Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

Empress Dowager Cixi, The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

Empress Dowager CixiWhile rearranging the biography section of my library recently, I observed (not for the first time) that women get short shelf.

While the biographies of the men (Adams  through Warburg)  still require half a dozen shelves, the poor women barely take up one, short, shelf.

Why are there so few histories of women? One reason is that history is mostly written by men.

A particularly egregious  example of this is Empress Dowager Cixi, ruler of China for almost a half a century, whose legacy has not been well served by  Chinese or Western historians.

As her biographer Jung Chang  notes,

“The past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi, who has been deemed either tyrannical and vicious or hopelessly incompetent –or both. Few of her achievements have been recognized and, when they are, the credit is invariably given to the men serving her.”

In her excellent biography, Empress Dowager Cixi, The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Jung Change sets the record straight.

My short shelf  is now up by one.

The daughter of a government worker, Empress Dowager Cixi was not an heir to the throne of China nor as a woman could she be, but despite these handicaps, she successfully ruled one third of the world’s population for almost fifty years.

In the summer of 1852, the future Empress Dowager was a low ranking concubine in the court of Emperor Xianfeng. When she gave birth to his son, she was promoted to number two consort, second only to Empress Zhen. When her son inherited the throne in 1861, Cixi launched a coup against the regents and put herself in charge. And there she remained until her death in 1908.

Her long rule was even more remarkable because traditional Confucian political culture prohibited female monarchs, so Cixi governed through her young male heirs, first her son and later an adopted son. Not that anyone was fooled by this charade, but Cixi was careful to at least keep up the appearance of womanly deference.

Early in her reign (or her more accurately her son’s reign)  Cixi realized that China must modernize. The devastating opium wars brought home to Cixi the necessity of abandoning China’s long standing “closed door policy” and engage with the West.

Positioned behind the yellow screen from which she was obliged to conduct imperial audiences, the hardworking Cixi’s red inked decrees touched every aspect of Chinese life. Railroads, steam boats, telegraphs, and newspapers were introduced. The elitist educational system was overhauled. (At the time, 99% of the population was illiterate.) Commercial, civic, and criminal  laws were rewritten and trade policy established. Cixi also banished the ancient custom of foot-binding for women.

As an absolute monarch, Cixi didn’t have to listen to anyone, but she was remarkably open to ideas from both domestic and foreign advisors.

As Chang points out, Cixi make some mistakes. But unlike most imperial leaders, she admitted her mistakes and strove to make amends quickly.

Cixi’s reign was never dull. She endured and triumphed over revolutions, coups, betrayals, exile, famines, and foreign invasions.

A fascinating look at a dramatic period of Chinese history and a dynamic female leader.


Jung Chang is the bestselling author of Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story (with Jon Halliday), which was described by Time as “an atom bomb of book.” Her books have been translated into more than forty languages and sold more than fifteen million copies outside mainland China, where they are both banned. She was born in China in 1952 and moved to Britain in 1978.


The Sunday Times (London) “If there is one woman who mattered in the history of  modern China, it is the empress dowager  Cixi…[Her] conventional image is queried in this  detailed and beautifully narrated biography, which at long last restores the empress dowager to her rightful place.”

The New Yorker: “A woman whose energy, farsightedness, and ruthless pragmatism transformed a country.”

Polka Dots at Home

Polka Dancing LargeSeriously who doesn’t love POLKA DOTS! (Fun fact: The term “polka dot” was coined in the mid-19th century amid the polka dance craze.)

From the bold to the subtle, check out these ideas from Houzz for brightening any space in your home! I especially like the mid-century armchair upholstered in a jolly polka dot fabric.

April Home Sales

"Nightlight" by Renee Bates

“Nightlight” by Renee Bates


Single Family Home Sales Davidson County April 2015

In Davidson County, there were 769  home closings in April . This figure represents an increase from the 684 closings reported for the same period last year.

The average sales price increased to $290,737 from $277,230.

Single Family Home Sales Williamson County April 2015

In Williamson County, there were 368 home closings reported in April versus 363 closings reported for the same period last year.

The average sales price of $482,773 is 12% higher than last year.

Condominium Sales Davidson County April 2015

In Davidson County, there were 223 condo closings reported in April versus 206 closings reported for the same period last year.

