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nightingaleI don’t know if it is my general busy-ness right now or one of those pockets in life sometimes experienced; times when books sit on the literary burner for a spell, simmering. Unlike many folks, summer is not generally a season where I have time for much reading. I’m often found outside pulling weeds, hunting caterpillars, photographing flower petals or visiting gardens and garden centers, botanical gardens and arboretums. My personal reading well has run dry, which will soon become a challenge as our book group will soon be discussing “The Goldfinch” and I,  have managed a mere 46 pages.

I have, however, recently finished an audio book that kept my attention and had me riding around the block in my car a few more times for just one more chapter.

“The Nightingale”, by Kristin Hannah, begins on the west coast, 1995. An elderly woman, whose voice is heard periodically in the story, will be moving into a senior living with the help of her son. She has a recurrence of cancer for which nothing more can be done. She harbors a secret.

We then meet Vianne, whose life is somewhat idyllic on the family farm about a mile outside of the French town of Carriveau. Her husband, Antoine, is quickly drafted into the French army as rumors of a German invasion spread. No one thinks the Germans will invade.

Isabelle, 18 and headstrong, has been dismissed from her current school. It is one of many schools where she was invited to leave. Isabelle returns home to her father, Julien, in Paris. He promptly sends her packing to her sister, Vianne. This is something he has done to Isabelle all her life. Isabelle learns quickly and first hand that, indeed, the Germans will stop at nothing and do invade France.

A German captain is soon billeted in Vianne’s home. She can either allow this to happen, or be thrown out with her young daughter, Sophie. When Isabelle arrives, a tenuous situation becomes even more precarious for Isabelle’s temper and defiance threaten the household’s safety. Isabelle soon leaves, compelled to do something about France’s occupation. She joins the French Resistance, eventually becoming the infamous Nightingale as she leads downed British and American pilots over the Pyrenees. Vianne is left to cope with the horrors of the Nazis in her village, coping as best she can, starving, witnessing the rounding up of Jews, including her best friend, leaving her baby boy, Ari, for Vianne to raise; a crime to the Nazis.

This is the story of resilience. It is of the plight of French women in World War II and of their often unsung wartime efforts. It is also the story of sisters, complicated and often volatile, but full of love and endurance. It is a historical journey of the horrors of war in France, but, I think could also be applied to any war. It is about courage; courage of different kinds, for Isabelle’s is of outward resistance and action, while Vianne’s is one of protector and hidden defiance.

There are many hard scenes in “The Nightingale”, especially those in concentration camps and what women do to save their children. In spite of this, I encourage you to read Kristin Hannah’s latest book, even if it means while driving your car.

 

 

 

 

 

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned a book we received in one of the private gardens during an Open Day for the Garden Conservancy. I meant to post on it sooner, but life, in the form of young grandchildren and lots of great family time, filled my days until now.

And do, once upon a time in a garden  . . .

When we approached to ticket table at Mettawa Manor, we were given a raffle stub, along with a map of the estate and some general directions. Our delightfully informative greeter invited us to return with the stub to the ticket table when we finished our garden visit and to return it in exchange for one of the many books the estate’s owners were giving away from their personal library.

What a generous gift – and a great idea to file in my revolving folder of a mind –  perhaps to use sometime in one of my activities.

There were still many lovely books about gardening, landscaping, cooking and such when we wandered back to the table. As soon as I saw the cover of “A Glorious Harvest”, I knew it was destined to follow me home. Poor Tom. He didn’t have a chance.

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“A Glorious Harvest: Robust Recipes from the Dairy, Pasture, Orchard, and Sea”, by Henrietta Green, is filled with enticing recipes, informed text from the author, a culinary writer, and the most delectable photographs.

From entries like Paper Bag Potatoes and Roulade with Asparagus, to Tarte Tatin and Whole-wheat Bread, I am putting on weight just browsing this engaging cookbook/reference book/instruction manual on all things gastronomical. As I sit here putting words to screen, a recipe, really quite simple, called Paper Bag Potatoes, is calling to me. Perhaps I will visit a farm stand tomorrow, dig up some new potatoes from one of the bins, pull out some parchment paper, and see what aromas and tastes issue forth.

Ah, the many wonders of visiting gardens on Open Days.

Have you eaten, I mean read, any good cookbooks lately?

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BraveCompanionsI was looking for something to read; a book to pick up with a stand-alone chapter to pass an hour or so on my Independence Day afternoon. David McCullough’s” 1776″ and “Truman” were standing at attention as I reached for his “Brave Companions: Portraits in History”.  A bookmark with early scenes of Boston rested inside. It reminded me of the charming bookstore, Toad Hall, where I purchased “Brave Companions ”  on a trip to Massachusetts several years ago. Just what I needed on a slow, holiday afternoon.

