Archive for March, 2012

Library Lust

I adore the idea of hallways lined with bookshelves, all the better if they are accompanied by windowseats.  The only problem is that with all those lovely distractions along the way, I might then have a problem moving swiftly from room to room!

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My first few attempts at reading Elizabeth Taylor’s books did not go well.  I tried a handful during Virago Reading Week last year and never got past the first fifty pages in any of them.  But, given how enthusiastic so many of my favourite bloggers are about her, I wanted to give her another try.  So, a few weeks ago I found myself picking up At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor and I can now finally report that I have read, from start to finish, one of Taylor’s novels.  But I’m still not sure how I feel about her.

The novel begins as the Davenant family are moving into Mrs Lippincote’s house, which they’ve rented to be close to the RAF base (the book was published in 1945) where Roddy Davenant has recently been assigned.  Roddy has been in the area for a while but his family – wife Julia, son Oliver, and spinster cousin Eleanor – have just joined him.  From the opening pages, it is clear that there is something a little off with this family.  They do not relate to one another in the way you would expect and they certainly never seem relaxed in one another’s presence.  Each one seems wholly interested in his or her own affairs, never really coming together to exist as a family unit.  It makes for a chilly atmosphere and wife and mother Julia seems to be at the center of that.

Julia is an odd character and certainly not a particularly likeable one.   She seems very alone and very empty but not in a particularly sympathetic way.  She is quite emotionally detached from her family, though, in her way, she cares deeply for her seven-year-old son Oliver.  She is essentially disinterested in all the trappings of respectability that matter so much to the outwardly proper (but philandering) Roddy and she does things not just knowing that they will upset Roddy but because she knows they will upset him; there is an uncomfortable element of cruelty to her behaviour.  She seems barbed and brittle – an amusing woman to have a light conversation with, someone whose sharp comments (if not directed at you) can make you laugh, but also someone who is very fragile.  Julia happily performs a number of domestic duties but she brings no warmth into the home – but then neither does anyone else.  She is quick though, and I found her conversations fascinating as she deployed her wit to both charm and needle.  And when she does want to charm and amuse, as in her conversations with the Wing Commander, she always succeeds, presenting herself with an appealing blend of confidence and peculiarity.  Who but Julia would use a dinner party to instigate a fanciful conversation about food in literature?:

‘These baked apples are very good,’ said the Wing Commander.

‘I had the recipe from Villette. I like to get my recipes from good literature,’ Julia explained.

‘It takes a woman novelist to describe a dish of food.’

‘If we invert that, what a prodigious novelist Mrs Beeton would have been,’ said Roddy.

‘Oh, I agree,’ said Julia, ‘but it isn’t often true. Remember how often it is always mutton in Jane Austen. I can’t recall them eating anything else. Oh, gruel, of course.’

‘And don’t men describe food well?’ Mrs Mallory wondered. No one could remember. ‘One of the best meals I ever ate in my imagination was the Boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse,’ said Julia. ‘I see it now and smell it – the great earthenware dish and its’ (she closed her eyes and breathed slowly) ‘“its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bayleaves and its wine.”’

They laughed at her and she took up a spoon and was surprised that the taste was of fruit, not meat.

‘Virginia Woolf is a little too modern for me,’ said the Wing Commander. ‘She has not stood the test of time. She has not been approved by posterity.’

‘We have none of us been that,’ said Julia. ‘But we can still enjoy a meal.’

I was more intrigued by Eleanor, Roddy’s middle-aged cousin.  She is and always has been in love with him, and, because of that, is oblivious to his faults.  After a breakdown, she’s come to live with the Davenants, a source of both stress and amusement for Julia.  Eleanor has a romantic soul and finds herself caught up with a group of dramatic communists, more notable for their domestic arrangements than political convictions.  Still, there is life and energy in them, something not always to be found at Mrs Lippincote’s, and therefore all the more attractive.  Or, rather, Julia has energy but you never know to what end it will be turned.