The average sales price of $194,303  is 5 ½ % higher than last year.


If you’d like more information about single family home sales in Davidson County, Area Two (I-65 to Charlotte Pike), Williamson County, or condominium sales in Davidson County, I’m happy to email you a comprehensive report.

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the RuinsThe Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

In the summer of 1955, Serafina Bettini, the only female detective in the Florence (Italy!)Police Department’s Homicide unit, is assigned the grisly death of a member of the aristocratic Rosati family. When another family member is murdered soon after, the evidence points to a vendetta which dates back to the chaotic final days of WWII.

To solve the case, Serafina, who carries her own scars from the war, must revisit a tragic period of her own and her country’s history.

If you are fan of historical mysteries, you’ll enjoy this well-researched, suspenseful, and briskly plotted novel.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch:  “At the heart of a good novel is a good story, and this story is a doozy. Bohjalian expertly weaves a tale of how [WWII] split Italy between the people who willingly collaborate with the Germans and the ones who did not.”


Chris Bohjalian is the author of seventeen books including the New York Times bestsellers, The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Double Bind. His novel Midwives was a number one New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. Three of his novels have become movies. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughters.


Historic West Town

6012A LA

Historic West Town

“New construction in West Nashville under 300K! Shut up! I’m not lying.”

When I saw these remarks in the MLS recently, I knew the agent was referencing a property in HISTORIC WEST TOWN a/k/a THE NATIONS, the latest hot spot in Nashville’s sizzling real estate market.

The Nations, so named after the Chickasaw Nations of Native Americans who lived here in the 18thC, is located on the other side of Charlotte from Sylvan Park. Like the pioneers before them, home buyers who have been pushed out of Sylvan Park and Sylvan Heights have crossed Charlotte in search of a better (or more affordable) life!

Victorians, Craftsman bungalows, and modest cottages are being razed or remodeled at a rapid clip

The area includes West Park, the McCabe Greenway, and numerous retail and dining options.

But if you want to live here, you need to move fast as multiple offers are a common occurrence.

Nations Map

Historic West Town & The Nations Home Sales Stats

Current number of homes for sale: 33

HOMES SOLD last 6 months: 43

Median price: $319,900

Median days on market: 64

Median square footage: 1852

200px-James-robertson-tn2James Robertson, who supposedly signed a treaty with the Chickasaws at what is now 61st and Louisiana, would be shocked, simply shocked!

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

The Sociopath Next DoorThe Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Whose idea was The Sociopath Next Door for our April book club selection? Yikees! Serial killers are not my idea of a good read.

As it turns out, however, it was a pretty good read.

According to the author, sociopaths make up four percent of the population, but not all are Ted Bundy. Everyday sociopaths won’t kill you, but they will destroy your dignity, your security, and your confidence.

So if not exclusively a serial killer, what is a sociopath?

According to Dr. Stout, a sociopath is someone who lacks a conscience, defined as, “a sense of obligation ultimately based in an emotional attachment to another living creature (often but not always a human being.)

Without a conscience, sociopaths don’t experience guilt, remorse, shame, or concern for the feelings of others. Also love, joy, or passion.

Sociopaths know the difference between right and wrong; they just don’t allow that pesky distinction affect their behavior.

The condition is untreatable.  Your best defense again a sociopath is avoidance, which is challenging if the sociopath in question is your boss, boyfriend, or a member of your family.

Using examples from a super successful business executive to a suburban grandmother, Dr. Stout illustrate the treacherous traits in easily recognizable if chilling clarity.


Mary Pipher, Ph.D., author of Letters to a Young Therapist and Reviving Ophelia: “Stout’s well-researched and carefully conceptualized book on conscience is thought-provoking and spiritually satisfying.”


Martha Stout, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice, served on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School for twenty-five years. She is also the author of The Myth of Sanity. She lives on Cape Ann in Massachusetts.

March Home Sales


Home Sales Davidson County March 2015

In Davidson County, there were 730 home closings in March. This figure represents an increase from the 656 closings reported for the same period last year.

The average sales price increased to $287,501 from $234,791.


Home Sales Williamson County March 2015

In Williamson County, there were 402 home closings reported in March versus 341 closings reported for the same period last year.

The average sales price of $472,200 is 7% higher than last year.

