Sunday, July 22, 2012

Not Dead Yet

This book by Peter James, is the eighth title in the Roy Grayson series, novels set in Brighton and surrounding areas in England with the emphasis on police procedures in solving crime. Gaia, an American rock star, is about to travel to England to star in a film about King George IV and Maria Fitzherbert when a staff member driving Gaia's car is murdered. Detective Superintendent Roy Grayson is made responsible for overseeing her safety when working on the film. He and his team are also investigating the finding of a torso at a nearby poultry farm. The reader is invited to follow the workings of the police as the investigations occur but like a number of other modern crime writers the story is not told from just one viewpoint but through the actions and thoughts of a range of characters including those committing the crime. As you would expect the plot has many twists and turns but towards the end just when you think you know what is happening a new twist is revealed. An enjoyable read.

The Office: a hardworking history

In 2012 we take working in an office environment for granted. However this has not always been so. Gideon Haigh provides a detailed account of the history of office work from references to the notes kept by scribes in Egypt 4000 years ago, the records kept by monks particularly in the Middle Ages, the need for detailed financial records to be kept with the rise of banks and merchant trading to the offices of today. Haigh suggests that although business records were recorded through the ages it was primarily the growth of the East India Company that required the need for actual offices where people worked recording and transacting business.

Haigh documents the many changes that have occurred in office design and work practices as well as changes of work practices in offices. Working in the office was the domain of men until the second half of the 19th century when women began to be employed in offices. This practice increased with the introduction of new technologies, the telephone for example,  which women could operate efficiently for a lower wage than men. Haigh looks at the changes in technology used in offices, such as the dictaphone and photocopiers, and their impact on office organisation. The adoption of typewriters then word processing machines and more recently personal computers have changed the way we work. Once secretaries and clerks carried out the clerical duties in a firm. In larger organisations secretaries worked in typing pools as equipment became more sophisticated. With the advent of computers most staff do their own clerical work on their computer. 

Haigh looks at the design of office buildings particularly in the twentieth century, the introduction of air conditioning in office buildings as well as the introduction of cubicles in office design. More recently offices are being designed with fewer work stations than employees as new technologies make it easier for staff to conduct business away from the office.

The employment of women in the office, equal pay, type of work undertaken and opportunities for promotion are also issues discussed. Haigh also looks at office conventions such as the tea lady now replaced with a coffee break and also at the 'office party'.

Throughout the book examples of how office work and the office environment is portrayed in film, television and books help demonstrate changes in attitudes to office work. At 600 pages this book provides an insight into something we take for granted but which impacts on many of our lives - the office.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sunday's Garden: growing Heide

Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan have created a beautiful book about the gardens creted by Sunday Reed and her family and friends at Heide. Sunday and John Reed moved to their new home, Heide, a former dairy farm in 1934 and during the following 47 years lived at and developed the property, particularly the gardens. The area near the Yarra River was near the location of sites painted by Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton, members of the impressionist movement in Australia from the 1880s - the Heidelberg School. It is only fitting therefore that the area maintained its associations with art when the Reeds with their interest in modern art invited artists including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Tucker and Joy Hester to visit them and Heide and also help form the gardens first at Heide I and then at Heide II. Neil Douglas from Bayswater spent many years helping establish the original Heide gardens. Initially English plants were tried but later especially from the 70s, more and more Australian plants were introduced. A later chapter looks at the development of Heide as a focus for the arts in context with other arts based settlements including Monsalvat, Open Country at Murrumbeena and Stonygrad at Warrandyte. In the 1980s Heide II was sold to the Victorian government and now forms the Heide Museum of Modern Art at Bulleen.  A timeline at the end of the book is followed by short biographies of most of the people mentioned. Richly illustrated with photographs this book will appeal to a reader interested in the development of gardens as well as anyone interested in the influence of the Sunday and John Reed on Australian art in the twentieth century.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bring up the Bodies

This is the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel, Wolf Hall. The story revolves around the life of Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to King Henry VIII and Master of the Rolls as he strives to look after the interests of the King and also ensure his position in the court. The story unfolds between September 1535 and the summer of 1536. Henry is married to Anne Boleyn but although she has given birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, she has not been able to provide a male heir to the throne. When Henry becomes infatuated with Jane Seymour he is determined to end his marriage to Anne so that he can remarry. It is left to Thomas to gather the information leading to the trial of Anne and her admirers, to try to placate the rival powers among the nobility who all want the promotion of their interests, to carry out the changes regarding church properties after Henry declared himself head of the church as well as navigating the fragile relationships between England and its neighbouring counties, especially those who support the Pope.

Throughout the book we are reminded that Thomas is the son of a blacksmith and does not belong to the nobility, compounding his difficulties in enforcing his policies. However we are also reminded that he is a fighter who, unlike his rivals for power, has wide practical experience through living in a variety of European countries as well as experience as a banker and a lawyer. Thomas carries out his master's bidding but he also looks after his interests and those of his friends. This is particularly demonstrated when the act of prosecuting the young men accused of relationships with the Queen allows him to avenge a previous injustice to his previous master and mentor. The final sections of the book demonstrate Thomas' skill at interrogation and creating a case to serve the royal cause resulting in the execution of Anne and a new wife for Henry.

It initially took me a while to become involved in the book, possibly because I was only able to read small sections at a time, but as the plot progressed I became fascinated with the intrigue of the politics within the royal court. The third volume in this saga is yet to come.

A detailed review of this book appeared in the New Yorker 7 May 2012 - Invitation to a beheading

A short biography of the life of Thomas Cromwell provides details about his rise to power in the English court - Tudor citizens - Thomas Cromwell

Beastly Things

Beastly things by Donna Leon, a Guido Brunetti novel, is number 12 in the series set in Venice but each can be read as a separate book where Commissario Guido Brunetti and his colleagues have a crime to solve. This time an unidentified body is found floating in a canal, therefore no obvious crime scene.

The crime, however, is only one part of Guido Brunetti novels. Descriptions of the city of Venice form a major feature of the stories. Members of Brunetti's family are not just background characters and by the end of the book the reader has experienced Brunetti's views, not just on resolving the crime but also on day to day life in Venice. In this book investigations lead to a slaughter house on the mainland with animal rights issues, particularly the killing of animals for food, becoming a topic for discussion among some of the characters.