Archive for the 'Nonfiction' Category

Christine’s Review: Confessions of a Casting Director by Jen Rudin

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

ConfessionsOfACastingDirector-pb-c-600wideDue to my background in Equity-eligible shows and a little movie work, I was keen to learn about auditioning from a casting director’s point of view. So often, performers are left in the dark about those tips for success that go beyond mere etiquette. Could Jen Rudin provide the resources to ace your next audition?  As a former casting director for Disney, Ms. Rudin does not disappoint.  Her sense of mentorship is displayed through an invitation to share her life on both sides of the casting table.  To supplement her experiences, working actors provide testimonials and anecdotes throughout the book.

Confessions of a Casting Director: Help Actors Land Any Role with Secrets from Inside the Audition Room is information dense, but easy to read.  The book is an excellent primer or refresher for anyone wanting to get into the business.  Essential information on auditions and etiquette are helpful enough that even a veteran performer could obtain a few new tips.  Rudin’s commentary spans Broadway to film, pilot season to voice-overs.  Notably, there’s also an entire chapter on how to be a good stage mother. Rudin’s advice doesn’t stop with getting your foot in the door. She provides information on living conditions to look for in New York and LA along with having good work habits on the job. Bonus materials throughout include a section on headshots and resumes, “Dos and Don’ts” by industry, and useful websites.  Web resources are also correlated in a separate appendix.

The one problem I had with the text was that the anecdotes often seemed to turn into testimonials for Rudin.  I felt like this interfered with her warm, honest tone and hinted at shilling.  I would love to see a portion of them added to her casting website to enjoy in an appropriate context.

Overall, Confessions of a Casting Director would be an excellent choice for any actor’s library.  With paper and eBook versions available, you can review Rudin’s recommendations from your phone while waiting for your audition slot.  Her advice also applies to vocalists, Broadway babies, and classical singers.  If you want a glimpse into the real world of movies and TV, this is a superb starting point.

My copy of Confessions of a Casting Director was an advanced reader copy, provided free of charge.

 

~Christine Linial (from Austinista.net)

Christine’s Review: Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History without the Fairy-Tale Endings. by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

princess_final_300While the Kindle version is half the cover price, Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings is a hard-backed treasure you’ll want on your shelves for inspiration over the years to come.  Douglas Smith’s woodcut designs grace the header for each narrative, which ties the stories together.  McRobbie’s goal for this book is to make these “princesses” into people, so that they come alive on the page. I would say she has succeeded.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explores the lives of women whose stories illustrate strong warrior, usurper, and survivor archetypes.  She saves room for the more notorious as well, including chapters on partiers and floozies.  Even Clara Ward’s sitting for Toulouse-Lautrec  along with her homely violinist husband, Rigo, is included. There’s a princess story in here for everyone’s taste.  These aren’t your grandmother’s versions of fairy tales. McRobbie takes a feminist perspective that is present from cover to cover. In her introduction, she takes on the Disney princesses. She wanted to provide in-depth role models for young girls.  Like all powerful women, princesses are a prime target for male subjugation.  McRobbie reminds the reader of the determination it takes to overcome the supposed limits of their gender.

The author also has a charming writing style.  One of my favorite quotes was about Pauline Bonaparte’s second husband-to-be, Prince Camillo Borghese, “The prince in question was handsome, rich, and well connected.  He was also as dumb as mittens on a cat.”. While the adventures of these women are fascinating, sometimes you feel like you’re reading more about Paris Hilton than Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.  According to this book, Pauline slept her way through any available men she could entrap, while Caroline of Brunswick Wolfenbüttel was known for low-cut dresses that showed her nipples.

The text is not sexually explicit, but there are discussions about both sexual frigidity and exploits of these princesses.   The book makes excellent bedtime reading, but I would not recommend it for children.  High-school aged young women and beyond will get a kick out of these enlightening tales.

This book would make the perfect gift for the grown-up princess or history lover on your holiday gift list. My copy of Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings is an advance reader copy, provided free of charge.

