Monday, March 23, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm still reading my Persephone from last week- Tea with Mr. Rochester is an off-center book of short stories set in England approximately during World War 2, about young women and love. The heroines are all slightly unconventional young women who are having trouble dealing with their family and/or their expectations.
I also started reading another Persephone, Marjory Fleming, by Oriel Malet. Marjory Fleming is the fictionalized biography of a real little girl who lived from 1803-1811. She was a poet and writer and died at the tender age of 8, but her writings were very popular during the Victorian period and the book is a bittersweet tale of a bright girl putting her feelers out into the world.

Finally, I started a new Europa book, The Frost on His Shoulders, by Lorenzo Mediano, about an ill-fated love affair in the Spanish Pyrenees. It's a short book and I expect to finish it in a day or two.

And you? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: NOT MY FATHER'S SON, by Alan Cumming

Not My Father's Son, by Alan Cumming. Published 2014 by Dey St./William Morrow. Memoir.

I don't read a ton of celebrity memoirs- usually I have to be a fan of the author, and even then let's just say I manage my expectations. I can't say I'm a particular fan of Alan Cumming (I did see "Circle of Friends" on a flight to Ireland in 1995) but the buzz on his book was just so intriguing that I had to check it out, and I'm so glad I did.

Cumming's book tells two stories. First, he tells us about his father, Alex, who was monstrously abusive, both emotionally and physically, towards Alan, his brother Tom and their mother Mary. Alex tormented his children even into adulthood, first by telling Alan that Alan was not his biological child and then by playing a cruel trick designed to come to light after his death. Cumming tells Alex's story in alternating chapters with the present-tense search for the truth about his maternal grandfather. Tom Darling was a World War 2 soldier with the Cameron Highlanders, a Scottish unit that served in Europe. He died under shaded circumstances in Malaysia; Cumming sets out to find out what happened to him, with the help of a British television show called "Who Do You Think You Are". This reality show helps celebrities find out things about their families and documents the search.

Cumming's writing is very good and I found the narrative compelling and emotionally affecting. I was sorry to see it end, and I really enjoyed following his journey to find out more about Darling- a journey with two endings, one bitter and one very, very sweet. The story of coming to terms with Alex Cumming's sad legacy is also very emotional, but I loved the way Cumming finds of turning his father's last betrayal into something beautiful for Mary Darling. He also turned out a beautiful book full of love and forgiveness and acceptance. In the end that's all we can ask. I would certainly recommend the book to memoir readers and to people who enjoy reading about families. Ultimately it's a very happy story.

P.S., if you're interested in the story of Tom Darling, you can find the entire episode of "Who Do You Think You Are" on YouTube.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Leabhair Eireannach For You

Ireland is known as the land of saints and scholars- and writers, too. If you're interested in Irish literature you don't have to stop at Yeats and Joyce. Here are some recent favorites of mine from the Emerald Isle.

The All of It, by Jeannette Haien, is a dark Irish family story about a dying woman with a secret, which she confesses to her priest on her deathbed. It's a short novel, enough to read over a cup of tea, and a particular favorite of author Ann Patchett.


 
Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden, is one of my favorite recent Irish novels, about
an average family just before the crash of 2008. It tells the story of troubles and triumphs, love and the passage of time. It's beautiful!

 



Arimathea, by Frank McGuinness, is a quiet novel about an Italian painter who comes to a small town in Donegal to decorate church just after World War 2. It was a bookseller favorite all around Ireland in 2013.
How the Irish Saved Civilization is Thomas Cahill's love letter to Ireland, about the little-understood role of the early Catholic Church in preserving classical literature. It's a wonderful, engaging and informative read.

The Rage, by Gene Kerrigan, is gritty and dark crime fiction set in Dublin, perfect for readers who like Tana French who want more Ireland. I love this guy's books. If you like Irish crime, also check out author Stuart Neville, whose books are set in and around Belfast. His The Ghosts of Belfast is a contemporary classic about the Troubles and the damage left in its wake.


Round Ireland with a Fridge is British comedian Tony Hawks's true, strange and irresistible tale of hitchhiking around Ireland...with a fridge. Reading this book is like being there. He does such a great job giving the reader the flavor and flow of this wonderful country.

