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Archive for January, 2016

Library Lust

credit: Ashe + Leandro

credit: Ashe + Leandro

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Perfect Wives in Ideal HomesI read a few really excellent books right at the end of 2015, the most enjoyable of which was Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson. Nicholson writes social histories that focus on British women and in previous books she’s looked at surplus women following the First World War (Singled Out) and women’s lives during and immediately after the Second World War (Millions Like Us). Here, she has moved on to the 1950s.

For thousands of young women […] in the early 1950s, the dreams of education, career, achievement and fulfillment were within reach. The war had exploded the inequality myth. The doors were opening. But for too many, their own ignorance, fears, confining desires and expectations were bred-in-the-bone.

To tell her story, Nicholson draws on an amazing variety of first-hand accounts from:

  • a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret
  • a Jamaican immigrant
  • a beauty queen
  • a working class girl who studied at Cambridge
  • an Irish nurse
  • a miner’s wife
  • a young policewoman
  • a rock n’roll-loving Teddy girl
  • several educated but desperately isolated suburban housewives
  • and many more

Through these women and their experience, Nicholson marks the mood of the decade. She looks at the fields now open to women (all of them, basically, though women were only being paid 59% of what men received in the same roles) versus the conditioning in popular media that reminded them femininity was the most important thing. Graceful secretary, desirable air hostess, and glamorous model were presented as much more appropriate ambitions than a career as a lawyer, doctor, or politician. And, most important of all, work must come second to husband, home and children.

However, that wasn’t really the reality. “In the post-war world, there was little – except a residual belief in her own incapacity – to stop a young woman from training to become an architect, a biologist, or a lawyer. The opportunities were there.” In 1951, nearly 85% of women between the ages of 14 and 25 were working. By the end of the decade, it wasn’t just single women who were working: in 1961, 30% of married women under 30 and 36% of married women between the ages of 35 and 45 worked (up from 25% in 1951).

Nicholson chooses to focus on specific women’s experiences. This is very compelling from a story-telling perspective though I did miss having a historical or geographical context. And while Nicholson pays particular attention to women of the working class, we don’t hear much from the upper middle class – the women who followed their fathers and brothers into professions, becoming doctors and lawyers.

What she does do wonderfully is allow the women to tell their own stories. I particularly enjoyed the chapters which look at the pressure to be constantly attractive and appear pure, but also sexually alluring. A confusing enough mix which, when coupled with poor sexual education, lead to a predictable number of shotgun weddings or quiet adoptions.

We hear much about the two famous Margarets: Princess Margaret and Margaret Thatcher. Nicholson contrasts them throughout the book and it is an effective pairing: one the beautiful, feminine storybook princess whose purity and perfection, at least in the 1950s, was the pride of the nation, the other a brilliant, ambitious career woman, ready to take advantage of every opportunity available to her and brutally pilloried for it (though that would come later, once she achieved success).

Like most enjoyable reading experiences, I have my quibbles with Nicholson’s presentation of facts. Throughout the book, she treats certain topics as though they are relics of the past, specific to the 1950s, when if fact they persisted long past that decade. She treats the opposition to Princess Margaret’s relationship with Townsend as something specific to her time and gender. Given that her uncle and nephew faced similar pressure when they fell in love with unsuitable partners, there is a strong argument to be made that it is more a hazard of position than anything else. Also, bizarrely, she throws in an off-handed comment about how the women of the WI were “starting to look beyond poultry-keeping and meal preparation.” The WI started off in the 19th Century, enraged by high infant mortality rates and determined to educate and mobilize woman to combat issues such as poor hygiene, a lack of family planning, and alcohol abuse. If anything, it has become dulled and sanitized since then with its jam-making and hymn singing.

There are some disappointing anti-male comments scatted through the book (references to the walls built by men to keep women out of professions, etc). Apparently, it is natural for women to be conditioned to accept stereotypical gender roles but men have no such excuse. And they certainly do not get any credit when they did encourage women to enter the workforce and join professions, though Nicholson does acknowledge that the walls no longer existed in any meaningful way.

