Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dinner in the Garden

The garden on the morning of our party

Thursday is the first day of fall but here in Los Angeles we're still hanging onto summer. The daytime temperatures have been in the eighties which makes the nights beautiful. This weekend I gave a birthday party for my sister. Dinner was on the patio and we stayed outside until until after dark. The weather was perfect!

I set two tables with Heather Taylor Home linens and flowers from Hollyflora

Everyone arrived at 5:30 and we had plenty of time to enjoy the garden

We started with Greek mezze appetizers

I went to our local Farmer's Market in the morning and bought an array of Greek specialties from a wonderful vendor there. They included stuffed grape leaves, feta with herbs, hummus, tzatziki sauce, roasted red peppers, olives and tapenade. We made our own pita chips. I loved serving it on this three-tiered stand that I found at Rolling Greens Nursery. This appetizer turned out to be a good thing for dinner as well since there were three vegetarians in the group who just piled more of the yummy Greek appetizers onto their dinner plates. 

Buffet table

I was very excited about the menu. My sister lived in San Francisco for many years and each time I visited her we went to Zuni Cafe, the popular restaurant on Market Street owned by Judy Rodgers. The restaurant's signature dish, the one we always ordered, is Zuni Cafe Chicken with includes luscious croutons soaked in juices from the chicken on a bed of arugula.

I wanted to recreate that dish for my sister's birthday dinner. I found the perfect recipe from Ina Garten. We made her Lemon Chicken with Croutons and served it with a big arugula salad. Everyone just piled the salad onto their plates and topped it with the chicken and croutons. We also served rosemary and Parmesan polenta and a big platter of roasted vegetables.

Dessert was Pumpkin Spice Cake with Pumpkin Cream Cheese Frosting

This cake is always a winner and I love to make it in the fall. Decorated with flowers and kumquats from the garden it was special enough to be a birthday cake. Go here for the recipe.

Are you still hanging onto summer in your neck of the woods?
Even though our weather feels like summer, I'm very excited to be entering the fall season!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hello, September!

As soon as we hit September, the cultural calendar heats up. And one of the best events I have gone to recently was a screening of the 25th anniversary restoration of the beautiful Merchant Ivory film "Howards End." I had seen it on the big screen 25 years ago and multiple times on the small. But this screening was memorable. The film looks ravishing, even more so than I remember. The music and setting create an unforgettable ambiance. The directing and acting are excellent. And the story and emotional power of the book have lost nothing in the intervening years.

"Howards End" by E.M Forster is one of my favorite books. Forster considered it his best book and I agree. It is about the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who live in London and are financially comfortable with independent incomes. They take on an impoverished young man, Leonard Bast, as their cause. Advised by the wealthy and successful industrialist Henry Wilcox that the company Leonard is working for is about to go bust, they recommend that the young man quit his job and look for a new one. When Leonard quits his job and gets another one from which he is fired, the girls are horrified to discover that the information from Henry about Leonard's former employer was faulty and the company is just fine. When they ask Henry Wilcox about the mistaken information he is unfazed and doesn't even remember giving it.

In the meantime, the young man's life begins to unravel and the two sisters encounter many challenges to what was formerly their very happy life. Helen is spurned by Paul Wilcox and returns to her London life with Margaret. Unfortunately the Wilcox family moves across the street, an unpleasant reminder to Helen of her heartbreak. Henry Wilcox's wife, Ruth, who dies shortly after the film begins, forms an unlikely friendship with Margaret Schlegel. Ruth loves her home in the country, Howards End, and decides to leave it to Margaret, whom she sees as a kindred spirit. After her death the Wilcox family finds her handwritten note with instructions that Margaret is to inherit Howards End and they tear it up. But ironically Henry ends up marrying Margaret and eventually leaves Howard End to her after all. The emotional twists and turns to this book are riveting and one of the central stories is the love of a house and the land. Both Ruth Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel believe that some houses have a spirit that only certain people can feel. It's a wonderful book, both a love letter to England's "green and pleasant land" as well as a cautionary tale.

If this newly restored film is playing in your neighborhood, please go see it. It has stood the test of time and delivers a message just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago when the film came out and 100 years ago when the book was published. E.M. Forster's theme "only connect" is one that resonates.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fall Reading List

Monks House
Sussex, England -- October, 2013

With fall right around the corner (and it can't get here soon enough for me!), I have put together a fall reading list. When the weather cools down, I am always in the mood to curl up with a good book and there are so many I want to read. Some lovely books have been accumulating on my "to-be-read" shelf. I love looking at them and wonder if you, like me, have noticed how beautiful books are becoming. It could be that publishers are trying to win over the e-book crowd or perhaps the designers of book covers are feeling especially inspired right now. Whatever the reason, we seem to be experiencing a renaissance of beautiful books. The art work on the dust jackets is simply stunning. Here is my fall reading list. It includes new releases and classics. These books promise enlightenment as well as beauty!

I am more than halfway through The Essex Serpent and love it. This novel is a Victorian love story with gothic undertones that takes place at the crossroads of science, medicine, superstition, and religion in the late nineteenth century. The events occur under the shadow of a legendary monster in Essex, England. The fears and emotions stirred up by this imaginary creature are symbolic of deeper things. Those things are close to the surface in the three central characters --  the heroine Cora Seaborne, a recent widow, and the two men in her life, the Reverend William Ransome and Doctor Luke Garrett, aka The Imp. With these three Sarah Perry has created vivid characters that jump off the page; they are complicated and fascinating people whom you won't soon forget. The setting is almost a character itself and creates a haunting atmosphere that illuminates the entire book. I am completely under its spell. This is one of my Heywood Hill books (go here) and should be coming out in the U.S. very soon.

The author of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" has written a new novel that is getting very good reviews. It takes place during the summer before World War I and depicts the fraught period just before Britain is to enter the war. Yet during that summer the idyllic countryside of Sussex maintains its charming ways. One reviewer noted that it is the contrast between pastoral peace and the violent chaos of war that gives the book its richness. A few years ago I heard Helen Simonson speak about becoming a writer (go here). She was funny and illuminating. I can't wait to read her new book. By the way, this lovely British edition was a gift from my friend Miranda Mills who writes Miranda's Notebook.

Juliet Nicolson, whose grandmother was Vita Sackville-West, has written A House Full of Daughters. It is a biography of her family which covers seven generations of women. Despite the fact that there have been many books about her ancestors, she decided to write her own. She wanted to give it her own spin, look beyond the myths and dig deeper for the hidden truths. It will be interesting to read what she discovered about her famous heritage.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is written by Louis De Bernieres, author of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." It is a sweeping, epic story of love told against the background of war. The novel follows the lives of one British family who try to survive the ruins of war and find happiness. I have started this one and am riveted.

I had to buy Weatherland by Alexandra Harris since weather is such a factor in all the British novels I read. It will be a fun one to dip into, especially related to authors such as Dickens and the Bronte sisters. Right now we could use some "English skies" here in Los Angeles!

A beautiful new edition by Vintage of a classic -- All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Vintage has reissued several of her books, including "Pepita" (her Spanish-dancer grandmother) and "The Edwardians." 

Legendary landscape designer Russell Page wrote his memoirs in 1962 and it has became a garden classic. This book is filled with charming anecdotes about patrons, colleagues and gardens, together with great advice for the gardener. It is a beautifully written book about one man's passion and craft. We are reading this for my garden book club and I can't wait to discuss it.

I discovered Angela Thirkell's novels a few years ago and she has become one of my favorite writers. Her Barsetshire series include "Wild Strawberries," "High Rising," and "Pomfret Towers," all of which I have read and enjoyed. When I was in England a few years ago I picked up several of her books and now have a wonderful collection. I pulled August Folly off the shelf last week and will read it next.

This may go under the category of guilty pleasure, but I am definitely under the spell of these books. Voyager, the third installment, may be the best one so far.

And finally, under the category of rereading favorite books: Mapp and Lucia. We just got back from Hawaii and my family laughed when they saw what I was reading. Only I would take "Mapp and Lucia" to read in Maui. Tilling, England (which is supposed to be Rye) couldn't be further from the white sand, blue ocean and palm trees of Hawaii. But it was the book I pulled off my bookshelf as we were rushing out the door to go to the airport. I have to say I had no regrets. I am finishing it now. If you love British humor, pick this one up. You won't be disappointed. It's just so funny!

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Very Good Prologue

It's not too often that I think about the prologue to a book. In fact, sometimes when I am in a hurry to begin a book, I skip it. But I did take the time to read Claire Harman's brilliant prologue to her fabulous new biography of Charlotte Bronte and I am so glad I did. It was a reminder of the power of literature. It also set the stage and the mood for what has so far been a fascinating read. I am 100 pages into this biography and really enjoying it.

The prologue tells a fascinating story: in September of 1843 Charlotte Bronte, age 27, is alone at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, a girls' school where she is a teacher. Everyone has left for vacation but she cannot afford to go home. She is lonely and unhappy. It is not only her solitude that is making her feel this way. She has fallen in love with the husband of the headmistress of the school and it is obvious he doesn't return her love. When she was a student at the school, he paid her a lot of attention and singled her out as a shining star. But after she became a teacher, his behavior changed and he acted coldly towards her. She feels rejected and ignored by both the husband and wife.

On one of these days alone at the school she takes a long walk through the town and winds up at the city's great cathedral. Although she is not Catholic, she decides to go in and hear the service. Afterwards she enters the confessional and makes a confession to the priest. For the daughter of an Irish Protestant minister, this was very strange behavior. But she was desperate to talk to someone about her feelings. She later wrote to her sister Emily about her sense of relief in unburdening herself. Later, when she wrote her first novel The Professor, she would learn how to deal with her pain by turning it into art.

Two weeks after Charlotte's visit to the Cathedral, a young Queen Victoria was in Brussels. Charlotte went out to see the royal party procession and wrote to Emily about her excitement at seeing the young queen. Claire Harman ends this little story with the following line:

"Five years later, the insignificant little Englishwoman in the cheering crowd who had watched Victoria flash by would be keeping that queen and half the nation awake with the novel she had written."

That novel would be Jane Eyre.

Would this prologue make you want to read the book?
It definitely pulled me in!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Amanda Brooks' English-Country Style

The living room in Amanda Brooks' house in England

If there's one type of architecture that captures my heart, it's an English country farmhouse. The September issue of Architectural Digest arrived just in time to satisfy my passion. There is a great article on writer Amanda Brooks' Oxfordshire house which hits all the right notes:  timeworn ceiling beams, reclaimed wood counter tops, vintage farmhouse kitchen table, unpainted plaster, pine cabinetry, piggery turned into a painting studio, garden shed, boot room, and rose-filled gardens. Sigh... this is my dream house. Take a look at this lovely place, decorated by Amanda Brooks who brought to the decoration her favorite aesthetic -- English-country style which she loves for its "timelessness and lack of pretension." Oh yes, I could live here! This house simply exudes warmth and coziness.

The 1820's farmhouse owned by Amanda and Christopher Brooks

A corner of the living room

Living room

Tea tray in a sunny niche of the living room

Sitting room



Their daughter's bedroom

Master bedroom

Boot room

Garden shed

Amanda Brooks in her garden

Go here to read more about Amanda Brooks and her Oxfordshire farmhouse. All photos via here.

What is your dream house?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Book a Month

After reading my post about signing up for "A Year In Books" at Heywood Hill in London, some of you asked me to keep you updated about the books I receive. So here we are, my book for July! I was very excited to open up the most recent package from Heywood Hill and find Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. I have loved "A Year in Books" so far! The booksellers at Heywood Hill understand my literary interests and have sent me some wonderful books.

 Each book comes with a bookmark designed by Cressida Bell

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes is a book that has definitely been on my radar. I haven't started it yet but here are a few things I know --

Set in Victorian London, it came out originally as an app with chapters released weekly, each one ending with a cliffhanger -- a 21st-century version of a Victorian serial novel. It has now been published as a complete volume. And just as Julian Fellowes began "Downton Abbey" with a famous historical event -- the sinking of the Titanic -- he begins this book with a famous social event -- the Duchess of Richmond's ball in 1815 which was was held in Brussels, where some of the Allied troops fighting Napoleon were encamped. Many of the guests at the ball were young officers which meant they had to leave at once to go to their regiments. Many of them were killed shortly after while fighting in the battle of Quatre Bras, which turned into Waterloo. This ball was to become one of the most tragic parties of all history, as many of the handsome young men in attendance would be dead within days.

Most of the book is set in the early 1840s and concerns two families: the aristocratic Ballasises, who live in a mansion on Belgrave Square and the wealthy Trenchards, whose fortune stems from trade and who reside in Eaton Square. At the time there would have been a distinct social divide between the two, even though in London it was easier for the groups to mix than in the country. Events occur that will link these two families together and Julian Fellowes uses this storyline to demonstrate how things were changing back then in terms of the social order. By the end of the century aristocratic families such as the Ballasises became so financially strapped that they had to search for American heiresses to be able to keep their estates. Just like Lord Grantham did with Downton Abbey. 

It seems there are enough Downton Abbey-like qualities in the book to satisfy those of us who are missing the popular series. It has gotten good reviews and I look forward to delving into another world created by Julian Fellowes. One bookshelf in my study is now reserved for my Heywood Hill books. I look forward to seeing the twelve volumes lined up together at the end of the year.

I would love to know, what are you reading right now?   
Have you read Belgravia?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Garden Ramblings

A knot garden at Haddon Hall in England designed by Arne Maynard
From his new book The Gardens of Arne Maynard

"There is no Frigate like a book to take us lands away, nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry."
-- Emily Dickinson

After spending an hour lost in the pages of the beautiful new garden book The Gardens of Arne Maynard, I understood the meaning of Emily Dickinson's quote. I was given this book by a dear friend for my birthday and when I finally got around to looking through it, I felt as if I had been on a trip to the East coast and Great Britain and toured some of the most magical and romantic gardens!

London-based Arne Marnard grew up in rural Dorset and began gardening while still a child. He considers himself more gardener than garden designer. That may be the case, but after reading this beautiful book you will realize what a talented garden designer he is. Wherever the property is located, he is able to read the land and create harmonious landscape designs. He is known for his large country gardens in Great Britain and is celebrated for his ability to draw out the essence of a place. He can design in any style -- a beachside retreat filled with dune grass and scrub, a knot garden on an Elizabethan estate, an intimate manor-house garden enclosed by a yew hedge. They are the stuff of fairytales.

A few years ago he moved to Wales with his partner and created a beautiful garden there. His new book covers twelve of his gardens, including that of his home in Wales. They include an Oxforshire manor, an East Hampton beach house, an Elizabethan estate, a farmhouse in Devon and a rambling mill house in Wiltshire. One of the things I love most about the book are his detailed essays about the elements that go into his creations: roses, kitchen gardens, borders, topiary, craftsmanship, and pleached, pollarded and trained trees. These sections are very informative and useful to any gardener. The craftsmanship section is especially interesting regarding the materials he favors for plant supports and structures. He prefers to make them "from local materials in order to establish a connection with the surrounding landscape and with its traditions." I also love what he has to say about roses. "I use the rose -- one of my favourite of all flowers -- in three ways: to clothe buildings and soften walls; to add impact and weight in mixed borders with its blowsy, perfumed splendour; and in the wilder parts of the garden, bringing unexpected sophistication to a meadow or tumbling through the tree canopy in great frothy cascades." Yes, I agree, roses bring romance to any garden!

If you love gardens, be sure to get a copy of The Gardens of Arne Maynard. It is a treasure trove of information as well as inspiration.  It is the first book devoted to the work of this talented designer. Not only will it inspire you with ideas for your own garden, but you will be transported to some very magical places. His poetic writing about gardens will sweep you away. Pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea and beat the heat by immersing yourself in this book. In the meantime, take a look at the photos below and enjoy a little tour of his beautiful and evocative gardens. Arne Maynard understands the notion of garden as sanctuary and retreat.

Beach house in East Hampton, New York

17th-century farmhouse in Devon

Oxfordshire Manor

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire

Allt-y-bela, Arne Maynard's home in Wales 

Stay cool this weekend!