Roddy is largely absent, which is part of the problem, but does nothing to endear himself to the reader or his family when he does appear.  He is very dull, desiring an entirely conventional, unexceptional home life with an obedient, worshiping wife and presentable, respectful son.  Julia is far from obedient and the precocious Oliver acts too oddly grown-up to ever feel like the seven-year old he is.  For the reader, though, Oliver is a delight.  A bookish boy who has perfected the art of being an invalid, he makes both his parents nervous with his ailments and his disinterest in typical childish behaviours.  He, until he befriends the boisterous Felicity, is perfectly happy to live in his books.  He is the only character who didn’t feel distant but, all the same, there was nothing about him that was particularly believable (how many seven-year-olds count Jane Eyre among their favourite books?).  Still, as a reader I couldn’t help but grow a bit attached to this kindred soul:

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books.  He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of the words.  Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine.  The pages had personality.  He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night.  He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window.  Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.

I am definitely intrigued by Taylor’s style – I find her sharp wit and precise descriptions very appealing – but I was unimpressed by her handling of the characters and plot. For a relatively short book, there just seemed to be too much pointless activity (especially the scenes among Eleanor’s communist friends) and too many extraneous characters.  More importantly, all of the central characters felt artificial.  They may have had certain characteristics or behaviours that I could sympathize with but not one of them – Julia, Roddy, Eleanor, or Oliver – ever felt like a real person.  They expressed exactly what they needed to in order to get across the story and mood that Taylor desired but they were nothing more than that.  The overall effect was too mannered for my tastes.  I read so many positive reviews of At Mrs Lippincote’s both before and while I was reading it, and I did try very hard to try and understand what those bloggers loved about the book but I simply could not feel the same.  Still, there was enough here to interest me in trying more of Taylor’s works and I’ve just begun reading A View of the Harbour (which is the March readalong book for the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations).

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I love all of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books but I find the wartime ones particularly fascinating.  Part of what I love so much about her novels is how well she captures and comments on the everyday events over the years, things other novelists and many social historians never think to touch on.  I love those little domestic details, particularly when it comes to hearing characters’ complaints about things I would never otherwise have thought about, like The Times moving the crossword to a different page or the frustration of British Double Summer Time during the war.  Thirkell published a new book almost every year so in her wartime novels you really have a quite extraordinary, almost real-time record of the general mood and atmosphere as the years dragged on.  And in Marling Hall by Angela Thirkell, published in 1942 but set in 1941, she somehow manages to retain her usual humour while addressing the sombre realities of war in the central figure of Lettice Watson (nee Marling), whose naval husband was killed at Dunkirk.

Lettice has come back to her family home, Marling Hall, in the wake of her husband’s death and has been there for some time when the book begins, living a bit separate from the rest of the Marlings, in a self-contained flat in the stable block with her two young daughters and their nurse.  In her late twenties, Lettice is by no means resigned to widowhood and, having come to terms with her husband’s death, is open to a new romantic attachment.  She not as outgoing as the rest of her family but, even without looking for admirers, she seems to be overwhelmed with them.  Will she favour the very tedious Mr Harvey, whose primary pastime is attempting to fend off his intrusive landlady?  The dashing David Leslie, as insincere and caddish as ever but still desperately attractive with his good looks and easy charm?  Or the steady, sincere Captain Barclay, who is clearly in love with Lettice but is generally considered the property of Lucy Marling, Lettice’s overbearing younger sister who introduced him into their little social circle?

Like Lettice, this novel is quite subdued.  I feel like there is more focus on her than Thirkell usually places on any one character and Lettice is so introverted that such a focus means we get to know her usually well.  Yes, there are other more light-hearted storylines that Thirkell also follows but the only character I really cared about was Lettice.  Usually when I read one of Thirkell’s novels, I’m happy for half a dozen characters to engage my sympathies and while I was certainly entertained by and fond of the other players in this comedy, Lettice was the only one I yearned to see get a happy ending.  She is a lovely young woman but, despite being surrounded by family, a lonely one.