Overall, it is a very fascinating book and great fun to read. I added so many of Nicholson’s source books to my own to-be-read list and can’t wait to learn more about some of the fascinating women introduced to me here.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

So many excellent books this week! In fact, it’s such a good batch that I’ve already finished one, am halfway through another, and have tested three recipes from one of the cookbooks.

Library Loot

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks – a memoir from Twitter’s favourite shepherd.  I’m half-way through and really enjoying it.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – a very fun Regency-era fantasy novel with impressively diverse characters.

Landfall by Nevil Shute – always happy when I have something by Shute to read.

Library Loot 2

A Change of Appetite by Diana Henry – Wow.  This cookbook is subtitled “where healthy meets delicious” and is a collection of lighter, healthier recipes.  The book itself is absolutely beautiful and of the three recipes I’ve tried, two are definitely going into my regular repertoire – the Persian saffron and mint chicken with spring couscous is especially spectacular and I can’t wait to make it for everyone I know.  Seriously.  I plan to bring this to every potluck I’m invited to for the foreseeable future.  Looking forward to trying as many more recipes as I can in the coming weeks before the book has to go back to the library.  And then, very possibly, buying my own copy.

My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl – a memoir/cookbook from Reichl, exploring how working in the kitchen helped her through the difficult period following the sudden and unexpected closure of Gourmet magazine, where she was editor-in-chief.

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

via The Cottage Company

via The Cottage Company

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Library Lust

credit; Amelia Handegan

credit: Amelia Handegan

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Listening In

woman-listening-to-a-radioI seem to have come through my reading drought and am now happily reaching the end of Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie.  However, when I was feeling so unsettled with every single other book I tried to read, sometimes I just gave up, closed my eyes, and let someone else read me a story instead.  And it was wonderful.

While I have a few favourite podcasts (CBC’s Vinyl Cafe, BBC’s Home Front, and Rachel and Simon’s Tea or Books), I generally stick to audiobooks.  I listen to audiobooks regularly and find them a wonderful companion when I’m out walking, when podcasts can go by far too quickly.

Lately though I’ve been exploring the many, many programs available through the BBC Radio website and I’ve had many happy hours of listening as a result.  What to?  Well, here’s a brief list of some of the intriguing programs currently available (some of which I’ve listened to but most of which are still on my “to listen” list):

There is still plenty to listen to, as you can see!

I’m always looking for recommendations so please let me know what some of your favourite radio programmes and podcasts are.

 

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Library Loot

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken – time for a classic, madcap children’s novel.

Vegetarian India by Madhur Jaffrey – yay!  I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this and now that I have it I can’t wait to start cooking.

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter – Usually I’m happy to read anything about promoting equality in the workplace and ensuring the corporate world is better designed for work-life balance.  Usually.  This made countless “Best of 2015” book lists but I can’t understand why.  The writing is mind-numbingly simplified and the content far from original.  Still, I’m delighted it has been so successful and brought so much attention to this important topic.

What did you pick up this week?

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Indecision

P1100702

All my decisiveness has been left in 2015.

I have been struggling since the new year started to settle into a book.  I managed to read two last weekend but since then I have been picking a book up, reading a hundred pages with absolutely no engagement whatsoever, and then abandoning it as I go off in search of something better.  Such restlessness is very unlike me and very frustrating.  I just want to find a book I can read with pleasure for hours at time – this should not be a difficult task! (Especially given the 30 or so books I currently have checked out from the library.)

I’ve just started Curiosity by Alberto Manguel and it seems very promising…but not as a work-week book.  There is such a thing as too much philosophy for my 7am commute.  No, I’m going to need to find something lighter for the week and I’m convinced it is going to be one of the books above: Corduroy by Adrian Bell, Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken, or Notes from an Italian Garden by Joan Marble.  Or, if things go well, all of them.

On the other hand, I am delighted with and devoted to my current audiobook: The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley.  It’s a story I love and there is nothing nicer than escaping into it during my lunch hour walk.

Happy reading!

 

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Library Lust

via Country Life

via Country Life

The best possible argument for buying a home with a barn would be to convert it into a library/study, as with this room here (Alberto Manguel did it too).  Books trump livestock.

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Library Lust

via Country Life

via Country Life

A beautiful room to start 2016 off right!

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