’t feel I knew Harry the way I knew Proust after reading his biography. That might not be fair since Proust was a writer and probably more self-absorbed than most. Woodhead’s very thorough in her research so I grant if there was information to be had she would have found it. But perhaps Harry was the sort of life of the party that no one really knows well.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2014 in non-fiction

 

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Marshall Field’s: The Store that Helped Build Chicago

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I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Marshall Field’s the still beloved department store that started in Chicago, but I learned a lot more about how the business started, who Field’s partners were, how big their whole sale business was and how subsequent CEO’s like John G. Shedd, of aquarium fame, behaved at the helm. Seems every descendant of a Chicagoan knows that “the customer is always right” and “give the lady what she wants’ were first said by Marshall Field and we know the various explanations for the naming of Frango mints, but there’s still a lot we don’t know and  Gayle Soucek enlightens readers on all aspects of Fields in a pleasant breezy style. It’s a quick read and pleasant till we come to the end when evil Macy’s takes over the store and changes the name.

Field was a good man, and something of a straight arrow. He held true to his credit terms — even after the Chicago Fire in 1871 when creditors wrote him offering to change the terms. He came from Puritan roots and stayed true to them. (His son did not and I for one believe Junior was shot at the Everleigh Club, another interesting Chicago establishment.)  The man was a genius with incredible foresight and respect for people. I wish I could have been in the store when it had a library, offered information (to provide tourist information, ship times, railway routes, etc.)  and accommodation bureaus (which booked theater tickets,made sleeping car arrangements,  checked bags, offered stenographer services, and more). Services didn’t stop there. One anecdote tells how a man told a clerk he was “mourning the accidental estrangement of his brother, who had traveled to Europe and lost contact. The word went out to Field’s foreign buying offices, and in a short amount of time the wayward sibling was located.”

The book mentions Harry Selfridge, the brash man, who worked his way up to partner, a position Field’s was surprise Selfridge had the audacity to ask for (Field’s planned to offer it and was just a more reserved man). It mentions Selfridge as originating the bargain basement and later buying his own store, where he always kept a portrait of Marshall Field in his office. So much of Selfridge’s store is an homage to Field, which is why the book connects with the PBS program.

The book ends with an appendix of famous Field’s recipes.

I still can’t stomach that and haven’t made a purchase in Macy’s since they took over. Marshall Field’s, State Street, was a store you could love in a way current stores just aren’t. We’ve got smart phones so we can make our own travel arrangements or notes on the fly and we can shop online or in person in countless stores, but this personal touch is largely gone or on the way out.

 

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in history, non-fiction

 

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