Book Club

3/16/15 – Have been pruning a lot of roses lately and consulting my old friend Stephen Scanniello’s A Year of Roses. I met him nearly 15 years ago when he was consulting for Albemarle House, now defunct, where I was head gardener. As rosarian of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Cranford Rose Garden, Stephen had a wealth of experience with all kinds of roses on a large scale. He writes in an engaging, very informative style and tells you all you need to know about all the different roses. This small book is illustrated with helpful drawings. As its title promises, it sees you through a year of roses and everything they need.

1/14/15 – Going into winter, I re-read Paul Scott‘s The Raj Quartet (memorably depicted in the BBC series “The Jewel in the Crown”), one novel after the other with nothing in between, the way I like to devour an author I’ve decided to spend some time with. Then, to my delight (which as a reader, I’m always afraid I’m going to lose), discovered he’d written a sequel, Staying On, before he died unfortunately so young in the 1960’s before he was 60. It won the Booker Prize. He actually looks a bit Indian in the old jacket blurbs, but apparently he was a stolid Englishman who served the Raj in the Indian National Army during WW II. His novels are considered to be definitive in their way of the life of the British administrators of India during its last days as the Empire fell apart in the wreckage of the war. Before a lot of political correctness began to muddy our public discourse about Islam, Scott’s insights into the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Maharajas – Ghandi, Nehru and their colleagues – who made up mid 20th century India as it emerged to be partitioned with Pakistan are invaluable in contemplating our modern world. Great stuff, especially for Anglophiles, as what good gardener isn’t somewhere in her heart?

5/20/14 – Am just finishing up all the works of Joseph Wambaugh, as his blurb touts, “the father of the American police procedural”, but he’s so much more. If you read them one after the other, from the seminal The Blue Knight, The Choirboys, and The Onion Field (his first foray into non-fiction true crime) to the slick Hollywood series that ends up grabbing you in the end, you meet a man of compassion and great humanity who started observing things as a young cop in the LAPD a long time ago. This writer knows dialogue and how to understand a milieu. The Blooding, a non-fiction account of the English sex murders that were the first to use genetic fingerprinting, is a masterpiece of anthropology. As I study his blurb photographs through the years (the fixed smile, the haunted eyes) and his increasing and well-deserved success, I see a man who’s seen everything and can make art out of it. I hope he enjoys the harbor life of southern California he describes so memorably (he’s often pictured with a boat). His latest, Harbor Nocturne, delivers the goods.

1/24/14 – I stumbled back into John Grisham a few months ago and am currently working my way obsessively through his oeuvre. His latest, Sycamore Row, is getting raves and I’m saving it for a treat, but I began by re-reading his first, A Time to Kill, the prequel, and then couldn’t stop.

His fiction is made for movies – The Firm, The Pelican Brief, Samuel Jackson’s tour-de-force in A Time to Kill.

Grisham, along with his protagonists, is remarkably disciplined,  scheduling novels routinely each year with great success.  Many of his characters enjoy the early morning before the bustle of the day and cut their teeth on 12 hour days.

Grisham plucks various aspects from the world of lawyers and high-rollers – mass tort suits, impecunious small time “ham and eggers” (alcoholism runs like a river through his stories), imprisoned judges and unlucky attorneys, big-time Jack Abramhof-like scammers like The Broker – inserts a likeable narrator/protagonistand makes you turn the pages from there.

One could do a doctorate on his treatment of women.

He loves the idea of running away from one life into another unencumbered by old mistakes, always accompanied by vast sums of money cleverly wired all over the world and a mocking jiujitsu attack on authority. Hiding from pursuers and changing identities are recurring themes. What is he doing living in the open here in Virginia?

I am inclined toward him anyway (aside from his alluring jacket photos with those clever, clever eyes), as he’s a local around here, renowned and beloved for building softball fields south of town, as well as a beneficent presence in haunts along the Downtown Mall (regular signings at long-time local New Dominion Book Store) in Charlottesville.