These are just a few of my more recent favorite Irish reads. I hope you can find something to enjoy this St. Patrick's Day, or any time you want a taste of one of the best countries in the world!

Monday, March 16, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, last week did not turn out as expected! Literally on my way out the door to a sewing class, I tripped and fractured a toe, so I spent most of the week with my foot on an orthopedic pillow. Now, you'd think that that would mean I'd do a ton of reading. But I did not. I did watch a ton of television, especially since the news came down that some of my favorite shows are leaving Netflix in March.

On the reading front, I decided to abandon the books I was reading, because if being laid up was not motivating me to read them, nothing would. So, so long to The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Lunatic, at least for now. They'll be there if I want them later.

I decided to treat myself to a Persephone book instead. A few months ago my husband and I were spending a weekend in the Berkshires and I stumbled on a cache of used Persephones at a little used bookstore nestled in the woods. Tea with Mr. Rochester is a collection of mildly-mannered, slightly off-center short stories set in WW2-era England, about young girls and love and such. I'm enjoying it a lot. It's a nice change from the things I've been reading for the past little while.

Persephone books come with very simple gray covers, but they also come with beautiful, individual and unique endpapers. The picture above is from the end papers of Tea with Mr. Rochester. If you go to the shop in London you can buy extra sheets of many of the endpapers to take home.

Here's a display from the Persephone bookshop in London showing some of the papers. So pretty! This picture just puts me in the mood for spring, something we East Coasters sorely need right now!

What are you reading this week? Have a great week. See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Crafturday- Bamboo Handled Purse


A long time ago I bought a bamboo purse handle and a pattern to make a bag with it, but this was before I was into bag-making and I was put off making it by all the interfacings I would have had to buy to complete the project. But nowadays I buy interfacing by the bolt, and there's no problem with having special bagmaking supplies. So I decided to try the pattern, and this is how it came out!

The fabric was a gift from a bookstore friend and I fussy-cut it to center the floral motif on the front of the bag. There is something similar on the other side. The lining is a pink batik Hawaiian fabric.

I'm more of a shoulder-bag lady than a handbag lady per se, so this isn't a bag I'm really going to use, but it was fun to make and I'd love to make more for gifts and such. It came together in just a couple of hours. The most challenging aspect for me was the flat bottom, but I got the hang of it in no time- flat!

The next time I make it, I will add a couple of extra features- purse feet and an interior zippered pocket. Can't wait!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

R.I.P. Terry Pratchett: A Reading List

Today we lost one of the greats of contemporary literature; Sir Terry Pratchett has died at the age of 66. I have only read one of his books, but I know the mark he's made on the literary landscape will never be erased. Here are some books, some of his and some of his admirers' and some others that you might like if you want to dip your toe into his world.

Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett.  This book appears somewhere in the middle of Pratchett's Discworld story and it's both a perennial favorite and a great entry point. Or you could just start at the beginning with The Colour of Magic. Up to you, really.

Ragnarok, by AS Byatt. Byatt is a fan of Pratchett's work and wrote the foreword to Pratchett's A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction. This book is a retelling of the Norse myth.

In Other Worlds: SF And the Human Imagination, by Margaret Atwood. In this collection of essays, Atwood, herself a Pratchett admirer (and Hugo-winning author), examines fantasy and speculative fiction in literature.
Good Omens, by Pratchett an Neil Gaiman. This comic novel, a retelling of the The Omen (yes, that one) is a great collaboration between two giants of the fantasy genre, and two good friends.

The Islanders, by Christopher Priest.  A dark, twisty, Nabokovian tale of obsession, murder and love masquerading as a gazetteer of an otherworldly island archipelago, this book takes fantasy to a whole new level. Priest wrote Pratchett's obituary for The Guardian.

A comic fantasy that Pratchett might have enjoyed, Rebecca Miller's 2013 novel Jacob's Folly tells the story of a dead Frenchman returned to modern-day New York as a literal fly on the wall to two confused New Yorkers.
 Railsea. China Mieville retells Moby-Dick in this fun, imaginative book aimed at teens.

The Eyre Affair. Jasper Fforde's comic-fantasy-detective take on Jane Eyre (and its several sequels) will appeal to fantasy and literary readers alike.


