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Archive for September, 2011

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

I am back!  I am jet-lagged and getting over a cold that began while I was in London so any post with, you know, actual content is a bit of ways off but I do have loot to share.  Because my priorities in life are clear: library trips rank ahead of sleep, laundry, and the purchase many more boxes of Kleenex. 

The Greater Journey by David McCullough
I like David McCullough.  Whenever I see interviews with him (and it seemed like there were many when this book came out), I am totally charmed.  We shall see how I do with this, since I have little to no interest in American history, but I felt I had to give it a try since it is the McCullough title that most appeals to me (mostly because it’s all about Paris). 

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
I placed a hold on this ages ago after seeing it on a list somewhere of new releases, but I have no memory of where.  It looks like a frothy, girly read, which I am absolutely ready for.

The Storyteller by Anna Porter
Growing up in Budapest during the 1940s and ’50s, Anna Porter learned her family history–and the history of her troubled country–through the captivating stories of her grandfather, master storyteller Vili Racz. The Storyteller is, in turn, a masterfully told memoir that weaves Vili’s fantastic tales, Hungarian history, and Porter’s life experiences into a remarkable story of a nation in turmoil and the changing fortunes of a proud, resilient family.

What did you pick up this week?

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Deux Femmes dans un Jardin en Ete - Henri Lebasque

A gardening reading list, presented in three parts – See Part I and Part II

The Curious Gardener’s Almanac: Centuries of Practical Garden Wisdom by Niall Edworthy
…contains over 1000 entries of remarkable information about flowers, vegetables, fruits, trees, herbs, insects, birds, water, soil, tools, composts, climate, recipes, gardens and gardeners, myths, superstitions, biodynamics…  In short it is a collection as profuse and variegated as gardening itself. Woven into this wealth of knowledge are famous quotations, anecdotes, traditional sayings, lines of verse, and words of rural wisdom. The spirit and focus of the Almanac is British but the wider picture is international as so much of our gardens originated from overseas.

The Garden in the Clouds by Antony Woodward
It was a derelict smallholding so high up in the Black Mountains of Wales it was routinely lost in cloud. But to Antony Woodward, Tair-Ffynnon was the most beautiful place in the world. Equally ill-at-ease in town and country after too long in London’s ad-land, Woodward bought Tair-Ffynnon because he yearned to reconnect with the countryside he never felt part of as a child. But what excuse could he invent to move there permanently? The solution, he decided, was a garden.

A Countrywoman’s Notes by Rosemary Verey
Twelve chapters endeavour to capture the atmosphere of successive months, encompassing the minutiae of plant and wildlife behaviour in the garden and hedgerow. The author celebrates the intimacies of a rural world in an idyllic setting, but with an eye to modern existence and an appreciation of progress.

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf
This is the story of these men – friends, rivals, enemies, united by a passion for plants – whose correspondence, collaborations and squabbles make for a riveting human tale which is set against the backdrop of the emerging empire, the uncharted world beyond and London as the capital of science. From the scent of the exotic blooms in Tahiti and Botany Bay to the gardens at Chelsea and Kew, and from the sounds and colours of the streets of the City to the staggering vistas of the Appalachian mountains,
The Brother Gardeners tells the story how Britain became a nation of gardeners.

A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow
This lively “potted” history of gardening in Britain takes us on a garden tour from the thorn hedges around prehistoric settlements to the rage for decking and ornamental grasses today, tracking down ordinary folk, aristocrats and grand designers

Four Hedges by Clare Leighton
Clare Leighton was one of the finest engravers of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, when she settled in the countryside with her long-term partner, the political journalist Henry Noel Brailsford, she turned her creativity to the land. Gardening became her passion. Her obsession. This is the story of the garden she carved from meadowland deep in the Chiltern Hills.

Please feel free to suggest your own favourites and once I’m back I’ll do a fourth post devoted to them! 

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Library Lust

Mitchell Library, Sydney (Australia)

Doesn’t this look like a wonderful library to do some work in?  Nice big tables, AMAZING light, and just a gorgeous, airy feeling overall.  Maybe a little loud though – I’m sure a room of that size has impressive acoustics!

