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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

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I have enjoyed Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books, even procuring a copy from a Little Free Library box a few months ago.  They are gentle mysteries set in the post WWI era and provide insight into life in England after the war. I was excited to learn that Winspear had written another book, independent of the Maisie Dobbs series, set in the English countryside.

It was not just Winspear’s reputation that drew me to “The Care and Management of Lies”, however, and it wasn’t the book cover. (The one posted here is the UK edition, which I find to be much more appealing than the rather drab colored one here in the US, which I show below.) It was the name of the main character. Kezia. This is the name, as you might recall, of our granddaughter, though hers has an “h” on the end.

Kezia Marchant is the daughter of an Anglican pastor. Her best friend is Thea Brissenden. As the story begins, we learn that Kezia is engaged to marry Thea’s brother, Tom. Tom runs the family farm, since his father’s death. Thea is a suffragist, who seems to be struggling with Kezia’s new role as farm wife and who comes dangerously close to being jailed for sedition.  Tom feels it is his duty to go off to war, leaving Kezia, new to living a life off of the land, to tend to the farm.  They have precious little time together after their wedding, but, during the time, Kezzie, as Tom calls her, struggles determinedly to learn how to cook, surprising Tom with exotic new herbs, spices, and flavors and making their meals an anticipated ritual for Tom at day’s end.

When Tom goes off to the trenches in France, Kezzie works hard to keep the farm going, as well as the spirits of the few workers left to tend to the fields, the farm animals, and life on the home front. In France, Tom becomes the target of the unit’s sergeant, who taunts Tom and refers to him as Private Gravy. It is Kezia’s letters that keep Tom steady and sure, and eventually those of the other men in his unit.

The lies that are being cared for and managed are not those of  hidden love affairs, mounting debt, murder or thievery.  They are the lies of omission and embroidered truths; lies intended to help loved ones feel safe or taking their minds off of the horror at hand.  Lies, told in letters, are intermingled with the evocative prose that Jacqueline Winspear is known for. She is adept at bringing the mood, the aura, the simple gestures of living that keep her characters real as the reader becomes immersed in the era she writes about.

Kezia’s letters describe tantalizing meals made from unlikely ingredients, evocatively penned. She teasingly invites Tom to imagine eating them as he reads her letters and, even 9780062220509_custom-0e3798b9ed22df31b37811651b9bb807fe3083c3-s2-c85asks him to make suggestions as to how to improve her delectable entrees.  As time goes on, the men in Tom’s unit learn of the “meals” Kezzie sends, and beg him to read the letters aloud, huddled in the stench and mud, cold and fear of trench warfare.  Even his commanding officers know of Kezzie’s culinary talents, which bring about several kinds of jealousy from Tom’s superiors, dangerously so from Sergeant Knowles.

Tom Brissenden, in turn, writes to his Kezzie of those things that soldiers of war write home about;  longing to see the woman he loves, missing home, asking about his sister, Thea, who has become an ambulance driver, and his father-in-law, who has inlisted as a chaplain, and wondering about hearth and home . . .

. . .  then, all converge in a clash of wartime, leaving the reader with as many questions as answers, and this reader with tears in her eyes.

My hope is that Ms. Winspear continues to write about Kezia in the same manner in which we follow Maisie Dobbs. My other hope  is that you read “The Care and Management of Lies”.  It is slow going at the start, but, much worth the determination, like Kezzie’s cooking skills, to see it through to the end.

 

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DSCN5973Shall I tell you a story of linen and ink, gardens and waterfalls, sunshine and splendor?

It occurs at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.

Our garden club’s adventure started with a private tour of the Lenhardt Library; a treasure trove of horticultural books, journals, periodicals, reproduction prints and more. There was an amazing display of noteworthy bookplates, including those of Charles Dickens and Eugene Field.  Several of us were particularly interested in Field’s bookplate as we first met long before joining the garden club, when our children attended Field School, named for the poet. (you know him – Wynken, Blynken and Nod).