~Christine Linial (from Austinista.net )

Lisa’s Review: Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp by Ann Kirschner

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Did you know that the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was really fought over a woman? That’s not entirely true, but it’s a big part of the story and one that I had never heard before. In Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp, Ann Kirschner tells a story of the Wild Wild West that was completely new to me. This is the story of the woman who hitched her wagon to one of the West’s most famous characters — and it’s not at all what I expected.

“Did you know Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery?”

I didn’t know that, and I completely understand why that tidbit drew Ann Kirschner into a place she called “Planet Earp” – the story of Wyatt Earp and his wife, Josephine Marcus Earp. Josephine was a Jewish girl from San Francisco who longed for adventure. Her sisters led pretty traditional lives – marrying and having children, remaining in the Jewish community – but Josephine ran away from home at 18 and traveled to Arizona looking for fame and fortune in the theater. By all accounts, she was a lovely young woman (the author compares her to a young Penelope Cruz), and she certainly got the attention of the men in Tombstone. For a time she lived with Johnny Behan, sheriff of Tombstone, and he introduced her as his wife. She shared his home and cared for his young son, but he never delivered on his promise of marriage. Her resentment of Johnny may have pushed her right into the arms of his biggest rival, Wyatt Earp.

One of the things I found interesting about Lady at the O.K. Corral is the view it presented of the Wild West. That’s a time I always think of as pretty puritanical; sure, there were prostitutes in the western boomtowns, but I expected more proper behavior from average citizens. Josephine lived with two men, without marriage, and while there were some social consequences those were due more to her husband’s involvement in saloons and liquor and prostitution than her lack of a wedding ring. Josephine left home at 18, lived to be 84 years old and in that time she never had a permanent address! She lived with Wyatt Earp for 47 years, traveling all over the West, up to Alaska, through the deserts of Arizona and down to Mexico. They ran saloons, sold liquor, drilled oil wells and panned for gold.  I particularly loved the stories of Wyatt and Josephine’s time in Alaska, when Nome was nothing but a stretch of beach and gold fever swept over the country. It was a thrilling time in our history and I have never seen the story told from that perspective, of a woman in the midst of it all, moved along by the tides of people and events, and thriving.

“The beach was barely visible beneath thousands of tents that almost touched each other, leaving the narrowest of passageways between them. Small mountains of worldly goods broke the line of tents, each pile challenging its owner to carry it away faster than a thief or a storm. Hundreds of dogs raced furiously about. Baggage and freight were piled high on the beach for a distance of several miles: a jumble of pianos, coal, narrow-gauge railway tracks, lumber, tents, stacks of hay, bar fixtures, washtubs, roulette wheels, stoves, liquor, sewing machines, and mining apparatus.”

Although their relationship seems to have been a very happy one, she was always haunted by her secrets and her status – no marriage (although they often lied about it, claiming to have been married on a friend’s yacht), and with the fear that people would find out about Wyatt’s first wife. In her later years, Josephine was a difficult woman; she was ferocious when it came to protecting Wyatt’s legend and reputation, and that made her more than a few enemies. She never inspired the love and affection that her famous husband did and Kirschner did a good job of bringing her to life for the reader. It’s hard to imagine a man and woman going from Wild West gunfights to working on Hollywood movie sets, but here it ties together easily, and I found myself feeling a lot of sympathy for Josephine in her decline.

Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earpis a great book for those interested in the true story of our Wild Wild West. Most of those stories are told about the men of the West, but they weren’t living out there alone; I found the story a fresh angle on a well-known story.  My copy of Lady at the O.K. Corralwas an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

One final note: I went looking for photos of Josephine and I came across this picture (linked because it’s a bit racy). Not what I expected to see (and a bit more than I expected to see!), and there is an interesting story behind it. Check out the story here.

