Friday, July 25, 2014

In Love with a Magazine

Bloomsbury purse from the Burberry Autumn/Winter 2014 Collection

Is it crazy to be in love with a magazine? If so, then call me crazy. I have put this particular one with a special stash of magazines I keep in my study for inspiration. The magazine in question is the July issue of "British Harper's Bazaar" with Emily Blunt on the cover. Have you seen it? As the editor-in-chief Justine Picardie writes, this issue is a "heartfelt celebration of British fashion this month -- along with everything else we love about our country." It is an Anglophile's dream. It may still be available at your news stand, though not for much longer since the August issue is due any day. Here are a few of the things that caught my eye and are making me swoon --

The Bloomsbury purse from the Burberry Fall/Winter 2014 collection (see photo above) 

I wrote about this collection here. Christopher Bailey took his inspiration from British artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant's country home Charleston. Burberry has become a patron of the Charleston Trust which supports the maintenance and restoration of this Bloomsbury home and garden. Look at the way this purse is displayed against a backdrop of Bloomsbury-inspired imagery. Swoon-worthy!

The perfect garden hat from Mulberry

Everything you need for afternoon tea

A house in the Cotswolds that belonged to John Singer Sargent

 Emily Blunt, the quintessential English rose

The Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

A story about the 18th-century slave's daughter at the center of the film "Belle"

The iconic London hotel, Claridge's

I hope you can find this issue. It is the perfect place to escape on a lazy summer afternoon! 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ten Summer Favorites

Summer is all about simple pleasures and delicious escapism. Here are ten things I love about this summer. They include books, films, decorative inspiration, and stylish summer fashion. So here we go: June and July's greatest hits so far.

1. The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This may be the perfect summer book. The setting is gorgeous, the characters appealing and, despite its light and breezy quality, the book contains lots of truths and poignancy. It is also funny. It centers on a New York family who decide to go ahead with their vacation plans to rent a house in Mallorca for two weeks despite a major crises in the lives of the parents. The matriarch of the family is Franny, a fabulous cook and endearing character. Somehow in the midst of all the tensions, she manages to produce some delicious Mediterranean-style meals each night. Two guaranteed results of reading this book: you will want to go to Mallorca and you will want to cook like Franny. 

2. The film Boyhood directed by Richard Linklater

Already a big fan of Richard Linklater's films -- especially his trilogy "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," and "Before Midnight" -- I was still unprepared for how good his latest film "Boyhood" would be. Beautiful and poignant, it is a coming of age story about a young man dealing with all the typical trials and tribulations of growing up, including two broken homes. But what makes the film so special is that it was filmed over the course of 12 years which means we get to watch the young boy Mason age from 6 to 18. Starting in 2002, Richard Linklater gathered his lead actors each year for a 3-4 day shoot. The resulting film is incredibly realistic and absolutely engrossing. More than anything else, it is about the passage of time. Go see this. It is one of those ground-breaking films that will be talked about for years. I can't wait to see it again.

3. The great articles about the 100th anniversary of World War I

 Did you see any of these? They made for riveting reading. Go here. Also, this great article about "Storybook London" will come in handy for my upcoming trip to England. 

4. The ultimate summer purse from Clare Vivier 
Unpretentious and cheerful, this tote is all about easy, breezy summer elegance

5. Summer produce: cherries, apricots and peaches are so good right now

And what to do with those peaches? This old-fashioned Peach Bread Pudding from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco is my favorite peach dessert.

6. Making homemade Focaccia! 
I am a little bit obsessed with focaccia right now after discovering how easy it is from Melissa Clark. I have already made two different kinds. Go here and here for the recipes. These are delicious!

7. Stationary from Thunderwing Press 

Nic and J.B. Taylor of Thunderwing Press are brilliant at designing custom items. When I asked them to design custom stationary and cards for me, they inquired about my inspirations. My answer was: the hand-painted interiors of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant's Sussex house Charleston and English country gardens. Bloomsbury and gardens came together in the finished product. I ordered note cards, envelopes, and calling cards. I smile every time I use these.

8. Mugs from Indigo Seas

This fabulous little store next door to The Ivy restaurant on Robertson Boulevard carries the hand-painted china used by The Ivy. The collection includes dishes, platters, bowls, and ice buckets. These garden-inspired mugs bring summer indoors. By the way, Indigo Seas also has a fabulous collection of rare books. Beautiful old editions by Colette, Nancy Mitford, and Virginia Woolf can be found there.

9. Piling on the pillows to create a cozy nook for reading  
Adding pillows to this little couch made it an enticing place for morning coffee and papers 

10. A scarf from Heather Taylor Home

Hand-woven in Chiapas, Mexico, this 100% cotton scarf is soft and gauzy, perfect for a cool summer evening. I wear mine all the time.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Virginia Woolf Exhibition in London

A portrait of Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell
Image via here

The National Portrait Gallery in London is one of my favorite places to visit. It contains portraits of some of the most well-known British figures from the past and present. It is a visual feast for the Anglophile. Everywhere you look are the faces of people you have read about. History comes to life. There are portraits from the Tudor times to the present day. And many of my favorite writers are there. The painting of the Bronte sisters by their brother Branwell, creased in the middle after years of being folded up and sitting atop a cupboard at Haworth House in Yorkshire, is one I always visit. I also always check out the Gallery's great collection of Bloomsbury portraits. There is a fabulous painting of Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant and one of E.M. Forster by Carrington that I just love.

Today is the opening of a very special exhibition devoted entirely to Virginia Woolf: "Virginia Woolf:  Art, Life and Vision." The first exhibition of her in portraits, it is curated by the Bloomsbury Group biographer Frances Spaulding and features more than 100 items, including personal items such as family photographs, letters and diaries, as well as paintings and sculptures of her by the Bloomsbury artists. There are also works by Picasso and Man Ray, as well as first editions from the Hogarth Press. The exhibition is a visual biography of Woolf's entire life, from her birth in 1882 to her suicide in 1941. The goal is to shed light on her personal and public life and help people know her better.

When I found out about this exhibition, you may have heard me shouting for joy because I will be in London just in time to see it. Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers and I have been reading her, as well as collecting books on her and the Bloomsbury Group for many years. I have a postcard of her from the National Portrait Gallery that sits on my desk.

After doing a little research, I have learned a few things about the show. The three most poignant items in the exhibition are the two farewell letters Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard before committing suicide, and her walking stick she left on the bank of the River Ouse, near Monk's House, before drowning herself. These items have never been on display before. I have the chills just thinking about seeing these.

Last October when I was in London I took a day trip to Monk's House, the country home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. It is an unpretentious house with many of the rooms painted Virginia's favorite shade of green and it feels as if she and Leonard have just stepped out for a walk. The beauty and serenity of the garden and Virginia's sunny book-filled bedroom reminded me of the bliss I knew she had found there. It was her sanctuary. The house and garden practically sang out with the conversations and creative work that occurred there during those years. It is hard to believe that this is where she ended her life at age 59.

It sounds as if the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery will give us the full spectrum of Virginia Woolf's life. Just like one of her novels, it promises to evoke all aspects of a life: the ups and downs, the pains and joys, the struggles and triumphs. Can't wait to see this.

  My study and Virginia

If you live in England or are planning to visit soon, I would love to know if you are going to see this exhibition. 
Are you a fan of Virginia Woolf?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Napa Goodness

How is your summer going? I just got back from a long weekend in Napa where my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. Napa was the perfect place to go; it's not that far from home and yet it feels worlds away. And it is one of the most magical spots for a celebration. We spent three days exploring and just hanging out...

There were quaint farms and wineries

Welcoming signs

Lush vineyards

Cooking demonstrations at the Culinary Institute

Champagne tastings

Beautiful spots to relax

Icy drinks by the pool

Country flowers

Favorite places for lunch

A magical setting for celebrating an anniversary

And great wines and champagnes for making that special toast

It was the perfect place to be!


I hope you have been enjoying the summer. The last couple of weeks were a great time for me to catch up on some reading -- a delicious summer novel as well as stacks of magazines and newspapers.

There is so much to talk about! Stay tuned...

But I am wondering, have you seen this?

Or this?

Two different covers of the August issue of British Harper's Bazaar and it is out now. There is a ten page article that features the women of "Downton Abbey" in a glamorous photo spread. The timing couldn't be better for those of us still going through "Downton" withdrawal. The fifth season of the show debuts in Britain this fall. Can't wait to get a copy of the magazine. Looking forward to reading about the "Downton Sisterhood"!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Books and Gardens

I have a copy of a wonderful and unique little book called The Writer's Life. It's one of those books you can dip into from time to time and read some fascinating insights by the world's greatest writers on the topic of writing. Have you seen this little gem? If you love books and are an aspiring writer (those two often go together!), you will love this one.