But what a family it is.  Lucy Marling is very practical and productive but also magnificently bossy and uncouthly curious.  She seems to spend most of her time bullying about members of the armed forces, convincing them to take her to see things in restricted access zones.  Oliver Marling, their bachelor brother, is inoffensive on his own but provides interest through a romantic misadventure with his secretary, Miss Harvey, which thankfully comes to nothing.  Their attraction has more to do with proximity and their advancing ages than any real affection and they certainly do not bring out the best in each other.  Watching Miss Harvey become more calculating and obnoxious as the book progresses is a slightly horrifying pleasure – you know Thirkell won’t allow Oliver to be shackled with her but as long as the possibility remains, it’s quite alarming.  The elder Marlings appear almost only at meals but Mrs Marling gets one of the most perfectly Thirkell-esque introductions I’ve come across so far:

Mrs Marling, who disliked her name, Amabel, but had never seen her way to do anything about it, was an Honourable, as anyone may see who cares to look her up in Debrett, and connected with most of Barsetshire.  She had the tradition of service, the energy, capacity for taking pains and, let us frankly say, the splendid insensitiveness and the self-confidence that make the aristocracy of the country what it is.

Speaking of that aristocratic self-confidence, Sir Edmund Pridham makes a masterful but brief appearance in which he rescues Ed Pollett (mechanical genius, valued handyman and half-wit) from what would have been a truly traumatising army career.  I am fairly confident that paragraphs like these are what horrify other, more politically-correct readers even as they make me love Thirkell even more:

In the winter of 1940-41 [Ed Pollett] had registered, and as the doctor who examined the men found it simpler to do nothing but test their ears and pull down their lower lids – a piece of routine mumbo-jumbo that impressed everyone with his efficiency – it quite escaped his notice that Ed, who had always been immune to education, was mentally far below even the standard that the BBC sets in its broadcasts to the Forces, and passed him as A.1.  Ed would have found himself almost at once in the Barsetshire Regiment, where he would probably have become really insane through fright and homesickness, had not Sir Edmund Pridham, who took an immense pride in all county idiots, standing between them and every encroachment of bureaucracy and regarding them on the whole as part of our National Heritage (as indeed they are), intervened with the whole force of his position and county authority and forced the doctor to report him quite unsuitable for any kind of military work and of extreme value as a reserved worker.

With the Marlings, there is also Miss Bunting, dear Bunny, everyone’s favourite retired governess, with her calm sense of decorum, her quick intelligence but measured reactions, and her recurring dream of confronting Hitler, whose war has killed so many of her beloved charges.  She is always so right – though one does wonder what influence she could have had on Lucy Marling.  Are there simply some characters too forceful even for Miss Bunting to tame?

As usual in a Thirkell novel, there is no real plot.  People just go about their lives, working, raising families, visiting with friends, and falling in love.  Thirkell had a gift for domestic humour and needed no extraordinary events to channel it – the everyday was quite enough for her.  A perfect example of this is the brilliant comedy provided by a visit from the Harveys’ former governess, Mademoiselle Duchaux, whose French pride is not particularly well received by some of Barsetshire’s patriotic residents.  Her ‘conversations’ with Mrs Smith, the Harveys’ landlady, are particularly magnificent, each woman full of contempt and pity for the other’s nationality (and Mrs Smith only able to express herself in fantastically fractured French).  The tension between Mlle Duchaux and Miss Bunting is also wonderfully expressed:

If we have given the impression that the two ex-governesses did not cotton to each other, that is exactly the impression we hoped to create.  Mlle Duchaux felt the natural contempt of a French governess, who had spent most of her life in England where the mere fact of her being a foreigner gave her a certain status, for an English governess who spoke rather good French.  Miss Bunting felt the even more natural, though less plainly shown contempt of a first-rate English governess who had always taught in good families for a foreigner who would never know what really good families were.

And what to say of Mrs Smith, landlady to the Harvey siblings, antagonist to Mlle Duchaux?  Having let her home furnished to the Harveys, she apparently has no conception of what that actually means.  She is constantly dropping in to reclaim a favourite lamp, desk blotter, or table, doing so with an arrogance that stupefies the poor Harveys.  Like the Harveys, I reacted with horror every time she appeared, dreading how she might impose on them this time.  She cheerfully helps herself to what’s in the vegetable garden and, when the Harveys begin keeping chickens, assumes ownership over them as well, picking eggs right out of the henhouse and, in a true show of bravado, making off with one of the chickens.  She is terrifyingly plausible, as comic as she is dreadful.