The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia, blends fantasy and folklore in a touching tale of a young woman searching for her missing sister among the mythology of Russia.

Isabel Greenberg's 2013 graphic novel The Encyclopedia of Early Earth weaves a beautiful tapestry of words and pictures over a mythic-cycle story of the beginning of time, how one man finds his true love, the love of mothers for a child, and more.

Any of these books would make a fine introduction or next step to the world of fantasy for the reader new to fantasy who'd like to get know Pratchett's work and that of his peers in the SFF world.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mr. Selfridge is Coming Back to PBS: A Reading List

I'm so excited that "Mr. Selfridge" is coming back to PBS for Season Three on March 29. It's such a fun show about love, shopping and society. Based on the story behind a real London department store (although heavily fictionalized) "Mr. Selfridge" is a sugary confection and always a treat to watch. Love "Mr. Selfridge"? Here are some suggested reads, fiction and non-, about living, working and shopping (of course).

Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, by Lindy Woodhead. This is nonfiction about the real Henry Selfridge and what made him and his store tick.

Why We Buy, by Paco Underhill. A fascinating study of the psychology of shopping that's great for the average reader or the professional looking to learn the basics.

The Paradise, by Emile Zola. Zola's 19th century novel was itself the basis for another PBS series about the rise of the department store.

Seven Sisters Style, by Rebecca C. Tuite. The styles we covet by designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have their origins in the casualwear of the East Coast college campus of the mid 20th century; this book tells us how the women (and men) of that time and place influenced the fashions we still wear today. 

Parisian Chic, by Ines de la Fressange. French model and current-day Uniqlo designer Ines de la Fressange offers specific and easy to follow shopping tips and advice to put together a simple but classic wardrobe (spoiler alert: wear a lot of navy).

Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella. The first in the bestselling series of chick-lit novels will definitely put you in the mood for the mall.

Margherita Dolce Vita, by Stefano Benni. For another point of view, read this anti-consumerist Italian novel about a young girl whose new neighbors are obsessed with having every latest trend. Something different!

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, by Zac Bissonnette. Business writer Bissonnette tells the story of the rise and fall of everyone's favorite plush cuties- why we loved them, and why we stopped. It's a great take on a 90s shopping craze.

Sima's Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross. This novel tells the story of a neighborhood lingerie shop in an Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood and how it fits into the community.

Shopgirl, by Steve Martin. I love this novel about a young woman finding her way in the world working in the glove department of an upscale department store. It's a quiet and beautiful novel.

Monday, March 9, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished My Berlin Child, a novel based on the real-life experiences of the author's mother, who was herself the daughter of French author François Mauriac. Claire leaves her privileged background for work as an ambulance driver in France and Germany during and just after World War 2; she breaks up with her fiancé and falls in love with a Russian emigre. It's a good book, and I'd recommend it for memoir readers even though it's (nominally) fiction.

This week I'm continuing with The French Lieutenant's Woman and I started The Lunatic, by Anthony C. Winkler. I picked this up at a library conference literally years ago and it's finally made its way into my hands to actually read. It's set in Jamaica, about a mentally-disturbed man who falls in love with a German tourist, and the shenanigans they get up to. It's colorful and ribald and fun, and I can't wait to have an excuse to sit down with it again.

That's what I'm reading this week. What about you? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com and have a great week!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Boston Bibliophile Interviews Zac Bissonnette, Author of THE GREAT BEANIE BABY BUBBLE


  1.  What inspired you to tackle Beanie Babies and Ty? What was it about these adorable little plushes you just couldn’t resist?

I was in elementary and middle school when they were popular. I only had a couple but my mother and I were big into antiques and flea markets and, overnight, it went from no one knowing what Beanie Babies were to Dick & Ellie’s, a popular Cape Cod flea market at the time, being like 20% Beanie Baby dealers. I have these really vivid memories of these Beanie dealers just being really busy and really excited—talking about how much their inventory was going up in value. We were both totally perplexed by it.