Lisa’s Review: Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

This is a book that delivered exactly what I was hoping for! Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household is full of details about living at the palace with the Queen, her husband and children. I really learned a lot about life in the royal household – the sort of interesting little details that aren’t salacious enough for the Daily Mail.

Did you know that a Queen’s “ladies in waiting” were actually noblewomen, paid to hang out at the palace and be the Queen’s BFFs? I had always assumed that the ladies in waiting were servants, and in a way I suppose they were, but they were minor noblewomen who received a salary and worked on a rotating basis. They generally lived at the palace for a month at a time, joining the Queen for rides in the country, visits to other nobles, playing cards and attending concerts. This was not always as exciting as it sounds:

“There were visits to the theater too, by no means an unmixed pleasure for the lady-in-waiting, who had to juggle Her Majesty’s many different wraps, her bouquet and bag and opera glasses, without being provided with the comfort of a seat. In June 1850, Charlotte [Canning] stood for four and a half hours behind the Queen’s chair at a command performance of As You Like It…

I really had no idea that the Queen had so much control over the lives of her court! She controlled when are where they ate dinner – right down to their seat at the table. She controlled whether they could take a walk, whether they could visit with their families, what colors the ladies were allowed to wear, even whether or not they could have a fire in their rooms. I am a freeze-baby; when everyone else is comfortable, I am chilly. I’ve gotten used to it and I dress accordingly — but what would it be like if you weren’t allowed to dress for your temperature?

The Queen firmly believed in the benefits of bracing temperatures, and in her palaces thermometers, set into ivory obelisks, sat on every mantelpiece to ensure the rooms remained healthily cool…After dinner, in the drawing room, jauntily upholstered in canary yellow and frequently no more than 40° Fahrenheit, the shoulders of the ladies turned quite blue.”

Can you imagine? Honestly, I shiver just thinking about it.

I’m not certain that it was intentional, but I definitely came away with a feeling that the Queen did not really connect with the people around her; that while she professed great love for them, she was completely insensitive to their basic comfort and happiness. Randall Davidson, Dean of Windsor late in the Queen’s life, said that she was “in many respects like a spoiled child, a nice child, but one who had not been properly handled or subjected to restraint and there is a good deal more difficulty in dealing with a spoilt child at the age of 60 or 70 than with a spoilt child of 6 or 7.” That was my impression in a nutshell, and while others talked about her “sound judgment,” I didn’t feel it in the text. She was not above using her influence to keep treasured courtiers from retiring, even when their health should have won them some respite, and separations from loved ones for months on end were a matter of course.

I did expect her to be more involved in the running of the country, but she seemed to prefer micro-managing the lives of her household – decreeing which windows could be opened and which must remain shut, who was allowed to ride which pony and the order in which her court could proceed into the dining room – all the while refusing to open Parliament or make public appearances because of her shattered nerves. Whether or not that is a fair impression, I really can’t say. I don’t have any innate respect for royalty that inclines me to give her the benefit of the doubt.

At the same time, she was prone to giggles, clearly had a crush on one of her Highland servants late in life, and played badminton in the hallways of the palace. That makes it difficult to be terribly hard on her.

The book occasionally gets bogged down in politics and the history and lineage of the court members. That’s not something that was of particular interest to me, although other readers might find it enlightening. I was really interested in all the little details of palace life – the huge entourages for trips abroad, the detailed arrangements for a simple dinner, the backstairs gossip and the infighting among the members of the court. Serving Victoria delivers plenty of that. I loved the way you not only got a feel for the character of Queen Victoria, but also for the personalities of her servants, through their letters and journals. They spoke their minds, at least in private, and that goes a long way toward giving us a true picture of the monarch.

This is a real gem for those who have an interest in the behind-the-scenes life of the royals. My copy of Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.
 

