The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. — Adam Gopnik

December 6, 2016

The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden

As I mentioned the other day, I couldn't resist bringing this one home from the library, even though I had already borrowed an unreasonable number of books. But I'm so, so glad I did, because it was apparently written just for me. )

What I loved about it is that the author, a garden historian, decided to focus on how Georgians  -- both aristocrats and more ordinary people -- lived in and used the gardens and landscapes of their country houses.  It's beautifully written and very readable, with chapters following the different parts of the day, from morning to night.  Along the way, she touches on everything from garden buildings, to sports and games, to ordinary walks and lavish entertainments, to the food that was served outdoors. Most of all, she introduces us to a long list of very interesting people, and had me scurrying to the footnotes to see if I could read more about them. {Just adding to the library list...}.

History and biography and England and old houses.  I don't know why I hesitated, even for a second. :)

The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden, by Kate Felus
L.B. Tauris, 2016
Borrowed from The Boston Athenaeum

December 2, 2016

My library book pile is already ridiculous ...

... with more books on it than I can possibly read in the time allotted, but I couldn't resist this new, pretty one, esp. when it opened randomly to this page:
Some garden buildings were built primarily to house books. Sometimes libraries and studies were combined with other uses, including dining and places to keep animals or birds. Owners were not always concerned about the danger of their books getting damp, which might be expected in buildings that must have been unheated for long periods. ...
      One garden building for books was not what it seemed. The aptly named Bono Retiro at Hardwick (County Durham) was constructed in the 1750s for John Burdon, whose money had come from coal mines in the north-east.  There was an element of the upstart about him and it has been suggested that he created an elegant landscape to demonstrate his taste and gentility, though in this he was far from unique. At Hardwick there was an eclectic collection of buildings strung along a set circuit and the Bono Retiro was particularly intriguing especially as not all visitors were allowed in. It was innocuously described in 1803:  'Near the side of the canal is a building called the Library.' Here, despite the moist atmosphere from the canal there was no fear of the books mouldering as they were, in fact, fake. Another author who was clearly better informed wrote:  'Between the windows there were book-cases, containing to appearance many elegant books, the works of our most esteemed authors, being a deception of the nicest kind, as they are only of painted wood, but so exquisitely finished, as scarcely to be distinguished from real ones ...'  What this author did not mention however, was that the stained glass windows had a rather risque element to them.  They were said to display 'The likeness of things so foul to behold/That what they are is not fit to be told,' and no visitor seems to have reported the exact nature.' So it appears the whole building was a giant joke, perhaps as the expense of those serious, scholarly buildings elsewhere.
Would you have been able to resist?  Anyway, happy December! I hope your book pile is as perilous and your reading is as promising! :)

November 28, 2016

Miss Ranskill Comes Home {Persephone no. 46}

      Thing I like best about you, Miss Ranskill, you never make a fuss.
      Memory of the Carpenter's approval lifted her heart a little. Suddenly it became important to him as well as to her that she should not make a fuss. It would be disloyal to their friendship, a denial of the quality in her -- the quality he had admired -- to make a fuss now. She must continue to be the same person. ...
      Mind once more took possession of Miss Ranskill's body, easing its strain by virtue of its sudden command. She had the boat, which was all ready except for stowage -- storage, what was the word? They had meant to go, anyway, and now she would continue the plan. There was work to do in England. She must use the boat the Carpenter had made. The years of his labor must not be wasted. She must find his wide and tell her the manner of his death because she had no right to keep the last years to herself. It was a pity she was so tired, but it didn't really matter. She would sleep all the better when she got home.
      Beds cried out to her to come and sleep in them, cool beds in summer and warm ones in winter. China tea would be waiting at her bedside in the early morning and she would put her lips to thin-fluted china. There would be thin bread crumbling under its load of butter. There would be flowers to 'do' -- pink-stemmed primroses to be gathered in woods.
      Now she must hurry. She must be quick, very quick over everything before her mind sagged again. She must begin work now if she were to leave the island tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.

