Sunday 20 February 2022

Threads of Life, Clare Hunter

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Hunter’s brilliantly informative and emotive look at the history of embroidery from the Bayeux Tapestry to the present day is the perfect mix of personal memoir and wider history. She considers the rise and fall of respect for the craft, the ways it has been used to comfort, strengthen, and protest, and the curatorial decisions that obscure so many great creatives. Arranged thematically, each chapter could be read in isolation, but the experience of reading cover to cover offers insight and a sense of the patterns of time.

We start with the Bayeux Tapestry, which is an example of many of these themes. Over the centuries it has been through many levels of popularity and respect. It has been dismissed at times as a piece of amateur work and criticised for its inconsistencies of style, at others it has been carefully saved during times of conflict. Always, however, the women who created it seem to have been ignored. Indeed, its incorrect designation as as a tapestry rather than an embroidery can be seen as an attempt to separate it from women’s work. Its content focusses almost exclusively on men, with only six women appearing, and even today, visiting as a tourist, its exhibition leaves out any mention of its creators. 

This is a sad occurrence which we see repeated time and again. Women were excluded from the London Guild of Broderers after the Black Death in an attempt to preserve the reduced number of commissions for men. This succeeded in de-professionalising the skilled women who worked in the field and relegated projects that came their way to much smaller, more menial work. When the sumptuary laws were revoked in 1630 embroidery was no longer considered a high art, losing its status as a symbol of wealth and power. This led men to draw away from it and to further divide men’s and women’s work, which became increasingly associated with family care and its virtues.

Embroidery enjoyed something of a revival in the eighteenth century with the popularity of thread painting. Despite some women succeeding in making a living out of it, very little of their work has survived. This is, unfortunately, a recurring pattern. The use of banners by suffragettes was an important part of their demonstrations yet when offered to Scotland’s museums they were rejected as having no historical value. Indeed, the National Museums of Scotland have only one stitched suffrage banner on display - for the Federation of Male Suffrage. Similarly, examples of embroidery by Mary, Queen of Scots, stitching at a time when embroidery was rich with hidden meaning and a symbol of status, are few and far between.

Embroidery has been used throughout history to create a sense of unity. Hunter’s work as a community textile artist has shown time and time again the value of creative expression and its power to bring fraught communities together. It helps to empower participants and gives them a sense of ownership over their story. This can also be seen in the moving examples detailed of its use in the most dire situations. Women in Changi Prison created quilts as an act of resistance and communication masked as a feminine act of care. During war it has often been used to record experiences and help to maintain a sense of self when attacked on all fronts.

This book is rich in historical detail and offers insight into beliefs around created pieces such as the spiritual power of joining fabric together, which was the traditional appeal of patchwork - resurrection, reconstitution, and re-connection. You learn not just about the role of sewing in social and political movements but of the events surrounding them. A trigger warning of torture and sexual violence for some sections. I wasn’t expecting a history of embroidery to be so emotional, but there are many moments throughout that will make your heart ache. An homage to an often-undervalued art, beautifully written and utterly compelling.

Sunday 13 February 2022

The Dizzy Cook, Alicia Wolf

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Being diagnosed with vestibular migraine has been an emotional, challenging journey. Preferable, however, to having no answers as to why you can’t tolerate any movement without feeling like you’re going to throw up, having the feeling of being on a boat while lying in bed, or being so fatigued you need a rest after something as simple as having a shower. As an illness that’s only been recognised as a distinct form of migraine in the last few decades it can sometimes feel like there’s a real lack of information and expertise out there. You can imagine then, my delight when I stumbled across Alicia Wolf thanks to another blogger (apologies that I don’t now know who).