After our introduction to the wonders Lenhardt has to offer, we were taken into the June Price Reeder Rare Book Room. It was as if a hush fell on my soul, so enthralled was I in the presence of four centuries of bound and conserved horticultural wisdom, some of which became the template of remedies for modern medicine.  To touch the linen pages that predate the anniversary of Columbus’s discoveries, the day before Columbus Day is commemorated here, is rather awesome, indeed. The library is in the painstaking process of digitizing  these books and journals, some truly tomes, for all to access. You can see some of them by clicking the link to the rare book room above.

No garden club event seems complete without food, so, we stopped for lunch at the Cafe. We commiserated over sandwiches, soups, salads and sunshine, then separated, some taking a tram tour of the grounds, others walking the paths.  I suspect most of us also ended up in the bountiful gift shop before heading home.

The groundskeepers were busy, hauling this and that, flowers and soil, pumpkins and gourds, readying the Botanic for this weekend’s fall festivities. It was a pristine day; the best kind for visiting such an expansive garden. The Chicago Botanic Gardens is a destination for grade school field trips as well as an international destination to world travelers.  It pleased me to no end to hear the many languages that were being uttered and the universal joy of horticulture.

Here are a few photos taken in the Rare Book Room.  Our guide was Leora Siegel, the library’s director. It is an understatement to say that she was exemplary as she guided us through the centuries of books. I felt a tinge of regret when the tour concluded as I longed to hear and see more.

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Finally, a few photos of the grounds, which include the Japanese garden, the vast vistas, waterfall, and stunning chrysanthemums dripping from the main arbor leading out to the Botanic’s grounds.

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They find me in all sorts of places; libraries, bookstores, antique shops, used bookshops, through friends and family, and from you, dear readers, which is how I learned about a Letters from Skye_finaltender novel I just finished.

When a book recommendation comes my way, especially through blogs and emails and comments here on the Cutoff, I pen them to paper; on a TBR list, where they sit in patient abeyance for just the right moment to present themselves. Most eventually see the whites of my eyes.

So it was with a recent review of “Letters From Skye,” by Jessica Brockmole, which I read on Cath’s blog over at Read_Warbler.  An epistolary novel, “Letters from Skye” spans two world wars.. The letters begin in 1912. Elspeth Dunn, a published writer of poetry, lives on the remote Scottish Isle of Skye. She receives her first fan letter from David Graham, a student from Urbana, Illinois. Elspeth writes back, a long correspondence begins, as does a journey of heart and soul and eventually love in the midst of WWI.

It is not just Elspeth’s and David’s letters that tell this story, however. When bombing rocks Edinburg in WWII, Margaret finds her mother clutching letters from a gaping hole in a wall that a bomb exposes. Margaret sees one letter, addressing Sue, and soon begins an adventure, via letters of her own, as another world war tilts the British Isles. Who is Sue? Where did the letters come from? Why were they hidden in the wall?

Cath’s well written review of the book immediately caught my attention. It was the location of Urbana, Illinois, however, that piqued my curiosity.  I mentioned to Cath that I almost went to college there many moons ago – and yes, there really is an Urbana in Illinois. It is, in fact, now a very big  and quite prestigious school, the University of Illinois at Champagne/Urbana, with an equally prominent extension in Chicago. In fact, the U 0f I Chicago extension sits on land where I spent the first four years of my life. I digress. It was a bit of fun reading about Davey, as he is quickly addressed by Elspeth, and his antics while in school in Urbana.

It was equally interesting reading about Elspeth’s secluded life in her crofter’s cottage on Skye, awaiting the return of her husband, first from the sea, then from the war. The fact that she has already published poetry while living on a remote island immediately shadows her independent character, even though she has never been on a ferry to cross over to Scotland.

“Letters from Skye” is a sensitive story that opens slowly and reveals more of the characters as the letters crisscross the Atlantic. Reading it brought to mind “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” as well as “84 Charring Cross Road”. Whether true, as Helene Hannf’s book is, or imagined, as “Letters from Skye” and “The Guernsey Literary . .. ” are, there is something that draws a reader into story telling through letters.  At the same time, “Letters from Skye” evokes Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”, for Davey does eventually cross the ocean and becomes an ambulance driver with the American Field Service in France before the United States entered World War I.

While this novel opens slowly, it does so in the most compelling of ways. I was almost as anxious for the next letter to arrive as the characters of the book seemed to be. In fact, there were times I simply put “Letters from Skye” down and walked away for a spell,  as if to absorb the anticipation of waiting for the next post. Through what is written, and what is not, there is a palpable sense of time and place, actions and consequences, anxiety and resolve.  What surprised me as this epistle came to a close were the tears that welled in my eyes as the last of the letters were read. I had not realized, until almost the very end, how much Brockmole’s characters meant to me.

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CoverCBAdvertJust after WWII ends in Europe, in the Eugannean Hills near Venice, Graziella waits for her husband to come home.  Ugo has been engaged in the Italian Resistance.  Although now at war’s end, he has not returned home, while most of his compatriots have. He is presumed to be dead, though no word has yet come.

Caring for her ill father-in-law, Giovanni, and dealing with Ugo’s large Italian family, Graziella (aka Grace), is weary of war, misses her life in Venice, and yearns for Ugo’s return – or, to at least know if he is, indeed, alive. The foreign wife of a member of the resistance, Grazielle is sent to the family orchards for safety. Ugo’s many sisters, all with the first name of Maria, their husbands, children, animals and extended family, as well as the other villagers, all of whom are suspicious of the beautiful Grazzielle, are a challenge to live among. All are barely surviving, in  poverty, near starvation, and living amid the devastation and horrors of war.

One day, a handsome American soldier happens by. Graziella, as well as most everyone else in the hills, hears the rumble of his motorcycle before seeing him. In an area often subjected to air raids, there is still a palpable fear of bombings, even though the war has officially ended.

Frank’s appearance is at first frightening, then a curiosity – and a cause for gossip. He befriends the men and boys, first, then the suspicious women, some of whom scheme for marriages of their daughters. Frank also endears himself to Giovanni, who thinks him his son Ugo, returned.  Frank takes refuge in Giovanni’s barn, repairing things on the farm, chopping wood, sharing cigarettes with men and chocolate with the children. It is his attention and feelings toward Grazziella, whom he calls by her given name, Grace, however, that is the heart of “Ciao Bella”.

A little slow in the beginning, Gina Guonaguro and Janice Kirk’s story gains momentum and is full of as much humor as dismay, with several unexpected surprises. It is at once a gentle read and a reminder of the horrors of war, the choices one makes and the consequences of those choices. It is sometimes sad and horrifying, other times  humorous and speaks to the human spirit and the will to go on. It also awakened me to yet another region, plagued by war and how people survive, move on, learn to live again in an intimate portrait of family, fears, and faith in the future.

In the end, I was quite pleased that I rescued this book, with its beautifully evocative cover, from the overflowing shelves at a local charity shop. Someone needed to bring  it home; might as well have been me. As I opened the cover, it appeared to have not been read. How sad, I thought. In excellent shape and hardbound to boot,  I merely had to reach deep into my pockets and pull our six quarters for this quiet portrait of life after war.

 

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DSCN5599We sat in the cool of Chianti’s restaurant, munching on bread sticks and sumptuous salads, sipping iced tea, playing peek-a-boo with baby at the table nearby, and chatting about the vast venue of shiny vintage autos lined up in precision along the main drag at Sunday’s Geneva Concours d’Elegance.

Our table talk went from antique cars to wheels and rims, hood ornaments and horse power and all that comes along with a vintage car show, especially one of this caliber. Tom asked how my photos were and if I was going to do a post with them. Of course I was – and I even had a title brewing. Rimshot.

This led to a conversation about the term, which I thought was about basketball. You know, when the ball hits the rim, rolls around, and points are scored?

Not really. No. Uhuh. A rimshot, I was kindly informed by my handsome dining companion, aka Antler Man, is when something happens on stage.  A lame joke sort of thing where the drummer hits the rim with a drumstick

 Mr. Google helped me defend my own rimshot impression, however, for it also has a basketball reference, which made me feel better as I was beginning the think that the oppressively hot and humid day and the glare of the sun on all the shiny metal had melted my brain. Phew! So, dear reader, here are some rimshots of a vehicular sort, taken along the Geneva Concours d’Elegance. From a simple city gal who loves flowers and books and butterflies, a collection of vintage tires, rims and other memorable medal from our  motoring past.

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Some nights are so perfectly sweet that the only music one needs is the melodious flow of a meandering creek and a simple supper at waters’ edge.

DSCN5469So it was on Friday night. We were perched on director’s chairs at a coveted outcropping of rock near the old gristmill at Fullersburg Woods.  We dined al fresco on a simple dinner of turkey, brie and apple sandwiches, rounded out with a fresh fruit salad.

Two children frolicked around us, under the watchful eyes of their grandparents, as they climbed the rocks and fallen logs.

A wedding party was gathered behind us, the bride in a sari and crown of the most brilliant of colors, mimicking the seasonal jewelweed that bloomed along the forest path, her attendant standing nearby in a striking red gown.

As we ate, under the canopy of ancient maples and oaks, a Black Crowned Night Heron emerged from the stream below. He posed for a time on a branch at the waterfall, perhaps DSCN5463looking for a meal of his own before swooping majestically across the creek to a podium he claimed his own.

A simple supper.

The setting sun.

A perfectly sweet night all our own.

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DSCN4807One of the garden stops I did not get to visit on Sunday’s Elmhurst Garden Walk and Faire was the Elmhurst Park Conservatory. This historic building had been closed this past winter for refurbishing. It reopened this spring, but, months before that, the garden club and park district agreed that it would be an excellent feature for this year’s event and was included as a garden stop along with the six private gardens.

DSCN4814The original greenhouse dates to 1868, followed by the conservatory in 1923. The conservatory was the Elmhurst Park District’s first capital project. The greenhouse, and a subsequent greenhouse following the 1868 building, were improved upon by owners of the estate over the years. The estate’s home eventually became the Elmhurst Public Library, which is now the renowned Wilder Mansion. The Mansion is where our garden club holds its meetings and where Garden Walk visitors can buy refreshments and floral arrangements on the day of the walk. It is also the venue of other clubs’  meetings, wedding receptions, art exhibits, and a host of other events. It is a sparkling treasure in the suburbs and a stellar example of how communities truly can save their historic buildings and put them to good use.

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A little tidbit that has drawn some attention lately is that the estate was briefly owned by none other than Mrs. Henry Gordon Selfridge.

While I wasn’t able to slip inside this favorite spot of mine this past Sunday, I did visit one early June afternoon. The plants had recently been watered, giving the conservatory an even more tropical atmosphere. There is nothing quite like stepping into a conservatory and smelling the distinctive aura of chlorophyl and new growth. It is rejuvenating; as it was on the day I took these photos.

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A trio of tourists were the only other visitors at the time. They were enjoying the beauty and serenity of the conservatory, and were a little curious of what I was taking pictures of. You see, there was a generous  donation of a kaleidoscope by the family of a long time supporter and Board Member of the Elmhurst Park District. The kaleidoscope is a wondrous tool for seeing tropical plants and is very child friendly. Actually, the child in me was busy taking pictures of what the kaleidoscope was seeing, and the trio wondered what I was doing. I explained and invited them to take a look. Oh, the oohs and ahhs as they saw for themselves the beauty and breath of colors beneath them. They left, then, so did I, but, just as I was backing out of my space, I noticed one to the trio, camera in hand, was going back inside. Wonder what he was up to?

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