This is not one of Thirkells best books but, even so, it is a very satisfying read.  The characters are not as fully developed or as engaging as in her better books but the comic scenes are wonderful – particularly anything involving Mrs Smith – and I was completely fascinated by the glimpse she gives us of a very tired wartime Britain, at a point when the possibility of victory seemed all too distant.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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.

Any time I have reason to go downtown, I always try and figure out if I can fit in a trip to the central branch of the library.  It is a magical place (so many floors of books!) and I can never visit enough.  I had a lunch date with my aunt on Saturday so decided I could go pick up a couple of books beforehand.  It turned out to be more than ‘a couple’ but, perhaps constrained by having only one carrier bag or by the prospect of carrying those books on the scenic forty-five minute walk between the library and my aunt’s apartment, it was still a very reasonable number.  I’m particularly excited to have picked up some more Trollope – I have missed him!

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper – Danielle mentioned this YA book last week and as soon as I learned that other readers had compared it to I Capture the Castle, I had to place a library hold.  It came in on Saturday and I read it that night, finding it absolutely delightful.  It has so many irresistible elements – an island setting! Fictional royalty! The 1930s!  A diary format! – and I cannot wait to read the next book, The FitzOsbornes in Exile.

Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman – this has been everywhere in the press and, after enjoying all the excerpts I came across, I had to try it for myself.  Admittedly, parenting books aren’t my natural reading picks but this is more a personal book than a guide, chronicling the cultural differences one American woman experiences while raising her child in Paris.  I started reading on Tuesday and it is very entertaining – the so-called ‘French’ style is very familiar but I’m fascinated to read about the (occasionally bizarre) ways Druckerman and her American and British friends approach parenting.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan –I’ve been hearing amazing things about The Wheel of Time fantasy series for years.  When Colin mentioned it last week in his brother Simon T’s “My Life in Books” feature, it seemed like a sign that I should finally start it, so here I am with the first book.

Four Plays by A.A. Milne – Having spent a good amount of time reading Milne in January (I loved Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Once on a Time, and his autobiography), it felt time to visit with him once again!  My copy also has the most amazing bright green, patterned library binding I’ve ever seen – I’ll have to take a photo of it at some point to share.

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow – I’ve been looking forward to this ever since reading Jenny’s review last spring.  I loved Uglow’s biography of Elizabeth Gaskell and trust this history of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and its energetic, influential members will be just as excellent.

Flora’s Lot by Katie Fforde – probably my favourite of Fforde’s novels.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor – I did read At Mrs Lippincote’s and though I didn’t adore it, I did enjoy Taylor’s style enough to want to try more of her work.  This is the March readalong book for the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary so it seemed as good a book as any to read next!

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope – It has been too long since I last visited Trollope’s Barsetshire, though I have been spending a fair amount of time lately in Thirkell’s 20th Century version of that delightful county.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope – ditto.

And, because I can never resist the gardening section when I visit the central branch:

The Transplanted Gardener by Charles Elliot – From the question of why England is so wet – or, in the view of a dripping American, seems to be – to an account of the great Charles Darwin’s favourite obsession (it was earthworms), The Transplanted Gardener contains a sparkling set of essays exploring the history, practice, and eccentricities of gardening in “the world’s greatest potting shed,” England.

The Potting Shed Papers by Charles Elliot – In these essays, Charles Elliott casts a whimsical eye over gardens and gardening around the globe. From the Japanese craze for the Ingurishu Gaaden (English Garden) to the relentless plundering of tropical forests for glamorous orchids, from Bishop Compton’s horticultural obsessions to sex and the single strawberry, Elliott seeks to bring to life some of the more remarkable episodes in horticultural history.

My Garden, the City and Me by Helen Babbs – Helen Babbs is a self-proclaimed city girl who lives on the second floor of a flat in a chaotic corner of London. An urge to find more green in the city and a stronger connection to the natural world leads her to create her first garden, an organic edible garden on her rooftop.

What did you pick up this week?