Guest Post: Ron Chepesiuk, author of Black Caesar: The Rise and Disappearance of Frank Matthews, Kingpin

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Hey, it’s Friday and I am letting authors do the work today! I’ve got a great guest post from Ron Chepesiuk, author of Black Caesar: The Rise and Disappearance of Frank Matthews, Kingpin. I asked about what it was like to research a book like this – digging up old stories, talking to reluctant witnesses – and here’s what Ron had to say…

 

Researching Black Caesar

By Ron Chepesiuk

My first encounter with the urban legend, Frank Matthews, came in 2006 while I was researching my book, Gangsters of Harlem, and looking for kingpins to profile. It did not take me long to decide to include a chapter about Frank Matthews.

Matthews had operated out of Brooklyn but spent much time in Harlem, and the narcotics he peddled had a devastating impact on the neighborhood. In 1973, Frank Matthews jumped bail with $15-20 million and a beautiful woman named Cheryl Denise Brown and has never been seen again.

I knew the story was the biggest mystery in organized crime. Indeed, the more I researched the Matthews story, the more intrigued I became with him. He was certainly bigger than life—a country kid still in his teens who headed to the big city in search of fame and fortune and overcame many obstacles before becoming history’s first African-American drug kingpin. Matthews dominated the New York drug before other big name kingpins Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas made their impact. His reputation as a gangster soared to such a level that people called—or hailed— him “Black Caesar.”

In researching a true crime story, the most importance source a writer can use is the court records. Matthews had fled but his crew was indicted two years later and a big trial ensued. Forty witnesses testified providing great material for the story. But when I checked with the National Archives, it could not find the records. The Archives did a thorough search, but never find the records. I had one hand behind my back, so to speak, as I began researching the book.

Over the next six years, as I looked for leads, documents and photos that could help flesh out Matthews’ remarkable story, I became, like everyone who delved into his life, obsessed. I thought surely there must be at least a few clues to tell us what happened to Black Caesar. Surely someone snitched for the reward and gave the authorities a credible lead on where he might be hiding. Surely, somebody must have bragged to authorities about having inside knowledge of Matthews’ fate. Yes, it was difficult to follow the money trail in the 1970s, but surely the authorities must have a lead to some of the $15-20 million Black Caesar was believed to have stashed away before jumping bond. Surely a young woman like Cheryl Denise Brown, the women Matthews ostensibly fled with, must have gotten a little homesick and tried to reach out to her family and friends. Surely,at least one time. And surely Matthews’ fingerprints, which are on file, must have shown up someplace, somewhere, sometime.

In researching the Matthews story, I got a good idea of the problems, frustrations and challenges that the DEA and USMS officials faced. Several sources I contacted thought, for whatever reason, that I was trying to find Matthews. I would explain I was merely documenting the Matthews story for the historical record while time allowed me to get access to the information, but many sources did not Some sources did have a good reason not talk to me. One source, for instance, had been a snitch and most likely he wants to forget about the past. When I approached his house to talk to him, he was on a walker and did not look particularly healthy. As he left the house and leaned on his walker, he kept repeating the mantra, “Dead man walking, dead man walking.” I don’t know if he was referring to me, the author, or to himself, the snitch.

Another potential source whom I approached through an intermediary and who reportedly had close ties to Matthews, refused to talk to me at first. Then a couple of weeks later, the intermediary told me the man was willing to talk now. I asked the intermediary why he had changed his mind. He explained that the man had received a phone call from Frank Matthews, who was supposedly calling from Chicago. The man told Black Caesar that a reporter (me) was snooping around and wanting to ask questions about him, but that he had told the reporter through an intermediary he didn’t want to talk to According to the intermediary, Mathews told the man, “You should talk to him. It’s about time my story was told.” Matthews must have changed his mind because the man who claimed to be in contact with Matthews never did talk to me. During my research, I heard my share of strange tales about Matthews’ appearances in Durham. One is the famous story about how, a few years ago, he appeared at a funeral dressed as a woman. Some local sources said that would be just like Pee Wee, the prankster, to dress like a woman and sneak into town. Other sources said, “Nah, Pee Wee was too macho to dress up as a woman, even for a joke.”

