Monday, May 28, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - May

I wonder if any readers are drawn to read either Howards End is on the Landing or Jacob's Room is Full of Books who are not familiar with the books in Susan Hill's titles. Just for fun I went to Facebook and typed in EM Forster, and was pleased to see that the page is "liked" by some 65,000 people! Now that is heartening! Of course the new film of Howards End must lead some viewers to the book. Forster is one of those authors whose books have been made into movies, so he may indeed be an older writer who is still read. I did a search for Virginia Woolf, too, and that page has over 900,000 "likes". Makes me very happy.

One of the joys in reading Susan Hill is all the different things she writes about. I find it delightful that she can go from PD James to Texas Hold'em poker in the blink of an eye.

This poker was quite a surprise to me!
I learned Texas Hold'em, teaching myself via an app, and then played a lot online. Too much. I had to stop, not because I was losing - I was breaking even overall and anyway, I never played for high stakes - but because it is very addictive and time-wasting. No, not 'wasting'. I enjoyed it, it was a mental challenge, and I was improving all the time. But time-consuming, certainly. I began to find myself playing every night until the early hours. Time to stop.
And then she continues
But knowing the game has made re-reading Casino Royale much more exciting.
She writes of Thomas Hardy
Hardy was a melancholic man, glass only a quarter full. He had no optimism, no hope for man or the universe. ... What a delineator of character he was. And people talk about Jane Austen. 
I loved Hardy when I was in college but I haven't read him since. I think the gloom may have been easier to take before I knew much of the world.

Soon after reading this sentence,
The cuckoo is driving me mad, from dawn, yet for several years he was barely heard here. I defy anyone to explain. 
we, too, had a bird return. The whip-poor-will is back! It has been gone from Windy Poplars Farm since the 1980s. They have been declining in the Northeast for decades, and the Audubon Society is trying to figure out how to bring them back. This is a most interesting article. The first night it was down the road, another night it was quite distant, but the past two nights and early mornings it has been close to the house. In other bird happenings, we have a red-eyed vireo for the first time. And the phoebe which has nested in the barn for years is gone, but at Margaret's house a phoebe came back to the very same nest it made last year on the porch. Susan Hill is right. Who knows? There is no real explanation about birds. Just magic.

She ends her May entry with a discussion of Gilbert White, my favorite writer whom I've never read. I've read snippets, I've read about him, but never sat down with his Natural History of Selborne. So I've finally bought a copy.
It is always a delight to read his Natural History of Selborne, at random or 'on this date' 250 years ago. He seems so close to us, with his weather and nature and gardening reports. So many things remain. He waits for the first hirundines, records when the swifts are very late, weighs the tortoise and seems to grow enough cucumbers to feed the county. He feels friendly to me as I read, cheerful, methodical, modest, inquisitive, a man in tune with the natural world around him as if it were part of him, ... White is useful, too, for correcting one's feeling that never was a July as hot as this, swallow so early, oak so late in leaf, winter so mild, tortoise so regular in its habits. The sun rises and sets and the moon waxes and wanes and the tides are high and then low and the Earth turns on its axis, for us as for Gilbert White. That is comforting.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Stillmeadow - May

I love the way Gladys Taber begins her May entry in The Book of Stillmeadow.
May in New England is so close to Heaven that I wonder how the early preachers managed to keep the eyes of their people turned to the future life. Nobody could help being dazzled by the beauty of this world if he rode down a Connecticut country highway in the soft sweet light of a May morning. Heaven enough for me, at any rate; I wish everyone could see it.
This is pretty much the way I feel too, though it is heaven with qualification. If you have read this blog very long, you might know that I am going to use the 'T' word - ticks. I still can't figure out why we have them now but never did before. Climate change? I don't know - most things here are the same as they've ever been. Moose population? Deer? Mice? I guess the cause doesn't really matter because none of those things are going to go away. They are a problem for a couple months, and then when the weather is hotter in July, we aren't bothered much. So far today I have found seven on Lucy. I may have said it before but this is the reason we will have only yellow Labradors and not the blacks or chocolates. The ticks are easy to spot. Years ago we had a lot of black flies, the scourge of northern New England in the spring, but they have decreased quite a lot since my kids were little. We would put bee veils on them so they wouldn't get so bitten. It used to be miserable to work in the gardens in May because of them, but now they are just an occasional nuisance. Did they decrease when the ticks came? The latter have been around for at least 14 years. That is when I remember them on our collie, MacIntosh. I've even wondered if perhaps his epilepsy came from Lyme disease, in those days when we didn't really know that ticks were around. We'll never know. Every bit of paradise has its pests and problems. Some have poisonous snakes or spiders or scorpions. Some have fungi that cause disease. There's always some kind of snake in Eden to have to worry about, I guess. But as a kid, the only thing I ever got was a mosquito bite. No black flies, no ticks. So something changed but I've never read a real explanation. Okay, enough about ticks, etc. I remind myself of Gladys as I go off on rambles wherever my mind takes me!

A difference between us is that she adores having bouquets. I used to. However, I decided over time that it just wasn't worth it when my cats would always go after them, chewing leaves, pulling the flowers apart. The only reason I can get Vanessa's bouquets (in Flower CSA under Letter Topics on the sidebar) is that I put them on the wood stove which Raya can't jump on. Perhaps when she is gone, I will begin having bouquets again all over the house. Gladys isn't that troubled by her cats getting into the flowers.
May is almost a perfect month in many ways. One is that now flowers can come into the house. And no matter how involved we may be with the house, the garden, the dogs, there will always be time to arrange flowers. And bouquets will be happy in glass pie plates, wooden mixing bowls, old sugar bowls, bean pots. I have an antique knife box, painted black and stenciled with a colonial design in dull gold. In it go tin cans, cut down to fit. It is lovely with pale misty-gold forsythia and massed jonquils. I use the forsythia for the line of height, and keep the jonquils low, toward the edge of the box. Add to this one Siamese cat, batting the flowers around with a brown velvet glove, and you have something really nice.
As you can see, she has an artist's eye for putting flowers and containers together. My 'arranging' is more pick and pop into an old glass jar so they look much like they did outdoors.

As always, in among the practical things in life, Gladys offers philosophical ruminations that give the reader pause.
Sometimes I stop to think, now, that every day we are making memories. And I wonder whether I make happy memories for my own child. I feel sure that if families would be conscious of the fact that everything they do or say may one day be a memory, there would be less quarreling, fewer harsh words spoken. It is nice to be right, but better to be remembered pleasantly. And there is something so inexorable about the past; you can't change it. You can only try to make today a good one before it, too, slips into the past.
I don't think you can read a nonfiction book by Gladys Taber without mention of lilacs in May.  And really, around here lilacs come up in most conversations, and we put up pictures on Instagram and Facebook. We can't help it. Every year is like the first time we've ever seen them. My first May here on the blog has a post titled Lilac Time. I went out today in the light warm rain and took pictures of all our lilacs.

The lilacs are the stars now, just as the day lilies will be later. The dark ones on the L in the second picture were my mother's. We brought them out here 37 years ago. The ones that I showed in that May 2007 post are now gone. They were in the pasture and were destroyed over the years by all the animals. When Tom cut them down a few years ago, he cut them to a couple feet above the ground, thinking he would get back to the job and cut more, but we found out that the sheep love to scratch themselves on those small trunks, so naturally we left them there.

Gladys has a lovely description.
A single lilac flower is one of the most perfect of God's creations - the little star with its four points and the translucent color and the heavenly scent.

Gladys ends with
The white light of the moon falls on the blossoming fruit trees, on the sleeping meadows, on the far dark of the hills. All's well at Stillmeadow in the lovely May night.
When I am wakeful, I like to listen to the stillness of the hours after midnight. The very wings of peace fold over our valley. I can feel how good the world is, and how unnatural it is for mankind to be so ridden with fear and hate. We are all born into the same world, we breathe the same air, that miraculous envelope wrapped round our small planet, we are nourished on the same fare of food and water, and we are one in death at the end.
Seeing this is so, we are communally bound together. We are brothers whether we like it or not! And every time we invent a nice new buzz bomb or jet rocket, it is our own whom we prepare to destroy.
The moon is wiser, for she sheds equal light over the hills of Judea and the silvered meadows outside my New England window.
These are words as meaningful now as all those years ago.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - April

I read the April entry of Jacob's Room is Full of Books in the proper month, and decided to re-read it again before I did a post.

In one of those glorious moments of serendipity which happen now and again, I read Susan Hill writing about A.E. Housman's Loveliest of Trees
And since to look at things in bloom
 Fifty springs are little room. 
just after I had seen Monty Don's Instagram photo of blossoms (maybe apple not cherry) and his words:
No apologies for yet more blossom. There is no life long enough to have too much. 
If you'd like to follow him, you may go here. So much beauty - plants and his dogs!

There is quite a lot about the author Edith Wharton this month. I've only ever read Ethan Frome and that's when I was a kid. I hated it.
I discovered Ethan Frome and disliked it. Others think it a small work of genius, but there is something stark and cold about it and it did not ring true to me because it was set in rural America, and above all Edith was a city woman. Still, it is regarded as a great short novel, so I am probably wrong.
I was surprised to hear her say that. I don't think any reader has to feel badly if they go against the flow of opinion about a book. I'd be apologizing all the time in that case! I'm always surprised when I like a book which has also gotten public acclaim.

Susan Hill really likes The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country.
She was a great student of human nature. She understood women, but she also knew an unnerving amount about men. She writes about social ambition, social aspiration, social climbing - the nuances of society, and about the cruelty with which it can appear to accept, only to exclude and cast off, any who are not within its charmed circle by right of birth or at least marriage.
Susan Hill writes about Wharton herself:
If you are born into an aristocracy of whatever country, you are an aristocrat for life. You are rooted in a society to which so many aspire to belong and which has formed your taste, manners, beliefs, assumptions, for good, no matter where else you may travel to or in what other country you may settle. It is important to remember this in order to realise just how extraordinary Edith Wharton's life turned out to be, and how unlike most of her own class she became.  ...  She was one of those children who are unhappy not only in their families and backgrounds, but even in their own skin. She was destined to fulfil herself as an adult but her early years were unhappy, because she was bright and noticed things, and because her mother was cold to her. She loved her father deeply, but he was a weak man who vacillated when she asked him to stand up for her against his wife, who even forbade EW from reading novels until she was married.
I found this fascinating. Though I am not interested in her novels, I agree with Susan Hill that "You could find much interest and enjoyment from reading all about her in the good biographies without reading a word of her fiction, and there are coffee table books about the gardens she created, and about her interior design, mainly but not only for her own houses in both America and France."
She was living in Paris when the First World War broke out and very soon afterwards, in August 1914, she opened a sewing workroom for thirty unemployed women, feeding them and paying them a modest wage. The thirty soon doubled to sixty and their work was in demand. She established a hostel for Belgian refugees, and organised the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which eventually looked after almost a thousand child refugees who had fled their towns after they had been bombed by the German army. With her friend Walter Berry she even travelled by car to the war zone, coming within a short distance of the trenches, in order to see at first hand what conditions were like. She compiled and edited a book in aid of war victims, prised money for them out of wealthy Americans and was awarded the Légion d'honneur by the French government. And all this time she continued to write novels, essays, stories - and kept up a large correspondence.
Whew! I quoted so much because I found it amazing, and I thought you would be interested if you didn't already know. The biography she thinks best is the one by Hermione Lee.

She writes of having trouble with moles in the lawn. She won't let anyone kill them so she tries solar mole spikes "and they are not cheap." You put them in the middle of the hills and they emit a noise the moles don't like so they move along. They work! We don't have a big problem with moles. Mostly they are in the field. But I'm glad to know a solution if they do start building on the lawn.

The author has some beautiful pages about trains. There is steam train near her that offers "special steam events - the Santa Train, the annual 1940s weekend" but it also runs on regular days, too. I can't imagine how wonderful it must be to get on a steam train to go do your errands. She says that "steam to those of us who knew it well had an especial charm - though not so much for the railwaymen, who mostly died of lung diseases caused by the smoke and coal tar, or were old at fifty, backs broken from shovelling the coal."

She quotes some wonderful poems about trains, and tells the reader about nicknames for trains.
The last time I heard anyone refer to the old railway companies by their nicknames was in the 1970s when a friend said he was off to watch the cricket but was not taking his car. 'I shall go by the Slow and Dirty.' That was the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway. LNER (London & North Eastern Railway) was Late and Never Early. LMS (London, Midland, & Scottish) was Late, Mouldy and Slow. And of course the GWR (Great Western) was God's Wonderful Railway.
Aren't they just great?!  She had to learn W.H. Auden's Night Mail by heart when she was in school. I wonder if anyone does that now.
This is the night mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order.
Just those two lines make me feel nostalgic for something I've never even experienced. The only trains that went by my house were freight trains but we always ran to the 'banking' and looked down as they passed. Now those are gone, too.

Susan ends this month with a long passage on some people she knew - the artist John Piper and his wife Myfanwy. Her descriptions of them and their home were most appealing.
An Oxfordshire stone farmhouse, with a big barn to the right, converted as John's studio for his larger paintings. ... Myfanwy was a natural and instinctive cook and, long before it became fashionable, always used local produce, real meat, veg from the garden, other things from farmers or cheesemakers around. And it was far less easy to find those things then. ... I always slept in the Book Room, which was literally that, dark, comfortable, ever-interesting. You only had to look round, reach out a hand to a shelf, to find treasures, and often signed treasures by old friends. The 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, poetry, fiction, topography, France, Venice, art, John's own books, complete Shell Guides to Britain which he produced with John Betjeman. ... I could have spent days in there, looking and reading.
She goes on for pages describing her visits - the food, the conversation, the music, the studio, and John's work. I was thinking what a nice couple and what a lovely life they led. And yes, it was lovely but then we see that all of us have sadnesses, even those whose lives seem so perfect. Their son died, their granddaughter died, and John got Alzheimer's. I just stopped and thought quietly after I finished this April chapter.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Changes in latitudes

A week ago today I spent the whole day with my friend Kay. If you don't know her, please go visit her blog here.

Kay and I met on an online bookstore forum 21 years ago, I believe. The store was called Books dot com. If you type that in now, you will arrive at Barnes & Noble. They must have taken over the name when the original store closed.

This group of women and one man talked about much more than books there. We got to know one another and shared our lives and our families. Many of the members of this group met in person at the bookstore twenty years ago. I couldn't go, but in the spring of 1998 my family went to Arkansas and Texas to visit cousins, and when we were in Texas, Kay and I got together. My cousin certainly thought it unusual that a woman I knew only from the internet was so close to me that I would visit her in person. It's hard to realize now that in those beginning days of internet communication not everyone used it.

The bookstore closed at some point, and a bunch of us, not the man, went to Yahoo and formed a group. One group morphed into another as time went on. Some left, some moved into other groups and brought others with them. It was an exciting time, those early years. Suddenly there were people who understood me and my passion for reading. That was always our basis, but we grew very close to each other for other reasons. We talked about everything. Twenty years later many of us are still close. Along with two other women, one being Les whose blog is here, and another who is not a blogger, Kay and I are in frequent communication. I have never met the other two, but we are closer than most people I know in my "real" life.

So there is the back story. I haven't gone back to Texas since. When Margaret decided she and Hazel would go down to visit her long time friend, I asked if I could tag along, and she said yes. I'll do another posting about the Texas trip, but this one is going to be about my day with Kay.

She picked me up around 1 pm and off we went. She drove me around to show me her area, and then we went to Kay's house!

This type of landscaping is called xeriscape. "a style of landscape design requiring little or no irrigation or other maintenance, used in arid regions."

She then took me to a Mexican restaurant where the food was delish.

A selfie outside the restaurant!

Afterwards we went to the mystery book group she leads at a local library. The subject that evening was any book by Peter May. I have read only The Black House, so far. I'll tell you, the talk in that room was so intelligent and informative. I learned a ton about the writer and his various works. The people were so nice to me, too.

Then she drove me back to my hotel, and we bid adieu... until next time!