And then, all of a sudden, it was gone. No one talked about Beanie Babies anymore. I hadn’t thought about them in forever until I was in college and saw, at a little country auction house in Amherst, MA, several big Rubbermaid containers full of Beanie Babies—perfectly preserved and almost perfectly worthless. I Googled them when I got home and realized how big they’d been—10% of eBay’s sales at one time—and that the guy who’d created them had become a billionaire, and the richest man in the history of toys. The story of how this thing had gone from a $5 stuffed animal with no advertising produced by a small company into this speculative craze that really did take over the lives of a lot of people was really intriguing to me.

  1. In the course of doing research for the book, what did you learn that surprised you? What challenges did you face writing the book?  

So when I started making very preliminary calls to see whether it might be a topic worth further exploration, the first thing that struck me was the sort of strength of emotion people felt about the toys and also about Ty Warner. I’ve never reported on anyone who stirred such universally strong feelings in people. One of the first people I reached out to was someone who used to work at the company. I messaged her on Facebook and she said to call. I called and her husband picked up the phone and the first thing he told me was, “Ty Warner ruined out life.”

The biggest challenge was that Ty declined to talk to me for the book—which was sad, in a way, but I think it also forced me to really leave no stone unturned in my search for the story. I also think that—and Malcom Gladwell wrote a spectacular essay on this—access in terms of telling someone’s story tends to be overrated. If you wanted to know the truth about who I am and what I’m like, spending a day with me and asking lots of questions would probably be one of the worst approaches to that. Not that I have anything spectacular to hide or anything, it’s just that I would, as anyone would, tend to show you a side that would be different from what other people see when I’m not being shadowed by a reporter with a digital recorder.

If you really want to know about someone, I think talking to as many people as you can who’ve known and liked/not liked that person at every stage of their life is a better approach. That’s how I pieced together the story of Ty’s life and career.

  1. You cover some pretty extreme manifestations of the Beanie Baby craze- including a murder, debt, and more. How was the craze a manifestation of American culture in the 1990s? 

It’s a fantastic question. I think much of what drove the craze was more universal than American: our willingness to suspend disbelief and engage in magical thinking, the allure of the get rich quick scheme, and our overreliance on past performance as a predictor of future outcomes are things that have shown up in every culture since as long as there’s been recorded history.

But the Beanie Baby craze really did rise in a special era of unreality in America: the internet bubble. In terms of how that ethos found a manifestation in a plush toy, a lot of that ties in with the unique way in which the mother-daughter relationship of the 1990s tended to be centered around materialism in a way that it hadn’t been before. That bond wasn’t about religion or sewing or cooking the way that it had been in previous generations; it really was, more than at any time in history, a relationship defined by shopping and spending and brands. And that’s a big part of how these animals that started out as a popular kids’ toy became this obsession of adults.

  1. Do you own any Beanie Babies yourself? Do you have a favorite? 

Haha. I think it’s impossible to spend a lot of time researching and reporting on other people’s obsession without that obsession rubbing off on you. It’s not something I wrote about in the book at all because others have explored that way better than I ever could—go order Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin right now!—but yes: I did, for “research purposes,” buy many, many Ty animals, including Beanie Babies. I still can’t walk by a display of plush toys without stopping to examine them. I also buy them as gifts for people who probably don’t want them but at the same time, they need to stop worrying and learn to love them.

My favorite Beanie Baby is definitely Kaleidoscope—a spectacularly designed cat who came out after the craze had ended. I think my all-time favorite Ty piece though, would have to be Sugar, who is a Ty Classic cat. The cats are my favorite Ty animals because, as you’ll see in the book, they’re what started the company and they’re at the center of some of my favorite stories in the book. I also like Whisper the Deer, Seaweed the Otter, and, among the new Beanie Boos line, I think Rocco the Raccoon is pretty perfect. Have you blocked my email address yet?

  1. So much of the book is about Ty Warner and the way the personal and the corporate intermingle.  What can someone developing a brand learn from his example- good or bad?
 I think the thing that struck me about Ty was how his obsession with the product transcended the business element of it; it wasn’t just about trying to create a toy that would sell. It was this quest to create the most perfect plush animals. Even his competitors would always give him credit for that: He has an incredible eye and he doesn’t stop until a piece is perfect.