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I first heard of Dear Friend and Gardener by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd in that brief period between discovering that book blogs existed (in about November 2009) and starting my own (in January 2010), when I was content to simply lurk about reading other people’s blogs without commenting (hello to everyone doing that now!).  It was while sifting through Simon T’s archives that I came across his brief and intriguing review of this gardening-focused volume of correspondence.  Now, at the time, I wasn’t terribly interested in gardening but I have always loved a book of letters, so onto my TBR list it went.  Since then, I’ve developed a keen interest in gardening and garden literature so I when I picked it up from the library a few weeks ago I was more eager than ever to read it.

The book and the correspondence came about because of a suggestion from the publisher in the mid-nineties.  Clearly, it was one both Chatto and Lloyd found appealing and the results is this collection of letters between the gardeners over the period of two years.  This is not a private correspondence being shared with the masses but a correspondence written with the audience somewhat in mind – that ‘somewhat’ holding the delightful key to this book’s appeal.  Chatto and Lloyd are definitely conscious that their thoughts are going to be shared with the garden-loving public (there are lots of little explanatory notes that neither expert gardener could possibly need) but that does not keep them from talking about other aspects of their lives.  Each letter is garden-focused, of course, but is just as likely to touch on family and friends, visits from shared acquaintances, summer trips to Glyndebourne, childhood memories, or favourite recipes.  The letters are a rich source of gardening knowledge but they are also, much more charmingly, a reflection of a long-standing and affectionate friendship between Chatto and Lloyd.

As much as I’ve learned about plants and gardening over the past few years, most of the specifics Chatto and Lloyd discuss went well over my head.  My knowledge of Latin plant names is almost nonexistent and I could not keep up with all of the name dropping.  This is something Chatto would no doubt disapprove of, based on her comment to Lloyd that: “If you are unfamiliar with a plant, you can easily look, but your mind will not take it in.  Knowing it especially by name, is like recognizing an old friend.”  Her comment makes perfect sense – I know I’m always more conscious of the plants I come across that I know, while the unknown all fade into the background – but I’ve a ways to go before I’m up to standard!  I was especially delighted to read both Lloyd and Chatto’s comments about young gardeners.  Lloyd in particular seems to be surrounded by young people.  I got the impression of Great Dixter as a sort of multigenerational gathering place, more often than not brimming over with fascinating young people, who spent their visits helping out in the garden, overnighting on the floor in sleeping bags, and eating the amazing meals prepared by Lloyd.  Like any experts in their field, both Chatto and Lloyd are delighted when they come across enthusiastic young hopefuls and a tad grouchy when they find ignorant, passionless students:

I am sometimes saddened (more truthfully irritated) when meeting young horticultural students in the garden, who all too rarely exhibit a real hunger for the subject.  Perhaps I malign them, maybe they are too shy to express it.  They all seem to be studying landscape design; yet when I ask a few elementary questions I find they are astonishingly ignorant about plants.  What motivates them I wonder?  Surely some passion (a lot, I would say) is required to fuel the energies, mental and physical, to pursue a career in horticulture?  Many students seem to have chosen this career without ever having put together a few plants and then watched their performance for a few weeks, or months, let alone two or three season.  (Chatto to Lloyd)

While the plant names may have been mostly beyond me, I did get a wonderful education in what it means to run gardens on the scale of Great Dixter and the Beth Chatto Gardens.  All the people, all the tasks, all the energy that goes into them through the year made for fascinating reading.  As all the different activities were described, I found myself fidgeting as I read, inspired by both Chatto and Lloyd’s example to get out and weed or prune or plant.  I also loved reading about their approaches to garden design.  I was particularly struck by Chatto’s thoughts on the importance of other artistic influences on the design process, something that came through very strongly in The Laskett by Roy Strong (an outstanding book I hope to review soon), which I read only a couple of weeks before this:

Personally I think we may have a wider approach to garden design if we have been helped to appreciate other forms of art; to be aware of basic principles – balance, repetition, harmony and simplicity – which apply to all forms of creativity.  To look for ideas in painting and architecture, or hear them in music, has certainly influenced me as much as knowing whether to put a plant in the shade, or in full sun.

