Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What I'm Reading

"Woman with a Book" by Vanessa Bell

"What are you reading?" I ask my friends all the time and they ask me. Everyone is in a book group and we're all talking about books. I am happy to say that during the last few months I have made some serious inroads on my ever-growing stack on my nightstand. And it feels so good! I recently finished four books that I wanted to share with you. They are an eclectic group -- each one is very good and different from the others.

Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

At first glance, an historical novel about Bloomsbury sounded intriguing. Though I wondered what more could be said as there has been so much non-fiction material about Bloomsbury over the years -- biographies, memoirs, diaries and letters. But there was one voice that hadn't been heard from even though she was probably the most admired member of the group. That was the voice of the artist Vanessa Bell. She was reserved -- early on her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, pronounced that she, Virginia, was the writer and Vanessa was the painter. She didn't keep a diary, write a memoir or send many letters. But fortunately the other more verbose members of the group wrote about her. She plays a big part in many of their memoirs and letters. Consequently there was a great deal of source material available for a novelist to drawn upon to invent a diary for Vanessa Bell.

This is what Priya Primar has done in her new novel about Vanessa Bell and the early days of the Bloomsbury Group. It consists entirely of invented diary entries, letters and telegrams, a format that works very well. The book captures the essence of this beloved woman and for the first time gives us an idea of how she probably felt about several big issues: dealing with her brilliant and emotionally fragile sister, the writer Virginia Woolf; learning about the affair between her sister Virginia and her husband Clive Bell; and being an artist during the early days of the modern art movement that was exploding in Paris and London. She was in the middle of it all and somehow managed to stay centered. She also managed to live at Charleston Farmhouse with the love of her life, the artist Duncan Grant, for fifty years. It was there that they created art together, painting in their studio and glorious garden. They also decorated the entire house with their artwork.

I finished this book with tears in my eyes. Choosing to write about the early years (1905-1912) in the lives of these two sisters just before both their careers were about to be take off gives the book a poignancy for anyone who knows the outcomes. And focusing on the fraught relationship between Virginia and Vanessa tells the Bloomsbury story in a new way and gives it an unexpected freshness. Be sure to pay attention to the two letters that frame the book. I had to go back and reread them to understand their significance. Parmar includes an addendum that lets us know what happens to all of these people in later years. Don't miss this book, whether you are a fan of the Bloomsbury Group or not. I loved it.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I only recently learned about Elena Ferrante. I read an excellent article in the New York Times and knew I had to read one of her books. She is an Italian writer whose identity remains a mystery; she publishes under a pseudonym and fiercely guards her privacy. "My Brilliant Friend" is the first book in what is known as her "Naples series." It is about a young woman named Elena -- her childhood and adolescence in the rough neighborhoods of Naples. It is also about her intense and competitive friendship with her friend Lila.

This book took me a long time to get into because of the raw and violent nature of its story. But once I dropped my resistance I felt the power of the author's theme: a friendship between two women that seems unbreakable despite the most difficult odds. I became fascinated by their story of growing up in the working classes of Naples in the 1950's amidst poverty, danger, and violence. And the serious challenges of being a woman in that environment. The two women at the center of the book are polar opposites in many ways and it is the mysterious chemistry that holds them together as friends that is the essence of this novel. It is intense and at times disturbing, but you get the sense that this is an honest depiction of life as it was. This is definitely not cozy fiction, but one that will startle you with its brutal honesty and enlighten you about the rich and complex lives of the women in this culture. I am so glad I read it. 

Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  

An excellent book about the immigrant experience and race, "Americanah" tells the story of a Nigerian woman Ifemelu and her Nigerian boyfriend Obinze who seek to leave Nigeria for America. After meeting in high school and falling in love, they are both determined to get out of their country which is falling apart under military rule. Ifemelu makes it to America on a student visa, wins a fellowship at Princeton and eventually becomes the author of a successful blog about race. Many of her blog posts are included in this  novel and it is her sharp and witty voice that is the soul of the book. However, before she becomes successful, she undergoes the harrowing experience of searching for gainful employment in America. After many rejections, she reluctantly accepts a job of which she is so deeply ashamed that she must hide it from Obinze. It ultimately causes her to end their relationship.

In the meantime Obinze is unable to get to America post-September 11 and goes to London instead where he holds mostly menial jobs. He eventually returns to Nigeria, finds financial success, gets married and has children. But he is never really happy as is unaware of why Ifemelu has broken off their relationship. She comes back as well and settles into life in Nigeria. They both have trouble settling in as they are changed and one of the big themes of this book is the difficulty of fitting back into their culture after becoming an "Americanah." This immigrant saga is a love story as well as a meditation on race. It manages to be very funny as well as sharp in its social commentary. It is thought-provoking on so many issues and beautifully written. I highly recommend this one.  

And finally, if you are looking for something light and delicious, look no further than "Pomfret Towers" by Angela Thirkell. Reading her books is like drinking a glass of champagne. These comic novels are set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire, a landscape that Angela Thirkell borrowed from Anthony Trollope. They are about bright young things falling in love amidst ancestral country homes and English eccentrics. Along the way, there is enough comedy and social satire to make you laugh out loud. In the tradition of Jane Austen, each book ends with an engagement.

Most of the action in "Pomfret Towers" takes place during a country house weekend. The Earl of Pomfret has decided to open up his grand house to his neighbors for a house party. His guests of honor are two charming young people: the shy Alice Barton and her brother Guy. They are the children of Mr. Barton, a prosperous local architect and his wife Mrs. Barton, a writer of historical fiction. If you read Angela Thirkell enough, you will notice that there are often writers, editors and publishers in her books. And they are usually the source of comedy. It is as if she is poking fun at her own profession with these characters. In this book she also includes Mrs. Rivers, a writer of romance novels and her publisher Mr. Johns.

Mrs. Barton has decided that this weekend is the time for young Alice to learn to socialize. Alice is terrified of the experience, but makes the effort. It will be a turning point for her. The other guests at the house party are:  Julian Rivers, an arrogant young artist; Roddy and Sally Wicklow, an extremely likable and outdoorsy brother and sister; and Giles Foster, nephew and heir of the present Lord Pomfret. Everyone wonders which lucky girl will catch his eye. And although Alice is anxious about the weekend, by the end of it she breaks out of her shell, makes new friends, and falls in love. As in most of Angela Thirkell's books there are several endearing characters who help smooth misunderstandings and solve problems along the way. They will make you smile. "Pomfret Towers" is a total delight.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Gratitude List

Mother's Day flowers  

 This week I want to borrow an idea from one of my favorite bloggers -- Miranda Mills of Miranda's Notebook. If you are looking for inspiration in styling your wardrobe, cooking great meals, making a cozy home, finding beauty in your surroundings or going to fabulous places and events in London, her beautiful blog is a wonderful resource. Every Friday she writes a gratitude list and this week I wanted to do one as well. I have so many things to be grateful for.

First, my family--

 I have the most thoughtful family. On Friday of Mother's Day weekend, the door bell rang and there were four flower arrangements for me. It turns out that my husband and my daughters had separately ordered flowers from my favorite florist Hollyflora to be delivered on Friday and they all arrived at the same time! It was so much fun to decorate the house with Mother's Day flowers.  

The scent of flowers perfumed each room

And the beauty of the arrangements reminded me of my wonderful family

Second, the Garden Conservancy--

A garden in Santa Monica

 I am very grateful for the Garden Conservancy. Do you know about this organization? They do the most wonderful work sharing and saving outstanding gardens throughout the country. Last weekend they held their Open Doors Garden Tour here in Los Angeles and I was able to visit several incredible gardens in West Los Angeles. The photo above shows a lily pad pond at a house in Santa Monica. We could have been at Giverny. Only on this day in May does the Garden Conservancy open the "doors" for us to see the secret gardens in our city. It is always amazing to discover these garden sanctuaries. Have you been to the Open Doors in your city? Go here to learn more.

The roses in Julie Newmar's garden.

Julie Newmar has one of the most beautiful and prolific rose gardens; she even has a rose named after her.

This charming vegetable garden is part of a large property that includes a rose garden, a great lawn, a swimming pool and a fabulous pool house and outdoor kitchen. They all exist behind a house in a neighborhood that I drive by all the time. I marvel that these beautiful gardens exist in Los Angeles and that their owners have put so much time, love and energy into them. Without the Garden Conservancy, we would never see them or learn so much about gardening.

Third, the Morgan Library in New York--

"A Certain Slant of Light: Spencer Finch at the Morgan"

I love the Morgan Library and Museum. Every time I am in New York I visit and feel grateful that this wonderful place exists. This time I noticed the beautiful courtyard with its colorful panes of glass and their reflections. I discovered that it is a special installation by American artist Spencer Finch. Inspired by the Morgan's great collection of medieval Books of Hours, he applied films of color to the windows in the four-story, glass-enclosed Gilbert Court to to make a kind of calendar based on the movement of the sun. This amazing installation is up until August 23. If you are in New York, be sure to stop by to see this; it is so inspiring. As I looked up, I was reminded of the soaring imaginations that went into the writing of each and every book contained in this fabulous institution. In addition to its impressive collection of books and manuscripts, The Morgan also has fascinating exhibitions. One of my favorites was The Little Prince a couple of years ago.

Fourth, tea and scones with my book club--

Image via here

I am in a couple of book clubs and each one has the most wonderful women. I have always thought that the members in a book club are more important than the books. If you have the right combination of enthusiastic, curious and open-minded people, good books and exciting discussions will naturally follow. This month we read Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar. It's about Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and the early days of the Bloomsbury Group. (review to follow) The lovely woman who was hosting our meeting decided to have an English tea for the occasion. She made delicious scones, delicate tea sandwiches and served tea that she brought home from Fortnum and Mason in London. Amazingly, she had just returned from a trip to England where she visited Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell, and showed us her photos. It was such a special meeting and everyone was touched by all the trouble she had gone to.

Fifth, the world of blogging--

I am so grateful for the world of blogging and the amazing people I have met because of it. When I was in New York last month, I met fellow blogger Gail Gallagher, a talented artist who paints in the Hamptons. She writes a lovely blog about the vibrant art scene in the Hamptons. We had made a date to meet for a glass of wine at my hotel. Something came up and she needed to reschedule; we weren't sure we would be able to get together. In the meantime, she dropped off a package for me at the hotel. When I opened it the next day, I found this beautiful little seascape that she had painted. I was so touched. Fortunately we managed to get together the following morning for a cup of tea and I was able to thank her in person. I now have a new friend in New York and a beautiful painting to remind me of her. Go here to see Gail's blog Painting in the Hamptons  and her art.

I hope you had a good weekend and a wonderful Mother's Day!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Weekend Highlight -- "Wolf Hall"

Photo via here

Have you been watching the PBS television series "Wolf Hall"? I just finished episode three. Based on Hilary Mantel's two Booker Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, this series has been riveting. After seeing the plays in London last fall, I wasn't sure what to expect. I wondered how anything on television could be as good as those plays. (Go here to read more) I was wrong. What I had forgotten to factor in was the time element; with many hours to tell the story, a televised series would be more like reading the novels. Leisurely and detailed, it has the time to build up the story in a thorough and novelistic way. It also manages to feel like a contemporary political thriller. Sunday nights at "Wolf Hall" have become the highlight of the weekend.

With six episodes to sustain the narrative, create a mood, paint each beautiful scene, develop characters and prolong suspense, this television show has created a world that is complex and deep. It doesn't hurt that there is also brilliant acting, stunning medieval Tudor locations, gorgeous costumes, haunting music and masterful direction. Have you noticed how certain scenes look like a painting from the 17th century? There was a recent scene involving the sister of Cromwell's late wife sitting and sewing at a table next to a window. It looked like a painting by Holbein. The cast is fabulous, with Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Damien Lewis as King Henry VIII. And the pivotal female characters are played by some very talented actresses.

Speaking of these actresses, I saw a piece in "Harper's Bazaar UK" a couple of months ago about "Wolf Hall" and its female characters. It was fun to see them looking so glamorous (see photo above). They are Charity Wakefield (Mary Boleyn), Kate Phillips (Jane Seymour) , Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn) and Joanne Whalley (Catherine of Aragon). Here are a few highlights from this fascinating article:

A few years ago Hilary Mantel signed a contract with her publisher to write two books: a modern novel set in Africa, and a Tudor novel set in the court of Henry VIII. She had been working on the African novel when she decided to take a day off and play with the Tudor idea. She wrote a line of dialogue and that was it. She was delighted. She had captured her central character. Not Henry but Thomas Cromwell. He would be her leading man. She had found his voice and she was off. Wolf Hall was born.

After finishing its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel was anxious to begin the final book in the trilogy and planned to devote 2013 to writing it. However, things didn't quite work out that way. Many good things got in the way. She won the Booker Prize for the second time, the first woman and the first British writer to do so. Then there were the plays, to be followed by the television adaptation. She was in constant demand. Now she is anxious to finish the third and final book and is at peace with letting go of Cromwell. She is confident that he will live on in her readers' imaginations.

Regarding the women of "Wolf Hall," the actress Joanne Whalley, who plays Catherine of Aragon, said "You don't automatically think of them. History has been dominated by the narrative of kings and politicians, but these women had their own kind of power; they were fascinating characters who functioned within such restraints." Anne Boleyn is the most fascinating and seems to be a woman who understands her value and plays it for all it is worth. She is cool and calculating about her goals and Thomas Cromwell seems to admire her for it. They are equals in intelligence and ambition. Go here to read more.

I would love to know:

Are you watching the television series?
Did you see the plays?
Have you read the books?

Aren't we lucky to have such excellent television on PBS!