I enjoy reading David McCullough’s books. His conversational style of writing brings historical characters, events and places alive.His unique voice and storytelling style often make me want to learn more. Be it about Harry Truman or the first year of the Revolutionary War, I always come away from McCullough’s books feeling a wee bit more knowledgeable about subjects I love.

So it was on this Fourth of July that I opened “Brave Companions”, surveyed the chapters’ topics,  landed on Washington on the Potomac, and took a brisk stroll with Mr. McCullough. We walked past historic venues and notable spots, with bits and pieces of the people and places and occurrences that make Washington, D.C. a remarkable capital city.

I finished the chapter, a fitting essay to read on this day, then I rested my eyes for a spell, thinking about my favorite Fourth of July. It was the summer we took our girls to D.C. for a family vacation. We did the touristy things one does in D.C., but the memory that stands clearest was how we spent the Fourth of July.  We walked from our hotel across the Mall and heard a dramatic early morn reading of the Declaration of Independence in front of the National Archives. We took the trolley to Arlington Cemetery, then to the Lincoln Memorial, several buildings of the Smithsonian, the Vietnam Wall . . . and walked and rode on and on, ending our day with fireworks on the Mall, the Washington monument looming above as if holding the colorful display for all to see.

It was nice to remember that Independence Day, appreciating Mr. McCullough’s words on the pages just read, and feeling grateful for what I have.

How about you? Have you read any history or historical fiction lately? Have you read anything by David McCullough?

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Ever since reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Secret Garden” as a child, I have been intrigued by garden doors, imagining myself as Mary Lennox, wondering what is beyond a locked door.

So it was upon entering the Rotary Gardens in Janesville, Wisconsin that my imagination grew like Jack’s beanstalk and I squealed in girlish glee “oh, this is wonderful“. There I was, hopping around, opening and closing garden doors, peering into windows and otherwise embarrassing Tom who, after all these years, is used to my childish ways about these bookish gardening “things”.

There were doors opening on doors as groomsmen in gray – and senior citizens in greige -averted their eyes to the gleeful granny and her indulgent companion.

Isn’t it grand to discover something creative and open your imagination for a bit? Maybe it was because we had just spent several days with our darling grandchildren who love to pretend that images of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy and Toto following a yellow brick road came to mind.

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Well, dear reader, when one door closes another opens, and so it did as something else caught my eye.

Can you see it? Click on the photo for a better look.

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Scattered about the gardens were many of these boxes. They reminded me of the Little Free Libraries and were painted in all manner of whimsy and creativity.

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A volunteer in the gardens told us that the boxes were made by a group of men. They were sold at a nominal cost to be painted and appointed however the artist saw fit. They will be raffled off (or was it auctioned?) and I, of course, imagine them filled with gardening books and secret doors.

What would you fill them with?

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“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”

Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine. 

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I have started this post several times, never adequately expressing my thoughts . It is not that I did not enjoy Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act”. Enjoy it I did, however,  I have struggled with how to navigate my feelings over the intriguing plot and characters. This is not a “fun” read, nor a page turning thriller. It is not funny, though I have read a few reviews that imply parts of it are. “The Children Act” is a provocative novella that left me pondering the unexpected consequences of one’s decisions, even the most thoughtful ones. Yes or no? Right or left? The blur between the lines. The unfathomable outcomes.

I finished the audio of “The Children Act” several days ago. It sits in the car, patiently waiting its return to the library, where it needs to go today. There was this underlying feeling that if I held onto it, the words would come to me on what to say.

They didn’t.

Some words just seem to take longer to percolate in one’s memory grooves. A walk in the garden, even the mindless task of pulling weeds, always seem to help me harvest my thoughts, so I did just that. I took a walk about the acreage, hovering over this book-loving garden fairy. Lo and behold, the words started to perk into sentences, which I will try to express now.

Judge Fiona Maye is charged with finding a legal judgement regarding whether or not a boy, on the cusp of adulthood, should be allowed to die because of his faith or ordered to live. The case falls into Fiona’s hands just as her husband asks for permission – to have an affair.

Of course, it is not that simple a decision, the court decision, that is. Or is it?

Adam Henry, just months away from his 18th birthday, is being treated for leukemia. A Jehovah Witness, he has refused the blood transfusion he desperately needs, which is forbidden by his religion. Still legally a child, his parents concur, as do the elders of his church. Adam’s doctors are seeking a legal decision in favor of a transfusion in order to save his life. Both sides pose formidable arguments.

After listening to both positions, Fiona suspends court proceedings and goes to visit Adam in his hospital room. She finds a desperately ill boy who is bright, engaging, thoughtful and inquisitive. Adam writes poetry and is learning to play the violin even as he is dying. She also finds that Adam, who insists on referring to Fiona in the courtly “my lady”, is rooted in his belief system, quoting chapter and verse of the Bible and resolute in his refusal of a blood transfusion. He seems to know his own mind.

My Lady and Adam form a courtly bond of sorts, he playing the violin, she singing along and gently correcting him on wrong notes. She is also an accomplished pianist and it is through her own musical performance that revelations about her decisions are later shown. Both boy and judge are moved in profound ways by the hospital visit – and transformed by Fiona’s ruling in unanticipated ways.

I found “The Children Act” to be a story that lingers still and leaves me with more questions than answers. “The Children Act” is about making thoughtful decisions after much discernment for all the right reasons only to be faced with unfathomable consequences. There is a particularly revelatory moment when Adam expresses in writing his feelings at the ruling. It is so well-formed and executed that it lingers, rather like the audio that sits on the seat of my car, patiently waiting for me to do something with it, which I can’t for it would give away the storyline.

I’m not sure that this post expresses my thoughts as I wanted them to, but, I tried. I think it best that I leave my words here and take another stroll about the garden and ponder a bit more about “The Children Act” . Have you read “The Children Act” or any of Ian McEwan’s other works?

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William James Glackens (American artist, 1870-1938) Portrait of PennyI seem to be in a bit of book lag; I pick them up, put them down, forget where I put them, go on to another, find the first . . . the point is that I’m in one of those passages in life where I am not getting hooked in the first chapters.  It is not the fault of the writers but of myself.  I seem to be in a distracted spell, needing a magic wand to whisk me back to literature.

I have three library books, now overdue, that need rapid transit to the library. They have been renewed so many times that they are now non-renewable. Does that ever happen to you?

I keep meaning to start “The Light We Cannot See”; even more so now that the author, Anthony Doerr was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

“Ironweed”, by William Kennedy, has been gathering dust along with “Spook”, by Mary Roach and a host of other books that are begging me to opening them up – and keep them open.  I will.  I know I will. Sometimes a book just needs to bide its time until the words resting inside become comfortable on the reader’s eyes. Like the books about me, I was biding my time.

I’ve been busy with our garden and the garden club, household chores and my many activities, life in progress. I did find time to stop in at charming gift shop in nearby Clarendon Hills.  Ebenezer’s is filled with antiques and vintage items, ribbons and cards, jewelry and dolls – and a lovely  collection of teacups and serving plates. I wandered around, the music of Downton Abbey floating through the air as I hobbled up the wooden staircase, admiring a table set with flow blue, old cookbooks and glassware, before returning to the main floor, whose boards squeaks in that companionable way that old floorboards have of telling their tale. I checked out the jewelry and stuffed animals, then noticed the wide array of classic, and soon-to-be classic, children’s literature.

Do you know what I found?  It was a book I’ve been looking for ever since seeing a documentary last winter about children’s author/illustrator Virginia Lee Burton. Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place, is wonderful production about her life, her marriage, her family and her work. Many of you know “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” and “Katy”. I’d forgotten about “Choo Choo”, which I bought for our Ezra, who love, love, loves trains and hoped to one day find “The Little House” after seeing the documentary.

“The Little House” is available online and at bookstores, but, I had it in my mind to find it, just like the great great granddaughter of the man who first built the little house finds it in Burton’s story, I needed to find “The Little House”, and I did, there in the charming shop called Ebenezer’s, late in the afternoon. It seemed to be waiting for me to come upon it, to open its covers, and to bring it home.

This is an endearing children’s story, which is really about urban development encroaching upon country life. This little house is built on a hillside  looking out over the pastures and fields and up to the sun and the moonlit skies. As the pages turn, trees and farms and schools and roads, then stores and trains and skyscrapers appear until the little house is alone on a city street, sad and boarded up, no longer relevant (or so it seems), until a young woman walks by and remembers her great great grandfather’s house.

Historic preservation in a children’s book, written mid-twentieth century, “The Little House” is refereed to as Rachel Carson for kids. First published in 1942, this is a cautionary tale for adults as much as a sweet storybook for children.

I brought “The Little House” home and settled upon the rocker which Tom’s great grandfather rocked, in my own 90+ year old house. Some of the resident herd of deer were grazing on the clear cut lot next door. A hawk circled overhead, then a raucous gaggle of geese. There are remnants of an apple orchard and walnut trees stain the street with their bounty. Our soil was once tilled as farmland and old traps can be found when wandering about. It is as idyllic as it is not,  bounded by a road cut off and two major highways, a railroad yard close by and sloughs as ancient as the earth itself but a few miles away. As I rocked and read my newfound book reminded me of how children’s literature can snap me out of a bit of book lag and carry me home to where I ought to be.

Then, I remembered the painting above by William James Glacken, titled Portrait of Penny. A book not yet opened, a cookie to be nibbled, and a bit of the young girl hidden within.

Sigh.  I think I’m over my book lag.

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