Category Archives: Favorite authors

Unearthing The Secret Garden


If you love gardens and are interested in the lives of authors, Marta McDowell writes books for you to love. My sister-in-law recently sent me a lovely gift — a copy of Marta McDowell’s new book, Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places that Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Frances Hodgson Burnett is one of my favorite authors. She wrote The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, two of my all time favorite books. She was also an avid gardener, and created three special gardens over her lifetime — one in England, one in the United States, and one in Bermuda. This book goes into great detail about each of those gardens and about the life of FHB herself.

What an interesting character was FHB! She was not at all what I expected, but I enjoyed getting to know so much about her personality and her life. The book was also filled with wonderful photos and illustrations. Two of the photos that I thought were quite lovely are below. The one on the left shows her sitting in her garden at Maytham Hall. I thought the photo was like a lovely impressionistic painting and had to look closely to see her. The photo on the right is of her writing desk, and I love to see photos of the desks and spaces that writers use to create their wonderful works!

Her love of gardens and her writing were deeply intertwined.

It was a lovesome, mystic place, shut in partly by old red brick walls against which fruit trees were trained and partly by a laurel hedge with a wood behind it. It was my habit to sit and write there under an aged writhen tree  gray with lichen and festooned with roses.

~ From My Robin (1912), describing the rose garden at Maytham Hall..

Marta McDowell divided the book into four sections: before The Secret Garden, inside The Secret Garden, after The Secret Garden, and outside The Secret Garden. At the end of Part Three, she wrote:

Frances Hodgson Burnett gardened as she lived — large — and became the unlikely inspiration for generations of gardeners through The Secret Garden. She unlocked a door that beckons. If you ask a gardener if they have a book — in particular a childhood book — that led them into gardening, many of them would name The Secret Garden. Frances would be pleased.

And for those of us who garden and grab ideas for our gardens from everywhere, there is an extensive table in the book that lists the flowers, fruits, and trees FHB planted in each of her gardens. Finally, I have to rave about Marta McDowell, not just because of this table, but because of all the amazing detail she put into this book! She is a wonderful researcher!

November Reading, 2021

November has been a busy reading month for me. Here are the books I finished this month:

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And here are the books I’ve been reading in November that are taking longer to finish:

Summer at Fairacre

Chalgrove, England: watercolor by Ian Ramsay

The author, Dora Saint, whose pseudonym is Miss Read, wrote two delightful series about life in an English Village as described through the eyes of the village school teacher. The first series is the Fairacre series, the second is the Thrush Green series. As a personal project, I have slowly been reading my way through the Fairacre series, and enjoying each volume and growing to love the myriad of characters that live in the village. I’m looking forward to moving on to Thrush Green soon!

Summer at Fairacre starts with the first day of spring and ends at the beginning of autumn. It is an ode to the loveliness of the village during the warmth and beauty throughout the summer months. First, there’s the anticipation of the warmer months and the freedom that arrives with them. Then, there’s the changing of the season, the storms, the gardens, the birds, the quiet moments of just sitting and enjoying the warmth of the sun. And interwoven with all of this was the school, the children, and the schoolmistress, with all the complications and joys of daily life.

The golden weather continued. For week after week the sun had gilded all with glory, and it came as quite a shock to realise that July was upon us, and still the sun shone. Soon it would be end of term, with all that that involved for a schoolmistress…

The only major drama in this story concerns the cantankerous Mrs. Pringle, the school cleaner. She’s so difficult to get along with, but keeps the school sparkling clean. Unfortunately, she gets offended easily, and this time decides to quit her job, out of spite, it seems.  But more unfortunately, finding a permanent replacement for her proves to be almost impossible.

We all know that summer goes by too quickly, and that was the feeling in Summer at Fairacre. While living their everyday lives, the people of Fairacre celebrated the season and appreciated each other, even when that was difficult to do.

It grieved me to think of the waning of this most glorious of all summers, its joys and its splendours. Well, we had celebrated it, every one of us, and must face the inevitable, I supposed.

This was a gentle and humorous read. If you need a break from the stress and hustle of the holiday season, and perhaps are missing the warmth of summer, I recommend this book and series as a healing antidote.

The Hobbit

The Hobbit, read by Andi Serkis

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a book I’ve read so many times I’ve lost track of the number. But every time I reread it, I find something new to enjoy about it. This time, I listened to the new audiobook version narrated by Andi Serkis. What an incredible talent he has for voices, dialects, and everything it takes to bring such a story to life!  Just in case you don’t know, Andi Serkis was the voice actor and motion capture actor for the animated character of Gollum in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And he did an awesome job of narrating The Hobbit!

from the publisher:

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely traveling any farther than his pantry or cellar. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on an adventure. They have launched a plot to raid the treasure hoard guarded by Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon. Bilbo reluctantly joins their quest, unaware that on his journey to the Lonely Mountain he will encounter both a magic ring and a frightening creature known as Gollum.   Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit has sold many millions of copies worldwide and established itself as a modern classic.

If you are looking for a delightful audiobook for the whole family to listen to during the holidays, look no further! This is just a delightful entertainment for all.

Smaug, illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien

Garden Snapshot: Fall Hydrangeas

I love what happens to my hydrangeas in the Fall! This part of that “long cycle” is so beautiful, and I know that Spring will bring the return of these lovely flowers.

…the flowers ring their changes through a long cycle, a cycle that will be renewed. That is what the gardener often forgets. To the flowers we never have to say good-by forever. We grow older every year, but not the garden; it is reborn every spring.

~ May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

The Fortnight in September

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What a sweet way to end my summer reading! The Fortnight in September, by R.C. Sherriff, was a delightful ode to family and summer vacations. Every September for many years, the Stevens family has been making their end-of-summer pilgrimage to the same seaside town, staying at the same (now aging) inn, and enjoying the break from all their usual activities. In this quiet, slow-paced book, you get to know each member of the family and what that fortnight in September means to them. That’s it…nothing earthshaking, just a regular family on vacation. But this author is masterful at capturing the nostalgia of such a yearly vacation over time, and capturing the sunshine and joy of time away from the usual hustle and bustle. It is a timeless story, and full of sunshine for the soul.

One More Body in the Pool

The reason that Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors is because he was a joyful writer. He was an idea man who loved writing, and that joy shines through in all his works.

I just read one of his short stories, One More Body in the Pool, and enjoyed the fun of it, but was completely captured by the joy he must have had in writing it.
It begins with this:

I walked across the beach and stood in the hot sun for a long moment, staring down at the man lying there with his head covered by a newspaper. I took a deep breath, held it, and at last said. “Scottie?” There was no motion beneath the paper. I took another breath and said, “Mr. Fitzgerald?” At last the paper drifted aside and the young old man underneath it opened his eyes. His face was familiar and young and terribly haunted. The cheeks were smooth and the chin was very fine. The eyes, which were clear blue, seemed to have trouble focusing on me. “Well?” he said at last. I replied, “God, I hate to bother you, but I’m a sort of literary agent and, well, forgive me, but I have an idea that I want to offer you.”

The story is about a time-traveling idea man who visits some iconic American authors (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner) to introduce an idea to each of them for their writing. Of course, we readers recognize the ideas that will eventually become their greatest novels. It’s tremendous fun to have a very brief glimpse into the lives of those authors while this mysterious idea man plants the seeds of those stories in their minds.

I can picture Mr. Bradbury writing this story. He is enjoying every moment of the idea and of the storytelling that will bring it to life with tongue-in-cheek humor and a playful respect/disrespect for those men.

A fun short story for my Readers Imbibing Peril -XVI challenge!

Barracoon

Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston, is one of the most powerfully written books I’ve ever read.  It is the account of the life of one of the last slaves brought to America on the slave ship, the Clotilda. Hurston conducted extensive interviews with Cudjo Lewis, née Kossula, and learned the heartbreaking story of his early life in Africa, his capture and sale to the slave traders, his brutal experiences as a slave, and his life after emancipation.

As Kossula tells Hurston, he shared his life with her out of a desire to be known and remembered: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”

from the Zora Neale Hurston website:

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past — memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

This man’s story is heart wrenching, but the book is absolutely amazing. Zora Neale Hurston told the story using of his own words, in dialect. Being familiar with her other books, I knew that my first experience with reading Barracoon should be to listen to the audiobook, then read the book. I strongly advise this way of experiencing the story. You should also know that you cannot read or listen to this story without being deeply moved, without it changing something inside you. It is such a profound testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Hurston spent many months with Kossula, grilling him with questions and recording his long, detailed memories. They became friends, and she ends the book with their parting.

It was a very sad morning in October when I said the final goodbye, and looked back the last time at the lonely figure that stood on the edge of the cliff that fronts the highway. He had come out to the front of his place that overhangs the Cochrane Highway that leads to the bridge of that name. He wanted to see the last of me. He had saved two peaches, the last he had found on his tree, for me. When I crossed the bridge, I know he went back to his porch; to his house full of thoughts. To his memories of fat girls with ringing golden bracelets, his drums that speak the minds of men, to palm-nut cakes and bull-roarers, to his parables. I am sure that he does not fear death. In spite of his long Christian fellowship, he is too deeply a pagan to fear death. But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.

“But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past…”

I read this book as one of my 50 books in 5 years for The Classics Club.

 

 

I also chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “WANDERLUST: Reading the States,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each of the 50 United States. This book took place in Alabama.