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.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Summer Reading

Photo via here

What is it about summer reading that feels different? We want our books to be engrossing, entertaining  and enlightening. We want a book that we can't put down. Memorial Day weekend is the official kick-off to summer. And it is always a good idea to have some enticing books at hand for summer reading -- whether it's in the backyard, at the beach, or on vacation. After combing through various book reviews, magazine articles and websites, I came up with the following list of ten intriguing summer books. Each one is guaranteed to take us away even if we stay home this summer. Please feel free to add your own suggestions and together we can create a great list.

 Four Novels

You might think that after The Paris Wife there was nothing new to say on the subject of Hemingway and his wives. But there is more to the story. In Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel  we learn that Hemingway married four of his mistresses: Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gelhorn and Mary Welsh. Naomi Wood explores the idea that the dashing Hemingway was never in short supply of women; after all, he was Hemingway! What was unusual was the number of those women he wanted to marry. He seemed to need the stability of marriage and the security of a wife at home to relieve him from the strain of writing. But he also needed excitement for his books and that's where the mistresses came in. Naturally there were always women happy to move into either position: that of wife or mistress. The Hemingway myth continues to fascinate us. This book about the women who adored him may bring us closer to understanding this complicated genius.  

A new novel by Michael Cunningham is always an occasion. His books are smart and enlightening; they ask a lot of questions about life that sometimes have no easy answers, but they always make us think. In his two previous books "The Hours" and "By Nightfall", Cunningham took classic tales of literature -- "Mrs. Dalloway" and "Death in Venice" -- and updated them for the modern reader. The title of The Snow Queen is taken from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. It would seem that this book is also loosely based on a classic tale, this time a fairy tale. The book starts with a fairy tale kind of event: one of the main characters see a mysterious light in the sky and becomes obsessed with it. The question is: was it a brush with the divine or simply an airplane or a cloud? Set in New York, the plot concerns two unhappy brothers with messy and complicated lives, searching for some meaning in life. Cunningham's books are always beautifully written and filled with ordinary people trying to navigate the challenges of modern life. I loved "The Hours" and "By Nightfall."   

For the armchair travelers among us, The Vacationers sounds like the perfect summer read. It takes us away to the Spanish island of Majorca. The Post family go on this trip together but by the time they reach their destination things are far from perfect. They have gone through a crisis which will play out on the vacation. Here is what I have learned about this book: it is beautifully written; Majorca is vividly evoked; and the characters are deliciously appealing. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy and be swept away to Majorca in what looks to be a very appealing family tale.

I was lucky enough to hear the former editor-in-chief of "Gourmet" magazine Ruth Reichl talk about her new book Delicious! A Novel here in Los Angeles. She told us about the genesis of the novel. She had been on a book tour for more than a month after "Gourmet" closed its doors and when she came back to pack up, the offices were empty. When she opened the door to the magazine's library she thought what if this was a fabulous Victorian library? What might happen next? The book starts with a culinary bang (I am about 50 pages into it). The heroine Billie Breslin wants to work at a food magazine called "Delicious" and in order to get the job she has to first cook for its editor. She has an extraordinary talent for creating recipes and understanding flavors and her recipe for Gingerbread will knock your socks off. The book tells the story of this enterprising young woman finding her way in the big city, learning about herself and discovering her passions along the way. It seems as if it will be a love letter to New York as well as to the culinary arts. So far, I am obsessed with the idea of making that Gingerbread in the fall! 

True Story/Crime Caper

Advance word about this soon to be published crime caper is that it should be made into a movie. And I must say the story, which is true, sounds fascinating enough to be a film. The Map Thief concerns E. Forbes Smiley III, a rare maps dealer, who made millions of dollars stealing priceless maps. The genteel world of cartography seems an unlikely setting for a crime book. But Forbes was cutting valuable maps out of rare books with an X-Acto knife for years, slipping them in his blazer, and and taking them out of esteemed libraries such as Yale's Beinecke, Harvard's Houghton, Chicago's Newberry, the British Library in London and the New York Public Library. Smiley sold the maps for big sums of money, including a 1742 Boston City plan for $185,000.00. It is amazing that he got away with it for so long. In all, there were 97 maps sold for around $3 million. The FBI finally caught up with him. Who knew the world of antiques maps could be so cut throat! 

Newly released English classic

It's always fun to discover a neglected classic that is finally back in print. In this case there are three titles by Angela Thirkell that have been released by Virago Modern Classics: Summer Half, August Folly, and The Brandons. Each one sounds like the perfect summer read. If they are anything like Wild Strawberries (read more here) they will whisk us away to an idyllic English summer between the two wars. Think summer fetes, strawberries and cream, tea on the lawn, cricket matches, and young people falling in love. You can order them here.

Vintage Style Book 

Rebecca Tuite has written a book about the history of the all-American preppy look: Seven Sisters Style. She went to Vassar College and during her time there became fascinated with the iconic look that was born in the fifties and sixties at the Seven Sisters colleges: Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, etc. Even though styles are much different on those campuses today, there is a legacy that lives on. Jackie Kennedy, Sylvia Plath, Ali MacGraw and Katharine Hepburn all went to a Seven Sisters college and they shared a distinctive sense of style. This book traces it to their formative experiences at their respective Seven Sisters college. Think boyfriend blazers, bermuda shorts, plaid kilts, tennis sweaters and knit polos. That unique sensibility is the premise of Rebecca Tuite's book. She explores this iconic look that still lives on at campuses and in popular culture today in three manifestations: the tomboy, the prepster, and the ladylike society girl. From everything I have read, this book can be read from cover to cover, or dipped into every now and then as it sits on the coffee table. It looks like a beauty.


Molly Wizenberg is the creator of the hugely popular food blog Orangette. Her first book A Homemade Life was on the New York Times bestseller list. In her new book Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage she tells how she and her husband opened a restaurant in Seattle, sparking the first crisis in her young marriage. I am so inspired by Wizenberg's creative spirit and the passion she brings to the topic of food. This book is part love story, part restaurant industry tale. It is being described as charming, funny and poignant. I can't wait to read it.

 Literary Tell-All

In 1982, twenty-year-old Nina Stibbe moved from the countryside to London to become nanny for the two children belonging to London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and the director Steven Frears, whose films include "Philomena" and "The Queen." Stibbes writes home to her sister every week about her adventures living with this bohemian and intellectual family. As she says, "Being a nannny is great. Not like a job really, just like living in someone else's life." Of course this household is not your typical household; it was often filled with artistic and intellectual personalities. The playwright Alan Bennet was a neighbor and regular guest at the dinner table. Stibbe's charming and hilarious letters are collected in this book and form a memoir of her life as a London nanny. They consist mostly of dialogue and one critic has said she recounts the family conversations with a playwright's ear. Maybe the result of hanging out with Alan Bennett? This book is supposed to be very funny and has been compared to the writing of Helen Fielding.

 Garden Book

Summer is garden season and it is always fun to discover a new garden book. Virginia Woolf's Garden was published back in October but is just starting to appear in bookstores. I bought it on my recent trip to New York. The book tells the story of the magical garden at Monk's House where Caroline Zoob lived with her husband as tenant-curator for ten years. It gives us an extensive look at the garden Leonard lovingly created for his wife Virginia so she could get some relief from the strains of writing. I was lucky enough to visit Monk's House last October and the garden was beautiful (read more here). You could almost hear the echoes of late-night conversations and feel the spirit of Virginia's writing. The day we visited the apple trees were so heavy with fruit they touched our heads as we walked below. It is a glorious garden to visit. This book will take you there.