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Archive Raid

A special relationship is formed with books that have been on our shelves for years without being read.  They become known in a strange way, perhaps because we have read a lot about them, or they are books that are part of our overall heritage.  I think I know a lot about Don Quixote.  I do know a lot about Don Quixote.  I have just never read it.  I doubt if I ever will.  But I know what people mean when they talk about tilting at windmills; I recognize a drawing of Quixote and Sancho Panza.  I believe Cervantes to be a great European writer.  Why do I believe that?  What possible grounds have I for believing it?  Other people’s opinions, the fact that it has an honourable and permanent place in the canon?  So Don Quixote has an honourable, permanent place on my shelves.  It would be wrong to get rid of it, and, besides, I should miss its red leather binding.

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

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In The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, Weiner, a chronic pessimist and veteran NPR journalist, travels the world seeking out some of its happiest (and, for contrast, unhappiest) places.  From Iceland to Qatar, the Netherlands to India, Switzerland to America, Weiner visits a handful of countries that are either proven to be happy (by the statistically minded Dutch, who track such things) or have made happiness a priority (such as Bhutan, with its measurement of Gross National Happiness).  For a surprisingly delightful contrast, he visits the very unhappy people of Moldova, proving that a pessimist like Weiner is at his best when given much to grumble about.  

For me, the book was perhaps too personal, too subjective.  I would have loved to have been showered with data and statistics where Weiner only briefly alluded to a few studies and instead relies on his own limited observations and experiences in the countries he visits.  For a trivia geek like me, this was no where near sufficient.  I loved when, early on, Weiner visits Ruut Veenhoven, who runs the World Database of Happiness in the Netherlands.  Here were trivia-worthy tidbits :

The happiest places, he explains, don’t necessarily fit our preconceived notions.  Some of the happiest countries in the world –Iceland and Denmark, for instance – are homogenous, shattering the American belief that there is strength, and happiness, in diversity.  One finding, which Veenhoven just uncovered, has made him very unpopular with his fellow sociologists.  He found that income distribution does not predict happiness.  Countries with wide gaps between the rich and poor are no less happy than countries where the wealth is distributed more equally.  Sometimes, they are happier. 

Of all the places Weiner profiles, I was most fascinated byIceland.  I am not completely sold that it is a happy place to live (there is much made of its binge drinking culture) but its commitment to writers certainly made it sound appealing:

In Iceland, being a writer is pretty much the best thing you can be.  Successful, struggling, published in books or only in your mind, it matters not.  Icelanders adore their writers.  Partly, this represents a kind of narcissism, since just about everyone isIcelandis writer or poet.  Taxi drivers, college professors, hotel clerks, fishermen.  Everyone.  Icelanders joke that one day they will erect a statue in the center of Reykjavik to honour the one Icelander who never wrote a poem.  They’re still waiting for that person to be born. 

Iceland may have sounded fascinating, but if I had to choose any of the Weiner’s profiled countries as a home, I think it would come down to either the Netherlands or Switzerland.  Probably Switzerland, when I think about it seriously.  ‘Happiness is boring’ is how Weiner describes the contentedness of the Swiss and that has great appeal for me.  Order and structure, no extreme highs and no extreme lows, seems to fit my own personal definition of bliss.

Part of the discussion in the book, particularly the section aboutAmerica, is on the ability of people to relocate to happier places.  Obviously for most of the six billion odd people on earth, this isn’t a practical solution but for many of us in the Western world, it is.  But the measure of what makes a place happy, though to a large extent quantifiable (it’s difficult to be happy without political stability and proper infrastructure, for instance) is, in the end, subjective.  I love being by the ocean and surrounded by forests, with access to major cultural events.  Though I lived in Calgary for more than two years, a city consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to live, I hated it because what it offers had very little in common with what I need.  We each have our own criteria, which will hopefully lead us to where we want to be.      

This book wasn’t quite what I had hoped it would be but it was still interesting enough, if a bit plodding at times.  Weiner’s humour can be laboured – an issue since this is meant to be a humourous book – but the countries he visits offering intriguing contrasts to one another and through them he offers an excellent cross section of many different kinds of happiness.

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Garden at Champigny - Henri Lebasque

A gardening reading list, presented in three parts – See Part I

The Virago Books of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway
From diggers and weeders, to artists and colourists, writers and dreamers to trend-setters, plantswomen to landscape designers, women have contributed to the world of gardening and gardens. Here Deborah Kellaway has collected extracts from the 18th century to the present day, to create a book that is replete with anecdotes and good-humoured advice.

We Made a Garden by Margery Fish
One of Britain’s most esteemed gardening writers recounts how she and her husband set about creating an exemplary cottage garden from unpromising beginnings on the site of the former farmyard and rubbish heap that surround their newly purchased home in the countryside of Somerset, England.

