Book Review: The Beauties of a Cottage Garden by Gertrude Jekyll

The Beauties of a Cottage Garden
Gertrude Jekyll

Well this is number 10 of the 20-volume of Penguin’s English Journeys series and it will be my last for a while. I had intended to read all 20 in the month of April. I thought a series of books on the English countryside would be an interesting and appropriate thing to read as nature was coming to life outside. And indeed there were moments when that was exactly the case. But rather than each book adding another happy dimension to my enjoyment of the English countryside, it all became a bit samey. I still intend to finish the series, but I think I need to take them in smaller doses. Maybe I will give myself until April of 2011 to finish off the final 10 volumes.

It is unfortunate or at least unfair that I should make this declaration as part of my review of Gertrude Jekyll’s The Beauties of a Cottage Garden as her writing is decidedly more enjoyable than some in this series. My husband is a huge fan of Jekyll and is quite the gardener himself. Over the last five years he has turned our 12’ x 16’ terrace into an English country garden that you would never guess was all grown in pots. You can imagine how excited he is to be moving to a new house with a big yard with lots of room to garden. Jekyll effectively sums up the heart and mind of a true gardener:

But the lesson I have learnt, and with to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives. I rejoice when I see any one, and especially children, inquiring about flowers, and wanting gardens of their own, and carefully working in them. For the love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies, but always grows and grows to an enduring and ever-increasing source of happiness.

These snaps of our terrace garden from last summer kind of proves Jekyll’s point. Lack of actual ground didn’t keep John from following his passion.

Book Review: Walks in the Wheatfields by Richard Jeffries

Walks in the Wheatfields
Richard Jeffries

These is the ninth of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

This book was definitely more enjoyable than some of the earlier volumes that led to my Penguin English Journey breakdown earlier this week. Richard Jeffries, a writer and the son of a Wiltshire farmer, wrote about his experiences traveling the English countryside until his tragic death from tuberculosis in 1887 at the age of 39.

I liked the book most when Jeffries describes his observations of wildlife. His chapter on the daily habits of the large flocks of rooks in his area I found fascinating. The quantities of birds he describes reminds me of the setting that William Cronon describes in his book Changes in the Land, a wonderful academic look at the changes in the ecology of Colonial New England.

It was also humorous to read Jeffries rant about the visual ugliness that church spires inflict on the natural landscape. From a 21st century perspective of course, those spires are seen by many of us to be part and parcel of the pastoral landscape and quite pretty. But then again we have a lot uglier things that blot the landscape to worry about.

If this review seems shallow, it’s because it is. In the realm of the Penguin English Journey series, this one leans to the enjoyable, but not so enjoyable that I feel the need to tax my brain too much in writing an adequate review.

Book Review: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard


Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems

This is the sixth of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

I don’t read a lot of poetry. And I understand even less so it makes writing a review of this anthology of poems a bit laughable. With pastoral-y snippets from Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, and others, there was plenty to enjoy, I just don’t know how to write about it.

Since my hugely enjoyable, but short-lived days as a vocal performance major in college, most of the poetry in my life comes from classical music. German lieder, French mélodie, and English/American art songs: these are the way I experience poetry. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I opened this volume and the very first line I read suddenly brought a melody to my head. Charles Cotton’s Evening Quatrains jumped off the page and into my ear as I heard Sir Peter Pears, composer Benjamin Britten’s longtime life and artistic partner singing Lord Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horns and Strings”. This has long been one of my favorite pieces by Britten and I love the astringent clarity of Pears voice in the wonderful recording I have of the work. Britten didn’t set every verse of the poem to music, but here are some he did:

The day’s grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

This recording isn’t the fabulous Pears/Britten recording, but it does give you a sense of the beauty of the work.

Next up: A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman

Book Review: Through England on a Side-Saddle by Celia Fiennes


Through England on a Side-Saddle
Celia Fiennes

This is the fifth of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

In many ways this book is much like William Cobbett’s From Dover to the Wen. And if you remember, I wasn’t a huge fan of Cobbett’s book. It was good, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Well this one is even less my cup of tea. It is remarkable in the fact that a woman travelled to every part of England from 1685 to 1703 and recorded what she found in a journal. Unfortunately what she recorded seems more like a laundry list of details than anything that has any kind of interesting narrative arc. Unlike the Cobbett book, I didn’t given this one 50 pages before abandoning it. No doubt the much earlier date of Fiennes’ book and its concomitant use of antiquated language didn’t help me in the likability category.

