For the costuming enthusiast…

The Pragmatic Costumer

Beauty Comes in More Sizes than Zero

Photograph of a Group of Sisters, circa 1900 from VintageJunkDrawerToo on Etsy

I had a student ask me yesterday about my Victorian costume obsession. I explained to her the basics, the ins-and-outs of the eras, the various delights of fabric and forms, and the events to attend to display your creations/acquisitions. She seemed intensely interested and expressed her growing love of costuming, “But,” she said, “only thin people can really wear those kinds of things.”

Photograph of Victorian Couple, circa 1880 from  NiepceGallery on Etsy
A very classic Victorian couple.

At first, I was a little taken aback, but I can see where her skepticism about Victorian costuming might spring from. Thanks to plenty of myth and media, we associate the Victorian era with one major thing: itty-bitty waists. When you say Victorian to anyone, they picture big skirts and corsets that will…

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City of Thieves (CBR5 #5)

City of Thieves is the definition of a great Cannonball Read find (thanks Katsings!). I think it’s safe to say that the consensus around the Cannonball is that author David Benioff has the goods. Benioff  also has the potential to be a bit of Pajiba favorite, being the executive producer/show runner of Game of Thrones, and writer of 25th Hour – both the novel and the screenplay – and the screenplay for The Kite Runner, although I haven’t seen this one yet,  I hear good things. But back to the point – City of Thieves is a classic coming of age story filled with some rather un-classic aspects: cannibals, suspense, cross-dressers, romance and torture set against a historically accurate picture of Leningrad in 1942.

City of Thieves opens with a writer asking his grandfather to tell him about his experiences during World War II.  The narrator knows that his grandfather, “the knife fighter” killed two Germans before he was eighteen. After relenting, Lev begins to tell his story to his grandson, talking openly for the first time about his childhood, coming to America and sex. Mostly though he talks about a two week period in 1942 when he met his best friend, the woman that would become his wife and killed those two Germans.

Lev’s story begins in and around Leningrad during the first winter of the German siege during World War II. Our hero is a seventeen year old virgin living alone after his mother and sister fled the city for the seemingly safer countryside. Too young for the Red Army, Lev does all the other jobs available to him, including being on his building’s firefighting squad. It’s from his position on the rooftop during the nightly bombings that Lev sees the falling German trooper who would so drastically change his path.

Lev is arrested for looting the corpse of the dead German, under martial law this is a crime punishable by death, but he is instead arrested and placed in a cell with a handsome friendly deserter named Kolya. Kolya’s crime is also grounds for execution, he is a deserter of the Red Army, and that’s what they expect come morning. However in a twist of fate they are given a chance to save their own lives, all they have to do is find a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake.

A dozen eggs in a city cut off from supplies, a city which is starving to death – is a ludicrous and impossible task, one which takes our new friends far into German occupied territory, through the bitter cold of winter and countless adventures and atrocities. While the description of the plot seems dark and depressing it’s also important to note that the leads approach each event with a degree of gallows humor which keeps the book light for the reader.

Treasures Lost, Treasures Found (CBR5 #4)

Treasures Lost, Treasures Found is a very early Roberts book, and in many ways entirely typical of 1980s romance novels. I think I’m running out of Nora Roberts books. I picked this one up in a double feature with Secret Star. The protagonists are Kate Hardesty and Ky Silver. Kate and Ky met four years previous; having a torrid love affair while Kate was staying on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina – Ky’s home. Kate left Ky at the end of that first summer and she returns to the Island to finish her father’s final project.

Kate brings with her emotional baggage about her failed relationship with Ky, her father’s inability to show love, charts showing the possible location of a sunken ship, and a suitcase. She makes the decision to hire her ex-lover to be her captain and co-diver in the search for her father’s treasure as she thinks of it. She’s not out for the treasure for herself, but for what it would mean for her father’s legacy – the last thing she could do for the father she could not fully mourn. Ky is caught off-guard by her offer; but decides to take it so that he can be close to Kate.

Roberts is a strong writer now, but it is easy to see from this work where she has grown from in the last 25 plus years. There is too much reflection by the characters for a book which is baely more than 200 pages. There is simply page after page of Kate thinking about Ky and her father, or Ky thinking about Kate and how his feeling are changing or being rediscovered. Meanwhile, the only action in the novel involves the search for the sunken ship and Kate and Ky’ individual run-ins with wild life. The only real conflict in the novel was inside their heads, and it wasn’t that interesting. Generally pretty predictable, ok if you want a mindless read.

Secret Star (CBR5 #3)

Secret Star was published 15 years ago and, in some ways, it shows. It’s astounding to me the things which were the cutting edge of technology or  which were the extent of what was known in scientific communities are today simply not. Sometimes the lack of technology – no cell phones in every bag and pocket – pulled me out of the narrative, and while certainly a detractor, not something to be overly concerned with.

