After a lazy summer of reading too many things I was too embarrassed to blog about ( which may be another blog topic entirely) my brain is finally focussed again and just in time to pick up the new novel from A.M. Homes. Homes is a darkly funny writer, who always has a keen eye, and in this case she turns it on the modern American family which she dissects with almost surgical precision. It’s almost impossible to put this book down, which begins on Thanksgiving day and covers approximately a year of time in which we watch the lives of two brothers who have been at constant odds unravel spectacularly and unexpectedly . Like many family dramas this one is a noisy train wreck in startling slow motion. All the characters are eerily familiar and of course while some survive, some others do not and it is the gift of this writer that she brings her own sense of humor into what in other hands would be a book too bleak to contemplate. If all of this sounds entirely too dark for you, don’t worry. There is redemption here and like everything A.M. Homes writes about it unfolds beautifully in the hands of this skilled author.
I was happy to discover the Modern Library Gardening Series, edited by Michael Pollan, and am making my way through all of them. I couldn’t resist picking up Reginald Arklell’s garden novel Old Herbaceous as my starting point as the title intrigued me. It tells the story of Bert Pinnegar, a shy orphan with one leg longer than the other who nonetheless works his way up from nothing to become the head gardener known as “Old Herbaceous” on a sprawling British country estate. The novel brings us from the Victorian era into the Edwardian, and covers two World Wars, and yet, with few exceptions, we rarely leave the garden. Bert brings it slowly to life and in return, like every garden, it gives him one. This is a simple and beautiful book, with moments of sly humor. Pull a chair up under your favorite tree and read it slowly. If you have ever loved, or dreamed of, a garden you’ll be glad you did. I promise, as you turn the pages you can even smell the soft country earth and the light scent of garden roses.
“Are you old enough, or wise enough to remember and appreciate those country gardens of the early ‘eighties? The moss rose under the kitchen window; the sweet williams, all of one homely pattern; the great cabbage roses and the musk that had not yet lost its scent. Mignonette flourished in the poor, gravelly soil under the holly tree; maidenhair fern carpeted the gray steps of the old summer house and lilies of the valley grew like weeds.”
Reginald Arkell — Old Herbaceous
President Barak Obama’s declaration the other day that he believes marriage is an institution for all was an extraordinary act of courage and it had particular resonance for me, not least because I was in the process of reading A Difficult Woman, the new biography of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris. For those who may not be familiar with the noted playwright and activist Miss Hellman, to say that she was a woman who spoke her mind, no matter the consequence, is an understatement. To have the conviction of one’s beliefs is always admirable in this reader’s humble opinion, and Lillian Hellman had that in spades. During the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s she was one of the very few who stood up and absolutely refused to cave in to the paranoia of the times with her simple declaration “I will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
Bravo Miss Hellman. And bravo Mr. President for telling us what is on your mind no matter the consequences, especially in a closely contested election year. Whether one is standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Tea Party — and, is there a difference — it takes a tough, uncompromising, and absolutely fierce belief in what is just to speak your mind.
And might I also say, of course it makes an excellent read. I heartily recommend A Difficult Woman to any fan of Hellman or any person who admires the absolutely blunt courage it takes to take a stand, no matter the consequences.
“I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: to try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbour, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would therefore like to come before you and speak of myself.” — Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time
And while we are on the subjects of gardens and the writers who love them I would not rest easily if I did not encourage everyone to pick up a copy of The Wild Braid – A Poet Reflects On A Century In The Garden by Stanley Kunitz. The book, written in his one hundredth year, with the poet Genine Lentine, is an absolutely beautiful reflection not just on the garden itself but on life, loss, death and renewal. It is scattered with poems, prose, conversations between Genine and Stanley, and stunning photography by Marnie Crawford Samuelson. I was quite surprised to discover that reading the book was much like wandering in a well-loved garden in the sense that there was always something new and unexpected to discover. Walking through a conversation between the two poets, stopping to admire a photograph of the poet tending his plants and then, suddenly, oh look over here… a poem in the middle of this page right here, growing just where it should.
Needless to say, this little book is as well tended as the poet’s garden. There is nothing here that should be moved around or weeded out.
Stanley Kunitz was honored and awarded just about every prize for poetry one can think of including the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, A National Medal of the Arts and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He served twice as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He was a teacher at Columbia University, an editor of the Yale Younger Poets, the founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and also of the Poets House in New York City. And he was a gardener. He died in 2006 at the age of 100.
All these beautiful photographs are from the book, taken by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.
