Day 1127: Merry Hall

Cover for Merry HallMerry Hall is a delightful book that I never would have heard of had I not participated in the 1951 Club. The organizers are going to pick a year in the 1960’s for the next club, so if you’re interested, keep an eye on their blogs.

Shortly after World War II, journalist Beverley Nichols decided he must have a garden. Merry Hall is the story of his search for a property and his decision to buy a somewhat decrepit Georgian manor house. But it is more particularly about everything related to the garden.

Nichols’s descriptions of flowers and trees are lyrical and his stories charming and funny. After viewing the disarray of the ornamental gardens at the manor, he is stunned by the order and beauty of the kitchen garden but has difficulty interesting the gardener, Mr. Oldfield, in the creation of a new ornamental garden. He has to fight the ghost of Mr. Stebbing, the previous owner, who has execrable taste, every time he wants to change something. His neighbor, Miss Emily, thinks Mr. Stebbing had wonderful taste and flinches every time she notices something Nichols has changed. She also makes frequent demands for Nichols’s vegetables, even requesting him, on no acquaintance at all, to drive them to her house as if he were a grocer.

Where taste is concerned, Nichols also has his battles with Our Rose, famous for her “creative” floral displays, which Nichols abhors. Other amusing characters dot the pages of the memoir, in particular, his friend Marius, who is so erudite that Nichols rarely knows what he’s talking about.

In between Nichols’s amusing stories of his friends and his cats, “One” and “Four,” is the heart of the book—Nichols’s love for growing things, color, and beauty, eloquently expressed. Here he is after a section about his water garden:

There had been times when one wondered if it was really worthwhile. All this was forgotten now; I had my reward in that silver thread of water, sparkling in the moonlight.

For you see, it really is a magic water. How otherwise could you describe it? Is it not the essence of all gardens’ sweetness? There is the dew of white violets in it, and the raindrops from their dark green leaves. There is the juice of apples in it and the savour of all the pears and plums that fell into the long grass in September, and were forgotten and grew as brown as the earth with which they mingled. There is the scent of snow in it—for snow, as you should be aware, has a distinct scent, and so for that matter, has the North wind. And there is the tang of ice . . . the ice that laid out its little mirrors of glass all through the orchard in the clear days of January, so that the sky might lean close and see its face.

I am not at all a gardener, although I hope to become a sort of one now that I live in the country, but Nichols’s descriptions had me googling flower names like mad. This is a lovely, lovely book, and I am so happy to have read it.

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Day 1052: A Farm Dies Once a Year

Cover for A Farm Dies Once a YearA Farm Dies Once a Year is Arlo Crawford’s memoir of growing up on his parents’ organic vegetable farm in Pennsylvania. It focuses particularly on a summer and fall when Crawford returned to the farm as an adult.

Crawford had been living in New York and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, for years before he decided to return home to the farm for a few months before relocating with his girlfriend, Sarah, to San Francisco. Although he was never interested in farming, he found himself at a loss for what he wanted to do with his life.

In between descriptions of hard work and uncertainty on the farm and his father’s worry and fits of anger, Crawford tells the story of his parents’ decision to become farmers. He talks about the first years of difficult life in Appalachian Pennsylvania, his boyhood on the farm, and significant episodes, particularly the senseless murder of a family friend and neighbor when Arlo was 12.

This is a well-written account, evoking both the beauty of the countryside and the sheer hard work of farming a large operation and marketing the produce. It reflects Crawford’s ambivalent attitude toward his home and his parents’ legacy. I enjoyed it very much.

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Day 988: H Is for Hawk

Cover for H Is for HawkBest Book of the Week!
I never gave too much thought to what is involved in falconry until I read H Is for Hawk, a memoir by Helen Macdonald, English naturalist, writer, and Affiliated Research Scholar at Cambridge University. But Macdonald’s memoir covers more ground than just that. It is also an examination of what is revealed about the writer T. H. White in his nonfiction book Goshawk and a recollection and examination of Macdonald’s grief over the death of her father.

As such, H Is for Hawk has many layers. It is a literary work, both in its examination of White’s book and in its eloquent writing style. It is an unflinching memoir. It is also deep psychologically in its examination of the forces that drove White and that drive Macdonald. Finally, it is a journal of falconry.

I was deeply interested in the story of Helen and her hawk Mabel. I was particularly surprised by some details about the personality of the hawk. This book contains some beautiful, almost poetic descriptions of the natural world. It is certainly worth reading. Highly recommended.

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Day 898: An Adventure

Cover for An AdventureAn Adventure is the account by two English woman academics of a couple of supernatural events during a visit to Versailles, published under pseudonyms. The women had the first experience on August 10, 1901, and the second was experienced by one of the women alone the following year. The two women claimed not to have spoken together about the first event until three months later, when they agreed that the Petit Trianon, where the first event occurred, must be haunted. At that time, they decided to write down separate accounts of the incident.

The first section of the book is each woman’s account of the incident. On a visit to Paris, they went to Versailles and decided to stroll the grounds looking for the Petit Trianon, which was a favored place of Marie Antoinette. Although their accounts disagree in some respects, both women reported seeing the same landscape and layout of buildings and some of the same people dressed in antique costumes. One of the women saw a lady painting in a white dress. They also reported an oppressive atmosphere.

On a subsequent visit, “Frances Lamont” heard people speaking as if they were walking on a path nearby and music from the 18th century. Later, the women were unable to locate many of the places they had visited on the previous visits. These events led them to decide they had observed supernatural visits of Marie Antoinette and some of her servants and courtiers. They also learned that Petit Trianon was rumored to be haunted on August 10, which is the anniversary of a pivotal date in French revolutionary history.

The second section of the novel relates the discoveries that the women made. It describes the differences between the landscape of the area at the time of the event and in the 1780’s. It details the women’s research to explain the costumes of the people they saw and the events witnessed.

The final section of the book contains the women’s explanations of the events as a combination of memories in the mind of Marie Antoinette as she and her family were cooped up in a small room on the day of August 10, 1789.

The most interesting part of the book is the first section, containing the women’s accounts of the events. The section about their investigation is harder to follow and difficult to visualize. Subsequent reading I’ve done on the notorious event contained allegations that their sources validating some of the information they researched were questionable.

The final section seems much too suppositional for easy belief (if you can believe any of it) as well as repetitive, revisiting much of the information from the second section. Whether you believe something supernatural happened to these women or whether their memories were influenced in the time that elapsed after the event or even that they invented the whole (which does not seem to be a general assumption), this is a mildly interesting account that was controversial when published, even during a time that was credulous about the supernatural.

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Day 841: Night

Cover for NightHere is my review of my Classics Club spin choice for Spin #11!

Night is Elie Wiesel’s spare and harrowing description of his and his father’s time spent in a series of concentration camps during World War II. He begins his story in 1944, where in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, the war did not seem to have touched the Jewish population. They had heard of problems in Budapest, but they knew nothing of the larger Nazi activities aimed at their people.

The first indications came from Moishe the Beadle, a man with whom Elie has been studying the Kabbalah. As a foreign Jew, Moishe was deported to a work camp. But he came back to tell everyone that all of the deportees were driven to Poland where they were forced to dig trenches and then shot. Moishe was wounded but managed to get away and returned to warn them. No one believed him, however. They naively refused to believe the Germans could behave that way. Elie and his family could have gotten a visa out of the country, even at that late date, but they stayed.

Next, all the Jews were rounded up into two ghettos, and not much longer after that, they were shipped out to Auschwitz. Once the women and girls were separated from the men and boys at the camp, Wiesel never saw his mother or sister again. He was 15 and probably only lived because an inmate told him to say he was 18.

At only 120 pages, this is a short but affecting description of his experiences in the camps. It does not dwell overly much on the horrific conditions, but we understand how terrible it was. The book also deals with Wiesel’s spiritual landscape, as he changed from a devout boy to a man who no longer believes.

This book is not a testament to human fortitude, for Wiesel makes it clear that humans under evil conditions behave badly. Instead, it is an important documentation of a black time in human history.

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Day 807: Life on the Mississippi

Cover for Life on the MississippiLife on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s nonfiction book about the Mississippi River. Sort of. Although part history, part memoir, part travel account, it also includes a chapter from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, some folk tales, and many tall tales. So, it’s not just nonfiction. And not the best of Twain.

Twain begins with a few chapters about the history of the river’s discovery and exploration by Europeans. These first chapters are followed by reminiscences of Twain’s life as a boy along the river (including the excerpt about Huck) and his career as a riverboat pilot, including a description of what is involved in learning to navigate the river. This section takes up about half the book, by far the best half.

From there, the book loses focus, and if the kitchen sink had anything to do with the Mississippi, it would be in there. The last half of the book is supposedly centered around a trip Twain takes down the river to New Orleans and all the way back up to Minnesota. It describes the people he encounters and the towns he visits during his journey, 20 years after his time as a pilot. But it also goes off an every manner of digression and tells many anecdotes, some of which are frankly corny and a few of which are offensive these days. I don’t want to make too much of this because it is judging a book unfairly by the standards of another time, but some of the pictures especially, reprints of those that appeared in the 1883 version, are insulting to African-Americans.

Finally, my edition, a replica by Dover, was loaded with typos, especially in the last half. I can only hope that the errors weren’t really in the originally published edition.

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Day 696: Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

Cover for Little PrincesAlthough I wrote this review several weeks ago, with the earthquake in Nepal, it is more timely now. I am happy to report that the children in the orphanages mentioned in this book are all well.

* * *

After the scandal of Three Cups of Tea, I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to read what seemed to be a similar book, but Little Princes was chosen by my book club. It’s the story of a man who volunteers for a Nepalese orphanage from fairly selfish motives but finds himself drawn in because of his affection for the children to do more.

Conor Grennan explains that he volunteered to work in the Little Princes orphanage in Nepal so that his decision to take a year off from work to travel wouldn’t look so selfish to others. This reasoning is an odd thing to admit and made me puzzle about his character. Still, once in place, he enjoyed work with the children enough to promise to come back.

It is right after he returned to Nepal that he met seven children from a remote province called Humla. Like many of the children, he learned, they were sent away by their parents from the district for their safety during civil war. What the parents didn’t know was that they were paying human traffickers, who got the children to Kathmandu and then sold them or abandoned them. Most of the children thought their parents were dead, and most of the parents had had no news of their children for years.

This was all to come out after Conor found the seven children from Humla in the custody of the wife of one of the traffickers. Just before he left the country again, he struggled to find a home that would take them in. A charity called the Umbrella Foundation, which had several orphanages, agreed. But after Conor returned home again, he learned that the trafficker had found out what was going on and removed the children before the Umbrella Foundation could fetch them.

Conor then decided to create his own foundation to work against child trafficking in Nepal. His first goal was to find those seven children. But after discovering that the mother of two of the children was alive and had not known of her children’s plight, he also decided to travel to Maoist Humla and try to find the parents of the seven children, as well as those of the children in Little Princes.

Conor does not do this all by himself. He has help from Gyan, a child welfare official; his coworker Farid, who founds an orphanage with him; the Nepalese men who go with him to Humla as guides and interpreters; and various European aid workers. Conor and the others eventually find the seven children and locate many parents in Humla, some of whom arrive to take their children back. The book also tells us how Conor met the woman he is now married to.

This book is interesting and makes you think about how much good can be done in poor countries with a small amount of money. The efforts of Grennan’s foundation and its results seem to be legitimate and worthy. What wasn’t entirely clear was how closely Grennan remains involved in the work now that he lives in Connecticut with his wife and child.

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