Cuttings: A Year in the Garden with Christopher Lloyd
Arranged to cover the seasons, this magical book will delight all who love good gardening and good gardening writing.

The Rose by Jennifer Potter
In The Rose, Jennifer Potter reveals what makes this flower so special. Challenging many long-cherished ‘truths’, she begins in the Greek and Roman empires and moves across Europe, the Middle East, and on to China and the Americas across 4,000 years, uncovering how and why this unique flower has driven people to distraction with its charm, mystery and beauty.

Weeds: A Cultural History by Richard Mabey
A lively and lyrical cultural history of plants in the wrong place, by one of Britain’s best and most admired nature writers.

Please feel free to suggest your own favourites and once I’m back I’ll do a fourth post devoted to them! 

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Archive Raid

Books make us climb higher, and I always have my hand on a book, as if on a banister.

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

I’m still off on holiday (currently in Prague but leaving for Vienna tomorrow) so no loot for me!

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The Garden in Spring 1914 - Henri Lebasque

As the leaves begin to turn and fall, as the nights get crisper and the air takes on a uniquely autumnal fragrance, I am thrilled to be leaving the long, hot days of summer behind.  Summer has its charms but it remains my least favourite season.  That said, I shall miss the bright variety of my summer garden even as I take pleasure this autumn in planning and planting for a colourful spring. 

But even as I’m plotting what bulbs to use, what plants to move, I’m thinking even further ahead, into the dark, rainy months of winter when books are more suitable companions than trowel and pruning shears.  To that end, I’ve composed a gardening-themed book list in three parts, to be presented over the next few weeks while I’m on vacation.  There’s no real logic to how these books were selected.  Some are histories of plants or people, others personal chronicles of gardening adventures.  I have read none of them and cannot offer any personal guarantee of quality but was intrigued enough to have put them on my TBR list.  Please feel free to suggest your own favourites and once I’m back I’ll do a fourth post devoted to them! 

The Curious Gardener: A Year in the Garden by Anna Pavord
From what to do in each month and how to get the best from flowers, plants, herbs, fruit and vegetables, through reflections on the weather, soil, the English landscape and favourite old gardening clothes, to office greenery, spring in New York, waterfalls, Derek Jarman and garden design, Anna Pavord always has something interesting to say and says it with great style and candour.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita Sackville-West
In this unique gardening chronicle Vita Sackville-West weaves together simple, honest accounts of her horticultural experiences throughout the year with exquisite writing and poetic description. Whether singing the praises of sweet-briar, cyclamen, Indian pinks and the Strawberry grape, or giving practical advice on pruning roses, planting bulbs, overcoming frosts and making the most of a small space, her writings on the art of good gardening are both instructive and delightful.

The Oxford Companion to the Garden edited by Patrick Taylor
This Companion is devoted to gardens of every kind and the people and ideas involved in their making. It combines a survey of the world’s gardens with articles on a range of topics, such as garden visiting, horticulture, scientific issues, and the social history of gardens, as well as biographies of garden designers, nurserymen, and others. Over half the entries are devoted to individual gardens, ranging from palace gardens such as Versailles to private gardens of outstanding design or plant interest, botanic gardens and arboreta, and late 20th-century land art. The geographical coverage is worldwide, with contributions from leading authorities and top garden writers from more than 25 countries.

Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin
From the Douglas-fir and the monkey puzzle tree, to exotic orchids and azaleas, many of the plants that are now so familiar to us were found in distant regions of the globe, often in wild and unexplored country, in impenetrable jungle, and in the face of hunger, disease, and hostile locals. It was specimens like these, smuggled home by the flower hunters, that helped build the great botanical collections, and lay the foundations for the revolution in our understanding of the natural world that was to follow. Here, the adventures of eleven such explorers are brought to life, describing not only their extraordinary daring and dedication, but also the lasting impact of their discoveries both on science, and on the landscapes and gardens that we see today.

Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants by Jennifer Potter
This elegantly written and gorgeously produced book is a portrait of the father and son who created an earthly Eden in the seventeenth century.

The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord
…traces the search for order in the natural world, a search that for hundreds of years occupied some of the most brilliant minds in Europe.