Each of the English Journey books has a quote from the text highlighted on the cover. The quote on the cover of Through England on a Side-Saddle kind of sums up the tedious nature of the journal. One would assume the cover quote is one of the more compelling lines from the text. So based on this thrilling quote, you tell me if you want to know more.

A great storme of haile and raine met me, and drove fiercely on me but the wind soone dry’d my dust coate…

See what I mean?

Next up: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems

Book Review: The Pleasures of English Food by Alan Davidson

The Pleasures of English Food
Alan Davidson

This is the fourth of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

Written by the author of The Penguin Companion to Food, this volume is a wonderful little primer on English cooking. Organized in alphabetical order like an encyclopedia, The Pleasure of English Food covers the highlights of English food from Afternoon Tea to Yorkshire Pudding. I realize as I write this how seemingly predictable the first and last entries are. Aside from Fish and Chips, I would hazard to guess that Afternoon Tea and Yorkshire Pudding are probably the two most obvious choices that most Americans would reference if asked about English food. But fear not there are just as many non-obvious entries as there are obvious ones.

One thing this book does is impart some really fascinating tidbits of information. For instance:

Beeton, Isabella: (1836-65)…was only 25 when her work appeared in book form and only 28 when she died. […] Given that her book merits such high praise it is all the more unfortunate that [her husband] Sam Beeton ran into financial difficulties…[and] relinquished all his copyrights…from then on it was downhill all the way until eventually, by the 1960s, the revised book did not contain a single recipe written by the author.

Fruitcake: …Making a rich fruit cake in an 18th-century kitchen was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being comonly directed. Yeast, or ‘barm’ from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed into life Finally the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time.

Wash the butter, beat eggs for half an hour…? Yikes

Gooseberry: …In 1905 a mildew disease was accidentally introduced from America, wiping out the whole crop of European gooseberries. The plant was re-established by crossing American species resistant to mildew, but the gooseberry has never fully regained its earlier popularlity.

Mutton: …This version of ‘Vicarage Mutton’ was quoted by Dorothy Hartley; ‘Hot on Sunday, Cold on Monday, Hashed on Tuesday, Minced on Wednesday, Curried on Thursday, Broth on Friday, Cottage pie Saturday.’

Although one discovers later in the book that Cottage Pie is made from beef, Shepherd’s Pie is made with lamb or mutton.

It ocurred to me as I read:

Pease pudding hot
Pease pudding cold
Pease pudding in the pot
Nine days old

that we used to say this as kids (except it was ‘pease porridge’) but I have no idea why. In fact, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I knew what pease porridge was, so why in the world did a bunch of German-Polish American mutts in central Minnesota even know this rhyme?

The regional varieties of British sausage described has me wanting to do a Sausage tour of England so I can taste the flavor variations.

And recently Verity at the B Files blogged about baking Simnel Cakes. Thanks to this little book I now know what they are. And oddly enough the cakes were originally linked to Mothering Sunday which the book goes on to explain in much the same way I did in this blog back on Mothering Sunday.

I wish there had been an entry for Fish Pie. I have always been fascinated by the notion of a fish pie since I first heard it used in the film “A Room With A View”. Towards the end Mrs. Honeychurch is urging them to hurry because cook Mary has made fish pie and everyone knows how Mary gets if her fish pie is spoiled. Oh, well, I guess I could just look up the recipe.

As an Anglophile who loves to cook, I loved this book. But anyone who reads English fiction will appreciate the explanations of historical foodways that pop up here and there in older English novels.

This is a great little book.

Next up: Through England on a Side-Saddle by Celia Fiennes.