Condominium Sales Davidson County March 2015

In Davidson County, there were 239 condo closings reported in March versus 183 closings reported for the same period last year.

The average sales price of $208,738 is over 6% higher than last year.

Fever, A Novel of Typhoid Mary by Mary Beth Keane

FeverFever, A Novel of Typhoid Mary by Mary Beth Keane

At the turn of the last century, Irish immigrant  Mary Mallon, nicknamed  Typhoid Mary by the press, was the first identified asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.

In her profession as a cook in the New York City area,  Mary transmitted typhoid fever to dozens of people, many of whom died. Tracked down by the  dogged “sanitary engineer” George A. Soper, she was quarantined twice.

In 1907, she was detained for three years on tiny North Brother Island located in New York’s East River.  During that time, as other healthy carriers were identified and allowed to live freely in society, Mary’s imprisonment became somewhat arbitrary. After promising never to cook professionally, she was released. Using a false name, Mary went back to cooking and sickness followed in her wake.  In 1915, while working in the kitchen of the Sloane Maternity Hospital as Mary Brown,  she was recaptured by the vigilant Soper and returned to North Brother Island where she was a permanent guest of  the state until her death in 1938.

Keane’s Mary is  pugnatious, proud, ambitious,  and  not entirely likeable. At first Mary doesn’t believe that she can carry the disease.  After all she’s not sick, nor is her  live-in boyfriend, or the many friends and neighbors for whom she prepared meals over the years.  However, ignorance turns to willful blindness as the science and the bodies pile up. Mary knows, but doesn’t want to know.

“She wondered whether it was possible to know a truth, and then quickly unknow it, bricking up that portal of knowledge until every pinpoint of light was covered up.”

If Fever had not been a book club selection, I doubt if I would have picked it up. But I enjoyed the  complicated and not entirely unsympathetic Typhoid Mary and Keane’s vivid depiction of upstairs/downstairs life in bustling turn  of the century New York City.


Vogue: “A fascinating turn-of-the-last-century-set medical cat-and-mouse story, Mary Beth Keane’s Fever summons sympathy for the contrary personality at its center, a self- made immigrant grappling with work and love, dignity and denial.”


Mary Beth Keane was born in New York City to Irish parents. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction.  Fever was named a Best Book of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Library Journal, and NPR.

11 More Home Renovation Tips

Amy Overton and dogs11 More Home Renovation Tips  

In the second of my two part series on home renovations, my talented sister-in-law Amy Colton offers her tips for DURING CONSTRUCTION. (See BEFORE RENOVATION tips here)


1-Plan For The Pets    

If you are living in the home during construction be sure to make a plan for your pets.  The first day our dogs chased a bulldozer around the mud in our back yard, we realized we needed a plan.  While the workers loved our pups (except when our male “marked” one of the men’s leather tool belts), it was just easier when the dogs went to live with our son for a few months.

2-Meet the Contractor Every Day

Know what is happening every day.  I scheduled a meeting with our contractor for the same time each morning, and he walked me through what would be accomplished that day.

Office under construction

3-Check Progress Daily

Keep a measuring tape handy and check the progress at the end of each day.  Reference your house plans and notes often and make a list of questions so you can be sure to address any issues with your contractor.  Ask questions if you don’t understand something or want to make a change.  Remember, it is MUCH easier to make changes before drywall goes up!

4-Anticipate Surprises

Unlike new construction, renovations come with the inherent issue of “we didn’t know until we got in there.”  Your flooring is rotted under the bathroom tile you removed, the wiring is not up to code, the ceiling beams need reinforcing since you removed a support stud.  All these things mean more time and more money but knowing it is a possibility can help alleviate stress.

5-Answer A Zillion Questions

Be prepared for questions.  There will be what seems like endless questions on issues about which you have no opinion. Do your best to think through your choices (with input from your advisors – architect, contractor, designer) because you will be the one living with it.  Do you want to replace the 40 year old insulation in the renovated rooms, where do you want the light switches, where do you want the HVAC vents, what color grout, and on and on.

Master bedroom paint samples

6-Assign Responsibilities

Be clear about what you are responsible for and what your contractor and/or designer are responsible for.  Are you ordering the hardware or are they?  Are you buying the light fixtures or are they?  Are you scheduling with the wallpaper installer or are they?  There are grey areas so it is important to ask questions and take notes!