In her book The Dizzy Cook, she writes generously about how the Heal Your Headache diet helped her get her life back after being diagnosed with vestibular migraine. It is emotional reading about her experiences, which included losing her job, and the list of foods that you have to cut out is intimidating, especially as a vegetarian suddenly unable to eat lentils, soya, and nuts. However, Wolf completely understands what it’s like to be starting this journey, encouraging you to focus more on what you CAN eat than what you can’t, and offering tips and tricks to make the process easier. She also writes about other parts of the treatment pie and how finding the right combination can help you begin to have more good days than bad. 

It’s a well-thought out book with everything from breakfast, dinner, mocktails, condiments, and ideas for entertaining. There’s also a solid baking section at the end which will please readers with a sweet tooth. Following this diet you quickly realise pre-prepared food that’s safe is almost impossible to find, and you’ll need to make most things from scratch yourself. The variety of sauce and dressing recipes included help you not miss firm favourites, and she offers great ideas for substitutes which help keep a few old popular recipes in rotation with a few adjustments.

Being American based there are quite a few things that are difficult or impossible to get in the UK, but after the initial investment in getting some different kitchen staples it becomes much easier. When I first bought the book I was a bit worried by the small number of vegetarian recipes, but I soon realised that with a few adjustments, making use of side dish recipes and the additional dishes on her website, there was plenty to keep me going. The recipes themselves are delicious and there are many I’d continue to make without needing to follow the diet. Wolf also runs an active Facebook community which offers support, recipe tips, and encouragement. She responds to queries quickly and helpfully and always seems far more interested in genuinely helping than making a sale. This is a great book for anyone starting out on the HYH diet, giving you delicious recipes rather than simply a scary list of dos and don’ts, and a sense that you’re not alone.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Late City, Robert Olen Butler

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to No Exit Press and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

As Sam Cunningham, a 115 year old First World War veteran, lies on his deathbed on the night of the 2016 US election he is visited by God. A God that behaves not as you might imagine, but who reveals that humans have their own power and that often their behaviour is as much a mystery to him as it is to their fellow humans. He commands Sam to re-visit moments in his life as though he did not know the outcome. Despite the many years that have passed we see very little beyond the Second World War, a pivotal moment in his family’s life.

Largely chronological, we see glimpses of his Louisiana childhood, with a father convinced of the ideal of masculinity and who trains him to be a ‘real man’. He is violent and emotionally repressed and leaves a young Sam desperate to make him proud. Sam’s going to war shifts the dynamic between them, he has achieved something his father never will, and the power balance becomes more complex. 

In realising his need to live life on his own terms, he separates himself from both parents and moves to Chicago to pursue his journalistic ambitions. When he eventually becomes a father himself he is determined to avoid the mistakes of his, but in so doing fails his son in other ways, and ultimately we see the outcome is not all that different. Despite Sam’s somewhat progressive views in some areas he struggles to let go of prejudices that were drilled into him from a young age.

We see, during his recollections of his time in the trenches, that his age and upbringing make it hard for him to reconcile the behaviour of men when others are breathing their last. His colleague and sort-of mentor steps up and offers dying men the comfort and affection they require in those moments. He tries to explain it to Sam but he struggles to comprehend, despite seeing horrendous suffering. We later learn whether he is able to step up when needed, not just in the trenches but in his life during peace time.

From his early recollections we see he is uncomfortable with the racism that was normalised by those around him. Indeed, race relations form a background to many of his memories, although do not become as central as you might expect from their early inclusion. At times it feels merely a vehicle to get him a job at a progressive newspaper and then fades into the background. Perhaps it is also intended to give us a glimpse into the complexity of his world view, that he is capable of going against the grain of his time.

This is an interesting book that will make you think more deeply about life and death. Sam’s long life is heralded as remarkable by others, but for him it is not a blessing. He has lived over a quarter of a century in a nursing home and has had more time than any would wish to contemplate mortality and his own failings. The characters’ trajectories can be a bit predictable but there’s no denying there are moments of real power and contemplation. One for those who do not shy away from ruminating on human failings and fragility and questioning what it really means to have lived a full and successful life.