BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS: RARE OBJECTS

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I had this book on my to be read list for a year,( it was published in 2016)  don’t quite know why I hadn’t read it nor why I decided to read it now, never mind, I did read it and here are my thoughts….

First, let me tell you about the plot… our protagonist, Maeve Fanning, a first generation Irish immigrant, is born and raised in Boston, in a poor Italian neighborhood by a single mother.  She takes secretarial courses and moves to New York City to “better” herself.  It is in 1931 and she becomes enamored with the wrong men and bootleg gin and ends up in a psychiatric hospital (you need to read the novel to find out why she is there) where she meets and befriends a strange young woman.  When she gets out she returns to Boston to start over.  She bluffs her way into a position at an upscale Antiques Shop by changing her name to May and dying her naturally red hair platinum blond (she is told by her former secretarial school teacher, who also runs a placement agency, that she won’t get a job not only because it is the Depression but also because she is Irish!)  The owner of the shop has her deliver an extremely important purchase made by a nouveau riche family to their home, upon her arrival she discovers the daughter, Diana Van der Laar, is the young woman she met at the hospital and the story goes from there, throwing “May” into a world of extreme money and the excess it can buy and the lifestyle she thinks she can live.  There are many twists and turns as we take the journey with her.

What is my take away from the novel…actually many things.  Obviously, no matter how much money one has it doesn’t give peace of mind, happiness, nor freedom.  But to May these are the out of reach goals she seeks and feels she will find by being “accepted” into Diana’s circle. May’s mother works in the alterations department at R. H. Stearns in Boston (it became a Federated Store and one that, like Marshall Field’s, lost its name and became Macy’s) and longs to become a salesclerk, that is a position she never gets.  Her work is exemplary (probably why she isn’t moved into a selling position) and she remakes many items for May to present herself properly at work and socially.  It is extremely important to her mother that she always be “correct” in looks and manners.  The book takes us to the world of antiques and how the owners of the shop educate May, (who, by the way, is not only smart but a very quick study and eager to learn about the items she works with as well as the culture the world has to offer) it takes us into the world of buying art and antiques as a way of making a name for oneself in society (the purchase that May delivers to the Van der Laar family is donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and put in pride of place in the hall of antiquities!) certainly nothing new there, but interesting to have it outlined in such a detailed and informative manner.  She learns that she doesn’t quite fit into the life she left behind when she left Boston for New York and in the end, most certainly not with the damaged Diana and her “friends” and family!

It is told in the first person narrative, which I think worked well and, to my mind’s eye, it is a coming of age story (although she is in her mid-twenties) filled with an almost Dickens flavor, poor girl strives to better herself, fails, meets wealth hopes to succeed, fails, finds love, fails, seeks friendship, is betrayed, and in the end is transformed into a more understanding, and most certainly, a more informed participant in the way of the world…in other words an independent woman.  I did enjoy the book and would suggest you read it for yourself.  I would love to hear your thoughts after you read it.  I enjoyed Kathleen Tessaro’s thoughtful and insightful look at a time quite different from today (or is it!!!)  I must, however, admit I preferred Ms. Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector. I have not read any of her other books but definitely will put them on my TBR pile, The Debutante looks particularly interesting.

http://www.kathleentessaro.com

 

 

BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS: BEYOND THE LABEL

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I have read so many how to “reinvent” yourself business books over the years, beginning with The Tipping Point, that was required reading for a meeting at Saks Fifth Avenue when it was published, that I thought I really don’t want to read yet another one…but when I read a review of Beyond the Label and made note of its author I became intrigued and put it on my to be read list.  Written by someone who had really come through the ranks of the fashion world from L’Oréal, The Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, and finally, as Global CEO of Chanel I thought this would be the book for me since I am in the process of reinventing myself through http://www.nenasnotes.com and it’s major learning curve.  I had actually put the book on the TBR list and didn’t think more about it when I received an email from a friend/business associate asking me if I would be interested in interviewing the author, Maureen Chiquet, at a program at the Union League Club in Chicago.  How could I say no?  Well, I didn’t….and I can’t wait to meet this dynamic, insanely talented person and hopefully ask her the questions you would want to have answered (I will do another post after the interview and, fingers crossed, have her answer my profile questionnaire, she would be amazing!)

Here are just a few of my initial observations from the book, which I found not only to be a business manual (silly sounding, I know) but also a memoir and the story of a change of one’s thought of career, as a literature major, to the broad world of fashion.  It has always been my feeling that our industry (fashion) requires a vast knowledge of the world around us with a heavy emphasis on The Arts.  Yes, one needs to have a sense of current affairs, information on the history of the industry (I am fanatical about that!) and, of course, a sound background in business (particularly business math) and most importantly what the consumer wants.  All of these principles are detailed in this well-written and engaging book.  Yes, it is a basis for how to advance your career (in any industry), how to network, (crucial to any career), how to think like your boss before you become one, how to become a listening executive, how to be mentored and therefore, how to mentor. How to know when to make the right move to the next step (probably the hardest learning point of all).  Whew, lots to cover.  Ms. Chiquet has accomplished all of this (and now has reinvented herself again as a savvy author and guide to how to reinvent yourself as well) and much much more with insight, humor, realism as well as telling us how to do all this while being female (the topics discussed have no gender!).  Sad that we still have to think that way, but it is true.  I firmly believe our gender is looked on as more equal in the fashion world…am I being naive, I don’t think so!

Our industry moves at the speed of light and one has to not only go with the trends but make them, she has done it all and I am thrilled that she has shared them with us whether a long time professional or an up and coming novice. She is a role model to everyone no matter gender or age for that matter.  Ms. Cliquet has inspired me to go with what I have always felt true, be true to yourself and the rest will follow.  She has lived this philosophy.  It is my pleasure to recommend this delightful book to you.  I will be recommending it to my students at Columbia College Chicago as assigned reading.

The Union League Club event is open to the public, I hope you can join me in welcoming Ms. Cliquet to Chicago and learn more from this fascinating woman…see below for ticket details….

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/authors-group-presents-maureen-chiquet-tickets-31830023457

The book will be available for purchase on site from The Book Stall, our independent bookseller http://www.thebookstall.com

 

BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS: DEATH AMONG RUBIES

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Death Among Rubies is the second Lady Frances Fflokes mystery (the third will be published in November).  I did a review on Death on the Sapphire two weeks ago and wanted to do the second book as soon as possible.  So here it is…..

We find Lady Frances and her lady’s maid, June Mallow traveling with two of Frannie’s friends, Gwendolyn and Tomasina to visit Gwen’s family estate, Kestrel’s Eyrie.  After dinner with assorted guests, Gwen’s father, Sir Calleford, a powerful diplomat, is stabbed to death, in his study, with his ruby encrusted dagger.  Frannie who we learned in the first mystery is quite adept at solving murders much to the dismay of Scotland Yard…is at it again!  The guests include a Turkish diplomat, an American heiress and her loving father, a French couple, a couple of impoverished widows, Gwen’s aunt and her son, Christopher who is like a brother to Gwen.  The plot isn’t terribly involved but does, indeed, have twists and turns.  Of course, the dagger has a curse associated with it, Scotland Yard Special Branch becomes involved as does Frannie’s love interest and her attorney, Hal, and her disapproving brother (of her lifestyle), Charles.  The story even gives Mallow a bit of romance.  Frannie again involves Mallow in her intrigues and Mallow, rises to each occasion and becomes more educated and a bit less uptight in the process.  I love that she is more concerned with how Lady Frances looks that Lady Frances is…adds a touch of humor to the story especially when Frannie dresses in working man’s clothing, a scandal in Mallow’s eyes! Most of the story is set in the countryside estate, not in London.  I enjoyed the stories of the staff’s views of their employers, and how they will talk to others of their station, such as Mallow and not to Frannie, although she does have a way of getting information from everyone.  The view of the peer system is a big part of the story.

I found the continuation of the suffragette story an interesting one…nothing new there but Frannie was really living two lives, which she has no intention of giving up, it was fascinating to me.  On one side she is an aristocrat and on the other a free-thinking modern woman…at that time, the early 20th Century, not unusual for many young (and not so young) women, but unless one was as outspoken as our heroine I would imagine a difficult path.  Her understanding of the times, the mores of all classes, make it an interesting look at an era that was evolving very quickly.  For some unknown reason, Frannie reminds me a bit and only a bit of  Phryne Fisher and the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, (I do love the books and the television series) a later time and place but still a thoroughly independent, engaging woman who we admire and want to know more about.

Now my opinion of the book, I did enjoy it but not as much as the first of the series, Death on the Sapphire. I do like Koreto’s writing (I did find a couple of repeated phrases within a couple of pages, that should have been caught by his editor, but never mind!!!!).  Outside the main characters, I found the others to be rather stereotypical, the wealthy American heiress and her father looking for a titled husband, the Turkish diplomat who seems suspicious (is he!?), the village widows who are more than they seem (in that case they were!), etc. All in all an enjoyable read…not one that stretched my mind but then after a busy few weeks that isn’t all bad.  I am looking forward to the further adventures of Lady Frances Ffolkes and her band of characters.  Let me know your thoughts when you read it.

PROFILE: FLEUR COWLES

imageFleur Cowles, as I remember her, pictured at home.

Today’s Profile is a bit different from my other Monday posts.  The person I am profiling did not fill out my usual questionnaire but rather it will be a reflection of an artist, a unique creator whose vision took us to a wonderful world of her imagination, that incredible person was Fleur Cowles.  I had the extraordinary experience of meeting and working with her many years ago when she visited Saks Fifth Avenue Chicago’s Gift Shop to introduce her book, An Artist’s Journey.

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As usual, as with all our visits, I spent the day (or more) with her and had the opportunity to learn more about her fascinating career so these recollections will have to pull my memory back in time (this was long before the days of instant iPhone technology of photos, videos and recording conversations, more the pity!!!) Why, you might ask, am I doing this post today.  I was reading one of my favorite lifestyle magazines, The World of Interiors current issue and was literally drooling over photos of interiors when I caught my breath I wanted to see whose home it was…it was Fleur Cowles and it was perfection!

I had first become aware of Ms. Cowles many, many years before our encounter in the Store.  It all began at the beginning of the 1950’s when my Father started collecting Flair Magazine. It was a publication like no other then or now and only existed for one year.  It was so expensive to produce that her husband, who was the publisher, pulled the plug, much to the regret of all the followers of the magazine.  Each month was themed and had a cut away cover to allow you to “peek” inside.  As a young girl who as obsessed with fashion and the creative process I was fascinated with each issue, but I think my favorite was the Rose issue which Ms. Cowles insisted be scented (mind you this was long before the scent strip came into being!)  Of course, the painting was by Fleur.

imageIsn’t it glorious….the bouquet is cut away to reveal the charming portrait!

Not only was the art enticing (from Ms. Cowles but also Dali, Dubuffet, etc. etc……) but the stories were written by all the authors and critics of the day, all personal friends of the Cowles.  Not to carry this story too far, several years after my Father had passed away we had a flood, our hot water heater exploded, no one was hurt but the water damage destroyed all my yearbooks, all my childhood dolls, all manner of memorabilia and ALL of Daddy’s art magazine collections and on and on.  All the Flairs were gone!  I have since started collecting them again.  I have four of the thirteen published as well as the yearbook.  But that is the fun of collecting and why I always adore my monthly Randolph Street Market, http://www.randolphstreetmarket.com, visits (Saturday and Sunday, May 27 and 28 from 10 to 5, the first outdoor Market of the season, yay!!!!) I may come across one or two treasures that might be a Flair I don’t have!

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imageOne of my favorite covers.