Two sources from Durham, North Carolina, Matthews’ hometown, even assured me that Matthews had had a sex change. A couple of homeboys claimed to have drunk booze and partied with Pee Wee at some of the liquor houses that still populate Durham, although how he could do something like that without it becoming common knowledge in a small town was never explained. And as one Durham source scoffed: “These dudes who claim to be with him weren’t close to Pee Wee. You never hear his home boys claiming to be in contact with him.”

When I finished the book I had to draw the sobering conclusion that no one really knows what has happened to Matthews. My guess is we will never know. With each passing year, it becomes less and less likely that any evidence will surface that tells for certain what happened to Frank Larry Matthews. The only sure thing we can count on is that the remarkable urban legend of Black Caesar will continue to grow and that we will not see a kingpin like him again.

————————————————————————————–

And there you have it! I love reading about how authors do their work, and this must have been a really fascinating case to research. A special thank you to Ron and the folks at Partners in Crime book tours for bringing this to us!

Review: The Best of Punk Magazine by John Holmstrom and Bridget Hurd

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Music history fans are gonna love this!

I admit that, small town girl that I am, I wasn’t  a big punk rock fan as a teenager. Many years later, I have more of an appreciation for it, although it will never be first on my playlist. But PUNK magazine was cool. It was something between a comic book and a music magazine, hand-lettered and full of great comic illustrations. It wasn’t a slick, commercial magazine, it was more like a fanzine – put together by people who loved and lived the music. Now, founder John Holmstrom has put together the story of the iconic magazine and the crazy scene that surrounded it in The Best of Punk Magazine.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about PUNK Magazine, but to me two stand out. One is that we invented the term punk rock. The other is that the magazine was started by three childhood friends from Connecticut who moved to the city to start a magazine together — so we could get free drinks, some people say.”

 

PUNK was started by three friends: our author, John Holmstrom; Ged Dunn, Jr.; and Eddie “Legs” McNeil. The story of how these guys managed to put together a
magazine makes for fun reading, and you pick up 
some interesting facts along the way. (The hand-lettering that I always thought was so cool? It wasn’t an artistic decision, but a financial one. They couldn’t afford typesetting. Remember, back in the olden days, there were no computers and desktop publishing programs to do all that.) Still, the best thing about the book is a chance to look over the illustrations, the pages from old PUNK issues. Holmstrom’s stories about each issue, the punk rock scene in New York City in the late ’70′s, and the people – both fans and stars – that populated the scene make for a really fun read.

I have to admit, the idea of a punk rock coffee table book seems…odd to me, but I really had fun scouring these pages, reading the trivia and laughing at the great photos.

My copy of The Best of Punk Magazine was a review copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Taste of Tomorrow by Josh Schonwald

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

I am admitting defeat.

I have tried at least 4 times to get through The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food by Josh Schonwald. In theory, it’s the sort of book I should love. I am interesting in food and gardening and how the growing population of the planet will be fed over the coming years. I am also an unashamed foodie — I buy organic vegetables, free range meat and avoid farm-raised fish. I am intrigued by new cooking techniques. I figured this book would be a very fast read for me.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. The information is good — Schonwald interviews scientists, farmers, and various types of food engineers. He traveled, visiting farms and factories and fisheries. He knows his stuff, but he can’t seem to make it interesting. He just could not keep me reading.

I thought maybe the problem was starting with “The Bagged Salad Revolution.” I mean, I love a good salad, and I love finding new and interesting greens at the farmer’s market, but I don’t find the history of radicchio in the United States all that interesting. Much of what these chapters said seemed basic to me: you’ve got people who want to buy salad in a plastic bag that will stay fresh in their refrigerator for a month, and you’ve got people who want to buy fresh greens every weekend at the farm stand and would rather eat weeds than iceberg lettuce. No real drama there.

The problem was the same in each chapter I tried. We’ve all known professors like Josh, the ones who clearly know their stuff, but can’t seem to get you engaged in their lectures. This felt more like a lecture and less like an interesting narrative. I’m sorry that I can’t say anything more positive. I was really hoping to love this book.

