Friday, April 27, 2012


Judge a book by its cover

Difficulties with the new blogger interface aside (don't get me started), I cannot let another day pass without mentioning a new favorite.  A few years ago I wrote here about Vivian Swift's first book, an illustrated memoir, a tailor-made piece of comfortable couture for homebodies, entitled When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put (Bloomsbury 2008).  Her long-awaited second book, as described in the pages of her great blog, is now available. Le Road Trip: A Traveler's Journal of Love and France (Bloomsbury 2012).

In her first book, she delineates in words and watercolors the myriad pleasures of staying home, and investigates her immediate surroundings with the heart and soul of an observant and loving explorer. Country walks, village news, beloved cats, cups of tea, memories of past adventure, a meandering almanac of the seasons, this is one of the most charming books I know.  I mean, the cozy factor is totally off the charts, and yet what she possesses is not merely charm.  There is depth behind it, alongside a satisfying story.  And at the end she leaves us with a teaser - she meets a handsome fellow and falls in love, indeed gets married, and promises to hit the road once again.  This promise is fulfilled in her new book, a chronicle of her honeymoon in France.  Also meandering and full of loving description, but with a much wider scope.  We travel alongside these two romantic flâneurs as they slowly visit and revisit their favorite areas of France, to show each other what they most love about it (her: Saint-Malo, the Bayeux Tapestry; him: fine wine, perfect heads of lettuce).

Everything you think of as quintessentially French is here, in words and pictures, and yet her book is cliché-free, a neat trick.  For example, describing liver pâté and its ingredients (p.32):

“The flavors are so much more mischievous than anything I normally tolerate.  With each bite, I taste velvet dresses I’ve never owned, poems I should know by heart, the life I might have had if I’d been born on the Ile-de-France instead of Montana.”

Love that!  I mean, story of my life!  (Except, you know, Maine, not Montana.)  I read Le Road Trip straight through and initially thought that while I loved it, I didn't love it as much as I did her first book; I let a few days pass and read it straight through again, and realized  I was simply suffering from jealousy.  Because it becomes inevitable to think, as you read along, Why am I not in Saint-Malo?  Will I ever see Paris?  In other words, my identification level with her writing was so very high in the first book, and with this new one, not so much (apologies, I don't mean to be so It's All About Me, but, you know?  I mean, I stay at home, for the most part, and dream of trips such as this!).  Overall, though, I have to say I loved it.  The narrative is funny and optimistic, romantic yet realistic, and her watercolor illustrations provide the perfect counterpart to the text, so the whole book becomes a visual diary of great perception.  I love how she paints chairs, buildings, food, clothes - take a look at the cover, it's all there.  I mean that literally, if you like the covers of her books, you will love the books themselves.  Recommendation: buy copies of both books for yourself, then buy copies for all your best friends.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


New and improved?

Well, something new to get used to.  Blogger has finally changed my posting format for me and here I am flailing around like a fish out of water.  Attempting to post anyway!  (I know change is inevitable, but sometimes, lord, I dislike change.)  I hope the blog itself will remain the same.  I have resisted updating the format for years now, and I feel like gently continuing this resistance.  I do not usually favor "new and improved" in general.  But enough grousing.  I had a wonderfully unexpected mini-vacation last week and wanted to mention some of the details.  One detail:  

How I do love an urn and some shrubbery!  A bit of spring coming to Ipswich, Massachusetts.  I took a trip there with my younger sister and my mother, who recently turned 70.  She is (as am I) something of an Anglophile, and our plan to take a trip together to celebrate her birthday coincided with a lecture at the Crane Estate in Ipswich that she dearly wanted to hear:  Sir Simon Jenkins, current chairman of the National Trust, spoke for an hour to a sold-out room about country houses and why/how they remain relevant.  It was a charming respite from muddy, chilly Maine - the weather was divine, the beach close by, fruit trees were in full flower - overall a real idyll.  No time to buy books anywhere, we were too busy sitting on the porch of the Inn at Castle Hill, doing nothing in particular and talking about everything under the sun.  To heck with the new - thank goodness for the old and improved.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


More Morleyana

A long-time reader brought something special to my attention recently and I spent copious amounts of time exploring this gem of an online exhibit, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center: The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia 1920-1925. Bookseller Frank Shay knew all the good people (and most of the bad) in literary 1920s New York, not least among them our old friend Christopher Morley, who signed Shay's famous bookshop door both as himself and as his alter-ego John Mistletoe. Included in this exhibit, and what kept my attention the longest, is Morley's 1921 diary, fully scanned and completely readable in what is one of the nicest, most natural-feeling e-readers I've seen yet (not that I've used many, mind you, I still prefer a good old book in my hands). A bit from the diary - Sunday November 27th, 1921:

"How astonishing is the perpetual liveliness of the mind, skimming among visions and projects, coming hauntingly near Truth sometimes but always thwarted by that mysterious veil and cloudiness that hides the Essence."

High-flying thoughts such as these are mixed in with worries about the family budget, complete with columns and numbers scribbled out. Alongside who he would meet for lunch. In other words, the diary runs the gamut from the boringly mundane to the completely profound, just as we'd want it to. My heart broke in a thousand small ways as I read about his striving and worrying, his determination and humor, his gossip and opinions. Amazing that this diary wasn't lost or destroyed, doubly amazing that the door itself wasn't either. Highly recommended, if you have at least a few hours to spare. (Thank you, Antony.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Recovery reading

I'm particularly happy to welcome spring this year, since around here this winter was one of prolonged illness. Nothing that serious for people, save bouts of the flu and a regular old cold shortly thereafter, but for Hodge the beloved cat, an emergency surgery and many days of anxious recovery had our household extremely unsettled.

Thus, as I sat with one hand hovering over a box of tissues and the other hand holding kitty-cat antibiotics, I sought reassurance and hope. Not to mention distraction. In other words, books for an ideal convalescence. Hodge and I spent many February afternoons sitting together in patches of sun, me reading, him napping, both of us recovering. Of course, since nothing is so reassuring as rereading (o the familiar and the loved), I must begin this short list with one of my favorite books for all time, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My reading copy is illustrated by Nora S. Unwin (Lippincott 1949) and I treasure it simply because this is the edition I knew and loved as a child, and read so often and so thoroughly that the book literally fell apart at the seams. The spine is missing, the first twelve pages are missing, the covers are frayed and the whole book resembles a peeled piece of fruit. I got every last drop of life out of it, I think. I still own that copy, but in recent years I bought a new (old) copy, the one pictured here, intact and much more readable. The cover, with its trailing ivy and keyhole, still thrills me. And the story itself? It travels known ground: death, illness, loss, loneliness - all those long winters of the heart - and then, with the coming of spring, arising from the sickbed, choosing life, turning to nature as a source of healing and resurrection.

I also read Of Flowers and a Village: An Entertainment for Flower Lovers by Wilfrid Blunt (a lovely facsimile reprint, pictured here, of this 1963 book is currently available from Timber Press). The structure of this novel is charming: a recently-retired widowed gentleman buys a house in the country with enough room to truly garden to his heart's content, and writes lovely long letters to his bed-ridden god-daughter, to keep her amused during her convalescence. The letters tell us all the gossipy details of village life, alongside lectures about flowers and flower gardening. Blunt (for the narrator is he, thinly disguised) says he is not a plant snob, not a "haughtyculturalist" (p.109) at all, and he agrees wholeheartedly with one Professor Dawson, who apparently said, "I hate Theology and Botany, but I love religion and flowers." (p.35).

I read this straight though and, as the fictional god-daughter gradually recovered her health, felt as though I was coming back to life myself. An absolute delight.

I began to suspect that the perfect recovery companions may well be British gardening books. I tested my theory and followed up these two with Gertrude Jekyll's classic Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden (having bought a nice reprint from the Antique Collectors' Club at a local library sale for $1.00). How restful to simply read about all this work and maintenance, rather than having to get out in the garden and actually do it! I mean, her garden: "The big flower border is about two hundred feet long and fourteen feet wide." (p. 124). (!!) I loved her philosophy of gardening as a fine art: " be always watching, noting and doing, and putting oneself meanwhile into closest acquaintance and sympathy with the growing things." (p.18) Reading this had me yearning to get to work in the garden, yet securely happy in the knowledge that I could, instead, stay inside reading in our patch of sun, since it was still winter after all.

One more book I find I must mention. I wonder if other readers of The Secret Garden ask themselves, as I always do, What happened next? Colin walks again and loves life, Mary grows into a normal happy child, the heartsick father decides to live again. And then...? Well, in reading the recent memoir of Nicholas Haslam, I have discovered one possible answer. If The Secret Garden had been published for the first time in the 1940s, as my reprint is, Haslam is Colin's contemporary, and here we find another Colin, thriving. For Haslam spent three years as a bedridden invalid, from ages 7 to 10 a victim of polio, then learned to walk again with the help of his nurse, and went on to lead a ridiculously dazzling life. His book, Redeeming Features: A Memoir (Knopf 2009), describes his picaresque adventures around the world and reads like a who's who of international celebrity. At first I suspected the book might be merely one long name-drop, but less than halfway into it the cumulative effect becomes overpowering as you realize that this is his life, these are his friends, and holy mackerel, he met or knew (and still knows) everyone who did everything everywhere. Movie stars, rock stars, artists, models, royalty, presented by a posh narrator who loves the luxe life yet retains more than merely a grain of the humble and sweet. This is escapism at its best, for the housebound. Why was this book not a thousand pages long, instead of merely three hundred? Well, we can catch up with Nicholas Haslam at his blog, or track down the documentary about his life, Hi Society, if we so desire. And we do, oh we do.

(By the way, a nice bit of reading serendipity: Wilfrid Blunt was Haslam's art teacher at Eton. I said he'd known everyone, and I meant it.)

Back on the home front, I'm happy to report that Hodge has fully recovered. I have fully recovered too, as winter becomes a memory. The books go back on the shelf and the garden beckons. The first daffodil opened today.

What books helped bring you back to life this winter, I wonder?

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