Here are a few samples --

"Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice...and I have been sitting these fifteen minutes in a state of glory, and calm, and some tears...How physical the sense of triumph and relief is! Whether good or bad it's done."
-- Virginia Woolf

"I have written practically nothing yet, and now again the time is short. There is nothing done. I am no  nearer my achievement than I was two months ago, and I keep half-doubting my will to perform anything. Each time I make a move my demon says at almost the same moment: 'Oh, yes, we've heard that before.'"
-- Katherine Mansfield

"A good rule for writers: do not explain overmuch."
-- Somerset Maugham

"The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the greatest things, and the grandness underlying the sorriest things."
-- Thomas Hardy

"If you ever write something, and it is reviewed, and the review includes a photo of you, and both the photo and review are bad, you will find that the photo is the more painful."
-- Diane Johnson

"Novel, beginning one: any subterfuge seems preferable..."
-- E.M. Forster

"I am going to write because I cannot help it."
-- Charlotte Bronte


I am taking a couple of weeks off to work on a new project, catch up on my reading, spend some time in the garden, and relax with my family. I hope you enjoy this beautiful month of June. I will be back in July, inspired and refreshed, with lots to share. See you then!

xo/ Sunday

Monday, June 16, 2014

Inspiring Women

Vita Sackville-West
Photo by Ciano Gia' Fatta via Beinecke Library at Yale University

Have you ever thought about the inspiring and visionary women who created some of the world's most beautiful gardens? They were trailblazers in their field and often started gardening trends that continue to this very day. To me, the most endearing are the ones who could look at a ruin and see paradise. They had the imagination and fortitude to transform a wilderness into an Eden and the homes and gardens they created exist today for all of us to enjoy. I have been thinking about one in particular: Vita Sackville-West. 

She grew up at Knole, one of the great country houses in Britain. I have visited Knole and it is truly something to see. This house is steeped in history. It had been in Vita's family since the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth I had given it to her cousin Thomas Sackville, who was Vita's ancestor. The house was one of the so-called "calendar" houses with 365 rooms, 52 staircases, and 7 courtyards. Even though Vita was the only child of Baron Sackville, she couldn't inherit the property because she was a woman. When her father died in 1928, it went to her uncle. She always felt the loss.

That is until she bought Sissinghurst Castle which was all but a ruin when she found it except for its  Elizabethan brick tower. She loved the romance of a ruin and felt it was something out of a fairytale. And she knew the tower would become her study. She was up to the task and set about restoring the house and gardens. It took three years to clear away the rubbish on the property. This is where she created her famous garden. The garden "rooms" are Sissinghurst's most famous feature, especially the one filled with all white flowers. Today Sissinghurst is one of the most visited sights in all of England.

Sissinghurst Garden seen from Vita's tower 
June, 2010

And one more thing...she was an immensely talented writer of poetry, essays and fiction. Twice she won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry. Her novel All Passion Spent is one of my favorite books about a woman in the latter years of life and her determination to stay independent after the death of her husband. It is a beautiful piece of writing and an inspiring story about personal freedom, the love of a house, and getting older (read more here).

And, not surprisingly, Vita wrote a gardening column for a London newspaper, the Observer, from 1946-1961. The articles were written in her tower at Sissinghurst. The columns were later collected into a set of books organized by months and published in the 1950's. The first one is called In Your Garden. I have the four volume set and sometimes open it to the date I am on to see what was going on in her garden.

But why am I thinking about her today? Well, there are three reasons;

1. She has been in the news. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University has just acquired her papers. This is very exciting news for scholars of English literature, society, and gardens. Vita's papers include drafts of lectures, broadcasts, and articles; letters from her parents, letters to close friends and lovers, and diaries and garden journals ranging from 1930 to 1962.  It is exciting to think that this treasure trove of scholarship on English arts and gardening during the years of Vita's life will be available here in the states.

2. There is a new book on Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden by Vita Sackville-West and Saran Raven. After reading the excellent reviews, I have just ordered it. Filled with beautiful photographs, some never before seen, it focuses on Vita's wonderful advice to gardeners based on her experiences at Sissinghurst. Ever the poet, she wrote about plants with a romantic sensibility. But her advice was always practical. This book quotes from the Observer gardening columns, interspersed with Sarah Raven's narrative and anecdotes about Sissinghurst. Can't wait to get this one!

3. It's June and we are in garden season. Who better to advise us than Vita Sackville-West? I have been collecting articles and books filled with her gardening advice for years. For anyone who loves a garden, her voice is as comforting and helpful as any gardening friend could be. Here she is talking about peonies in June, 1952:

"Often one is asked for plants which will flourish in semi-shade, and in the month of June the noble peony comes to mind. It always seems to me that the herbaceous peony is the very epitome of June. Larger than any rose, it has something of the cabbage rose's voluminous quality; and when it finally drops from the vase, it sheds its vast petticoats with a bump on the table, all in an intact heap, much as a rose will suddenly fall, making us look up from our book or conversation, to notice for one  moment the death of what had still appeared to be a living beauty...

The secret of growing herbaceous peonies is to plant them very shallow and give them a deep, rich root-run of manure for their roots to find as they go down in search of nourishment. Then they will go ahead, and probably outlive the person who planted them, so that his or her grandchild will be picking finer flowers fifty years hence."

Enjoying the last gasp of this peony ready to shed "its vast petticoats" in my study

If you are a gardener or simply a garden admirer, you will enjoy reading the gardening stories and advice written by Vita Sackville-West. Her words are inspiring and hopeful. She is one of those garden dreamers whose passion will make you want to get out in the garden. Here she is on the creation of Sissinghurst and specifically on planting the yew hedges:

"This may sounds sentimental, but it is very true: One needs years of patience to make a garden; one needs deeply to love it, in order to keep that patience. One needs optimism and foresight. One has to work hard oneself, sometimes as I worked hard, cutting all those hedges. I hated those hedges when I looked at my blistered hands, but t the same time I still felt that is had been worthwhile planting them. They were the whole pattern and design and anatomy of the garden, and, as such, were worth any trouble I was willing to take."

 You can order Sarah Raven's new book on Sissinghurst here

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Friend in the Kitchen

Now that it's summer and the weather is warm, I have been thinking about all the entertaining possibilities coming up. My mind immediately went to outdoor entertaining since everything tastes better outdoors. And what could be better than being surrounded by nature? More than anything else, summer entertaining should be easy and relaxed. I may have found the perfect book to help.

What's a Hostess to Do?  by Susan Spungen was published last year and is filled with great ideas for entertaining. I have been a fan of her writing for a long time, especially the articles she used to write for "Martha Stewart Living." Spungen was the founding food editor of the magazine and wrote a regular column on entertaining. I have torn out so many of her recipes over the years. Her parties always seemed effortless and chic. She eventually left the magazine and went on to become a culinary consultant for movies such as "Julie and Julia," It's Complicated," and "Eat, Pray, Love." You probably remember how beautiful the food scenes in those films were. I was so excited to see that she had written a book on entertaining.

Since I was having an outdoor cocktail party last week, I pulled down her book to see what she had to say about "effortless entertaining." My immediate reaction was: I love this book. Packed with great ideas for every kind of party, it is divided into clear sections such as The Buffet, The Dinner Party, The Cocktail Hour, Outdoor Parties, and Holidays and Other Special Occasions. It has fabulous recipes. Spungen doesn't skip a detail on how to plan a party and everything she suggests makes so much sense. She explains how to word the invitation, decorate with a theme, time your party preparations, arrange a table, mix cocktails, put together a cheese plate, and throw a party outside. For a cocktail party she suggests a buffet table, easy bite-size hors d'oeuvres, and keeping everything informal and carefree. Her approach is the opposite of fussy, which sets a great mood for the guests and keeps everyone relaxed. The idea is to have fun at your own party and your guests will do the same.

Her first suggestion was something I always do: take out paper and pen and start making lists. I wanted everything to be in one place so I used a notebook with dividers and made lists for everything I needed. The notebook was divided into sections:  the bar, menu, serving pieces, linens, and flowers and decor. 

I started with the flowers --  peonies and roses felt perfect for a party in June  

Next was the food. Shrimp cocktail was at the top of my list when I created the menu. I chose four recipes from "Ten Quick Hors d'Oeuvres" in Spungen's book, which includes the shrimp, and also added an eggplant dip from The Barefoot Contessa. All the recipes are easy to make, can be done ahead, and are able to sit on the buffet table for hours. The shrimp and cocktail sauce (above) is always a good choice because it is so simple. I made it a little more special by substituting Gazpacho Seafood Dip for the cocktail sauce. A friend gave me this recipe. Although a little more work, it was so much more interesting than a regular cocktail sauce. Plus it can be made days ahead of time. See the recipe below.

Everyone loved these cherry tomatoes stuffed with hummus and topped with slivers of olive from the book 

Eggplant dip with homemade pita chips from Barefoot Contessa was all done ahead

Smoked salmon on blinis couldn't be easier using frozen blinis from the market

As evening began to fall, we set out the flowers on the table

We put out glasses, ice buckets, and candles

A big cheese tray was another wonderful suggestion from the book

Cocktail-size paper plates and napkins made clean up easy

Sparkling rose and white wine in ice buckets allowed everyone to help themselves

The next day I was thinking that there are certain food writers who feel like a friend in the kitchen.  Their books are filled with inspiration, great recipes, and good common sense. Laurie Colwin, Ina Garten and Melissa Clark are three that come to mind. Susan Spungen is another. If you love to entertain, be sure to get a copy of her book. It will give you lots of good and practical ideas for entertaining this summer. My favorite tip? Make a big batch of topping for fruit crisp and store it in the freezer for when you are ready to make a crisp. Genius!


Here is the recipe for Gazpacho Seafood Dip: 

1/4 cup chili sauce
1 cup ketchup
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 green pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons vinegar
2-3 drops Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil

In a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine all ingredients. Refrigerate up to 1 week. Serve with seafood and avocado slices, if desired. Makes 3 cups.