‘The Butler; A Witness to History’ by Wil Haygood (Atria; Simon & Schuster) This is the true story of Eugene Allen who, fascinatingly, was the butler to 8 American presidents over 34 years; Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. What interesting and memorable conversations, meetings, guests, situations and issues he was exposed to! As an African American man he experienced firsthand the civil rights movement from both within and outside the White House. Emphasising the times he was born in to, Allen was a house boy in Virginia then worked at hotel and a country club before becoming a butler at The White House. Allen worked at The White House during the Little Rock School desegregation when Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect black school children, when Kennedy had to protect James Meredith at the University of Mississippi as he was the first black student enrolled there, when Kennedy was contemplating the Cuban missile crisis and when Kennedy was shot. Later, Allen’s son was fighting in the Vietnam War when Allen was working for President Johnson and also during apartheid in South Africa when Reagan was in power. Throughout these difficult and testing situations working with people who were making decisions about race and war which had direct impact on Allen’s own family, he worked with honour and respect. I loved reading about Allen and his wife hosting dinners in their home basement with their friends and the wonderful personal photos of Allen and his times in The White House. The second part of the book is devoted to the making of the movie of the same name which I am keen to see.
‘Jim Henson; The Biography’ by Brian Jay Jones (Random House) I must have been a toddler when the first Sesame Street TV shows were aired in my city, so I suppose I was exactly the right age for the show. I do remember being fascinated with the lively pre-reading and alphabet sections and the numbers sequences (who can forget The Count who loved to count!) The sections were eye-catching and attention-grabbing. What I didn’t know was how the Muppets (thought to be a combination of the words marionette and puppets) came to be; their struggles and triumphs. It was interesting to read that Kermit was actually a simple sock puppet that Henson made from his mother’s old fade turquoise felt jacket on the living room table whilst his grandfather was very sick. It was not until years later when this puppet was in the role of the narrator that he was dressed with a ruff collar and someone commented that he looked like a frog and he became Kermit the Frog. It was interesting to read that there was a specialist in the Henson company who placed the eyes on each Muppet (usually the eyes were placed slightly cross-eyed to give a feeling that the Muppet was focusing on the audience). I didn’t realised that both Kermit and Ernie’s voices are Henson’s, that Bert was played by one of Henson’s best friends, Frank Oz and that the characters’ personalities often closely resembled the performers’. Sometimes it took many trial periods with different people to create a Muppet’s character. Collaborating with George Lucas, the Henson team worked on Yoda from Star Wars. Henson was certainly an incredibly creative person with a great sense of humour; his companies were named HA! (Henson Associates), HO! (Henson Organization), HE! (Henson Enterprises), HIT! (Henson International Television) and HUM! (Henson Universal Music). Henson was the creator of many innovative techniques and I loved the fact that his typical work position whilst writing was lying almost flat on his Eames chair and foot rest.
Visit Brian Jay Jones’ website here.
Read my interview with Brian Jay Jones here.
‘Vogue on Cristobal Balenciaga’ by Susan Irvine (Quadrille Publishing) This beautifully produced book with a bounty of gorgeous photos, typefaces and layout is a great history and reference of this Spanish fashion designer. Balenciaga’s father was a captain of a small fishing boat who took wealthy clients out for pleasure cruises during the summer and his mother was a seamstress. When Balenciaga was 12 years old a Marquesa allowed the young Balenciaga to make her a dress. She was so impressed with his work that he started his tailoring apprenticeship and, even though he put in years of hard work, his career was pretty much launched. This book examines Balenciaga’s style – the Spanish influence of reds, blacks and purples and the elegant cut of the clothes often incorporating boleros and lines from flamenco designs. As one of the only couturiers of his time that had come from a background of tailoring, he was revered by his contemporaries because he not only had vision to create his pieces, but he knew firsthand every nuance of constructing garments; the sewing, cutting and design techniques. Chanel said, ‘Only he (Balenciaga) is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand. Balenciaga is a couturier in the truest sense of the word. The others are simply fashion designers’. How interesting and revealing that Christian Dior said ‘Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives’. It shows how much Balenciaga was respected for his knowledge and mastery of design.
Read my interview with Susan Irvine here.
