Monday, October 20, 2014

Book of the Month

Today I am starting a new feature on the blog called the "Book of the Month." Each month I will highlight an outstanding book I have read and write a review. It may be a new book or a classic that deserves a revisit. I will continue to talk about books during the rest of the month, but this will be the stand-out book for me. I am hoping to hear from you about your recommendations and also how you liked this one. I realize that this is what we've been doing on the blog all along. I have gotten so many wonderful suggestions from you over the years. And thanks to many of you for your great tips last time on books set in Cornwall. I have already ordered titles by Rosamunde Pilcher and Mary Wesley. So here goes, the October Book of the Month!


What a pleasure it was to read Ian McEwan's most recent book. He is simply one of the best writers working today. His book The Children Act accomplishes so much in a relatively slim volume. It combines beautiful writing with provocative ideas, a compelling narrative and a fascinating central character. In fact, it is one of those books that offers so many topics for discussion that it just might be the best book club choice of the year. If you are in a book club, read this. I guarantee there will be multiple subjects to discuss -- marriage, religion, the law, children's rights -- just to name a few. There is a beautiful poem by Yeats that runs throughout; the lines are lyrical and haunting, capturing many of the qualities of the book. The poem is about regret which is one of the themes explored by Ian McEwan in this excellent book.

Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the Family Division in London. She is brilliant, clear-headed, disciplined, analytical and highly respected. She is also a lover of music and poetry and a talented pianist. She has risen to the top tier of her field. Along the way she has made sacrifices. As the years passed by and her career flourished, there never seemed to be a good time to have children. She is suffering some regret on that account. And now her marriage is at a crossroads. In the opening chapter her husband delivers an ultimatum. He intends to have an affair with another woman unless their relationship improves. On the same night she receives a call about a 17-year old boy with advanced leukemia who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion for religious reasons. He and his family are devout Jehovah's Witnesses. Fiona must rule on the boy's fate as well as decide what to do about her marriage. Along the way, she will make many other decisions as a judge as well as perform in a pivotal piano recital for her colleagues at Gray's Inn. It is one of those scene-stealers that take a book beyond the ordinary to extraordinary. My heart was pounding. How McEwan managed to write such a powerful book in just 213 pages is nothing short of miraculous.

Having a judge as its central character makes this book stand out from others. There are not many novels about judges. Fiona is a complicated character and her story helps us see the human side of the law. She handles family cases and spends a lot of time protecting the welfare of children. She needs to keep her mind sharp and have her analytical faculties in hand at all times. But she is also dealing with a crisis in her marriage. The tension is palpable. Mostly, she stays incredibly focused and professional. She is a lover of the arts and during her leisure time has a tendency to get carried away by a beautiful piece of music or poetry. The fact that she does not have children is often in her thoughts. It has created a gap in her life that seems to propel her towards the young man at the center of the medical case and boundaries get crossed. I spent most of the book marveling at what an extraordinary woman she was as she balanced so many balls in the air.

Ian McEwan does a skillful job depicting his character's inner life. Fiona's thoughts and preoccupations have a richness and authenticity. We learn the back story of her career and floundering marriage. Memories, laments, and meditations on her life and personal choices are seamlessly woven throughout. I felt that I knew this woman. The central theme of the book is powerful: judges have personal crises and distractions and yet are in charge of momentous decisions that can transform a person's life. In the case of the young man with leukemia, the decision can mean the difference between life and death. This is one of those books you won't forget. It will make you wonder "what would I have done"?

Monday, October 13, 2014

English Countryside, Part 1

St. Mawes, Cornwall

If you believe that places can be muses than you would love Cornwall. An Englishman we met during our trip to England used a phrase to describe what we were looking at one day which has stuck with me. He described the scene as "achingly beautiful." I agreed. When you combine glorious weather, the English countryside and picture postcard scenery, you have a winner. The beauty is simply off the charts. Somehow your heart gets involved and you fall in love with a place. This happened to me in Cornwall.

Checking into the hotel in the early evening

I couldn't wait to get to Cornwall. I knew that it was a muse for Virginia Woolf. She had spent childhood summers in St. Ives and "To The Lighthouse" was based on her happy memories of those vacations. The lighthouse of the novel is based on the Godrevy lighthouse in St. Ives.

Other writers had been inspired by its beauty. Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" had been set there. There were also the swashbuckling "Poldark" books. I remembered a dashing hero, devious smugglers, battles over the land, betrayal and romance. They were made into a popular television series which I watched many years ago. And more recently there was "Doc Martin," a television series I loved. But still, I was unprepared for the beauty I would discover.

 St. Mawes

After six days in London, we drove to Cornwall arriving late in the day. Our drive had been on narrow, winding roads bordered by hedgerows and the countryside was storybook. We checked into our hotel and unpacked. It was a short walk to dinner as we were eating in the hotel that night. The next day we awoke to foggy skies and the sound of seagulls and a fog horn. A walk outside revealed the view (see photo above), though admittedly it was much grayer and more overcast than this. This is what it looked like in the afternoon. The experience reminded me of the scene in "The Enchanted April" when the English women, who arrive in Italy at night, throw open the shutters the next morning to discover the stunning view. This is the road leading into the little village of St. Mawes where we would be spending the next three days.

The road to town

The first day was spent exploring the village. The main road is lined with quaint cottages, art galleries, and little shops. We walked into town passing little cottages along the way. It looked very much like the setting of "Doc Martin."

Each cottage is out of a storybook

They all have names; this is the Pink Cottage

We stopped at St. Mawes Dairy to see the selection of cheeses
Miss Muffet looked enticing

And arrived at the little harbor

There were benches for sitting and taking in the view

We stumbled upon The Idle Rocks, a beautiful hotel right on the water. Lunch was on the terrace and while we ate our meal the sun came out. This was a place to linger. As the afternoon progressed, more and more boats appeared, the water began to sparkle, and it became a scene to inspire a painter.

The lobby was lovely, with an understated elegance

 Next was a walk through the countryside, passing St. Mawes Castle on the way

We took the path along the sea, passing beautiful homes and huge hydrangea bushes

I loved the lush hydrangeas against sparkling Falmouth Bay

As the afternoon wore on, more sailboats began to appear -- another painting

We opened this gate

Leading into a neighboring field where we had a lovely walk

We retraced our steps back to this hydrangea-lined lane leading to the castle

 We bought a ticket and went on the tour

St. Mawes Castle is known as Henry VIII's most picturesque fortress. Built in the sixteenth-century, it was one of the king's defenses against European invaders.

 It's hard to beat a castle on the water; the views were incredible!

The flag was flying

There were cannons

Narrow stairwells

A clover-leaf design

And tiny doors

We walked through the gun rooms, governor's quarters, barracks and kitchen.

So far Cornwall was proving to be deeply atmospheric. Between the castle, the ancient stone walls, diminutive cottages, seagulls, foghorns, blue skies, puffy clouds, sparkling water and sailboats, this was a magical place. It was easy to imagine a writer or an artist coming here for inspiration.


The next day we went to St. Ives which is about an hour away. We were headed to the Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum to see the art. I was also hoping to get a glimpse of Virginia Woolf's lighthouse. The drive was lovely through narrow and winding roads bordered by hedgerows. We passed miles of untouched green countryside that looked as if it were out of a Thomas Hardy novel.

We took a ferry across the River Fall which we were told is very deep. This is the view from the car. We continued driving on the famously narrow Cornish roads, finally arriving at beautiful St. Ives.

St. Ives

St. Ives is a port and resort area that was the center of the fishing industry in the 19th-century. It was also a gathering spot for artists who were inspired by the beautiful light. Today it continues to be a community for artists and art lovers.

The Tate Gallery in London opened a small branch here. This beautiful little museum is a beacon of modern art with a breathtaking setting right across from Porthminster beach. If you go, be sure to take a leisurely stroll through the museum and then visit the cafe on the top floor to enjoy the panoramic ocean views.

Barbara Hepworth Museum

Our next stop was The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. It is located in her home in St. Ives. She was a sculptor at the center of the mid-20th-century arts scene in this Cornish town. Her art is beautiful and fits so perfectly in this space. We walked through several rooms containing her abstract works.

The lush garden contains some of her larger works

It was a lovely place to linger

Each piece is enhanced by the garden setting

The charming town of St. Ives

The town of St. Ives is a warren of little streets lined with tall and narrow buildings, a very pretty church, candy stores, an excellent book store, a war memorial, and little gardens. Everywhere you look you can catch a glimpse of the stunning seaside.

Some Cornish Specialties

Sea Salt is a wonderful gear store with everything you might need for the inclement weather

The St. Ives church with its pots of flowers and a glimpse of the ocean

The war memorial

 We even spotted Virginia Woolf's lighthouse before leaving!

 Is there a place that has cast its spell on you? And can you imagine it inspiring writers and artists?
Please send me your recommendations for books that are set in Cornwall. I can't wait to read more!

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Capital Idea, Old Chap

Leave it to Hatchard's, the oldest bookstore in London, to have an entire table devoted to books on the city. After a long flight to London and checking into the hotel, there is nothing better than getting out and taking a walk. Fortunately Hatchard's is right around the corner from where we were staying. After some happy browsing, I made a mental note to go back for some very special books I spotted.

The Stafford Hotel is located on a quiet side street just off of St. James. It is an easy walk to so many favorite places.

Such as Fortnum and Mason; I had to check out the Halloween candy displays

And the neighboring streets, each one a little gem

Jermyn Street was practically glowing at dusk

After a glass of wine at the American Bar and a delicious dinner at Scott's Restaurant, it was time to retire for the night to get some rest before our first full day in London.


The next day we made our way to the National Portrait Gallery to see a very special exhibition

This exhibition devoted entirely to Virginia Woolf was a beautiful and moving experience. It includes the letters Virginia wrote to her husband Leonard Woolf and sister Vanessa Bell before drowning herself in the River Ouse. It also includes the walking stick that she left behind on the riverbank. There are famous portraits of her that we have seen in so many books, such as the photographs by Beresford and Man Ray and the exquisite paintings by her sister Vanessa and Bloomsbury contemporary Roger Fry. 

Lady Ottoline Morrell's photographs of Virginia at Garsington are also there, shown as a slide show. Virginia wrote "is the sunlight ever normal at Garsington? No I think even the sky is done up in pale yellow silk, and certainly the cabbages are scented." These photos show her animated and vivacious as she chats with Lytton Strachey and friends. They capture an aspect of her personality that many people don't know about, the enchanting and charming side that her friends loved. She had a great sense of fun, loved practical jokes, and was an incorrigible gossip.  

There is a wall of early photographs that show the illustrious family she was born into -- her father Leslie Stephen was an eminent literary scholar and her mother's family was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Many of these family photos were taken by her great-aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. There are also photos of and art by Virginia's fellow Bloomsbury members. Virginia's own writing is seamlessly woven throughout.

Surprisingly, one of the items that touched me the most was about her sister It was a painting of Vanessa done by Duncan Grant that has never been shown in public before. Absolutely beautiful, it was done for Vanessa's son Julian to take with him when he went to Spain to fight in the Civil War. Knowing that he died in that war makes this work all the more poignant. It is owned by a family member. I was happy to learn that the BBC is making a televised drama about Bloomsbury. There are so many stories to tell. Go here to read more.

There is much to say about this exhibition. It was an opportunity to learn about Virginia Woolf's life in the most visual and beautiful way. And speaking of beauty, the poster for this exhibition is wonderful and I am planning to get mine framed. If you can't get to London to see this show, order the poster and catalogue here. It was a once in a lifetime experience! 


After lunch we headed over to the Victoria and Albert to see Wedding Dresses, 1775-2014. This  fabulous exhibition traces the development of the wedding dress and its treatment by fashion designers over the last two centuries. It included vintage films of all the royal weddings of the last century. Loved this!

I couldn't get any photos of the exhibition, but I loved discovering the back of the V & A.
What a great gathering place on a Sunday afternoon!

The following day was gorgeous and we walked to St. James Park. It was green and leafy, just beautiful. I could have lingered there forever.

But we wanted to see the Churchill War Rooms, which were absolutely fascinating. These are the underground rooms and bunker where Churchill held secret meetings during World War II. There is a Churchill Museum which includes interesting details about his life. Photos and films of his speeches show him rallying the public during WWII. There are scenes with Roosevelt and other world leaders. There is also a film of his funeral. I loved learning that on the day of his funeral all stores in London were closed and all sporting matches were stopped. On his 90th birthday he received 300,000 cards. If you haven't been, be sure to go next time. History truly comes to life here.

 After lunch at the Wolseley Restaurant, we took a little walk down Dover Street.

Where we discovered Peter Harrington, a beautiful rare book store. It is painted an exquisite shade of green. Not sure what color this is but I can think of many names. Maybe British Library Green? This was a little jewel box of a store and packed with lovely editions of many books I love.

And this is where I bought the five volumes of "The Diary of Virginia Woolf," making me very happy after seeing the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.


The following days included some very special places and events

The Ceramic Poppy exhibition at the Tower of London

The amazing "Wolf Hall"

 John Sandoe Books 

This fabulous book store which we stumbled upon consists of three floors in an 18th-century dwelling and is crammed with about 25,000 books. The books are piled everywhere -- window ledges, stairwells and tables -- though they swear they have a system. It's very cozy in there, a bibliophile's heaven!

The bustling Bourough Market which dates from 1851

A walk across Millennium Bridge ending in this glorious sight of St. Paul's Cathedral

The war memorials with wreaths of red poppies

I was beginning to realize that history was the theme of our trip to London so far: Virginia Woolf, the royal wedding dresses, the Churchill war rooms, and Hillary Mantel's plays about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. London is filled with history and wherever you go you are walking in the footsteps of  legendary figures. I am always so inspired when I am there.


But the next day we decided to do something completely different and spend some time in nature. We took a drive out to Richmond to visit Petersham Nurseries and Kew Gardens.

Petersham Nurseries -- I loved all the gardening tips for September

The dahlias were blooming

This is the tea room

The award-winning restaurant where we had a delicious lunch

There were flower arrangements everywhere

And so many plants to buy

As well as unique garden ornaments

Next was the magnificent Kew Gardens

Dressed in autumn colors

The conservatory

Beautiful yellows and oranges

It was a perfect way to end our visit to London and a great transition for going into the countryside the next day.

We celebrated our last night in London with a special cocktail called Lost In The Museum. I loved the name, so fitting for our trip!

The next morning we were off to Cornwall

St. Mawes

 Stay tuned! There are castles, country walks, and cream teas coming up.