And a few garden-related books I have already read and reviewed:
The Gardener’s Year – Karel Čapek
Paths of Desire – Dominique Browning
Elizabeth and Her German Garden – Elizabeth von Arnim
Merry Hall – Beverley Nichols

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When I picked up Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols, I was incredibly excited.  Whenever I’ve asked about for recommendations of good gardening books, Nichols is invariably mentioned, either for the Merry Hall trilogy or the earlier Down the Garden Path, both semi-fictional chronicles of his gardening efforts at his homes.  And I was indeed delighted and amused by Nichols from the first page to the last, though I came away with no great fondness for the man himself.

After the (second) war, Nichols had a modest but rather specific goal in mind:  I wanted a house.  And I wanted a Georgian house.  And I wanted a garden of at least five acres.  A garden which, for preference, should be wrecked and lost and despairing.  Nichols completely won me over when he began praising Georgian architecture and deriding Tudor cottages in no uncertain terms.  Generally, he is a narrator who deals in absolutes – if your opinion is not the same as his, it is incorrect and you are to be pitied – but here, still early on in the book, he couches his opinion of all dissenters in rather gentler (for him) terms by at least first explaining the obvious disadvantages of the Tudor style:

…though it may seem sad, one grows out of Tudor cottages.  Little by little, the charm of being stunned and set reeling to the wall, six times a day, by the low beams on the ceiling, is apt to pall; one no longer darts gaily up to the bathroom for the sticking plaster, chortling with amusement at the nice Tudore bumpe on one’s forehand…It would be pleasant, one feels, to be able to stand up straight, from time to time…

As it is with comfort, so it is with taste; to linger in the Tudors is merely a sign of aesthetic adolescence; one must more on the eighteenth century, and if one has any sense, stay there.

Nichols’ interest in Merry Hall is solely in the place itself.  He wants nothing to do with the neighbourhood and his neighbours, persistent though they might be at trying to befriend him and get their hands on the excess produce from his excellent vegetable garden.  Those rare moments when he either admits the interlopers into his home or finds they’ve breeched the gates themselves, he is of course subjected to a passive aggressive lecture criticizing all the changes he has made.  Because the neighbours who best like to visit are always the ones who new the old residents best and remain loyal even to their misguided and offensive garden designs (though Nichols is offended by an endless list of things).

While Nichols would probably make for an odious neighbour, with all his catty comments and ungenerous sentiments, these same features make him wickedly entertaining.  If you’re sensitive, this is not the book for you, as Nichols cheerfully insults all manner of people (women in particular).  Humourously, it is true, but quite seriously at the same time:

If you are in a position to plant a wood, and if you refrain from doing so, you must be, ipso facto, of a bleak and sullen disposition.  You are to be shunned.  It is arguable that your very existence should be made an offense in law.  To own a plot of land – to have enough money to plant that land with lilacs and maples and pines and pears, and not to do so, but to spend that money on something horrible like a mink coat…it is indecent.  Who wants to see you in a mink coat?  Nobody.

He is also horribly misguided in his love affair with that most vile plant, the lily (his infatuation with the lilies already growing at the house are part of what leads him to purchase it), but as he is right-thinking in most other gardening matters (except for his passion for displays of tiny cut flowers), he may be forgiven.  He is an opinionated narrator but then I am an equally opinionated reader.  I did shudder whenever he described his cats, ‘One’ (a Siamese – I find them only slightly less repulsive than lilies) and ‘Four’, but his gardening descriptions are excellent and his critical humour irresistible.

Nichols at Merry Hall

There were a number of surprisingly practical passages in the book, which I hadn’t at all anticipated.  I’m used to humourous garden literature being more about the journey and the gardener himself rather than what the garden is composed of, so such guidance was surprising but welcome.  Nichols’ has a passion for winter plants and very instructive suggestions for which ones to try.  He also offers detailed guidance on the different types of berberis.  And as I plan out my spring garden and begin to plant the bulbs in the next couple of months, I will certainly have to consider Nichols’ edict on the correct way of planting daffodils:

As we all know, the only way to plant daffodils is to pile them on to a tray, and then to run out into the orchard and hurl the tray into the air, planting them exactly where they fall.  There may be other, less orthodox methods; if so they should be spurned.  The tray, the ecstatic gesture…that is the only sure road to success.

I would certainly never qualify this as a gentle read – it’s too malicious for that – nor a particularly charming one – too theatrically camp for that – but it is still a highly entertaining story of a man and his garden.  I’ll certainly be wanting to read the remaining two books in the trilogy sometime this winter because, though his affection for his fellow man is rarely evident, Nichols’ love for his garden can never be in doubt:

Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death.

I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once.

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