‘The Italian Girl’ by Rebecca Huntley (University of Queensland Press) I bought this book before going on a trip to Italy because I wanted to read more about the differences between the Italian and Australian cultures as experienced by immigrants. This was an engaging book about an Australian woman’s quest to find out more about her grandmother who migrated from the island Elba off the coast of Italy to the cane fields of north Queensland in Australia in 1922 and the trials she faced in such a foreign culture. It was interesting reading about the conflicts and differences Huntley’s grandmother faced coming from a very small community where people often had the same surname to the harsh life of the canecutter in the energy-sapping tropical heat. We travel with Huntley as she researches in different locations; reading hard copies and on-line, visiting memorials and interviewing family members and other key people. The contrast of Hentley’s grandmother’s life in Italy with its traditions, food and religion and what she experienced in Australia was startling and told in a sympathetic and enlightening way. As an Italian, Hentley’s grandfather was interned during WWII and her grandmother was left to drive the vehicles, negotiate the business dealings and run the extensive farms in an unnerving time of unrest.
Visit Rebecca Huntley’s website here.
Read my interview with Rebecca Huntley here.
‘A Century of Wisdom; Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer’ by Caroline Stoessinger (Two Roads; Hachette) This book is about the world’s oldest living survivor of the Holocaust; Herz-Sommer has just turned 110. The concept of the book was captivating; lessons to be learnt from someone who survived what she did and also for living such a long life. Surviving Theresienstadt concentration camp, the death of her mother, husband and friends, Herz-Sommer somehow brings us, through all these atrocities, to lessons of optimism and resilience. Born in Prague, Herz-Sommer was well on her way to becoming a concert pianist when war broke out. She sites her love of music as a source of immense strength that focused her thoughts and pulled her through bleak times. Herz-Sommer’s life lessons such as never grouping people, ‘Behind every man and woman is a story. I am interested in learning about the best in each individual’ are at a universal level. She enthuses people about the power in the mandate ‘Love to work’ in order to enjoy life and feel fulfilled. As a breast cancer survivor, she embraces each day and attended university classes when she was 104 years old. When Israel’s 70 year old prime minister, Golda Meir, asked Herz-Sommer to teach her piano, she replied, ‘It’s never too late to try’; another of Herz-Sommer’s lessons. The combination of her stories, anecdotes, interviews with past students and family members create a well-rounded view of her. We are treated to Herz-Sommer’s recipes for chicken soup and her mother’s apple cake. She speaks of the effects of universal appreciation music, even in the concentration camps and, with her optimistic spirit, says, ‘I never give up hope’.
Sadly, since writing this post, Alice Herz-Sommer died on 23.02.14.
Read my interview with Caroline Stoessinger here.
‘The Other Dickens; A Life of Catherine Hogarth’ by Lillian Nayder (Cornell University Press) Earlier this year I read a different book about the life of Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine Dickens (née Hogarth). Not knowing much previously about Dickens’ personal life, I was fascinated, bewildered and surprised by the content of that book and the fact that it had no references so I could not be sure what was truth and what was not. Turning to my go-to-girl for all things Dickens, Michelle, I asked her to recommend a book so that I could find out what was indeed fact. Thank you, Michelle, for recommending this book to me. Wow! What an interesting read it was. This books is basically from the point of view of Catherine Dickens who was married to the very famous (both in his time and now) Charles. Catherine Dickens came from an established family in London, her father was a music critic for a newspaper and the family were well-read and enjoyed the theatre. Charles came from a very humble background. Charles and Catherine married in 1836 (which is the same year Dickens begun serialising his novels) and had 10 children that survived infancy in very quick secession. Charles was obviously a genius and became enormously famous, but had some very unusual idiosyncrasies and his wife’s life and her experiences have been completely over-shadowed by her brilliant husband’s career. When Charles later shunned Catherine from their family home and forbid his children to contact her, Charles’ sister-in-law stayed in the family home. Catherine obviously had a vital role in the family and wrote her own cookbook, but apart from that I don’t think it would have been too much fun being a Victorian woman or married to Dickens. It was interesting to read which books Dickens was writing during which years and what he was experiencing on the home front. This book had foot-notes and references to back up Nayder’s findings – otherwise, I might not have believed some of the content!
Read my interview with Lillian Nayder here.