My copy of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This – Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know by Kate White

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Sometimes, a book comes along for review at just the right time. I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know by Kate White comes along just as I am doing going through a bit of personal career evaluation, so there are definitely tips and tricks in this book I can use.

I like the structure of the book. It’s broken down in three chunks related to success: how to get it, how to go big with it, and how to savor it. Each chapter has bullet points, breaking down key concepts. Makes it a very fast read and easy to remember the most important bits of information, and there are plenty of important bits. As I’m considering what’s next for me in my career, contemplating job hunting for the first time in a decade or making a big change within my company, it’s helpful to think back and look at what I can do differently this time around.

Author Kate White is a magazine editor. She’s also an author (of course), a mom and an accomplished career woman. But Cosmopolitan magazine has different requirements than most of us do in our jobs. For most of the companies where I might interview with, a designer handbag isn’t going to make the interview go more smoothly (especially since White’s definition of “designer” is somewhat north of my classic Coach and Kate Spade bags). But her dress-for-success tips are still handy. I can see mistakes I’ve made in the past in “9 Things You Should Never Do in a New Job” that I won’t make next time around. And although a lot of her suggestions revolve around the sort of corporate environment she’s used to (lots of meetings, very project-oriented) they are good general guidelines that can be applied almost anywhere.

“Know What They Know About You” should be required reading for all job-hunters. I make a real effort to keep my LinkedIn page up to date, to make sure this website (which is not a paid site but still represents me out in the world) is timely and professional. I do not have a Facebook account (second-to-last person on the planet, I know), in part because I don’t like mixing personal and professional. Take down the ski bunny pics, the “Best Songs for When You’re Stoned” playlist, and be cautious with the political links on your site. Think of everything you post from an employer’s POV, at least at the height of your job hunt.

The final section, on savoring your success, is also really important. Lots of women could use some advice on how to enjoy their success once they have it. How do you handle the craziness that comes with landing the big job? What happens when your dream job makes you miserable? How do you drain the swamp when you’re busy slaying alligators?

That last question really made me think about my job. Basically, the idea is that if you set out to drain the swamp, you may have to slay a few alligators…but don’t get so caught up in slaying alligators that you forget why you waded in in the first place. While you are fielding calls and handling projects, don’t forget the big picture, the thing that you are really working towards. Do not let your big goals slip through the cracks.

I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know is a fun read full of great information. We may not all be working at Glamour, but we all need to present our very best selves at work if we want to get ahead. Why not take some tips from someone who has been so successful?

My copy of I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Oh! Don’t forget to check out my review of Kate White’s fiction! I reviewed So Pretty It Hurts back in April.

 

Review: Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us by Rachelle Bergstein

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

One thing I was reminded of while reading this book: I really need a new pair of classic black pumps.

First of all, Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us by Rachelle Bergstein is really a book about women’s shoes. There are mentions of men’s shoes, but not many — let’s face it, men’s shoes are boring. Most of this book is about women’s shoes and how they evolved and what influenced them.

There is a lot of interesting information in this book about modern shoes. If you’re looking for ancient shoes, for the history of foot-binding, look somewhere else. This little book starts with “Ferragamo and the Wartime Wedge (1900-1938)” and runs through Sex and the City (“Shoes and the Single Girl (1998-2008)”). Lots of detail about how certain styles evolved and how shoes go in and out of style, along with some interesting bits of shoe lore.

I love shoes! Sadly, my work requires mostly sensible shoes now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t drool over the latest styles (although I cannot wait for the hooker-platform fad to pass — can’t happen soon enough). I enjoyed getting a bit of insight into what was fashionable and what was controversial in different generations (who would have thought of ballet flats as rebellious?). I also didn’t know that shoes were actually rationed during the war:

“As it was, the ration stipulated not only how many shoes consumers could buy but also what kind of shoes the footwear industry was permitted to produce going forward…For women, the shoe ration instantly outlawed flourishes which had become the quintessence of a varied shoe collection.”