The book is definitely geared to a gardening audience but I think the warmth of their friendship, the affectionate, considerate way they deal with one another, should appeal to any reader.  It is a pleasure to read about people who love what they do, however incomprehensible that occupation may be to the reader, and the strength of Chatto and Lloyd’s passion for their work is gratifying.  I think this is a book I’ll need to reread several times in the years to come.  This time through, I was so distracted at points by my ignorance that I’m sure I didn’t get to enjoy the charms of both Chatto and Lloyd as well as I could have.  As my gardening knowledge grows (and my confusion over plant names lessens), I’m sure I’ll find it even more appealing.

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I had so been looking forward to A Force to Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute by Jane Robinson but found myself surprisingly indifferent to it once I started reading.  It is a good and informative book, giving a solid overview of the group’s development over the last hundred years or so, but for me it felt like there was something missing.  Robinson does a good job of presenting the facts but it felt very dry, even though the writing style is enjoyable.

To begin with, I was perhaps irrationally irritated by Robinson’s fondness for referring to anywhere in Canada as ‘backwoods’.  We have a lot of places that can legitimately be described as backwoods, being both wooded and sparsely populated.  Generally, the places that Robinson specifically referred to as backwoods were not, being either rural agricultural communities or, in one case, a provincial capital.  This is a foolishly small thing but I found it incredibly off-putting.

The WI began in the farming community of Stoney Creek, Ontario in 1897 but it wasn’t until almost twenty years later (in 1915) that it was successfully established in the UK.  From WWI to the present, Robinson chronicles the group’s accomplishments, from the requisite jam-making and ‘Jerusalem’-singing to their advocacy for more education on contentious issues like family planning and, as soldiers returned from First World War, sexually transmitted diseases.  So much of what the WI has done from the beginning, and what makes them such an admirable group, has been about making sure women had the education and confidence to improve their quality of life – all their larger contributions spring from that:

The WI’s most significant contribution to feminism remained, and remains still, what it had been from the very beginning: to equip women with the confidence to think and speak for themselves, and to make well informed decisions for their own good and for the benefit of their families and the wider community.

But, in many ways, this felt like a very shallow history.  The WI’s accomplishments are listed off and a few of their most notable champions described but always through rose-coloured glasses.  Robinson acknowledges the challenges and conflicts faced early on when the Women’s Institute was struggling to establish itself in Britain and, for me that was probably the most fascinating part of the book, especially concerning the challenges of imposing a democratic organization on a class-conscious society.  After that, everything is generally delightful and wonderful, moving from strength to strength, creating a book that becomes (I hate to say it) dull.  The WI’s achievements, impressive though they are, are presented in such a bland, uninspiring way that I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by even their most salacious efforts, like grannies pushing for safer working conditions for prostitutes.

Really, I think my issue with the book was its complete lack of human interest.  There are lots of facts but there are none of the anecdotes that make similar histories so fascinating.  I could not help but contrast it with the excellent How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton, which was such an exciting and engaging read.  The organizations are not that dissimilar (and in fact have worked together, particularly during WWII) but Hampton’s vivid details and well chosen statistics made for a far more interesting history.  I would still recommend A Force to Be Reckoned With because of the excellent overview it does give of the WI and Robinson’s obvious enthusiasm for her subject.  I just wish she had gone into more depth, giving more details and stories, which would have made for a much more interesting read.

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I think Bulb by Anna Pavord is my new favourite ‘picture’ book.  The photos in it are absolutely stunning, so much so that I’ve barely read any of the text yet.  I keep opening the book intending to read all about hyacinths or tulips or any of the other bulbs discussed but find myself flipping forward to the next sections, just reading bits and pieces as I go about whatever flowers catch my eye.  It’s is not an exhaustive guide (covering only 540 of Pavord’s favourite bulbs) but it offers a nice combination of the familiar and the obscure with lots of practical information about planting.  I’m finding the section on tulips particularly inspiring – I’m already keeping a list of which ones I want to get in the autumn!

I took a few photos of my favourite pages to share with you all.  If you click on the photo, you should be able to see a larger version of it.

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Library Lust

Whoa.  This may be a highly impractical library – can you imagine the fuss of trying to retrieve something from one of the higher shelves?  Or just attempting to dust? – but it looks amazing.