What those of you considering reading this book should be concerned with is the fact that this is the third book in a trilogy. I had not read the first two and that kept me from truly loosing myself in the narrative more than the technology gaps. If the basic plot sounds interesting, I would suggest starting at the beginning with Hidden Star.

The plot is pretty typical of the Nora Roberts oeuvre. There are three blue diamonds, known collectively as the Stars of Mithra. There is a string of murders which take place in the search for these priceless diamonds, before they enter the Smithsonian Institute. In pursuit of the perpetrators of these crimes Detective Seth Buchanan finds himself charged with solving the murder of Grace Fontaine. Who shows up very much alive and becomes something Seth cannot keep a professional distance from.

This good book had the job of finishing the series, and honestly it could have stretched the story some, used a little more action, and waited a little longer to reveal the big bad.  Perhaps my biggest complaint (yes I know I already discussed my complaints) was how short a time the action of all three novels was intended to take place, and how quickly the various couples fall in love, in bed, and then engaged.  Not a great Nora Roberts novel but a quick, pleasing read.

The Gods of Gotham (CBR5 #2)

This one is a keeper. To me, the sign of efficient characterization is that the reader has the desire to stay with a character past the point of reason. The character relaying the story to the reader in The Gods of Gotham is a Mr. Timothy Wilde. From the moment Tim begins to describe the story he is going to relate I knew I would sacrifice sleep to stay with him and read it as quickly as possible.

Its 1845 and a fire and explosion in the Eighth Ward took his home, his life savings, and left him with a facial scar covering a quarter of his face. Lucky to have survived at all, and with such relatively minimal damage, Tim is left without a home or job. This scenario leads him to having no other choice than to accept a position with the newly established New York Police Department his brother Valentine secured for him. Since Tim, unlike Val, is not involved in Democratic politics he is sent off to the Sixth Ward, home of the infamous Five Points.

The story properly begins with Tim relating to the reader why he hates writing police reports, that they don’t capture the essence of the story. The police reports he’s writing all refer back the cases we’ll be tracing with him throughout the month of August, which are decidedly dark. Just a few weeks on the job Tim becomes entangled in solving the case of murdered children prostitutes who have been buried on the outskirts of New York. Tim is invested in discovering the truth of the children’s deaths, taking the reader with him as pursues information from ministers, priest, doctors, whores, newsboys, and anyone else he can think of.

Structurally the novel works well. The beginning of each chapter starts with a quote from various historical sources which recount the social milieu of the time. It can be difficult for a modern reader to understand the hatred and fear associated with the Irish and the Pope/Catholicism during the 1840s, but these quotes and the insights of certain characters including our decidedly unreligious protagonist the reader is given an understanding they may not have previously had.  The other issue the quotes lay out for the reader is that of the economic and political climate of the 1840s.

The other bit of structure that can be handy as a reader is getting used to the vocabulary of the world is a ‘flash’ dictionary in the beginning of the novel. Certainly not comprehensive it is however an important reminder to the reader that many characters in the novel are so severely divided from proper speech as to have a language all their own. There is plenty of flash in the book that is not spelled out, but Lyndsay Faye does a good job of putting a character in place that needs to be translated for, and in turn translating for the reader.

An entirely engrossing read, I have already passed it along to a friend.

“And everyone alike indifferently happy for the three or four days September lasts before winter sets in.”  p. 403

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (CBR5 #1)

The novel’s full title is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story and I find that to be a telling detail about John Berendt’s work. This is a story that shows many, but not all, of the facets that make Savannah a unique place. Savannah has been haunting me the past few years. Several family members and friends have made the sojourn to the famous city and all have the same report: “you have to go”. I believe that John Berendt would agree after his 8 years of living on and off in the sequestered city.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tells the story of the Savannah in the 1980s, focusing on the murder trials of Jim Williams. Jim Williams was one of the social centers of upper crust Savannah, a self-made man dealing antiques and restoring the same. He had purchased Mercer House, and it was in that home that he was accused of murdering his lover.   Williams and the eventual circus that surrounds him are not the sole foci of the novel; Berendt also introduces the reader to a cast of unusual characters ranging from a black drag queen to a former lawyer turned bar owner to a voodoo priestess. Through the various lenses Berendt draws a picture of Savannah life.

And it’s certainly an interesting life that Savannah leads. It’s the center of a preservation campaign perhaps unmatched by another city of similar size, a hotbed of cotillions, golf clubs, and a hard separation between the white community and the black one, and to many the unwilling home of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Can I say that some of that has changed? I can’t attest personally, but in many ways in sounds like the South as I know it.

On a separate note from the book (and even the movie it was eventually turned into) I want to talk for a moment about e-readers. I have an early model Nook – the kind that uses e-ink technology and is not back-lit. Whenever I read a book on it, instead of a paper copy borrowed from the library or purchased in a moment of indiscretion, I read much slower than average. Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon or is it just me?