9/30/13 – Took Carl Hiaasen to the beach (North Carolina instead of the Florida Keys, but he wouldn’t mind) – Sick Puppy – and had a ball. Way back when, I read his stuff for fun, Tourist Season and Double Whammy.  He kept putting out year after year, just like Elmore Leonard (that should have told me something!), and somehow I made the mistaken assumption that he was a shallow producer of boilerplate. On second reading, twenty years later, I find his combination of hard-boiled crime fiction and absurdist comedy with the ecological underpinnings and revenge fantasies of a heart-felt Florida boy who saw his childhood paradise despoiled by developers run amok, is classic American fiction enriched by his work as a reporter for the Miami Herald. This man is a true American satirist in the tradition of Twain and I dare you to read a whole book without laughing out loud.

5/21/13 – Have been entranced lately with Willa Cather‘s evocation of the prairie landscape of early 20th century Nebraska. My Antonia and One of Our Own paint poignant word pictures of a land just being tamed to corn and wheat, back when that was a good thing and roads made through the great grasslands were a sign of civilization instead of the depredations of industrial agriculture.

Her wide skies so different from our constricted hollows here in the east. Several times she evokes a full moon rising at one end of the horizon to balance a sun setting opposite. Foretelling future botanists’ treasures, she relates the humble grave of an immigrant, Antonia’s rarefied Bohemian father, fenced off at a cross-roads, whose fragile fencing preserves the old prairie plants plowed under by farmers.

2/5/13 – Had occasion to stumble back across Eleanor Perenyi‘s Green Thoughts, a classic collection of essays published in 1981 by a mature, successful, well-traveled journalist who first made acquaintance with gardens at a castle as a nineteen-year old married to a Hungarian baron just before WWII (More Was Lost, 1946).

She ended up in Connecticut after a career writing for  The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s, with gardening her “avocation and greatest pleasure.” Her essay “Woman’s Place” makes an intriguing case for the connection between the origins of gardens and the submission of women.

Makes me think of “The Lady of Shallot” immured in her turret with a square of flowers below bounded by a wall with towers on each corner, under orders to view the world only from a mirror and keep her eyes on the tapestry she wove. When her mirror cracked and she escaped, she perished.

1/1/12 – Anyone who loves the natural world and wants to explore the classics of nature writing should become acquainted with Siftings, The Major Portion of The Clearing and Collected Writings of Jens Jensen (1956) An immigrant landscape architect from Denmark, Jensen began work with the Chicago parks system early in the 20th century, eventually planning parks and parkways and developing estates for the likes of Henry Ford and Armour. His homestead, The Clearing, built on the Green Bay peninsula in Wisconsin is a testament to his love of the native landscape of the central plains with its crabapple, hawthorn, and wild plum.

Jensen is known for his council rings and fires, seating circles of stone that brought people together outside where they could commune with each other and the land, imbibing “the spiritual message from their native soil”. He believed in the democratic influence of nature and that “It is in the understanding of this world – a world not of our making – that life becomes richer.”

Add Aldo Leopold‘s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and Louis J.Halle, Jr.‘s Spring in Washington (1947) and you’ll have a good foundation for understanding modern American environmental thought.

7/21/11 – A dear friend, who knew we needed diversion this summer, introduced us to Jacques Pepin‘s The Apprentice – My Life in the Kitchen – (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). Although well acquainted with M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Childs, somehow I’d overlooked Pepin.

The memoir is a delight. The basic effervescence of the man underlies his inspiring immigrant’s story and subsequent involvement in the explosion of American foodism in the late 1960’s and ’70’s. Reminiscences of his childhood in France during WW II (with his mother bicycling him behind her in a cart through the countryside in search of food) combine with a first hand account of the development of nouvelle cuisine in the U. S. on both coasts.

His insider account of the early Howard Johnson’s development of  large-scale standardized franchised food introduces us to the remarkable senior Mr. Johnson and tells the tale of how his innovation and entrepreneurship was dissipated by his son and MBA associates who cut the bottom line by relentlessly downgrading the quality of the food.

Pepin’s account of his life with food – foraging for it, cooking it, serving it, eating it and loving those who share it with him – is infectious – also larded with personal favorite recipes.

Check it out. It will make you appreciate whatever edibles you can grow for yourself. His accounts of collecting snails and capturing frogs or clams wherever he finds himself are inspiring (and mouth-watering). Just his elfin, roguish face on the paperback cover is worth the price.

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