Ty really built that company on his own perfectionism, love of the product, force of personality, and intuitive grasp of consumer psychology. He did it all without consultants or focus groups, and he had no education beyond a year of college (studying drama).
  1. You talk about how fan culture- the magazines and books devoted to Beanie Babies- helped grow the market for them as collectibles, then Ty tried to use scarcity to manipulate the secondary market and grow retail sales, successfully for a while. Is there a Beanie Baby fan culture now that the collectible market has all but dried up? Have we all moved on, or are there still hard-core Beanie collectors out there?

One of my favorite things about the internet is that, it seems, nothing ever really moves on completely. At the risk of outing myself as a total weirdo, I need to disclose here that I am an obsessive Perry Como fan and collector; I buy something Perry Como related at least once a month, and I know probably all the other diehard Perry Como fans just from being on the internet. Weird obsessions and interests in esoterica are, I think, really encouraged by the internet where you can find a community for almost anything, which provides the social element that keeps hobbies alive long after what would otherwise be their expiration date.
So the craze for Beanie Babies is entirely over, 99%+ are worth much less than the $5 price they retailed for in the 1990s, but there is still a world of enthusiasts living on. Leon and Sondra Schlossberg have a wonderful site called TyCollector.com, and there’s also BeanieSource.com, which has great updates on new releases from Ty. And, as a kid’s toy, Ty’s line of plush animals remains the most popular in the world—which they deserve to be because, in terms of value, they really are the best. 

Thank you so much, Zac! This is one the funnest interviews I've done and I really appreciate your time!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: THE GREAT BEANIE BABY BUBBLE, by Zac Bissonnette

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, by Zac Bissonnette. Published 2015 by Portfolio/Penguin. Nonfiction. Business.

Did you ever collect Beanie Babies? I did; when I was in my 20s and worked in an office, the ladies and I would wait for each Tuesday and the latest shipment to the local Hallmark store, and take turns running in to get our latest cutie pies. I never really went nuts with it- no Ebaying or buying on the secondary market, and I only really collected the kittens- but for a while it was fun and for $5.00 a cheap retail high that made me smile. And I think that in the mid-90s a lot of people enjoyed it on that laid-back level too, but as business writer Zac Bissonnette shows in his new book, a lot of people took it a lot farther than that.

Bissonnette documents the 90s craze from its first furry inception in the mind of Ty Warner, then an up-and-coming toy baron, to its height of insanity when people paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a particularly coveted plush, went into debt, made money, lost money, hoarded, stockpiled, even killed over the palm-sized pal. The story here is twofold. First, it's the story of a classic bubble, when a collectible reaches an astronomical height only to come crashing down when market conditions and the economy change.

Second, and no less important, it's the story of Ty Warner and his company, his cult of personality and his personal relationships, all of which were so enmeshed with the fate of the Beanies. Bissonnette portrays Warner as brilliant, vain, controlling, tireless and tenacious. Bissonnette recounts Warner's dysfunctional upbringing, his early career and then his rise to the top of the toy industry- and his fall, and rebirth as a real estate baron. He tells us about the thorny relationship between Ty (the company) and the Beanie Baby collectors and fans, the effect of the secondary market on retail and how Warner tried to manipulate the former to benefit the latter,  as well as Warner's often less-than-magnanimous treatment of employees, and Warner's tangled and sad romantic relationships. Bissonnette portrays a man gifted at attracting admiration and even devotion but poor at returning them.

Written in a breezy, gossipy style inviting quick reading, The Great Beanie Baby Bubble is very compelling if you're at all interested in Beanie Babies, collecting or business. I can't tell you the number of times I put the book down for a minute so I could read a passage out loud to my husband, or how often I laughed, or was appalled, or sad, or just fascinated. Warner's story elicits all those emotions and more. Bissonnette explains what he believes caused the rise and fall of the collectible craze and it makes a lot of sense; the business content is accessible but it's the story of the people that will keep you reading.

It was fun while it lasted, but I haven't picked up my Beanies in ages and when I moved I couldn't give the darn things away. Literally no one bought them at my yard sale and I had to convince my favorite nonprofit charity shop to accept several dozen. I even got rid of some of my beloved kittens. All good things must come to an end, and Bissonnette provides an enlightening and very engaging narrative of just how the Beanies came and went, and where they, and Ty, and Warner, are headed now.

Come back on Thursday when I'll have an interview with Zac Bissonnette.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.