“Thinking of a new season in the garden feels different from imagining a new poem. The garden has achieved its form; it doesn’t have to be new each year. What it has to do is grow. You’re not going to uproot the entire garden and start all over. The poem is always a new creation and aspires to a transcendence that is beyond telling at the moment when you’re working on it. You know you are moving into an area you’ve never explored before and there is a great difference.”
“I wonder if those birds ever tire of their song –I wonder whether a bird ever thinks, ‘Today I’ll try a new song.'”
Stanley Kunitz – The Wild Braid
I admit I have been lax about reading and reviewing lately so perhaps it’s time to offer an explanation. I have become, finally, a gardener. And it is Spring. And I can hardly take the time to dress after waking to rush from the bed to the garden to see what has happened. Because a garden is a miracle, and no more so than in an unseasonably warm Spring when everything is behaving not as it should but as we hoped for. Today, however, when the sun finally disappeared behind the thick grey curtain of fog and clouds I went indoors and wandered about a bit. I felt, quite honestly, bereft. I tried this and that to amuse myself but it was difficult to start anything when every few minutes I kept rushing to the windows to see if the sun had come out in the garden. Needless to say, it had not.
No worries however, for I soon figured out what to do and picked up a favorite books of mine by the late fiction editor of The New Yorker, Katharine S. White. Everything about this book is wonderful if you love to garden as much as I do. Like any avid gardener Katharine was a reader and collector of garden catalogues and this book consists of her reviews of them, as well as her thoughts in general about the garden. The reviews themselves originally appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950’s and what a surprise it must have been at the time to elevate the seed and garden catalogues of the day in the pages of the magazine. An editor and writer of great note on her own Katharine was also married to E. B. White, who provides a fine introduction to this excellent volume. I highly recommend anyone who takes an interest in the earth beneath us put this book by their bedside to dip into when it is too cold or dark to venture out into the garden itself. It is a truly wonderful volume for the gardener and writer in all of us.
“As I write snow is falling outside my Maine window and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom.” — Katharine S. White
For the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Prize judges did not award a work of fiction. This, despite that fact that three very good finalists were up for consideration. They were, the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.
Needless to say, the Pulitzer committee beat a hasty retreat with no explanation given. No doubt for the obvious reason that they could not string a sentence of explanation together themselves, or, for that matter, recognize a good sentence if it was presented to them. It’s quite sad, in this reader’s honest opinion, that when the average person reads fewer and fewer books every year the Pulitzer Prize committee seems to agree with the majority of the population which is constantly saying: “There is nothing worth reading”. Or, even worse, “It is not worth your time to read.”
But…perhaps I am too harsh? Maybe the Pulitzer judges were simply too busy. They were probably so terribly caught up in The Hunger Games trilogy that they simply did not have time to read these three excellent finalists.
Since they can’t seem to do their own job, does anyone mind terribly if I do it? This years Pulitzer Prize for fiction…no, wait, what am I thinking? Scratch that. Who cares about the Pulitzer now anyway? This years Persnickety Reader’s prize for fiction goes to The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have had some kind of childhood without the books of Beverly Cleary, but I think it’s fair to say it might not have been much of one. And I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona and all the other children and residents of Klickitat Street were sometimes more real to me than the world outside my own front door. From the introduction of Henry Huggins in 1950 Beverly Cleary has probably done more for children’s literature, or literature in general for that matter, than any other author. For the first time children could finally pick up her books and read about children just like themselves. And that’s no small accomplishment. So it’s no wonder that along the way Beverly Cleary has won three Newbery Awards. A National Medal of Arts. And The Library of Congress has named her a Living Legend. Today she is 96. Happy Birthday Beverly, from Henry, Ribsy, Beezus, Ramona, and me. As well as countless children around the world whose lives and hearts you touched.
“Quite often somebody will say, ‘What year do your books take place?’ and the only answer I can give is, in childhood.”
― Beverly Cleary
Admittedly, I love to eat far more than I love to cook so I am the first to suggest the nearest restaurant, especially one I haven’t tried yet. And often while reading the menu I’ve wondered what the chefs, sous chefs, line cooks, managers, dishwashers and staff have gathered together to eat hours before opening. So it’s little wonder this book intrigued me, as the idea of a behind-the-scenes look into America’s most favorite kitchens seemed sure not to disappoint.
Happily it doesn’t. There are over fifty restaurants profiled here and along with many recipes of the meals that staff prepare and serve to themselves there are also some great interviews with chefs, tips for dining out, and many fascinating photos of some of America’s most legendary kitchens.
The author, Marissa Guggiana has selected farm to table restaurants from across the country. It’s clear they all honor and respect the local produce and livestock in their area.