7-Be Available

You may not be able to drop what you are doing and run to the house at any time, but you don’t want the project delayed because the workers need an answer to proceed. FaceTime, texting pictures or just a phone call can help keep the project moving forward.

8-Be Prepared For Delays

Even with the best contractors, some sub-contractors work under what we started calling the 80% rule.

They complete 80% (or less!) of the work, then leave to do 80% (or less!) of someone else’s job.  They come back a day or two later to (hopefully) finish the work at your house but they are missing a part and it has to be ordered.  Or the part is broken or is the wrong size.  They forget to bring the tall ladder, the right wrench or the jigsaw so they have to come back yet again.  But it is already Thursday and they decide to wait until next week to return and finish.  This is when your patience starts to shred and you are glad you hired your contractor.  You have to trust that he will keep your job moving forward, while reassuring you everything is ok so your head stays on your shoulders.


9-Praise Often

Be generous with your praise of the work. And not just at completion, but all along the way.  Many of the builders and subs are real artisans and are proud of the work they do.  And you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.

10-Offer Treats!

Occasional snacks, coffee, Gatorade or treats are always happy surprises for the team at your house.  Especially at the end of a project when you are VERY ready for it to be finished.

11-Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication is the key to a happy relationship with your contractor.

Be clear with your expectations but ALSO be realistic, flexible and nice.  Ask questions along the way to avoid crises in the end.  Sometimes issues come up that are unavoidable. For example, the cooktop vent we selected protruded into the office behind our kitchen resulting in one less shelf in the new office cabinets.  We were bummed, but it was unavoidable.


ENJOY your beautiful new space!

New Master bed


Our construction project took 6.5 months, rather than the estimated 4. The price tag was higher than the bid, though many of the added costs were upgrades we made.

Over all it was an exciting and fun experience, and we have new friends for life in our contractor, Salem Forsythe, and all his team.  To say nothing of a fantastic group of handymen on call!  We LOVE our newly renovated rooms (and the small new space we added), and the project was very well worth the time, price and emotional energy!

new master bedroom close up of bedNew kitchenBathroom Light fixture bathroomOrange girl knobsNew view of fireplaceNew view from Den into kitchen

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles ReturnThe Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

If the name Elisabeth de Waal sounds familiar, then you probably read her grandson Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir of their family, the Ephrussis, wealthy Viennese Jews by way of Odessa.

The Exiles Return, Elisabeth’s posthumously published novel, is not as engaging as The Hare With Amber Eyes, but its portrayal of post World War II Vienna and Elisabeth’s unique perspective make it a worthwhile read.

Elisabeth de Waal, born Elisabeth von Ephrussi, was raised in the grand and gilded Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna.  After studying law, philosophy, and economics at the University of Vienna, she moved abroad. She bravely returned to Austria shortly after the Anschluss (the act that allowed Germany to annex Vienna) to retrieve her parents who lingered too long in the mistaken belief that their status as prominent Austrian citizens overrode their Judaism. After the war, Elisabeth devoted over a decade attempting (with limited success) to reclaim her family’s looted art collection from the Austrian government.

In The Exiles Return,  three characters return to 1954 Vienna. Although their circumstances are quite different, their lives ultimately intersect in (rather melodramatic) ways.

Kuno Adler, a Jewish research scientist, leaves his wife and daughters in Manhattan to return home as part of the repatriation program sponsored by the Austrian government.  Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy member of Vienna’s Greek community, is looking for fun and bargain buys.  And eighteen-year-old Marie-Theres Larsen is a bored American teenager on an attitude adjustment trip to her mother’s family.

Overall the novel is a bit stilted, but interestingly several “third rail” topics such as Nazi atrocities, homosexuality, abortion, and suicide are broached. While not shocking today, these would have been risqué in the 1950s when Elisabeth wrote the novel.

I appreciated this novel, but it is possibly more noteworthy for the writer than the writing.


The Guardian (London): “This is a rewarding study of loss, and a fine snapshot of a city and society standing ravaged at a crossroads.”


Elisabeth de Waal was born in Vienna in 1899. She wrote five unpublished novels, two in German and three in English, including The Exiles Return. She was married to Dutchman Hendrik de Waal and lived in Tunbridge Wells. She died in 1991.

The Hare with Amber Eyes