Seasonal Reading: Decoration Day

This is the time of year when I always give myself the treat of re-reading two seasonal tales: Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace and a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett called Decoration Day included in her A Native of Winby and Other Tales.

Image from here

Emily of Deep Valley is now available on Kindle here in the UK as well as in a couple of paperback versions. I love all of MHL’s books, but perhaps Emily has a special place in my heart because I read it first, and it’s about an orphan. It never fails to stir my heart-strings. Emily Webster lives with her grandfather in 1912 in a small town in Minnesota. The book starts with her final day of High School and unlike most of her class, Emily feels she can not leave her elderly grandfather to manage alone and go off to college. What I like most is Emily’s refusal to feel sorry for herself for long and her resolutions to develop her own program of study. Her respect for her grandfather and appreciation of the community spirit inherent in such local and national celebrations as Decoration Day (the old name for Memorial Day in the US which always used to fall on May 30th) shine through the book. It’s deeply charming and you’re cheering body and soul for Emily by the end. There’s lots of nostalgia and descriptions of clothes and patriotism and a Romance and it all has a satisfyingly happy ending (whereas poignantly in real life the woman Emily was based on, Marguerite Marsh, died two weeks after childbirth in 1925). For me this is, the perfect comfort read as I can get more out of every time I come back to it. However it isn’t for everyone. I remember reading A Captive Reader’s excellent and detailed review of this on her blog, and I see looking back she liked it, but not without quite a few reservations. Well the bits she especially dislikes (the patriotism for example) don’t bother me at all, but it’s interesting to read her point of view and hear what jars for her. I, on the other hand, love all the domestic details – the fashion, the clothes, the housekeeping, the different furniture in the homes we see, and not least Emily’s own daily routine.

Image from here

Like Maud Hart Lovelace’s stories, Sarah Orne Jewett’s all have a real sense of place. Whereas Emily is set in Deep Valley just before the First World War, Sarah Orne Jewett’s Decoration Day (my copy is in A Native of Winby and Other Tales, but it’s one you can easily read for free online here) centres on the revival of a parade to honour the fallen Union soldiers in the hamlet of Barlow Plains in New England in the second half of the nineteen century.  It’s not a heavy piece, but SOJ manages to add a layer of what honouring their dead does for the small community as a whole, and how grief and sorrow, when marked in a ceremonial and public way, allow more understanding and tolerance.  I love the way she captures the voices and conversation of the three farmers, veterans of the Civil War who sit outside and “chew the fat” with one another so frequently they usually know what the others are going to say before it’s spoken:

“Well, here we be ‘most into June, an’ I ain’t got a bush bean aboveground,” lamented Henry Merrill.

“Your land’s always late, ain’t it? But you always catch up with the rest on us,” Asa Brown consoled him. “I’ve often observed that your land, though early planted, is late to sprout. I view it there’s a good week’s difference betwixt me an’ Stover an’ your folks, but come 1st o’ July we all even up.”

“‘Tis just so,” said John Stover, taking his pipe out of his mouth, as if he had a good deal more to say, and then replacing it, as if he had changed his mind.

“Made it extry hard having that long wet spell. Can’t none on us take no day off this season,” said Asa Brown; but nobody thought it worth his while to respond to such evident truth.

“Next Saturday’ll be the 30th o’ May — that’s Decoration day, ain’t it? — come round again. Lord! how the years slip by after you git to be forty-five an’ along there!” said Asa again. “I s’pose some o’ our folks’ll go over to Alton to see the procession, same’s usual. I’ve got to git one o’ them small flags to stick on our Joel’s grave, an’ Mis’ Dexter always counts on havin’ some for Harrison’s lot. I calculate to get ’em somehow. I must make time to ride over, but I don’t know where the time’s comin’ from out o’ next week. I wish the women folks would tend to them things. There’s the spot where Eb Munson an’ John Tighe lays in the poor-farm lot, an’ I did mean certain to buy flags for ’em last year an’ year before, but I went an’ forgot it. I’d like to have folks that rode by notice ’em for once, if they was town paupers. Eb Munson was as darin’ a man as ever stepped out to tuck o’ drum.”

I know stories in any kind of dialect can be annoying to struggle through, but I always find Sarah Orne Jewett’s well worth the effort. She also is brilliant in her descriptions of the domestic details and attitudes of small town New England and, like Maud Hart Lovelace, I find her stories frequently touch the heart. So many now are available free online or on Kindle, I’m delighted to be discovering books of hers that were previously unknown to me.


Reading Copy Only

Over the years I’ve filled countless notebooks with lists of titles or authors I feel I should like to read and/or own one day. Frequently they’re the sort of book where I’d gladly accept a “reading copy only:” perhaps because I’m just eager to be able finally to read the thing, or because I’ve long since realised that my chance of finding an affordable first with beautiful dustwrapper intact is so small, I’d better count it as non-existent and accept gratefully any version out there. Does anyone else do this with books? I’d be very interested indeed to hear how other people keep track of book recommendations.