Don’t always just look at book vendors at RSM, I think the Flairs I have found there have been with vendors who have multiple collections (remember the Printer’s Row Lit Fest is approaching as well as the annual Newberry Library Book Fair, you can fill in your magazine and book collections there as well!!!!)

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My copy of the Flair Annual, I have also found this at Randolph Street Market and given it to a couple of my friends who appreciate the unique!

My next experience with her was with the publication of her book Tiger Flower, which I fell in love with.  My assistant at the time was a superb artist, actually trained in the Fashion Design Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she copied the cover for me to needlepoint.  The rendering is exactly the same as the Cowles painting and I think my needlework did it justice.  It is hidden away in storage so I couldn’t get it out to show you, you will have to take my word for it, sorry!

imageIt is a charming story and the art, amazing!

My most recent acquisition was given to me last Christmas by a dear friend….who knows my love for flowers and for Fleur Cowles (mad for her artwork)…a perfect present!

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Now for the story of our meeting….I had just gotten back from a trip to London, by now you know I am a major Anglophile, and Ms. Cowles was intrigued by my love of England.  We were discussing the places I had visited, I adore all Museums so that became our main topic.  She told me that the BBC had asked her to be filmed for a series they were doing on British notables favorite places (as I recall in London) and she chose The British Museum.  The hairs went up on the back of my neck and I told her my story of my first visit to the museum.  I have long been an admirer of Egyptology, Chicago, as you know, has a long history with Egypt excavations and has many artifacts at The Field Museum as well as one of my favorite museums, The Oriental Institute.  I have visited them countless times and also was fortunate to see the Tutankhamun Exhibit when it visited Chicago, exquisite! Now back to the British Museum….on my visit I took myself directly to the Egypt wing and went from room to room, when I entered one of the very large galleries that housed many mummies, I sensed something very uncomfortable, I really couldn’t then nor now explain the feeling but it was one of extreme sadness, a feeling of trespass, if you will.  I immediately left the room and the Museum and it took me many years to return on one of my visits to the UK.  So what you say…well as I was relating this to Ms. Cowles, she looked at me in a very strange way and told me that was wing she wanted to be filmed in and when they got to that exact room, she felt the same sensation I had had.  She asked the guards if there was anything strange about that gallery and they said they felt it as well and the guard dogs would never cross the threshold!  I guess I do believe in the problem of disturbed spirits at least I did in that room and actually felt a bit better knowing I wasn’t alone!

Ms. Cowles lived a very long life, she died at 101 years of age, after creating beauty that we can treasure to this day…lucky us and very lucky me that I had the opportunity to visit with one of my Father’s and my idols.

imageFleur Cowles in her Studio.

imageAnother view of the Studio now that is what inspiration should look like!  All photos from Pinterest, photo credits unknown.

http://www.randolphsteetmarket.com

http://www.printersrowlitfest.org

http://www.newberry.org/newberry-book-fair

BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS: PEACOCK & VINE

Remembrance

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I have been a fan of A. S. Byatt for many years, I believe the first book I read was one that contained Angels & Insects and then Possession. Both extremely thought provoking, and in some instances disturbing, but brilliantly written none the less.  When I read that she had written a book on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny I was intrigued.  I guess I thought it was going to be a fictionalized account of their lives (you know those are my favorite books!), I was wrong.  It is an interesting, engaging account of these two artists in different countries and in different times.  Actually, a review in The Guardian felt as a novel it would have been a better telling of their stories.  I don’t know that I agree with that.  I did learn a lot about William Morris (someone I have admired but not really done any research on) and continued to learn more about Fortuny, who has long been a favorite of mine. Both, of course, are known for their creative textiles, inventions and the new art each inspired.  It is a slim volume but has so much information, I need to reread it to get every drop of knowledge it gives the reader. The book is heavily illustrated and contains an extensive “further reading” list.

imageWilliam Morris and Mariano Fortuny

William Morris lived in England just outside London and his house inspired his fascinating floral and geometric patterns.

imageA William Morris floral vine and trellis pattern.  Done during Victorian times at the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement.