While I’ve yet to eat in many of these restaurants you can bet if I find myself in any of these cities I am making a reservation.
The meals themselves range from small plates to multi-course meals, some using the leftovers on hand, others all new ingredients. Bon appétit!
First let me say that I am funny. No. Really. I am. I am funny. Ok, well, maybe not funny funny, but funny in that dark, dry, omg did he/she really say that kind of way. But, sadly, I am not — I repeat NOT — Tina Fey funny. And perhaps no one is. Which, of course, is what makes Tina Fey so…well…funny. And so, without further ado, here are 5 Reasons to love Tina Fey. Which you can later prove by running out and buying your edition of Bossypants. And reading it. Preferably alone, so no one will see you snort milk through your nose or change your Depends.
1. Tina Fey knows you can not “have it all” and has accepted it.
“There was no prolonged stretch of time in sight when it would just be the baby and me. And then I sobbed in my office for ten minutes. The same ten minutes that magazines urge me to use for sit-ups and triceps dips, I used for sobbing. Of course I’m not supposed to admit that there is a tri-annual torrential sobbing in my office, because it’s bad for the feminist cause. It makes it harder for women to be taken seriously in the workplace. It makes it harder for other working moms to justify their choice. But I have friends who stay home with their kids and they also have a tri-annual sob, so I think we should call it even. I think we should be kind to one another about it. I think we should agree to blame the children.”
2. Tina Fey knows where she stands.
“My only other request was this: I never wanted to appear in a “two shot” with Mrs. Palin. I mean, she really is taller and better looking than I am, and we would literally be wearing the same outfit. I’d already been made to stand next to Jennifer Aniston and Salma Hayek on camera in my life; a gal can only take so much. And honestly, I knew that if that picture existed, it would be what they show on the Emmys someday when I die…”
3. Tina Fey has perspective.
“If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important Rule of Beauty.
‘Who cares?’ “
4. Tina Fey knows how to get what she wants. And works for it.
“If I was really ambitious, I would get a Whopper Jr. at Burger King and then walk to McDonald’s to get the fries. The shake could be from anywhere.”
5. Tina Fey had a worse, and funnier, childhood than you.
I shoved the box in my closet, where it haunted me daily. There might as well have been a guy dressed like Freddy Krueger in there for the amount of anxiety it gave me. Every time I reached in the closet to grab a Sunday school dress or my colonial-lady Halloween costume that I sometimes relaxed in after school — ‘Modessssss,’ it hissed at me. ‘Modessssssis coming for you.’ “
Obviously I could go on and on. But I won’t. Thankfully, Tina Fey does. Read Bossypants. That is an order.
I’m just going to admit it. I am a huge fan of Beverley Nichols. Whenever winter wanes and I begin to venture out into the spongy soil I think of the Jazz Age playboy turned gardener, a cigarette in one hand, cocktail shaker in the other, walking down the rows of the chalky and sullen soil he turned into a bit of paradise in Huntingdonshire in the 1930’s. Surely, I think, if he could make a garden out of a stubborn piece of earth I ought to be able to grow a row of veg and a flower or two. And if I can’t, I always have his acid wit to turn to in the gardening memoirs he wrote and that is enough to comfort and amuse me.
For those who don’t know, and I don’t know why many would, Beverley Nichols was a popular British author of plays, mysteries, poems and children’s books when he bought and began to renovate a home and garden in the village of Glatton. He sat down to write about it and in virtually no time produced what is referred to as the Always Trilogy, which is composed of the three books featured here. That anyone could write about a garden with such wit and irony is a constant source of enjoyment and as the trilogy progresses we move from the garden to his home to the village and all its many colorful inhabitants.
A Thatched Roof is the second book in the trilogy. The books have been in almost constant print since their publication but these new editions from the Timber Press are very worth tracking down. If you can’t find them anywhere else, you can certainly find them at http://www.timberpress.com.
It’s always sad to come to the end of a series but don’t despair. Nichols produced a second trilogy between 1951-1956 about his renovation of a Georgian Manor house that is absolutely hilarious.
My prediction? If you become as addicted as I am you will soon find your shelves filling with these fine editions.
“Do you not realize that the whole thing is miraculous? It is exactly as though you were to cut off your wife’s leg, stick it in the lawn, and be greeted on the following day by an entirely new woman, sprung from the leg, advancing across the lawn to meet you.
Surely, you would be surprised if, having snipped off your little finger, and pushed it into a flower-pot, you were to find a miniature edition of yourself in the flower-pot a day later.”
— Beverley Nichols 1898-1983