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Slightly Foxed

There’s a nice article on The Telegraph website today about Slightly Foxed, which I recommend everyone  read. I’m a relatively new subscriber (as of January) but I’m working my way through the library’s stack of back issues and every single one has been a delight. The Spring 2012 issue of the quarterly just arrived on my doorstep a few days ago and, as usual, is filled with wonderfully personal pieces on an amazing variety of both familiar and deeply obscure books.  I haven’t read any of the Slightly Foxed Editions yet but I have finally placed an order for three of them (Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith; Another Self by James Lees-Milne; and A Late Beginner by Priscilla Napier) and can’t wait for them to arrive!

Eventually, you will all be subjected to a much longer post with me rambling on about all the reasons I love “Slightly Foxed” (not the least of which is how my TBR list expands every time a new issue arrives) but, for now, just enjoy the article!  For the uninitiated, it gives a nice overview of what they are all about and how they started.

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Books, books, books, wonderful books!  A number of books have made their way onto my shelves (where there is no room for them) over the past few months and, though I’ve made some attempts to alert everyone to what was arriving, it seemed time to do a roundup of all the ones that hadn’t previously been mentioned.  Which turns out to be quite a lot.  Lumping everything together, from things bought in November to things given to me last week, does give a rather glorious sense of excess, which, not generally being an excessive person, I find rather thrilling.

Musical Chairs by Cecil Gray – this is the kind of thing I usually come home with from the used bookstore when I have credit there and too much time on my hands.  I had never heard of Gray, a Scottish composer who lived from 1895-1951, before I saw this but am fond enough of the Hogarth Press (a fondness based almost entirely on their having reissued Summer Half by Angela Thirkell) that I thought I’d take a chance.  The blurb on the back cover intriguingly promises an “ebullient, opinionated, entirely delightful memoir: of childhood holidays and eccentric uncles; of First World War spy scares with D.H. Lawrence in Cornwall and the bohemian splendour of the city – from the Café Royal in the Twenties to the Fitzrovia bars of the Forties…”  I was sold by the time I got to ‘eccentric uncles’.

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West – this might have actually influenced my purchase of Musical Chairs, given that they both deal with Edwardian childhoods and music (at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe – not having read either I’m hardly an authority!).  I bought it as soon as I read the post announcing it as the Cornflower Book Group choice for February and then completely ignored it once it arrived.  It does sound wonderful though and I do look forward to reading it.

Magic Flutes, The Dragonfly Pool and The Star of Kazan (which I read and loved last year but never got around to reviewing) by Eva Ibbotson – given my love for Ibbotson and my all-consuming need to reread her novels at least once a year, it only seemed logical to add these to my collection.

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith – one dark and stormy afternoon in December, I walked into my local library and saw this resting on top of the sales rack by the door.  For 50 cents, it was mine!

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson – ever since Simon T reviewed this last year, I have been desperate to read it.  The library has lost its copy and seems unlikely to ever recover it, so I finally broke down and bought a copy for myself.  I may not get on with Jackson’s gothic tales but this humourous, domestic ‘memoir’ sounds like just my thing!

Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace – I’d seen this mentioned on a number of blogs as a perfect comfort read, which I can now confirm it certainly is.

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda – I adored this last year and had to have a copy of my own.

An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope – continuing to add to my collection of Oxford World’s Classics editions of Trollope.

The Czech Reader: History, Culture, Politics edited by Jan Bažant, Nina Bažantová, and Frances Starn – I checked this out from the library earlier this year and was amazed by all it has to offer.  A wonderful addition to my little Czech collection.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – I read and adored this last month and actually went out and bought my own copy before I’d even returned the library edition.


The Curious Gardener by Anna Pavord – I was delighted by this collection of Pavord’s garden articles, which vary from the gratifyingly practical to the fascinatingly personal.  When my brother asked what I wanted for my birthday, this was at the top of the list.

The Gentle Art of Domesticity by Jane Brocket – continually borrowing this from the library was getting quite inconvenient.  It is a book I want to dip in and out of and, now that I own it, I can do just that!

Bulb by Anna Pavord – the second book I requested my brother give me for my birthday (he follows instructions wonderfully).  A guide to a selection of Pavord’s favourite bulbs, it is endlessly fascinating and absolutely stunning to look at.  I’ve already spent some very happy hours looking through it.

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