A fact I was not aware of was his wife, Jane, had a long love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was obsessed with her and used her in many of his famous paintings.

imageI love the flow of the leaves, he was fascinated by flora and also by the River Thames, and always lived near it.  The leaves, to me, look like waves.  He, like, Fortuny made his own dyes for his fabrics and, of course, mixed his own paints.

imageI found this on Pinterest (along with most of the images I am using in this post) and I must say I would love to have a remnant of this or a piece of the paper.  It is stunningly beautiful!

Fortuny was a Spanish aristocrat and eventually moved to Venice.  I think most people think of him as making the famous “Delphos” gown using a yet to be duplicated pleating technique and having the gown flow against the body ending in a “puddle” at the feet of the wearer.  These gowns are highly collectible and are often found on exhibition (The Art Institute of Chicago had an exhibition of Fortuny gowns several years ago…it was brilliant to see these treasures up close and personal!)  In addition to these glorious pieces, Fortuny did incredible prints, sometimes doing layers of pattern over pattern, ingenious as well as beautiful, to say the very least. He is the only designer mentioned by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past.

imageA “Delphos” gown.  They were made to roll into themselves and not be hung.  This from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Collection.

imageTina Chow, a major collector of Fortuny as well as many Haute Couture designers, wearing one of Fortuny’s wraps with his hand painted motif.  You can see more of the details of the embossed velvet pieces.  When he was criticized for copying old vestments, he took out patents and issued disclaimers.  All beautifully discussed, in great detail, in the book.

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The pomegranate was prominent in both artists work, not necessarily in its color but rather in its shape and meaning.

imageFortuny alongside some of his fabrics.

imageEven the labels were hand painted.  Here you can see the intricacy of the pleating.

Byatt captures the essence of each of her subject, although they were born a generation apart she weaves their story together perfectly using Venice, its color, light, romance as the catalyst.  One can only wonder what this story would have been as a novel!  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and as I mentioned, I will need to reread it…it is written by a brilliant writer who draws you into the world she has totally researched and has examined and “paints” the story of these two geniuses, I think as they would want to be painted!

imageA.J. Byatt photo by Fabrizo Giraldi from the book.

BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS: DEATH ON THE SAPPHIRE

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Another book that I have no idea how I heard about it.  As I have mentioned in previous book posts I read many book blogs, newsletters, newspaper reviews and on and on and I put upcoming releases on my to be read list.  Death On The Sapphire is one of those books and it has been sitting on my TBR list for awhile. It is R.J. Koreto first novel and the first in a series, the second has just been published, I’ll review that at a later date.

As you also know, I really hate pigeonholing books, especially when they are called “cozy mysteries”…I am sure some would put Agatha Christie in that category, pity that! This mystery is a lovely read with quite a few twists and turns…not a blood and thunder novel.  I don’t really enjoy those too much, I like a bit of suspense, a little romance, a well written story with an intelligent protagonist and one that keeps my interest to the end.  This one met all those requirements.

The heroine, if you will, is Lady Frances Ffolkes, who is very much an independent young lady living in the changing world of Edwardian England.  Raised to have a mind of her own, to a degree, and to that end she lives in a very upscale “boarding house” with her Lady’s Maid….things must be proper, we are talking about polite society, after all.  She is educated, at Vassar no less (also the University of the author, who, by the way is male, I don’t even know why I say that other than his handling of our young Lady and her Ladies Maid, June Mallow, is quite tender and wonderful) and due to her position in society has access to places that a lower class woman of the time wouldn’t have. It is the beginning of the the suffragist movement and the story tells that piece of history as well as the main story of a manuscript that has gone missing and is reported to contain details of a battle gone wrong costing many lives in the South Africa’s bloody Boer War. What the details are can be damaging  and embarrassing to the Establishment (my opinion, that this is being investigated by a young woman is salt in the wound!) and Scotland Yard (doesn’t it always) becomes involved along with the their Special Branch and the British Secret Service.  Love enters the picture with two gentlemen who may not be all they appear to be.  Lady Frances, Frannie, finds herself being followed, ends up in unusual neighborhoods…let’s just say where Ladies of her station should not be seen…following clues to the missing manuscript and to two murders.  I particularly loved the way her maid, Mallow, maintains the standards of how her Ladyship should behave and most of all how she should dress and coif her hair…it is delightful.  June is very much a part of the story and involves just as much as her mistress, I might say, even more.