Available at One Brown Cow

Sadly most of the books on my lists haven’t been available in public libraries for years so apart from kind friends with better home libraries than mine and possessing a generosity of spirit about lending, or small publishing houses deciding that a particular title is worthy of a reprint, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to read them easily before purchasing. Hence the pricking of my thumbs (in a good way!) when I see the three words “Reading Copy Only” in book sellers’ descriptions. It generally means a book so worth reading/owning the fact that it’s in appalling shape doesn’t render it worth tossing, and it might well be down on one of my lists.

Available at One Brown Cow

Before the days of the richness of book blogs (and surely I can’t be the only one with pen and notebook in hand when I read a favourite blogger’s current discoveries?), a lot of the books listed were recommended from friends, but most were drawn from literary allusions in books I had already read and enjoyed.

Available at Liberty

Sometimes it’s as simple as trying to find the elusive “missing” titles of an author I love (ahem! should confess here and now to being a bit of a completist!). Sometimes it’s books that bookish friends have mentioned in passing “Oh you simply must read…” so you do and then rather ashamedly covert the copy they’ve so kindly lent you. And thus, years later you can’t pass a similarly coloured spine high up in a second-hand bookseller just in case the CHAMBERS on the spine might mean it’s Ven of Gregory’s published by them in 1925, written by Elsie J Oxenham, illustrated by Nina K Brisley, fourth in the Sussex set, read and enjoyed by you all those years ago, but sadly lacking from your own bookshelves still!

Available from Liberty

I’ve chucked nearly all of the notebooks over the years: no space, frequent moves and life moving on. When one filled up, I’d move onto the next and toss the old one away, but now I wish I hadn’t. It’s silly really as outstanding titles have long been listed electronically in the usual places and many of them are burned into my memory, but I’d still like to see them jotted down in that original context – those little notebooks were snapshots in time I guess. In some ways more revealing than an appointment book would have been. There would have been a notebook from my first year of university in Regina in 1979. I was taught a biography class by a wonderful professor, Joan Givner. Joan was at that time writing her own biography of Katherine Anne Porter so we heard the fascinating details of the difficulties of a biographer at first hand, but she was also generous with her recommendations of biographies and indeed literary works we might enjoy. I scribbled down and pursued many of her recommendations.

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There would have been lists from the late 80s from when Miranda was little of children’s picture books gleaned from Dorothy Butler’s recommendations. A notebook compiled from reading Miss Read feverishly in a year spent mainly in hospital in 1990 – so many happy discoveries from her.

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Sometimes it’s not so much that the books on the list are impossible to find, but I’m unwilling to pay the usual asking price and will hold out for a serendipitous find. Sometimes I forget why they’re on the list or how they came to be there. Someone at some point might have told me to look out for Loretta Mason Potts, a children’s book by Mary Chase (living in the States as I did for several years I’ve got lots of American books on ABE that now I wished I’d tried to find more determinedly whilst I lived there!). Or that title might have got on my list because I know Mary Chase wrote the play Harvey which eventually became the movie of the same name with James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. I love that film. I might well have taken note that she also wrote that unusually titled children’s book and thought I’d like to read it too.

Image from here – Peter D. Sieruta’s wonderful blog. I was so sorry to hear of his untimely death. He will be sadly missed.

Hmm so from now on, I’ve decided I’ll also jot down who recommended the title or where I read about it at least, and I’ll try to keep this next notebook I’m starting today even when it’s scribbled over and filled as an example of my Reading Wishlist starting the week of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee anyway.

Friends and Frocks

Thomas, Miranda and John

Seeing the beautiful dresses at the V&A Ballgown: British Glamour since 1950 exhibition and its permanent collection was a real treat on Sunday, but even nicer was meeting up with the charming Thomas of Thomas of My Porch and his husband John. It was the second time Miranda and I had been lucky enough to meet Thomas on one of his trips to the UK, and we were especially grateful we’d been able to grab some of their precious London time. Thomas and John are as friendly and engaging as Thomas’ blog portrays, and I smiled over the way John calls him “Tom”, as I can barely think of Thomas without “of My Porch” echoing in my brain  and “Tom” sounds so endearingly informal. Thank you Tom and John so much!  It really was so much fun to spend time with you both. Now, of course, Miranda and I want to meet their adorable dog Lucy Jane in the flesh as well!

Image from here

Many of the ball gowns (especially the ones from the 50s) were absolutely stunning, a few contemporary ones were outright weird, but all were great for discussion. I watched an old newsreel and was fascinated to see how much older some of the catwalk models were than those we see today. It was lovely to wander through the permanent exhibits too and, of course, there was time for a piece of cake. It was my first real outing since getting out of hospital so I happily sat and waited with my Kindle for Miranda to have a good explore around. No hardship there! There really is something in every nook and cranny and ceiling of the V&A at which to look.

I was especially happy to see Miranda get away from her desk at the weekend too. She’s been spending nearly all of her not working hours frantically studying for an exam in July (I get tired just watching her fill in dozens of filing cards with notes to memorize), but she happily scrubbed the ink off her fingers and brushed up, choosing a vintage inspired Rachel Riley pansy print dress from the spring collection for the occasion. I think it just fit in perfectly with the V&A’s British Design 1948 -2012 exhibit too. As I sat there, I thought back to our frequent visits to museums when she was a child and how I’d little realised then how much fun it would be when she was older. Now I get the pleasure of doing exhibitions companionably with her. It makes all those “No! Don’t touch the Ming Vase!!!” moments every parent with little one in tow has very worthwhile indeed!


Friday Smiles

How nice it is this time of year to be up at 6am, but for the sun to be shining away. We had a good start to Friday Morning when my daughter was bopping around to this great Caro Emerald tune as she rushed to get ready and be off in time:

Other Friday fun to make me smile has been this Nathalie Lete plate (spotted on Anthropologie’s US website, but hopefully available here soon on the UK one with their other Nathalie Lete plates so it can go to the top of my wishlist):

Smile number three was for this great new cookbook by Alana Chernila which arrived in the post. I just sat down and read the first hundred pages I got so engrossed. I love the idea of eating at home almost entirely from food that you’ve made and preserved yourself and am now even inspired by her to have a go at making ricotta – something I’ve always been nervous of before. The author has chosen to share the recipes that work for her family and their simplicity and homemade goodness just make you want to have a go whether it’s canning vegetables or whipping up a batch of your own ketchup. Alana comes across as a funny and fun guide, and I can highly recommend her blog, Eating From the Ground Up, where you can get to know her and her recipes better.

And now I’m about to take a cup of coffee with my Kindle and go outside and sit and read one of my favourite children’s classics which never fails to make me smile: Edward Eager’s Magic by the Lake. It’s a great combination: 4 children, a summer by a lake and plenty of magic. It’s laugh out loud funny and endearing with wonderful illustrations by N M Bodecker which only add to the charm.

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Jubilee Treats

Here’s some little no-pain, if sadly, more weight gain ones for those of us who love an excuse to celebrate (and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee needs no excuse really). This is what we’ll be nibbling and sipping on the Bank Holiday weekend.


I find nothing makes me feel so festive as a few savoury treats, something sweet and something bubbly plus of course a nice cup of tea to finish it all off.   My daughter’s flat lacks an oven which restricts us a bit, but I know there’ll be devilled eggs, radishes with the best French butter we can find, cucumber, smoked salmon and shrimp sandwiches, quails eggs with plenty of salt, Battenberg Cake (from Melrose and Morgan), scones (from Gail’s if we’re lucky and get there early enough) with Tiptree’s strawberry with champagne jam and clotted cream, Nigella’s Cornish Champagne Cocktail from the Bramley and Gage website (only I’ll substitute Prosecco for the Camel sparkling wine):


Cornish Champagne Cocktail
From Nigellas Christmas 2008 by Nigella Lawson.

Ingredients: (Makes 6)
6 x 15ml tablespoons Quince Liqueur
6 La perruche pure cane rough cut sugar Lumps
75cl Bottle Camel Valley sparkling wine

Place 1 sugar lump into each champagne glass (saucer style is best). Pour the Quince Liqueur over each lump to soak it. Top with the sparkling wine.

and finally pots of F&M Royal Blend tea because it really is very good tea indeed.


Ursula Bloom and her Ford

Image from here

I’ve picked up quite a few Ursula Bloom books in charity shops and secondhand over the years and enjoyed them very much. The ones I’ve found have been mainly contemporary romances from the 40s and 50s; they’re light, but amusing and well-written books. Recently Gina of gghost wrote enticingly about collecting her books, and, researching a little, I realised Ursula Bloom literally wrote 100s, getting herself into the Guinness Book of Records at one point for her productivity.

I, naturally, thought “Oh what fun it would be to read more,” but wondered where to start. Gina mentioned she also wrote under the pseudonym Mary Essex and that also rung bells for me. I remembered Simon of StuckinaBook’s excellent description of her novel The Amorous Bicycle and am now inspired to look out for that one and another Mary Essex Gina recommended, Tea Is So Intoxicating. They sound like just my kind of books (fabulous titles too), and she was no where near so prolific writing as Mary Essex which is good news for the non-available free space on my bookcases.

Researching Ursula Bloom a little more I realise how much I’d also like to read her autobiographical books. Best of all I came upon this little promotional film she made for the Ford Motor Company c 1950. She narrates and appears in it looking very elegant indeed, but I also love looking at the fashions and the shoes. This film is obviously made to appeal to women who are either independently wealthy, or whose household income is enough to afford them buying their own car and to be confident and independent enough to drive them. These women’s lives are briefly described (no mention of work, but praise for the way the car makes women so much more mobile so they can enjoy swimming and golfing more), and there’s a comparison of how your grandmother might have been proposed to on a settee, but now it’s more likely that you’ll receive a proposal in a car. There’s also a 4 minute biographical BBC film made in 1974 which is wonderful and shows her huge catalogue of books!

Ursula Bloom and her Ford

Ursula Bloom and her Life

Exhibition time

Renoir’s Girl with a Fan one of the Clark’s Parisian treasures coming to the RA

I know it’s probably more popular to associate summer with beach and countryside pursuits, but probably because of my years teaching and home-schooling summer means museum time to me. Every year there’s at least a couple of exhibitions I plan to get to and then something gets in the way, and before I know it they’re past, and I’ve missed them. This year I’ve been better organized in that I’ve actually booked time off, planned trips away on weekends and got the tickets ahead of time where possible. These are all on my list. Would be so interested to know what exhibitions are on your radar too.

Alfred StevensThe Duchess, on tour from the Clark

1) From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism (Paintings from the Clark)

Giovanni Boldini’s Young Woman Crocheting, on tour from the Clark

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, MA is one of my very favourite American museums. Many of their Impressionist paintings are touring right now and how wonderful it will be to see them again at the Royal Academy from 7 July to 23 September.

Patuxent Room, Winterthur by Michael John Hunt

2) A day trip from London this summer will take us to another exhibition at the American Museum in Britain, on the outskirts of Bath. This one focuses on modern paintings by the British painter Michael John Hunt of two beautiful American Historic Homes, Winterthur and Wynkoop House, Painted Rooms, 10 March – 28 October:

Founded by Henry Francis du Pont, Winterthur is the premier museum of American decorative arts, reflecting both early America and the du Pont family’s life here. Its 60-acre naturalistic garden is among the country’s best, and its research library serves scholars from around the world. Over the years, Hunt has built up a considerable painted archive of the 175 period rooms on view there and, since this is one of the museums on which the American Museum in Britain was modelled, this exhibition in Bath is most appropriate. Hunt has also produced a similar collection of paintings of Wynkoop House, a fine Colonial period stone house in New York State and the largest in Marbletown, when it was built for Cornelius Evert Wynkoop in 1767. Wynkoop, of Dutch descent, was a successful merchant and served as a Major of the Minutemen of Ulster County in the American Revolution.

I’m fascinated to see Hunt’s paintings and of course the American Museum has a wonderful collection of quilts and folk art that are always a pleasure to exam.

The Homestead by Michael John Hunt

3) A few years ago now, I saw a wonderful exhibition of Women in the Land Army in Lymington at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery. This painting by Randolph Schwabe was particularly memorable and was chosen by curator Gill Clarke for the cover of her book on the subject:

Schwabe’s artwork sounds like a fascinating subject for a new St Barbe exhibition at the end of the year, 24 November – 16 February:

Schwabe (1885 – 1948) studied at the Slade School of Art later becoming its Principal from 1930 – 1948. He was employed as an Official War Artist in both world wars, producing a series on ‘Women on the Land’ in the First World War and portraits and drawings of bomb damage in the Second World War. This exhibition will also include his theatrical and ballet drawings, etchings, watercolours and book illustrations, many of which have not been on public display before. It will be accompanied by a fully illustrated book by Gill Clarke, published by Sansom & Co.

Image of Cottages on Titmore Green by F. L. Griggs here

4) Similarly, my daughter and I spent a happy weekend in Chipping Campden a few years ago. Our focus was the wonderful Margaret Calkin James exhibition. This summer we want to go back to the Court Barn for an exhibition of the well-known etcher and illustrator, F L Griggs’ watercolours and drawings. Dream Cotswold (2 August – 7 October) will “will display a number of rare, privately owned watercolours . Followers of Grigg’s will find much in this exhibition to deepen their understanding of the artist’s visionary work, based firmly in the Arts & Crafts tradition.”

5) I also don’t want to miss the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye. From 28 June – 14 October, it will include 60 twentieth century paintings by Munch as well as examples of his work with photography and film. I’m particularly interested in the way it will examine “how Munch often repeated a single motif over a long period of time in order to re-work it, as can be seen in the different versions of his most celebrated works, such as The Sick Child 1885–1927 and Girls on the Bridge 1902–27. ”

The Sick Child 1907 by Edvard Munch