‘Carl Larsson; Watercolours and Drawings’ by Renate Puvogel (Taschen) As a child, my parents and also a dear family friend often gave me birthday cards with Larsson’s work on them. I used to pour over the images with their delicate sense of colour and line work; I loved those cards. Larsson (1853 – 1919) was a Swedish artist who drew and painted scenes mostly from his own domestic life. From absolute poverty, Larsson was a gifted painter and became a Swedish national figure. He married fellow artist, Karin, and they created a beautiful self-sufficient rural home, ‘Lilla Hyttnas’, in Sweden with their seven children. The home is a beautiful combination of thoughtfully designed built-in furniture, timber trims, paintings and Karin’s textiles. Larsson created family albums of his paintings with his wife and children around their home in traditional clothing. He later turned the albums into very popular books such as, ‘Our Home’, ‘At Home’ and ‘A Farm’. Filled with family photos, sketches and paintings this book celebrates happy family times and celebrations. I love the rusty reds, soft greens, ochres and creams that Larsson uses combined with a sense of peace, his delicate line work, detail and elegant lettering. ‘Lilla Hyttnas’ is open to the public – it looks so stunning and would be a great place to visit!
‘Frank Lloyd Wright; Architect, An Illustrated Biography’ by Alexander O. Boulton (Rizzoli) I first studied the very influential architect, Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), in high school and then at uni. FLW created what would be known as the Prairie Style; houses looking like they had grown out of the ground with horizontal lines and earth tones blending in with the surroundings. Embracing new technologies of steel and glass, he cantilevered construction which freed up interior spaces which then altered the way people could live; more of an open plan living concept. This book was a fascinating insight into his childhood, life and projects. As a child FLW played with the educational Froebel ‘Gifts’ (toys) which I am keen to source as a friend of mine is from the Froebel family. Moving to Chicago, FLW worked with the legendary architect Louis Sullivan and saw the growth of skyscrapers and, in turn, the creation of suburbs. He then married, had 6 children and built his own house. FLW built his home, Taliesin, and with a brilliant marketing ploy to help with costs, he created the Taliesin Fellowship where he accepted paying apprentices to reside and work with him. These apprentices laboured on buildings, worked in the fields and learnt architectural skills from the master himself. This book has a peppering of FLW’s designs and rendered watercolour drawings which are so beautiful in themselves and stand alone as works of art. A few years ago my family and I went to Chicago on a bit of an FLW architecture crawl. We had a fantastic tour of the Robie House and then did a hands-on LEGO workshop (marrying two of my interests; FLW and LEGO in one!) where we designed homes in FLW style and then made models of them in LEGO. What fun we had!
‘The Man Who Painted Roses; The Story of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’ by Antonia Ridge (Faber and Faber) I love Ridge’s style of writing; it is so graceful and respectful. Belgian born painter and botanist Redouté (1759 – 1840) moved to Paris where, through his painting and botanical work, he was introduced to the court of Versailles. He became an official court artist of his patron Marie Antoinette and he painted the Petite Trianon at Versailles for her. During the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, Redouté was appointed to document gardens which became national property. Later, with the patronage of Empress Josephine, Redouté’s career flourished; he became famous for the beautiful flowers he painted at Chateau de Malmaison (where her rose garden was legendary) for her and his sumptuous books depicting plants from distant countries such as Japan, South Africa, America and Australia as well as Europe. What interesting and turbulent times her lived in and would have been privy to. This book is a dip into French history and culture in Ridge’s personal and affable writing style. I loved reading her book ‘For Love of a Rose’ and will now try to source the other two books Ridge wrote, ‘Family Album’ and ‘Cousin Jan’.
‘Alexander Calder’ by Jacob Baal-Teshuva (Taschen) My dentist used to have a Calder mobile just in front of the dentist’s chair. It was a welcome source of distraction and wonder for me. With the window slightly open the wind would blow the fine shapes and create a myriad of different arrangements. Calder (1898 – 1976) was an American sculptor. Born in to a family of sculptors, he started out as a painter and then illustrator. His friendships with fellow artists Miró, who had a wonderfully whimsical style, and Mondrain, who enjoyed primary colours, black and white, both had a profound influence on Calder’s thoughts and style. During a visit to his studio, fellow artist Marcel Duchamp christened Calder’s moving motor or air driven constructions as ‘mobiles’ (the French word for movable). Calder’s wind-driven mobiles in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours made him world famous, but he also created large-scale metal sculptures. His red flannel shirt he habitually wore became legendary; contemporaries said that it was symbolic of his personal warmth. My favourite piece of Calder’s art would have to be his ‘Untitled (Peacock)’ mobile for its colours, lines and gentle movement. Superb!