Day 1140: Diaries 1907-1914: Prodigious Youth

Cover for Diaries 1907-1914I am not really a diary reader. Even Samuel Pepys was boring to me. So, when my good friend recommended Sergey Prokofiev’s diairies, I wasn’t buying it. As a historian, she finds diaries a lot more enthralling than I do. In any case, she bought me the book, a whopping 800 pages long, and I made a serious attempt to read it.

Let me first say that if you enjoy reading diaries, you will probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did. Prokofiev was a prolific diarist, as is obvious when you consider that this volume only covers seven years. He also wrote very well. But in 1907, he is only sixteen years old. Although he is a prodigy in music and extremely intelligent, he is a teenager. His diaries are concerned with his triumphs in school, music, and chess; his preferences for his female schoolmates, which change daily; and his verbal scoring against his friends and instructors. All of his enthusiasms center around how well he did, how much better than others. He comes off as a competitive little jerk at worst (I wanted to use a different word) and an immature boy at best.

Half of the book covers 1913, which should be a momentous year because of Russia’s slide toward war, but I only made it to 1909. This is probably a great book for someone else, and maybe I’ll try it again later. I would have skipped a few years, but he constantly mentions people, and I was sure I wouldn’t know who half of them were if I skipped ahead.

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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 1101: Thomas Hardy

Cover for Thomas HardyThomas Hardy has long been one of my favorite Victorian writers, so when I learned that Claire Tomalin had written his biography, I set about getting a copy. Tomalin has made a career of writing interesting and readable but meticulously documented biographies of mostly literary figures and has become one of my favorite biographers.

Tomalin shows that Hardy was a contradictory man—shy but eager to socialize in intellectual circles, resenting early snubs but nevertheless a snob himself, an inner-living man who still welcomed all who came to see him. Hardy was the son of an uneducated builder and a house servant, both of whom encouraged him in his efforts to gain an education and better himself. But in those days this was difficult, and he never achieved his dream of a Cambridge education. Instead, he went to work at 16 in an architect’s office.

Above all else, Hardy became a writer who challenged conventional attitudes toward women, sex in literature, and religion. Almost from the beginning of his career, while still writing formula novels, he ran into trouble with editors wanting to censor his work. His publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its subtitle “A Pure Woman,” caused an uproar. Although I have read many of his novels, it was fascinating to read about them in terms of events going on in his own life.

What I had not read much of is his poetry. Hardy always considered himself a poet rather than a novelist, and at the height of his career, after publication of Jude the Obscure, he caused another furor by quitting his novel-writing career to concentrate on poetry. Tomalin is obviously a fan of his poetry, and although I am not much of a poetry reader, the snippets she reproduces are musical and beautiful, and the context she gives them fascinating.

Tomalin begins her book with the story of Hardy’s regret after his first wife’s death that they had grown apart. The story of that relationship, as well as that with his second wife, is also very interesting.

Tomalin has a gift for breathing life into her subjects so that you feel as if you understand them, at least a little. If you have any interest in Thomas Hardy, you’ll find this a compelling book.

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Day 1075: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

One of the most enjoyable features of Bill Bryson’s travel books is his curiosity about everything and his willingness to go off on wild tangents. At Home is his attempt to inform himself and us about the objects of ordinary life, using his own home as a base for his explorations. But really, it’s his excuse to go off on tangent after tangent.

For example, his chapter on the cellar—he organizes his book by the rooms of the house—takes us to the building of the Erie Canal which takes us to the development of hydraulic cement then to the use of building materials in the United States versus England, a short history of Sir John Nash’s career, and so on. In fact, the contents of this particular chapter seem to have little to do with the actual room, except for the cement.

In reference to other rooms he discusses the history of various foodstuffs, the use of certain pieces of furniture, cemeteries, the history of how human mortality is treated, and even the history of gynecology. As always with Bryson, his comments can be amusing and the observations enthralling. If you like learning interesting little facts, this is the book for you. My edition was the illustrated one, which is full of fascinating photos and other pictures.

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Day 1049: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Cover for Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesIt was interesting to contrast Lafayette in the Somewhat United States with the other book about the American revolution I read recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition. While Valiant Ambition concentrated on what made Benedict Arnold a traitor, this book focuses on the French contribution to the war, embodied particularly by the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Marquis himself
The Marquis himself

In some ways, both books cover the same ground, particularly the woeful state of the Continental army. Several times, infusions of cash from the French saved it from utter ruin. But the writing style and the intent of these books are different. Vowell’s book is written in an informal, sprightly style with many references to current popular culture. Also, Lafayette’s impetuous, affectionate character comes through strongly.

This book is a slightly quirky homage to Lafayette’s contribution to our country, featuring side-trips to various battlefields and landmarks as well as a cogent, irreverent discussion of the events. It is a fun read.

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Day 1017: The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer

Cover for Midnight AssassinI lived in Austin, Texas, for more than 20 years (not anymore, yay!), so I already know that Austin had a serial killer before Jack the Ripper. That didn’t make this book any less interesting, though.

Journalist Skip Hollandsworth was very surprised when he learned about it. In fact, he says he didn’t at first believe that, starting in 1884, Austin suffered a series of brutal attacks on women that ultimately culminated in several murders.

At that time, serving women usually lived in little shacks at the backs of their employers’ homes. Most of the victims were dragged out of these homes—other occupants either hit over the head or merely threatened—and then brutally attacked somewhere nearby. Most of the first victims were black, so of course (it being Texas and the 19th century), the authorities looked to African-American men for the perpetrator. Then they decided it was a gang of them. The idea of a serial killer seemed inconceivable to them.

Hollandsworth’s strength in this book is in bringing 1880’s Austin to life. He does a great job of setting the stage. I also enjoyed all of the photos of Austin from that time. This is an interesting story, one that many Austinites are unaware of. Of course, it doesn’t have a solution as the killer was never caught. We may never know who this murderer was or why he stopped. Hollandsworth follows up some interesting leads, though.

If you are interested in this topic, Steven Saylor has written a fictional account of it, using O. Henry as a character. His solution is a bit far-fetched and easy to predict, though.

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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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