May We Be Forgiven

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.

A Difficult Woman

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

The Wild Braid

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

Onward And Upward In The Garden

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

Happy 96th Beverly Cleary!

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

Off The Menu – Staff Meals From America’s Top Restaurants

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!

Bossypants – 5 Reasons To Love Tina Fey

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.

Down The Garden Path

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

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

It’s hard to begin reviewing this book without stopping to admire the small press that publishes it.  I am a huge fan of all small presses for keeping authors alive who might otherwise simply fade into obscurity and be all but forgotten.  Or, as in this author’s case, because she was forgotten, bringing them back to life to a new generation of readers who would otherwise never have known them.  So I hope if you’re reading this you’ll continue to the section below where I talk about Persephone Press.

But now: a word for Miss Pettigrew.  Poor Miss Pettigrew, a down on her luck middle-aged governess who can seem to do no right.  Until, of course, her employment agency sends her on a call not to a household of unruly children but to a nightclub singer who changes her life entirely in a mere 24 hours.  And just to believe for a moment that it is “never too late” is the sheer joy of this delightful book.  Never has a case of mistaken identity been so charming.  Cinderella, move over.  This book was made into a movie starring Frances McDormand who, in this reviewer’s opinion, can do no wrong.  While the movie is delightful the book is superior and it is a highly recommended read with a Sidecar in one hand and, dare I say it? A cigarette in the other.  Live. Live.  Live!

I can not say enough about my own adoration for Persephone Books.  Without them there are so many authors I never would have found. In their own words, from their Website: “Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.”

Winifred Watson believed in this book with all her heart but had some struggle finding a publisher for it.  It was published, finally, in 1938 and was received with great acclaim.  But in 1941 Winifred Watson stopped writing entirely to take care of her son.  She lived, quite quietly, in Newcastle for the rest of her life.

Still Alice

This is an extremely moving first novel which chronicles the sudden and swift descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in the life of Alice Howland, a fifty year old Harvard professor whose expertise is cognitive psychology and linguistics.  Because the character is, at first anyway, so self-aware of what is happening to her as the disease progresses it is absolutely chilling to read.  There were many moments when I wanted to put the book down, and yet I found I could not.  At times I felt as if I were about to witness a horrible accident and yet I could not turn my head away.  It was as if I was on a speeding train which I knew was destined to crash, and yet I could not get off at any of the scheduled stops.  What makes this so absolutely compelling is that the story is told not from a caretaker’s point of view, as we might expect, but from  the victim’s.  And because Lisa Genova, the author herself, has a Ph.D in neuroscience from Harvard she has the knowledge and skill to pull a feat like this off.  The language itself is very simple, which I found entirely appropriate given the subject, and I believe everyone should read this beautiful book.  Warning: will cause the onset of crying in all those except those with the very hardest of hearts.

“At some point, there would simply be no point. ”
― Lisa GenovaStill Alice

“But will I always love her? Does my love for her reside in my head or my heart? The scientist in her believed that emotion resulted from complex limbic brain circuitry that was for her, at this very moment, trapped in the trenches of a battle in which there would be no survivors. The mother in her believed that the love she had for her daughter was safe from the mayhem in her mind, because it lived in her heart.”
― Lisa GenovaStill Alice

Some sites you may want to visit on the important subject of Alzheimer’s disease are:

http://www.alzheimersreadingroom.com/

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alzheimers/AZ00009

http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp