Friday, October 2, 2015

Revisiting a Favorite Book

The 2002 film adaption of "Howards End"

"Dearest Meg,
It isn't going to be what we expected. It is old and little, and altogether delightful -- red brick. We can scarcely pack in as it is, and the dear knows what will happen when Paul arrives tomorrow. From hall you go right or left into dining-room or drawing-room. Hall itself is practically a room. You open another door in it, and there are the stairs going up in a sort of tunnel to the first floor. Three bedrooms in a row there, and three attics in a row above. That isn't all the house really, but it's all that one notices -- nine windows as you look up from the front garden."  E. M. Forster, Howards End


Howards End by E.M. Forster is one of those books I reread every year or so. It feels like an old friend. Each time I read it I discover some new pearl of wisdom. I picked it up over the summer and read it in a few days. I wondered what made me pull it down this time.

Maybe it's because I have been spending a lot of time at home and this book is very much about the love of a house.

"You are coming to sleep, dear, too. It is in the morning that my house is most beautiful. I cannot show you my meadow properly except at sunrise."

Maybe it's because it was summer and the roses were blooming. Dog-roses play a prominent role on the old brick walls of Howards End.

The dog-roses are too sweet. There is a great hedge of them over the lawn -- magnificently tall, so that they fall down in garlands, and nice and thin at the bottom, so that you can see ducks through it and a cow.

It could be because I went to England and Scotland in June. We took a train from London to Edinburgh and this book celebrates the romance of train travel.

"Like many others who have lived in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo...And he is a chilly Londoner who does not endow his stations with some personality, and extend to them, however shyly, the emotions of fear and love."

It may be that I am craving the kinds of discussions that Margaret and Helen Schlegel host at their London home. My book club's Christmas tea is always so much fun.

"The sisters went out to dinner full of their adventure, and when they were both full of the same subject there were few dinner parties that could stand up against them. This particular one, which was all ladies, had more kick in it than most, but succumbed after a struggle...The dinner party was really an informal discussion club; there was a paper after it, read amid coffee-cups and laughter in the drawing-room, but dealing more or less thoughtfully with some topic of general interest."

It could be because Margaret and Helen Schlegel are two of my favorite heroines. I read Jane Austen in the spring and noticed the trend of sisters with different temperaments appearing in so many classic books. The Schlegel sisters and the Dashwood sisters are probably my two favorite sister acts.

"Helen advanced along the same lines, though with a more irresponsible tread. In character she resembled her sister, but she was pretty, and so apt to have a more amusing time. People gathered round her more readily, especially when they were new acquaintances, and she did enjoy a little homage very much. When their father died and they ruled alone at Wickham Place, she often absorbed the whole of the company, while Margaret -- both were tremendous talkers -- fell flat. Neither sister bothered about this, Helen never apologized afterwards, Margaret did not feel the slightest rancour..." 

Of course it may be the Beethoven concert scene, one of my favorites (especially in the beautiful film adaptation of the book). We booked tickets for a Beethoven concert at the Disney Hall in October.

Photo via here

"It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that ever penetrated the ear of man."

But it is probably because Howards End is a classic and classics never go out of style. You can reread them and see something new each time, as well as savor the beauty and universal truths that you already knew were there.

Happy reading. What classic book do you like to revisit?


P.S. I was sad to read about the passing of E.M. Forster's biographer P.N. Furbank last summer. Many years ago when I was just starting out as a freelance book reviewer, one of my first assignments was to review Furbank's landmark biography of Forster for the San Francisco Review of Books. I'll never forget how excited I was to get that job. It was the moment I fell in love with E.M. Forster and his books.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Afternoon Tea

Sometimes it's fun to pull out all the stops when the occasion is as joyous as welcoming your first grandchild. When I began to think of what I should do to celebrate the birth of my granddaughter, a tea party immediately came to mind. Afternoon tea is my idea of heaven. Little did I know how much fun it would be to prepare for one. Taking out family china as well as tea sets I have been collecting over the years was like a trip down memory lane.

I loved setting the table with so many items from family and friends. The china is a family heirloom, the linens were from my daughter's company Heather Taylor Home and the flowers from our friends Holly and Rebecca at Hollyflora.

I sent photos of the china to the girls at Hollyflora and they came up with the color scheme for the flowers

This is the Peter Rabbit tea set I collected for my daughters many years ago. Tea parties have always been a fun tradition in our family.

The menu included these luscious lemon bars

We had three different kinds of scones

And shortbread cookies to remind me of our trip to Scotland over the summer

There were cucumber, smoked salmon, and chicken salad tea sandwiches

And pink champagne

The moment before the guests arrived

And the cake by Annie Campbell which tasted as good as it looked! 

I found out that the tradition of having a tea to celebrate your grandchild is popular in the south and even has a name: "Sip and See." I can understand why. The charms of afternoon tea match the delight of celebrating the newest member of your family.

"The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose."
-- George Gissing

Wishing you a happy weekend. Fall begins on Monday!
Go here for an easy recipe for Sugared Lemon-Rosemary Scones. They are delicious!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Classic Novel and the Perfect Setting

Happy September!

What books are on your wish list for fall? Do the books you read change with the seasons? When the weather turns cooler I often want to read a classic novel and this month I chose "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf. Have you read it? If you haven't, you might want to give it a try.

You may ask, why read it now?

Well, there are so many good reasons. Interest in Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf seems to be at an all-time high. Here is what has been going on recently, as well as what is coming up:

Charleston Farmhouse, the country retreat of the Bloomsbury Group, will have its 100th birthday next year. It was rented by Vanessa Bell in 1916 so that conscientious objectors Duncan Grant and David Garnett would have a place to work the land. Record crowds have visited this summer. I am sure that something special will be happening to celebrate the big anniversary next year!

This is also the 100th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out.  After all this time, she continues to be considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. She inspires writers, artists, readers and even ballet choreographers with her writing. Many works of art have been created as a result. For example:

A new ballet, Woolf Works, based on her fiction premiered last May at the Royal Opera House in London. It played to rave reviews. I saw this and it was truly amazing --  an original and beautiful ballet.

Last year the National Portrait Gallery in London hosted its first-ever Woolf exhibition which combined portraiture with biography. I was lucky enough to see this one also. It was an amazing visual experience and captured this multi-faceted woman so well. The most moving objects in the exhibition were the letters she wrote her sister and her husband before committing suicide and her walking stick which was found on the bank of the River Ouse near her Sussex home. 

This summer the BBC aired a drama about Bloomsbury, Life in Squares. I hope it reaches the U.S. sometime soon. Larger groups than ever visited Charleston this summer to see the setting for many of the scenes.

Priya Parmar wrote a biographical novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, about the early days of the Bloomsbury Group with a focus on Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. It is excellent. Luckily for those of us in Los Angeles, she will be speaking about Vanessa and Her Sister in October at the Beverly Hills Literary Escape. Go here to learn more.

And in the New York Times By the Book column this past weekend, in answer to the question "who is your favorite fictional heroine," the novelist Anne Beattie answered Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse. All of this made me realize that it was time to take a second look at this classic novel by Virginia Woolf.


To the Lighthouse is considered Virginia Woolf's masterpiece. She wrote it in 1925, shortly after finishing Mrs. Dalloway. Just as modernist artists like Cezanne were trying to do something different in painting, Woolf was trying to do something different in the novel. Her goal was to change its form and push the boundaries beyond what had been done in the past. She wanted to write a novel that could incorporate the disorder and haphazardness of life, the ebb and flow of our thoughts and feelings, and at the same time tell a good story.

And so we are in the heads of the main characters Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their family and friends, as we follow their thoughts and actions during their stay at the Ramsays' summer retreat. Woolf is exploring ideas and issues that were important to her and that many of us can relate to: the passage of time, the relation of the present to the past, memory, creativity, art, marriage, family, career versus motherhood, place as a muse, and the power of women. One critic at the time wrote about the book, "Nothing happens...and yet all of life happens." As always with Woolf, the language is beautiful.

She modeled the characters Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay on her own parents. The book revolves around the Ramsays' annual family gathering on the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland. Virginia wanted to evoke the ambiance of her childhood summers in Cornwall. With the character Lily Briscoe she explored the struggle within women to be artist, wife and mother. Was it possible to have it all? This was a question that haunted Virginia for most of her life. Mrs. Ramsay exemplifies the Victorian ideal of motherhood. Lily Briscoe represents the modern concept of the woman artist.

There are so many beautiful passages --

As Lily Briscoe struggles to finish her painting, she thinks:

"One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy."

When one of the house guests returns for dinner, Mrs. Ramsay thinks:

It must have happened then, thought Mrs. Ramsay; they are engaged. And for a moment she felt what she had never expected to feel again -- jealousy. For he, her husband, felt it too -- Minta's glow; he liked these girls, these golden-redish girls, with something flying, something a little wild and harum-scarum about them, who didn't 'scrape their hair off,' weren't, as he said about poor Lily Briscoe, '...skimpy.' There was some quality which she herself had not, some lustre, some richness, which attracted him, amused him, led him to make favourites of girls like Minta. They might cut his hair for him, plait his watch-chains, or interrupt him at his work, hailing him (she heard them now), 'Come along, Mr. Ramsay; it's our turn to beat them now,' and out he came to play tennis." 

Everyone, including Lily, is in love with Mrs. Ramsay. She wields power as the matriarch of the family and is based on Virginia's own mother Julia Stephen.

 Upon finishing the book, Virginia's sister Vanessa Bell wrote:

" the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead."

In what is probably the most famous scene in the book, the family and guests gather around the dinner table to eat Mrs. Ramsay's famous Boeuf en Daube.

"Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things waved and vanished, waterily."

Virginia Woolf wrote about this famous scene:

The dinner party is the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that I think justifies my faults as a writer... I don't think one could have reached those particular emotions in any other way."

Where would I love to read this book? Recently, while drooling over the interiors on my favorite design site House and Garden UK, I spotted this room at Ham Yard Hotel in London. It looks like the perfect bookish spot for settling in with a cup of tea and a good book. It has some of the artsy and bohemian spirit of the Bloomsbury set. Don't you love those lampshades and fabric on the couch and armchairs? I could easily while away a few hours in this delicious room!

What's on your list this fall?
And what is your dream setting for reading a classic book?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ready for Fall

I don't know about you, but every year at about this time I start to crave fall. The middle of August feels tantalizingly close to September and I am ready for the crisp and cool weather of the upcoming months. And right now we are in the middle of a heat wave. Although the weather continues to be hot here in September, the month brings shorter days and with that comes a sense of the changing seasons. So even in Los Angeles we start dreaming about pumpkins and apple pie.

But in my opinion, there is no place more beautiful in autumn than New England. One of my favorite things to do in October is travel to the east coast and stay at a country hotel such as The Pitcher Inn in Warren, Vermont. This year we are going to New York -- we got tickets for Hamilton! -- and then on to rural Litchfield, Connecticut for some leaf peeping and all the other things that go into a New England fall. We were there many years ago and loved it. I remember gorgeous gardens, antique stores, great restaurants, Federal style architecture and country walks. Every porch is decorated with chrysanthemums and pumpkins. I can hardly wait!

With fall on my mind, I began to think of my favorite things to do at this time of the year.

So here goes:  

Ten Things About Fall That Make Me Very Happy

1. Traveling to New England

Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts
Photo via here

One of my favorite places to visit in New England, especially when we are staying in the Berkshires, is Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts. The village consists of one street lined with 18th and 19th century houses that have all been restored to their original condition. Each one is like a little museum.

Here are some other things I like to see and do in New England in the fall. The list is far from exhaustive and in no particular order, but includes some of my favorites.

Shop at the antique stores in Woodbury, CT
Visit the covered bridge in Kent, CT
 Go to The Mount, Edith Wharton's home, in Lenox, Mass
Drive the beautiful Mohawk trail in Western Massachusetts and admire the stunning fall foliage of the Berkshire mountains
 See art in Williamstown, Mass. The Williams College Museum of Art and the Sterling and Francine Clark Museum have stellar art collections
  Visit Stockbridge, the idyllic Berkshire village painted by Norman Rockwell
 While in Stockbridge, stop at the Norman Rockwell Museum
Explore Woodstock, VT, one of the prettiest towns you'll ever see 
Go to nurseries in the area, such as the White Flower Farm in CT
Visit my alma mater Bates College in Maine and walk on the Quad which is carpeted with fall leaves
Eat a bowl of clam chowder at M.C. Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine
 Admire the fall displays of mums and pumpkins that are everywhere!

2. Fall Cooking

There's nothing like cooking up a Wild Mushroom Risotto such as this one from Judith Jones' The Pleasures of Cooking for One to get you into nesting mode. This is a great dish for a cozy night at home. Go here for the recipe.

3. Flowers

I love the colors of fall flowers. These are from a flower arranging class I took last year. 

4. The beach

I have always thought that the beach is at its most beautiful in the fall and winter months. This photo was taken on a gorgeous day in November. There is something about the light at this time of year that makes the air crystal clear and the water glisten.

5. Sinking into a classic novel

I have just started rereading "To the Lighthouse" and am swept away by the beauty of the writing.

6. Adding some tartan to the house

I think that tartan looks especially good in the fall. It has the same crisp and tailored feeling of the season. These dishes finally arrived from Scotland and they remind me of my wonderful trip in June and my visit to the Anta store in Edinburgh, which has to be the the mother lode for all things tartan. I love the way the dishes look on the kitchen table!

7. Pulling out my favorite cookbooks

There are certain cookbooks that do seasonal recipes really well and Nigel Slater's Notes From The Larder is one of them. His pork chops with pears and cream is one of my favorites. Go here for the recipe.

8. Taking out fall table accessories

I have been collecting table ware with fall motifs forever and it's so much fun to take them out once October arrives. This table runner is from Italy and the leaf candle holder from a trip to Paris almost 20 years ago. The amber tea lights I bought in bulk one year for a party.

9. Lighting the candles at dusk on a fall night

As the days get shorter, candlelit tables bring a glow to the house and make staying inside feel very  cozy!

10. Wearing my Bloomsbury poncho

 Having lived on the east coast for so many years, I have been guilty of buying too many sweaters and coats for L.A. But it does eventually get cool enough here to wear some of them. This year I can't wait to bundle up in the Bloomsbury-inspired poncho I bought from Burberry last year. It was part of the Fall/Winter 2014 The Bloomsbury Girls collection and I got it on sale. After learning about the literary and artistic heritage behind this collection and Burberry's support of Charleston, the country retreat of the Bloomsbury Group, I was so happy to have one of these pieces. It will be perfect for a crisp day in October.

Have you travelled to any of the beautiful New England Inns during the fall months? 
I would love to know your favorites!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Last Days of Downton

If you have an Instagram account and follow the Downton Abbey actors, such as Michelle Dockery and Joanne Froggatt, you are probably aware that the filming of the final season of Downton Abbey is almost over. In fact, it ends this week. The stars have been posting some very cute as well as touching photos of the final days of filming (#LastDaysOfDownton). Here are a few of my favorites.

It's hard to believe this show is coming to an end. What a phenomenon it has been.

The final season will air on PBS in January.

Will you miss it as much as much as me?

Instagram photos via here

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Garden Book Club

When a friend asked me if I would like to be in a garden book club, my answer was a resounding yes! After all, I have been collecting garden books forever but must admit to not reading any of my most recent finds, such as Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Virginia Woolf's Garden, and In the Garden with Jane Austen. Yes, I thumb through and read passages and drool over the photos, but don't read them from beginning to end. Not for lack of desire. In fact, I used to read a lot of garden books, especially when we were designing our garden. In recent years it seems that I read mostly novels and don't always make the time for a good garden book. But if I am reading it for a book club, I will get it done.

I don't mean garden how-to books. These books are obviously a must for anyone who gardens. The genre that has always interested me is garden literature -- the stories of people who create a garden -- who they were and why they did it. (Go here to read more) The story of the garden will often tell a bigger story since the creation of the garden yields so many personal rewards. First, there is the finished product -- a garden to experience and enjoy; second, the therapy of tending to it -- having the sun on one's back and being outside in nature; and third, often finding the answers to life -- "Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow."  

These books also contain practical information for gardeners: discoveries and knowledge, what worked and what didn't, the trials and tribulations of that particular garden. It's always interesting to learn about gardening in another part of the world. These are often garden tips we can apply to our own gardens. There is so much for the reader to learn. Our book group is starting with one of the most famous gardens in the world and its fascinating creator: Sissinghurst and Vita Sackville-West. The book is Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst, The Creation of a Garden by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven. It contains many quotes from Vita's garden column that appeared in the Observer from 1946 to 1957.

Vita Sackville-West bought a dilapidated castle in the English county of Kent in the 1930's and set about restoring it. Everyone thought she was crazy. She was the only one who could see the promise in the ruins. The idea of restoring a castle appealed to her romantic imagination and was impossible for her to resist. She was enchanted by its Elizabethan history. As she set about restoring it, she also began creating her famous garden. I can imagine that the process calmed and grounded her while she lead her very tempestuous personal life.

An only child from an aristocratic family, she was disinherited from her childhood home Knole because she was a woman. The estate went instead to her uncle. She spent many years searching for a replacement. After her marriage to the politician Harold Nicolson, she found that replacement in Sissinghurst Castle. Their marriage was an unconventional one as they both had avant-garde attitudes towards marriage and monogamy. They had numerous extramarital affairs and yet remained devoted to each other and never divorced. Vita's most famous affair was with the writer Virginia Woolf. Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson tells the fascinating story of his parents' marriage.

The rose garden at Sissinghurst Castle

Vita was a gifted writer of poetry, novels, essays, travel books and, not surprisingly, a gardening column for the Observer. Many of her books were published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press. But her most famous legacy is the garden she created at Sissinghurst. I suggested that we also read one of her novels for our meeting and we chose All Passion Spent. I can't wait for our discussion in September. In the meantime I am enjoying Sarah Raven's book about Vita's garden.

My favorite passage so far is from the chapter called "Cram, Cram, Cram"

"In her planting, the filling and flowering up of her spaces, Vita had a clear and individual style. It is 'Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny,' she wrote on 15 May, 1955. You have plants popping up in the paths; you have plants trained over almost every square inch of wall; and where there's a gap, Vita encourages plants to grow in the walls. As she says of herself, 'My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy. I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere. I hate to see things scrimp and scrubby. Even the smallest garden can be prodigal within its own limitations...Always exaggerate rather than stint. Masses are more effective than mingies."

A garden tip I would like to apply to my own garden! 

Have you ever thought of starting a book club with a theme? I would love to hear about it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Midsummer Favorites

How has your summer been? It's hard to believe it's almost August. I've gathered together a few of my favorite things from this summer so far. I'd love to know what yours are!

1. "Euphoria" by Lily King

My favorite book this summer is Euphoria by Lily King. Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, it tells the story of a married couple Nell and Fen who are working as anthropologists in New Guinea in the 1930's. When they meet another young anthropologist and decide to work with him, a passionate love triangle occurs. This book tells two fascinating stories: one, about the lives of anthropologists working in the field in the 1930's and two, a dramatic love story that threatens the careers and lives of the three main characters. At only 257 pages, this book delivers a powerful punch with such efficiency. I loved its intensity and passion.

2. "Far From the Madding Crowd"

My favorite movie (it came out in May) is Far From the Madding Crowd. This sweeping, romantic tale is about the beautiful and independent Bathsheba, played by Carey Mulligan, and the three men who compete for her love. Apparently this is the only Thomas Hardy novel with a happy ending. The clothes that Carey Mulligan wears in the film are stunning and so well suited for a young Victorian heroine striding through the Dorset countryside! 

3. Tilda Swinton in "Trainwreck"

 The surprise comedic performance of the summer has to be Tilda Swinton in the film Trainwreck.
This movie is absolutely hilarious and its star Amy Schumer is a comic genius. But who knew Tilda had such comedic talent? Go here to find out how she transformed herself to look like this!

4. Hydrangeas from the garden

This year my hydrangeas have been amazing! It's been so much fun cutting them for arrangements.

5. Finding a new garden ornament

Whenever I go to Montecito, I stop at William Laman who carries the best garden accessories. This wooden obelisk reminds me of ones I've seen in gardens in England.

I also found this lantern at William Laman's

6. Garden plaque

A dear friend gave me this plaque for my birthday, which is going in the garden once I find a place for it. There's wisdom here, don't you think?

7. Aperol Spritz cocktails

We discovered these drinks when we were in Italy and have been making them ever since.

The recipe is simple:

Pour 4 oz. Prosecco into an ice-filled glass. Add 1 oz. Aperol liqueur and top off with club soda. Gently stir together. Garnish with orange zest and mint leaf. It makes the perfect summer aperitif.

8. Garden party inspiration

I haven't had a chance to post my photos from this year's Robinson Garden Tour.
As always, it was so inspiring. I loved this table set for a garden party.

9. Reading the New York Times Travel Section
Photo via here

In the summer this is always my favorite section of the paper and this summer it has not disappointed. Talk about creating wanderlust! There have been so many fabulous articles. I file them away in my travel notebook. This photo is from the article "Dorset, Thomas Hardy Country." I want to be there right now!

10. Rereading Tender Is The Night 

Summer is a great time to reread this classic set in the French Riviera. F. Scott Fitzgerald considered Tender is the Night his best work. And when you go back and reread it, you understand why. The writing is just beautiful. I had forgotten how sad this book is. And how glamorous. It conjures up the 1920's and summers in the south of France -- beaches, villas, and stylish Americans throwing fabulous parties. (Go here to read more about the connection between the Fitzgeralds and Cap d'Antibes.) It also contains one of my favorite dedications:

To Gerald and Sara Murphy -- Many Fetes


Wishing you a summer filled with "many fetes"!