Book Review: From Dover to the Wen by William Cobbett

From Dover to the Wen
William Cobbett

This is the third of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

At the risk of offending fans of William Cobbett, I wanted to retitle this book From Dover to the Wen Will This Be Over? Since it is an extract from Rural Rides and is only 110 pages you might wonder why it was such a problem for me. I can’t exactly put my finger on why, but I just found it tedious. So at page 52, I invoked the Rule of 50 and decided I would not spend anymore of my reading time trying to finish it.

The book chronicles Cobbett’s rides/walks through southern England with plenty of radical political rants thrown in for good measure. One of these rants, written in 1823 could apply to economic realities of 2010. The U.S. and perhaps the rest of the industrialized world is in a race to the bottom, paying workers as little as we possibly can with no regard to the impact. We may be able to buy things more cheaply, but at what price? It is a little sad to realize that this state of affairs appears to be eternal. Cobbett describes the problem in his day as he describes the house of a newly grand squire:

One end of the front of this once plain and substantial house had been moulded into a ‘parlour’; and there was the mahogany table, and the fine chairs, and the fine glass…And I dare say it has been ‘Squire Charington and the Miss Charingtons; and not plain Master Charington, and his son Hodge, and his daughter Betty Charington, all of whom this accursed system has, in all likelihood, transmuted into a species of mock gentle-folks, while it has ground the labourers down into real slaves. Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work-people, as they did formerly? Because they cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages…The land produces, on an average, what it always produced; but there is a new distribution of the produce. This ‘Squire Charington’s father used, I dare say, to sit at the head of the oak-table along with his men, say grace to them, and cut up the meat and the pudding. He might take a cup of strong beer to himself, when they had none; but, that was pretty nearly all the difference in their manner of living. So that all lived well.

I’m not advocating for socialism, but there does come a point where quality of life for all should have some impact on the impersonal decisions made by corporations in the never ending quest for increased profits.

Next up: The Pleasures of English Food by Alan Davidson

Book Review: The Wood by John Stewart Collis


The Wood
John Stewart Collis

This is the second of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

During World War II writer John Stewart Collis was put to work clearing and thinning an ash wood. My question throughout the book was how does clearing and thinning an ash wood contribute to the war effort? Who had the need and the resources to pay him to do such a thing? And, it is clear he was able bodied so why wasn’t he off fighting the war?

Some of the answer is hinted at in the title of the source book for The Wood. It appears that many of the volumes in the English Journeys series are excerpts from larger works and the source for The Wood is Collis’ longer work The Worm Forgives the Plough which chronicles the work Collis did as an agricultural laborer during the war. It turns out that Collis had served in WWI and was conscripted for WWII as well but was given a domestic posting which in his case turned out to be agricultural work. I assume that in other chapters of The Worm Forgives the Plough, Collis is actually put to work growing food or some other agricultural task directly aiding the production of food. Clearing and thinning an ash wood doesn’t seem to fall into that category. The wood is merely being thinned not entirely cleared so it wasn’t going to be turned over for pasture. I suppose the closest it seems to come to being essential work is that the wood provides fuel for nearby villages. But I am not sure that was the point. It just seems like a lot of busy work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the notion of thinning a wood. Both the process and outcome really appeal to me. Bringing order to an overgrown forest. Clearing away undergrowth and sick, unstable, and excess trees. Leaving behind a lovely wood of only the finest specimens sounds like time well spent in my book. It is also the case for Collis who relishes his solitary task and the ability to be alone with nature and with his own thoughts.

I would love to have a few acres of land with woodland on it that needed management. I am not sure I actually want to do the work, but the idea certainly intrigues me. No doubt it all goes back to my love of being in control, but I also love the notion of the dreamy woodland that would come out of the foresty chaos. The book was also fascinating because we are probably going to have to take down three rather large trees in the yard of our soon to be new home. Our new neighborhood has lots of mature trees and lots and lots of shade. And shade isn’t very good for gardening, especially not vegetable gardening. So, as much as we love trees (John often prefers trees over people) we will need to fell three of them to open up the yard for our fresh produce and to create habitat for bees and butterflies. Hopefully Collis would approve.

Next up: From Dover to the Wen by William Cobbett.

Book Review: Voices of Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

Voices of Akenfield
Ronald Blythe

This is the first of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

The rule with land is to give–then you can take.
    –  Duncan Campbell, aged sixty-six, sheep farmer.

It is amazing how many quotable moments can be found in this 125-page extract from Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield first published in 1969. Each chapter or section tells the story of a different Suffolk villager in the first person. Taken from interviews conducted in 1967, the subjects, many in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, are witnesses to great upheaval in social mores, technology, and agrarian society. We meet horsemen, shepherds, orchard men, a district nurse, blacksmiths, a saddle maker, and others.

Not only are some of the subjects colorful characters, but they provide an ethnography of a time and setting that I understand intellectually but also find hard to believe ever existed. It brings to life all of those working class characters who make cameos in many a BBC period drama. Any tendency to romanticize these folks and their lives is kept in check paragraph by paragraph by the sheer difficulty and hard-work that characterized their daily lives. Not only did they work hard, but they got little compensation for it and had little opportunity for economic or social mobility. But they were close to family, to the land, and most took great pride in their life’s work. And simple pleasures were life sustaining. I was pleasantly surprised to come across the following lines by Fred Mitchell, a hardworking 81-year old horseman:

But I have forgotten one thing–the singing. There was such a lot of singing in the village then, and this was my pleasure, too. Boys sang in the fields, and at night we all met at the Forge and sang. The chapels were full of singing. When the first war came, it was singing, singing all the time. So I lie; I have had pleasure. I have had singing.

I have known these words in slightly altered form for many years. They were adapted and beautifully put to music by composer Steven Sametz in 1993. And this recording of the work by Chanticleer really does both horseman Fred Mitchell and composer Steve Sametz proud.

The words to the song are slightly different and worth reading while you listen to this short choral piece. I think it is very evocative. Check out this link and listen, see if you aren’t transported.

The singing.
There was so much singing then,
and this was my pleasure too.
We all sang,
The boys in the fields,
The chapels were full of singing, always singing.
Here I lie.
I have had pleasure enough.
I have had singing.

I think my favorite character is William Russ, aged sixty-one, gravedigger. He felt called to be a gravedigger from early days, conducting all sorts of animal funerals as a child, digging his first human grave at 12 and becoming the legal sexton by 13. And he is not afraid to speak his mind. In one case he resents the daughter of an old canon who kicks up a fuss regarding the way Russ has interred her father’s ashes.

Well, of course, as everybody knows, all that family, particularly the daughters, were over-educated. They were old maids. They weren’t cranky because they hadn’t had a man but because they’d had too many old books. Their brains were strained.

He says this about clergy who miscalculate the fees due to the sexton:

And talking of money, I must mention the Table of Fees…You would think it was plain enough but I have to read the damn thing aloud to half the parsons or they’d diddle me out of a mint of money…believe me when it comes to little money matters, parsons are the biggest swindlers on earth.

Russ gets the final chapter and indeed the final word. His bittersweet stream of consciousness is indicative of the kind of honest stories that make up this volume. Having buried 150 to 200 people a year for about 40 or so years, Russ seems particularly candid in summing things up in what could be a metaphor for the ways of life Blythe captures in this time capsule of a book.

I’m not a Christian. I do a lot of things I shouldn’t do, so I can’t count myself as one. Life isn’t as comfortable as it used to be. Nobody wants to know you. I have been widowed for ten years. I go to church every Sunday but nobody speaks to me unless they want something. Snobbish. They’re all snobs now. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but almost ever since I was born I have been at everybody’s beck and call. I have no family, none at all. No one in all the world is my relation. I never did read a lot. I never could give my mind to it. I talk too much, that is my failing. I come into contact with many people at a serious time, so I have picked up serious conversation. What most folk have once or twice in a lifetime, I have every day. I want to be cremated and my ashes thrown in the air. Straight from the flames to the winds, and let that be that.

Next up: The Wood by John Stewart Collis

Book Review: The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins


The Dead Secret
Wilkie Collins

With an out-of-town guest, the flurry of activity surrounding buying a house, and a quick trip to Philly last weekend, I haven’t had much time for reading or blogging. And then right before the end of March and the start of my April plan to read all twenty of the Penguin English Journey series I picked up this Wilkie Collins.

I enjoyed it, with reservations, but more on that in a minute. So as not to give away the plot I am going to give you a little word cloud of sorts to give you a flavor for what goes on in the story

This is the first Collins I have read since reading The Woman in White (which happened to be my very first Collins and my introduction to his work). The Dead Secret has many of the same qualities as that book but doesn’t come close to being as brilliant. Sure there are secrets and intrigue and unexpected trips hither and yon, and there are definitely moments where you are at the edge of your seat in fear or expectation, but in the end it can only pale in comparison to the 600 plus pages of The Woman in White. In fact at only 359 pages, it practically counts as a short story in the world of Wilkie Collins and his predilection for writing door stops. Like Trollope and Dickens, Collins uses 70 words when seven would do. In fact this is part of their allure for me. The Victorian phrasing and the detailed attention to manners and setting are all part of the charm. Yet unlike The Woman in White, this one really felt Collins was being paid by the word. Lopping off a hundred pages would have made this a better book, but alas would not have made it a Collins. Don’t get me wrong I liked The Dead Secret, but if you haven’t read Wilkie Collins don’t start with this one. And if you have read Wilkie Collins there is no reason not to read this one when you get the chance.


Book Review: The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell


The Hand That First Held Mine
Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell is the master of weaving together seemingly disparate storylines that eventually come together in ways the reader doesn’t expect. As I read O’Farrell’s latest, there were more than a few times I thought for sure I knew where things were headed only to find out I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was. In The Hand That First Held Mine there are fifty years separating the two storylines of two unmarried mothers. Lexie Sinclair is a journalist finding her way through 1950s and 1960s London while Elina Vilkuna is a Finnish-Swedish artist living with her boyfriend in the same city a half century later.

Following Elina’s story, I was a bit worried at first that this was going to be a “baby” novel—one of those books that make those of us without a functioning uterus (or access to one) begin to yawn as we suffer through endless stories about how we can’t understand X, Y, or Z because we have never been a parent. But Lexie’s early, childless story kept me interested until Elina’s gave way to something more interesting (to me at least) than the emotional and physical aftermath of her life-threatening C-section and the colicky unhappiness of her screaming baby. But then again, I am a sucker for a coming-of-age story and Lexie’s story certainly qualifies in that category, so it is no surprise that I was more drawn to her as a character. (UPDATE: perhaps coming-of-age is somewhat misleading, given that she has already been at university when the action begins, it might be better described as a coming-into-her-own story…) In some ways Lexie’s story has some superficial resemblance to Jenny in the wonderful Oscar-nominated film An Education. Like Jenny, Lexie is a promising young student who seemingly gives up her chance at success when a fascinating older man comes along to deliver her from the genteel tedium of her middle class life.

Even if I didn’t hate writing plot synopses, I wouldn’t give you one here. O’Farrell’s fascinating story has too many twists and turns making a spoiler-free synopsis almost impossible. The characters are believable and interesting and developed enough that, with perhaps one or two exceptions, they all elicit empathy at one point or another. And the art world that O’Farrell describes is fascinating and name droppy without seeming even remotely forced or pretentious as can be so often the case with such attempts. And any disappointment that I may have felt when the comeuppance that I was so looking forward to didn’t really happen, was supplanted by a rather joyous final scene that was much more interesting.

If you haven’t read anything by Maggie O’Farrell you really need to. And if this particular O’Farrell sounds good you are going to have to wait until April 12 in the US or April 29 in the UK to get your hands on a copy. But it will be worth the wait.

***I have never before accepted an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) for any book. But I had been so taken with O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us that I was hard-pressed to say no when the folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offered to send me this one. And since then I have also read O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I also enjoyed and which added to my high expectations for The Hand That First Held Mine. In some ways though, having accepted the ARC I had a big chip on my shoulder. I was worried that I might lose some objectivity–not wanting to bite the book hand that had fed me this particular novel. I spent the first hundred or so pages trying desperately to find fault with the book. It was like my brain had been hard wired to dislike it, just because some folks at HMH were hoping that I would like it. But after a while O’Farrell’s easy prose and compelling story telling got the better of me and I found myself unable to put it down.***