Have you ever seen the old black-and-white movie, My Favorite Wife?  (I'd watch anything with Cary Grant, but this is one of my favorites.) Anyway, in it, a woman who has been shipwrecked on a desert island comes home to her family, just as her husband is about to remarry.  It's cute and funny, and it might be why I was drawn to this book when I was picking out a Persephone to read next. They have the barest bones of the same plot, but this novel is both funny and heartbreaking;  Miss Ranskill is a wonderful, feisty, beautifully-drawn character, and I loved spending time with her.

I thought the writing was so good -- lyrical and descriptive in places, as I said funny in others.As the book opens, our heroine is doing some painful and very difficult physical work, and we soon learn that she is burying and mourning for The Carpenter, a beautiful soul -- someone we meet only in things she remembers him saying -- with whom she has been (literally) marooned on a desert island for four years, after falling overboard when she tried to rescue her hat.  Together, they've been building a boat, keeping their signal fire lit, and planning for the day when they can leave the island in search of rescue.

When she manages (on her own) to return to England, it's close to the end of the Second World War, and she is re-immersed into a world -- with bombs, and ration books, and clothing coupons, and hearty village women -- that she knows nothing about.  There's a lot of humor, in her encounters with an oblivious old school friend and her own disapproving sister, but it's also a little heartbreaking to see her making her way home in a country that has changed and doesn't immediately welcome her.  I found myself rooting for her and so happy for her at the end. :)

Miss Ranskill Comes Home, by Barbara Euphan Todd
Persephone Books, 2003 {originally published in 1946}
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum

November 20, 2016

'We are not amused...'

      At Buckingham Palace in the early spring of 1841 the Prince was reading to Victoria what he believed to be a masterpiece, Goethe's Leiden des jungen Werthers, although he admitted 'the beginning is dry'. Some of the Queen's reading sounds more dutiful than pleasurable. 'I have not read Barchester Towers all through,' she once wrote to Vicky after her marriage, 'but I am told it is not meant to be so ill-natured. But I don't like reading it aloud to Papa as there is not enough romance in it.' But The Mill on the Floss 'I must say ... made a deep impression upon me. The writing and description of feeling is wonderful and painful!' It would be interesting to know if George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss has been read by any member of the royal family since.  Middlemarch the Queen thought fine but a disappointing book, for all the people were failures; Jane Eyre she considered 'a wonderful book but very peculiar in parts.'  ...

from Queen Victoria at Home, by Michael De-la-Noy

November 16, 2016

The things that make me happiest ...

... like this book, sometimes seem odd to the people around me, but then sometimes not to you guys, for which I am especially grateful. :)

November 16
The Lesson of the Master, 1892

What I mean is, have you in your mind to go in for some sort of little perfection? You must have thought it all over, I can't believe you're without a plan. That's the sensation you give me, and it's rare that it really stirs up one; it makes you remarkable.

November 12, 2016

Golden Hill

This was a romp, a pleasure in unexpected ways, and one of those books that I didn't think I'd be able to find and then happily did.  On the surface, it's historical fiction, and a mystery:  an affable young Englishman, Richard Smith, arrives in New York in 1746, with a letter of credit for an unheard of amount of money, and is greeted with suspicion by Mr. Lovell, the New York banker he calls upon. Smith agrees that he must wait sixty days for his story to be verified; in the meantime, he makes wary friends with Septimus Oakeshott and Henrik van Loon, two rising young men in the city, and becomes enamored and disgusted with Tabitha Lovell, the banker's unconventional prickly, difficult daughter, so there's also a romance. {There's also the small matter of escaping over the rooftops from a gang of thugs, threatened with hanging, and being challenged to a duel ... } There's an overhanging question of whether Smith is who he says he is, and hints that he is not, and the revelation that he has a secret purpose in coming to New York, and so hangs the plot.

I think I noted this book {whenever it was that I first heard about it :)} because of its setting and my growing enjoyment of historical fiction, but for me it's not about these or the unfolding story. On every page, in almost every sentence, the writing is so lush, so descriptive, so wordy, so quirky, that I found myself just reveling in it {and not minding overly much when the story flagged a little, as it sometimes did ...} It gave a real sense of what the colonial city would have been like, and gave us very well-drawn characters.  I'm glad I found this book, and didn't pass it over as being not my usual thing.

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber, 2016
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum