Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Happy Holidays!

The holiday weekend is coming up and I have been rushing around buying gifts, wrapping paper, greeting cards, ingredients for cookies, and food for our Christmas celebration on Sunday. The tree is decorated and the house looks festive but I've hardly taken a moment to enjoy them.

Today I decided to wrap presents and finish my Christmas cards which was a very good idea as I was home most of the afternoon and got into the Christmas spirit. One of the reasons my mood was so merry was that I did it all to the accompaniment of a very charming podcast. Miranda Mills and Sophie Butler are best friends who live in England and the creators of "Tea and Tattle," a podcast "for the discerning woman" that covers topics ranging from "fashion to books to well-being and everything in between." Their current podcast is called "Christmas Traditions" in which they talk about their favorite holiday traditions and read passages from books that remind them of those traditions. Their choices include "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery, "Christmas Pudding" by Nancy Mitford, and several others. I found myself smiling the whole time as I was reminded of being young and feeling the magic of Christmas. If you need some Christmas spirit I highly recommend this delightful podcast. Go here to listen.

The co- hosts of the podcast ask us to think about our favorite holiday traditions and books that remind us of those traditions. One of my favorite Christmas traditions is baking for my family and friends -- cookies, gingerbread, coffeecakes -- and all the delicious smells that waft through the kitchen and the house. A book that reminds me of this tradition is "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote. In that book a young boy remembers making fruitcakes with a beloved elderly relative every year and sending them to friends and strangers alike. It is a heartwarming and poignant story that always makes me a little weepy. I'm very grateful to Miranda and Sophie for encouraging me to think about this topic and reminding me of the power of memory and great books to add layers of meaning to the holidays.

I hope you are enjoying the build-up to the big holiday weekend and that you get to celebrate with family and friends. Wishing you all the merriest of holidays and a happy and healthy New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"To Walk Invisible"

A scene from the television film "To Walk Invisible"
Photo via here

If you are a fan of the Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne), the authors of some of the most iconic novels in the English language, you will be very happy to hear that a dramatization of their lives will soon be airing on PBS.  Sally Wainwright, the creator of television shows such as "Happy Valley" and "Last Tango in Halifax," has just completed a new film for the BBC, "To Walk Invisible." It has been shot in Haworth, Yorkshire, where the Bronte family lived, and from the photos I have seen it looks breathtaking. I have always been enthralled by the story of the Brontes -- their humble beginnings, remote setting in Yorkshire, tragically short lives, and the literary masterpieces they produced  --  a personal story as riveting as any of their books. Now it will be told in what looks to be a brilliant television production. The lucky viewers in Britain will get to see it this month. We will have to wait until March when it will be broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre.

Here are a few things I have learned about this upcoming television production:

Sally Wainwright was approached by the BBC to do something for the 200th anniversary of Charlotte's birth in 2016. Rather than do a series about their entire lives, she decided to focus on the four surviving Bronte siblings (Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell) as mature adults. Siblings Maria and Elizabeth had died of tuberculosis as young children.

The film will be 90 minutes long and covers the years 1845-1848. These are the last years of their brother Branwell's life. He was a troubled young man and during this time he sank into alcoholism, drug addiction and disturbing behavior. He died from alcoholism in 1848 at age 31.

The film depicts the domestic situation of these three women living with a disturbed brother and how they dealt with his problems. This is also the time that they tried to publish their books. It was an uncomfortable situation at home and yet they continued to write and create their literary masterpieces. I can't wait to see this!


Another wonderful event in honor of the 200th celebration of Charlotte Bronte's birth is the Charlotte Bronte exhibition in New York at the Morgan Library which I just visited for the second time. It's up until January and if you are in New York be sure to see this.

The original manuscript of "Jane Eyre" on loan to the Morgan Library
Photo via here

Here are the highlights:

A portion of the original 1847 manuscript of "Jane Eyre" ( photo above) on loan from the British Library and shown in the U.S. for the first time. It is open to the page on which Jane tells Mr. Rochester: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you." Seeing this treasure was very special and I have to admit to getting a little emotional.

The only surviving portrait of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte painted by their brother Branwell which has never been seen in this country before. It resides in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

A blue floral dress worn by Charlotte in the 1950's 

Drawings and watercolors by Charlotte that demonstrate her artistic talent

The tiny books written by the Bronte children in a nearly microscopic handwriting. Magnifying glasses are nearby to help viewers read them. The children wrote fantasy fiction set in Glass Town, Angria and Gondall, imaginary lands populated by aristocrats, poets and swashbuckling heroes. 

I walked out of this exhibition touched by the poignancy of Charlotte Bronte's short life. She died three weeks before her 39th birthday while pregnant with her first child. Just nine months earlier she had married the curate at Haworth, Arthur Bell Nicholls.  She had watched all of her siblings die, including Emily at age 30 and Anne at age 29. It is awe-inspiring to think of all that she wrote and the celebrity she achieved considering her personal life. After her death her father Patrick Bronte and her husband Arthur Nicholls worked hard to protect her literary legacy. Fans of her books began making the pilgrimage to the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, England just a few years after her death. The flow of visitors continues to this day. Nothing has changed except the sheer volume of admirers and each year the streets of Haworth teem with devoted fans of the Brontes. I am planning a trip for 2017. I am so happy that I got a chance to see this exhibition twice!    

 I would love to know:
Do you have a favorite Bronte sister? What is your favorite Bronte book?
Have you visited the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth?

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Little Trip to England...

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Now that you are done with all that cooking, you may be craving a little vacation. If you can't get away, you can take a little trip to England without ever getting on a plane. Look no further than Ben Pentreath's new book English Houses. Ben is a renowned architectural and interior designer, writer, shopkeeper and blogger. I adore his blog and his cozy shop in London. I think he has the most exquisite taste. He is a classicist but with a sense of fun and youthfulness. From the moment you open his gorgeous book, you will be transported to some of the most beautiful homes in England. Each one is hand-picked by Ben because they exhibit that iconic English style of architecture and interior design that he loves. Since he is both an architect as well as interior designer, several of his own projects are featured, including his own homes which are located in London and Dorset. At the end of each chapter, he gives us paint colors, wall paper names, furniture and lamp designers, and many other sources that we can use in our own homes. You will learn so much. And you will feel as if you have just gone on a little vacation!

 Here are some of my favorite things about this book --

Ben's London House

I have been admiring this sitting room, via Ben's blog, for years and it was so interesting to learn about the details. It is in a rooftop flat in Bloomsbury in an early Georgian house. In this room Ben used layers of contemporary fabrics, furniture and lighting combined with antique furniture and engravings. He wanted to create a mood that is at once modern and traditional, restful yet richly-colored. The walls are covered in grass cloth and the color comes from the chairs, cushions, ottoman and piles of books.

The map wall features a framed map of John Roque's Cities of London revealing 18th-century London. I love the use of individual framed parts of the map to form a whole.

The master bedroom is papered in Seaweed Lace by Soane Britain

The guest bedroom is papered in William Morris's Willow Bough

The Old Parsonage in Dorset

This is Ben's country home

The walls of the drawing room are painted "Parsonage Pink" by Patrick Baty. The lamps on the table behind the couch and the cushions on the couch add so much pattern and charm to this lovely space. This room makes me want to curl up with a cup of tea and my favorite novel.

The bedroom is painted a velvety olive-brown by Patrick Baty

The kitchen is painted Farrow & Ball's archive color Wet Sand. The Aga stove and the dresser give this country kitchen so much personality.

The book features 10 additional homes belonging to Ben's good friends. They include apartments in London, manor houses in the countryside, and a castle in Cornwall. One of them is a 17th-century country house in Northumberland. I loved learning about the grand stairwell which is "painted a rich sunny yellow to counter the cold Northumbrian light and bring warmth to the heart of the home." Such a good idea! Another home is the London apartment belonging to Lulu Lytle, the owner of Soane Britain. She has used bold colors, patterns and stripes throughout to create a joyful, beautiful environment. Her apartment is a great lesson on not being afraid of color. Her home has a "snug," a small cozy room for relaxing. I had not heard of this term before, but that word says it all. And in Hardy country there is an ancestral manor house with an exquisite conservatory. It is truly gasp-worthy, if there is such a word. Most of us will never have a conservatory, but as Ben says at the end of the book about all these houses: "...each contains a kernel of an idea that is in some way universal, from which you can draw happily and cheerfully -- and, with increasing confidence, make your own." I agree, that conservatory makes me want to have more plants in my house. What all of these houses share is a timelessness and sense of personality that make each space a living and breathing place. This book is filled with ideas on how to accomplish that very thing. It is all about the art of making a home. With the holiday season upon us, this book couldn't be more timely. And it would make a great holiday gift!

Photos via here

Monday, November 14, 2016

Embracing the Season

Right now many of us are craving coziness and comfort. We want to make our homes warm and welcoming and spend time with our loved ones. November goes by so fast, culminating in everyone's favorite holiday -- Thanksgiving. In the spirit of creating some "comfort and joy," here are twelve things I am most looking forward to in November. It's all about slowing down and savoring the season.

1. The Days Getting Shorter

Believe it or not, I look forward to the days getting shorter. Being from the East coast originally, where the weather was cold and nothing felt better than getting home and warming up in front of the fireplace, I always loved the shorter days of winter. We may not have that cold weather right now, especially where I live, but as the nights arrive earlier it feels cozy to light the candles, set the table with flowers, and have friends over for a weeknight dinner. 

2. Some Really Good Television --

There is so much good television right now. I have been watching "The Crown" which is airing on Netflix. This beautiful new series, created by Peter Morgan, is about the life of Elizabeth II and begins with her accession to the throne at age 25 in 1952. Peter Morgan wrote the film "The Queen" and the play "The Audience;" "The Crown" feels like the natural next step in his work. I have watched the first five episodes and am riveted. I loved the actress Claire Foy as Anne Bolyn in "Wolf Hall" and she is excellent as Queen Elizabeth. And what a sumptuous production. It is filled with so much history, for example the Great Smog of 1952 in London. I didn't know about this. Have you started watching this series? The episode on the coronation is brilliant. Notice what a big role the Duke of Windsor has in this story. Which makes a lot of sense, since Elizabeth wouldn't have become Queen if he hadn't abdicated the throne. He changed history forever. I would love to know what you think!

3. Reading a Classic Novel --

It's the time of year to hunker down with some good classic novels and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is the one I am reading right now. "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers..." And so begins Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece which consists of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. As she goes about her day getting ready for her party, we are in her head as she moves back and forth in time -- recalling her youth, interacting with the people around her and evaluating her life. Her loves, regrets, fears, joys, and general observations of life are all woven throughout this stream-of-consciousness novel. Her character is revealed layer by layer. At the same time we are in the head of another character, a young man named Septimus Smith who is suffering from shell shock after World War I. Through this character Virginia Woolf explored the topic of mental illness, a subject with which she was very familiar. Other characters are vividly portrayed: Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, and Richard Dalloway -- all have played an important role in Clarissa's life. And from their perspective, we learn of the impact she has had on them. Woolf was doing something new with Mrs. Dalloway -- writing a novel that reflects the way people really think. She also wrote some of the most beautiful prose you will ever read.   

4. Travel --

Fall is such a great time to travel, especially to the East Coast to see the glorious fall foliage. We were in New York in October where we saw the amazing exhibition Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will at the Morgan Library and Museum. If you get to NY before the New Year, be sure to visit the Morgan. The Bronte exhibition will be up until January. This is the kind of exhibition savor. In fact, I will probably go again when I am in NYC in December. If you go, be sure to check out the original manuscript of The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens which is always on display at The Morgan at this time of the year. The Morgan is a treasure trove and a place to celebrate the written word. It is one of my favorite places to visit and I go every time I am in New York.

5. Pumpkins and Mums

This is the classic combination for fall

6. The color orange

It really makes things pop! Here is our Thanksgiving table, 2015

And the garden, 2010

7. Plaid

Plaid feels tailored and crisp, just like fall.
These candles from Anta in Scotland would be perfect for the holiday season!

8. Cooking 

This weekend I had my family over for dinner and made Ina Garten's "Roasted Italian Meatballs" and "Kale Salad with Pancetta and Pecorino" from her new cookbook Cooking for Jeffrey. They were delicious!

9. Hot Mulled Cider

Tis' the season for hot mulled cider. Go here for my favorite recipe.
Photo via here

10.  A Delivery from Heywood Hill

I can't wait to see what Heywood Hill sends me for November. Go here to read more.

11. Listening to podcasts 

Listening to podcasts is another way to slow down and savor the season. Miranda Mills from Miranda's Notebook has just launched her podcast series Tea and Tattle and the first one is about Hygge, the Scandinavian philosophy of togetherness and coziness. Just what we need right now. Go here to listen.

12. Thinking about Christmas

This is the month to order tickets for "The Nutcracker." Going to this ballet in December is a magical holiday tradition.

By the way, I hope you had a fun Halloween. We went trick-or-treating with our little granddaughter who was dressed up as Madeline, the character from the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans.  She was adorable!

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Virginia Woolf Kind of Day

There are times when the perpetually blue skies and sunny weather of Los Angeles make me very happy. In fact, I would say that is the case most of the time. But there are also times when my mood craves "a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast" as Charlotte Bronte described in "Jane Eyre." This is the kind of weather that necessitates staying indoors and for me that means curling up in front of a roaring fire and reading. Or writing. Or maybe just daydreaming. There is something about the darkness of English skies that feels conducive to inner life. It may be confining, but there can be pleasure in confinement. And conversely there is the sense of promise and gratitude that comes when the skies finally clear and we can go outdoors. Something about those contrasts makes life seem a little more vivid.

Yesterday was one of those days. The sky was filled with dark clouds throughout the morning, making it truly feel like fall. The sun peeked in and out all afternoon, the temperature was in the sixties, and it was the perfect day to get some reading done.  Later that evening it rained. Fortunately I had a delightful assignment in front of me. My garden book club has turned out to be a very interesting group. We meet every other month to discuss garden books. However, as with most literature, one things leads to another and garden books have taken us in unexpected directions. For example, many of the gardens we read about belonged to writers. And so we've had some great discussions about Edith Wharton's garden and "The House of Mirth," Vita Sackville-West's garden and "All Passion Spent," and now Virginia Woolf's garden and "Mrs. Dalloway."

Yesterday I started reading "Virginia Woolf's Garden." This book is very special to me because I have visited Virginia Woolf's garden at Monk's House, Virginia and Leonard's country retreat in Sussex (go here to read more). It is a modest house filled with atmosphere and reminders of the lives lived there: the sitting room painted in Virginia's favorite shade of green (despite her sister Vanessa's disapproval) where the Bloomsbury Group would gather for late night conversation, the dining room chairs with their needlepoint cushions stitched by Duncan Grant's mother, and Virginia's bedroom filled with her beloved books and a mantlepiece decorated with a lighthouse painted by her sister Vanessa. The garden is the biggest surprise. It was Leonard's gift to Virginia, a haven where they could both relax and she could work on her books. From the overgrown land behind the house, they created a brilliant patchwork of garden rooms, linked by brick paths, secluded behind flint walls and yew trees. Virginia wrote most of her major novels at Monk's House. She worked in a little writing hut nestled into a corner of the orchard. She could often be seen walking the grounds as she spun her narratives and created her characters.

The Foreward to "Virginia Woolf's Garden" was written by Cecil Woolf, Leonard's nephew. He recalls a time before the Second World War when he stayed at Monk's House with his uncle and aunt. He spent an entire weekend there and remembers arriving, pushing open the creaking wooden gate, and being greeted by Leonard and his pack of excited dogs. Virginia, interrupted by the barking of the dogs, came strolling across the lawn from her little writing cabin. He writes,

"It would take an horticultural epic -- for which my abilities as a poet and my knowledge as a gardener are unequal -- to do full justice to the little Eden I remember. Leonard and Virginia had no children: their books and garden were their children. My recollections of the garden are inevitably somewhat impressionistic. From the overgrown land behind the house that the Woolfs bought twenty years earlier, they had created a spectacular mosaic of brightly coloured flowers...merging into vegetables, gooseberry bushes, pear trees, apple trees, figs. Here and there on the lawn were scattered goldfish ponds. Beside the flower garden and orchard, there were the beehives and the greenhouses, where Leonard had an extensive collection of cacti and succulents. Unlike the grand and formal gardens at Sissinghurst, created by Virginia's close friend Vita Sackville-West, the Woolf's garden was organic, delightfully informal and less self-conscious."

This book is written by Caroline Zoob who lived with her husband at Monk's House for over a decade as tenants of the National Trust. During those years they tended and planted the garden as other tenants had done before them. She tells the story of how the garden has evolved since 1919, when the Woolfs bought the house, to the present day. I have read that this book will appeal equally to gardeners as well as those with an interest in Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I'm looking forward to reading it alongside "Mrs. Dalloway." It should be interesting to learn about this magical garden that formed a safe haven and inspiring environment for Virginia as she wrote one of her masterpieces. For the next two weeks I will be immersed in the world of Virginia Woolf and I am looking forward to my book group's discussion of one of my favorite authors and her garden.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Cookbook Season

Happy October! This is the month when many of us get into the kitchen in a serious way. With the holidays coming up and all the luscious seasonal ingredients available at the farmer's market, fall is a favorite time to cook. Just thinking about making that first batch of pumpkin bread puts a smile on my face. It is also the month when many new cookbooks get released. I have been looking at a lot of the new releases and have come up with a list of the ones that look really good to me. Please let me know of your favorites as well!

Simple by Diana Henry

Diana Henry is a British food writer who lives in London. Though she is not very well known here, she is one of Britain's best-loved food writers. She has a weekly column in the UK's Sunday Telegraph and writes for several other British publications. I just picked up her most recent cookbook "Simple" and I can already tell that this is no ordinary cookbook. The food looks beautiful and delicious and the recipes look easy. I've already found half a dozen I can't wait to make, such as her Moroccan-spiced chicken with dates and eggplant. I love her philosophy about cooking: if you have a well-stocked refrigerator and pantry you can throw together delicious meals with very little effort. She is admired for the originality of her recipes, especially in the creativity of her flavor combinations. Food writers such as Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi sing her praises. I can tell this is going to be one of my go-to cookbooks. 

A New Way to Dinner by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are the founders of Food 52, one of the best food websites around. If you love to cook and haven't checked out this website, please do. You will frequently find me there looking for recipes, especially those using seasonal ingredients. Now the two founders of Food 52 have written a cookbook called "A New Way to Dinner." It's all about efficiency for the modern cook. The secret is cooking ahead. It offers complete grocery lists and menus for one-week blocks. I haven't seen this one yet but, if it is anything like Food 52, I know I will love it. This book will go to the top of my wish list for new cookbooks this fall. 

Cooking for Jeffrey by Ina Garten

Of course, I have to get Ina's most recent cookbook. I have all the others and they truly are my go-to cookbooks. I probably use them more than any other cookbooks in my kitchen. Ina's recipes always work and they are delicious. I remember when her first cookbook came out (so many years ago now!) and I learned about roasting vegetables, a technique I now use all the time. The vegetables cook perfectly and taste delicious, becoming golden-brown and caramelized. If you have Ina's cookbooks and have watched her television show over the years then you know what an important role her husband Jeffrey has in all this cooking. He is her chief taster. Plus he is adorable. Now she has written a book about Jeffrey's favorite recipes. They range from Friday-night roast chicken to the prosciutto-and -Camembert tartines they first tried in Paris. I don't have the book yet, but I noticed in "Food and Wine" magazine that one of the recipes is featured: "Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower." Boy, does that one look good!

Jessica Koslow's tiny cafe Sqirl in east Los Angeles is a gathering spot for Silverlake hipsters. It features global-inspired breakfast and lunch fare with house made jam. I have to admit that I haven't been yet but hear raves from everyone who has. They talk about burnt brioche toast with house-made seasonal jam and jam-stuffed brioche french toast. They also mention delicious, power-packed rice bowls. Now after learning a bit about this cookbook I am determined to go. Jessica's food is said to surprise and engage all of the senses. It looks good, tastes vibrant, and feels fortifying yet refreshing. In her first cookbook she shares 100 of her favorite recipes for health-conscious but delicious dishes. Some of the highlights are: raspberry and cardamom jam; sorrel-pesto rice bowl; lamb merguez with cranberry beans, roasted tomato and yogurt cheese; sticky-toffee whole wheat date cake; and Valrhona chocolate fleur de sel cookies. Sqirl opens first thing in the morning and closes at 4:00 pm 7 days a week and there is usually a line of people waiting to get in. The menu features morning food, sweets, savories, salads and bowls -- the kind of food you could crave any time of the day. I can't wait to try her restaurant as well as buy her new cookbook.  

Small Victories by Julia Turschen

I love the sound of this cookbook: "recipes, advice and hundreds of ideas for home-cooking triumphs." Julia Turschen is a writer, recipe developer and co-author for best-selling cookbooks such as Gwyneth Paltrow's "It's All Good," and Dana Cowin's "Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen." She shares more than a hundred lessons she's learned in the kitchen through a lifetime of cooking thousands of meals. She celebrates the "aha" moments, the epiphanies of cooking. One example is when she discovered that for a chicken skillet pie recipe she could substitute store-bought creme fraiche for homemade bechamel sauce, saving a lot of work. Each recipe ends with "spin-offs" so that cooking one thing can lead to another meal. Ina Garten has written the foreword and highly recommends this book. It is said to be a beautifully curated, deeply personal collection of easy and delicious recipes. One of the highlights is brisket with apricots and prunes, a dish that can be make entirely ahead of time and reheated in the oven. Sounds perfect for fall!

Happy cooking!  

Monday, October 3, 2016

"The Essex Serpent" by Sarah Perry

Every now and then a book comes out that you know is something special. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is that kind of book. It truly stands out. In fact, there is talk that it will be nominated for many literary prizes. I wouldn't be surprised as it is a book of stunning originality. What I love most is the vivid portrait that emerges of Victorian England at the crossroads of science, religion, and superstition. It is a book that helps us understand what a complex and fascinating time this was. The events of the plot occur under the shadow of a legendary monster that has supposedly returned to Essex, England. This gives the novel a gothic quality and creates an eerie mood that permeates the entire book. While telling her tale, Perry conjures up some of the most memorable atmosphere you will ever encounter.

The story begins in 1890's London where Cora Seaborne has just lost her husband. She is relieved as he was a cruel and unpleasant man and she is happy that her life can start anew. Like so many other Victorians, she has caught the scientific fervour of the age and rushes off to Essex in search of the rumored Essex Serpent which she thinks may be a previously undiscovered species. She heads to Aldwinter where she meets the rector William Ransome. He has been struggling to calm down his parishioners who are terrorized by tales of the serpent's carnage. She is accompanied by her autistic son Francis and her socialist companion Martha. Cora arrives as the the community's fear is at its height and witnesses mass hysteria amongst the people in the village. The clash between superstition, science and religion has riled everyone up.

Cora and William develop a powerful friendship borne out of mutual respect, though they disagree on almost everything. She is a wealthy amateur naturalist and he is a man of faith. They come at the world from opposing viewpoints. They form a relationship based on ideas and vibrant discussions. There are many scenes with the two of them striding though the countryside in heated argument. It's not hard for the reader to imagine sparks will begin to fly between these two. Cora grows fond of William's wife Stella and his children. Stella is dying of consumption. Her illness is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Be sure to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book to learn about the vast research Sarah Perry did on every element of Victorian life she writes about, including consumption. It's very impressive. As Cora becomes entangled in William's family life, the two of them fall in love.

There are other love stories in the book, though mostly unrequited. Doctor Luke Garrett, aka "The Imp," is in love with Cora from page one, but she sees him only as a friend. He is the doctor who took care of her husband during his illness. He is the most talented surgeon in London and the description of him performing experimental heart surgery is riveting. His character is beautifully drawn in an almost Dickensian way. As are all of the other characters; they are eccentric, fascinating and complex people whom you won't soon forget. And like Dickens' books, this novel deals with the social issues of the time, including poverty and the slums of London.

I loved this book. Through its incredible characters and haunting atmosphere the late Victorian era comes to life. So many stereotypes are challenged by this story and Cora Seaborne may be one of the great Victorian heroines. The fears and emotions stirred up by the mythic serpent are symbolic of deeper things, all of which get addressed. As in real life, there are no easy answers for the characters, but their search for the meaning of life is the universal bond that unites us all. The way Sarah Perry sees it, the Victorians were not so very different from us.

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!