I found that women being taken seriously has evolved, but has it really!!!!  Yes, we have the vote in the States, in the UK and many other nations but most certainly not all over the world…we basically can be whatever we want to be, in any profession we choose.  But what about equality..what about no more sexual harassment, equal pay…my the list does go on.  However, when we examine how things were a hundred years I believe we must say we have come a long way but have a long way to go.  I personally have never felt inferior to anyone nor have been put in a compromising situation but the headlines say I am in the minority and that makes me very sad.  We still have so much to accomplish and events like the Women’s March, I hope, will help change the status quo!  Enough of the soapbox…which is what the early suffragists actually stood upon to make their voices heard…let’s continue their journey until everything, in every way, is equal everywhere.

You do know I love a good historical mystery and this is one I highly recommend.  If you loved Downton Abbey, like Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness mysteries, Victoria Thompson’s and Carola Dunn’s books then you will be thoroughly engaged with this beginning of a new series.

imageThe next volume is out now, I would suggest you read Death on the Sapphire first. Koreto has also written a series of Alice Roosevelt mysteries…need to get those as well, I am!

http://www.ladyfrancesffolkes.com

 

BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS: OIL AND MARBLE

I believe I have mentioned that most of my favorite books are historical novels based on real people.  It can be any time frame, although I am partial to mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, my favorites are about artists and their muses and/or their wives. One particular favorite was Clara and Mr. Tiffany, loved it!  I would give it more than 5 stars for sure.

One I read last year (it still seems strange to say that, but it was 2016!) was Oil and Marble. I can’t even tell you how many people I have recommend this book to and all have been as entranced as I was.  What I look for in a book, I would like to recommend or to review, would be that I don’t want it to end, I am enjoying it that much!  I happen to read very fast quite often finishing a book in a day (sometimes an evening, albeit it is a long evening).  When I find one this good I drag it out.  I don’t really remember how I heard about it, I read so many book blogs, many of which preview new releases and I put them on my TBR list.

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The story takes place between 1501 and 1505 (not my normal time frame) when Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo both lived and worked in Florence. The premise is what if Leonardo di Vinci, the elder artist, (who has ever matched him in his creativity in so many areas of art, literature and invention, at any age…no one!), and Michelangelo, the “upstart”, had an imagined competition for a perfect piece of marble and what each would create with it. Actually the “what” is dictated by the men paying for the final piece. It tells the story of Michelangelo’s David as well as the romantic portrait that becomes the Mona Lisa and who she was (?). In the story she becomes Leonardo’s obsession, lucky us when we are able to see her beautiful portrait in the Louve (I first saw her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when she visited there!). Brilliantly written with a wonderful concept in reimaging the historical aspects of the novel. Storey brings the distant past to reality along with vivid descriptions of the landscape, the artists studios and most importantly the politics of the time (of any time) and how artists, no matter how established, are bound by the demand for perfection. I think you will enjoy this piece of historical fiction.  Let me know how you like it.

A bit about the author:

“Stephanie Storey is a writer and art fanatic. She has a degree in Fine Arts from Vanderbilt University and attended a PhD program in Art History—before leaving to get her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. She has studied art in Italy and been on a pilgrimage to see every Michelangelo on display in Europe. When not writing novels and screenplays, she works as a television producer and tries, but fails, to do headstands in yoga. She lives in LA with her husband, an actor and Emmy-winning comedy writer. Oil and Marble is her debut novel.” Taken from the back flap of the book. I am looking forward to her next work.

For more information, visit her blog at www.OilandMarble.com