The American government even limited the colors that could be used in shoe production to 4 — black, white, town brown and army russet. Heel heights were regulated and so were the height of boots.

Bergstein covers the rise of Birkenstocks, the influence of the movies on shoes (and vice versa) and Girl Power, Saturday Night Fever and the battle between Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo. What she doesn’t do is provide a single photograph! Unless photos were added in the finished version (mine was an uncorrected proof), I think it’s a huge gap. I mean, you can describe the shoes in The Who’s rock opera, Tommy:

“To cement the Local Lad’s top dog status, [Elton] John wore the entertainment industry’s most vertiginous pair of shoes; inspired by the cherry red 1460 Doc Martens popular with London youth at the time, these boots were specially fastened out of fiberglass by Scott Bader, the Northamptonshire chemical firm, and measured a towering four feet, six and a half inches high.”

But doesn’t this help get the idea across:

It certainly helps the reader to imagine the shoes! A big missing piece of the puzzle in the book, which can’t really be overcome by the line drawings at the start of each chapter. Also, you can get away with using “vertiginous” once, if you use it correctly (it doesn’t just mean tall), but six times? Now you’re just showing off, and not in a good way.

All in all, an interesting and enjoyable book, if not too deep into history. My copy of Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: This Will Make You Smarter – New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, edited by John Brockman

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

This Will Make You Smarter is a challenging book that leaves you with a lot to think about. The essays are short — some  shorter than a single page — that cover interesting scientific concepts, new and old ideas to help us think about the world.

The founder and publisher of the online science salon, Edge.org, John Brockman, does  a great job editing this collection, turning more than 100 essays on a wide range of topics into a coherent manuscript that works its way across the spectrum. You start out talking about one concept and smoothly work your way into another — it definitely kept me interested in topics that could potentially be pretty dry.

There are too many important concepts to cover them all, but there were a few that I found really interesting.  First, there was an interesting article by Douglas Rushkoff* called “Technologies Have Biases.” This passage was thought-provoking:

“We are free to use any car we like to get to work — gasoline, diesel, electric or hydrogen-powered — and this sense of choice blinds us to the fundamental bias of the automobile toward distance, commuting, suburbs and energy consumption.”

And that’s true — we buy a hybrid because it’s “greener” and we are pro-environment, but the very fact of buying a car shows a preference that we don’t even think about.

I also found “The Focusing Illusion” by Daniel Kahneman** a fascinating idea:

“Marketers exploit the focusing illusion. When people are induced to believe that they ‘must have’ a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that good will make to the quality of their life.”

Think about that and apply it to our current political climate. When politicians convince us that a particular issue is important, no matter what the issue, we attach an unreasonable importance to specific laws or measures related to that issue, and the difference they will make in the government. It has given me a different slant on the political commercials I have seen.

There are also a number of essays on risk and uncertainty, and just how bad humans are at understanding risk and dealing with it. The chance that we might be killed in a terrorist attack is almost infinitesimal, but we have spent a huge amount of money, time and effort protecting ourselves against the threat. On the other hand, we are far more likely to die in our car on the way to the grocery store, and yet many people don’t even bother with seat belts or regular brake checks.

All in all, this was a terrific, thought-provoking read that can be applied to so many aspects of modern life. I think that anyone who picks this up is going to find topics that interest them and cause them to rethink their usual assumptions. I would love to buy a copy for all of the teachers I know and challenge them to use some of these concepts in their classrooms! (There is a great essay on the importance of understanding which concepts are easy to teach and which ones are harder to grasp — they could start with that.) I will definitely be passing this on to some thoughtful friends.

My copy of This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking was an Advanced Reader copy, provided free of charge.

* Douglas Rushkoff, Media theorist, documentary writer and author, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for the Digital Age

**Daniel Kahneman, Professor Emeritus of psychology and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University; recipient, 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences