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?