Wednesday, April 04, 2012

"Paradise Under Glass" - Ruth Kassinger

Paradise Under Glass: The Education of a Indoor Gardener

Ruth Kassinger's book centers around the project of building a conservatory in her home. The author wasn't really a gardener to begin with: in fact she starts the book off by explaining her difficulty in taking care potted plants over the years. 

What really drew her to the idea was an impromptu visit to the United States Botanic Gardens' Conservatory. Why not create a tropical Eden in her own backyard? The book chronicles the building of the structure as well as her experiences in finding plants that fit the requirements of being visually stunning and not too sensitive to the vagaries of her somewhat forgetful gardening skills. 

 Interspersed throughout are chapters on history: the first conservatories, the evolution of their design, plant explorers in tropical regions, the Victorian fern mania and the history of pesticides and biological pest control. I actually found these parts the most interesting in the book. There is also an ongoing narrative about the loss of her sister to cancer and her own battle with the disease. Without wanting to sound cold-hearted I felt this took some of the pleasure of reading the book away. Not only because it is, of course, always painful to read about tragic personal histories, but it is doubly so in a book that presents itself as a memoir of a leisure project. Furthermore, I didn't think it enriched the narrative of building and planting the conservatory - it simply made me sad. 

The actual choosing and placing of greenery in a modern hot-house seems to be a flimsy subject and as such is supplemented by visits of the author to several places in the U.S.: some legendary nurseries of tropical plants, a butterfly farm, a commercial operation in Florida. Interesting, but felt slightly like filler material.

 I wanted very much to love "Paradise Under Glass". After all, I've always had a thing for conservatories myself. I was expecting something akin to Amy Stewart's From the Ground Up, but in the end felt Kassinger's book didn't deliver that feeling of absolute enthusiasm and roll-up-your-sleeves giddiness.

Once upon a time a conservatory was only for the royalty and then the incredibly wealthy, the author informs us. But as we witness the construction of a pricey structure, designed by an architect, put together by skilled workers, complete with swimmimg-pool and filled with hundreds of expensive plants we have to wonder if it really is that different today. Maybe it's my own poor fault but I really couldn't relate to this memoir.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Secret Life of Lobsters" - Trevor Corson & Mark Kurlansky "The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York"

I've never eaten oysters and only tried lobster once (and don't remember it very well to tell the thruth, so this might seem like a strange pair of books to review. Although different in narrative style - Corson focuses on a few fishermen and scientists to tell his story, while Kurlansky takes on the entire story of New York City and the close relation with its oyster beds - they do share similarities. Both speak of food items that were once so plentiful as to be thought of as poor people fare. The case of oysters is a little different since, as the author points out, it was probably one of the few dishes in history to be simultaneously a luxury and a daily meal (for oystermen, but also people of modest means). And both - the history of the eventual destruction of New York oyster beds and the struggle to understand the reality of lobster grounds (are they being overfished or not?) speak of our abuse of resources and our ignorance of the natural world and its rhythms. "Lobsters" proved a more agreable read: there is a lot about the science of lobsters (and it's great how passionate the scientists and fishermen are about these weird crustaceans. Corson style of non-fiction narrative is definitely a grower. Although I kept confusing the various lobstermen families I still found everyone very interesting and story engaging. Kurlansky's book is more about the ties to New York City history and lacks actual protagonists. At times I felt the story lagged a little. Still, for oyster devotees I imagine it nust be a fascinating read.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I was a latecomer to the web sensation site - Design*Sponge. However, to my credit, I loved it at first glance. Grace Bonney's book was a birthday gift from my sister and I have looked through it again and again these past months.

I'm interested in design and interior decoration and sometimes go through these magazine buying spurts, which, for the most part have left me unsatisfied. Almost everything feels incredibly formal even when it patently tries to be "modern", "rustic" or some other genre.

In Design*Sponge the book, the apartments you see are mostly "believable" - I can believe real people inhabit these spaces. There are salvaged pieces of furniture, thrift store objects, IKEA pieces and a lot of DYI.

About half the book is devoted to "Sneak Peaks": 2-4 pages photo spreads of homes and the other half is devoted to DIY projects, basics and floral arrangements. I love Amy Merrick's floral work (Design*Sponge editor) and her blog.

This is a great book to turn to for inspiration. And because it is so visually rich, I always notice something new each time I look at it: a new colour, pattern or an original way to display or organize.

I think anyone interested in design would love this book.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Clare Turlay Newberry

Clare Turlay Newberry(1903-1970) is a wonderful artist I recently discovered. She became famous for her cat illustrations and TIME Magazine once said she was "the best cat artist since the Egyptians".

It's impressive that Newberry mostly finished her drawings in one go - putting brush to paper and immediately achieving a finished portrait. Her colour palette and technique I find very reminiscent of Japanese drawings. But her ability to capture feline expression and poise stems, clearly, from a deep affection for cats.

Funnily enough I had first, without knowing, admired her art in this awesome tattoo featured on the pet site Pawesome. Then, when I got the book "Mittens" it took me a few days to realize where I had seen that kitten before...

Many of Newberry's books are only available second hand and some cost a pretty penny. However, "Marshmallow" and "April's Kittens" are still in print. Occasionally you might also find a print for sale.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Cecil Aldin

Just recently I found out about two great artists. One is Cecil Aldin (1870-1935) a visual chronicler of British countryside whose dog portraits became very famous and highly collectible. A very nice biography of Aldin can be found here.

Some of Aldin's more popular titles are still in print and I got "The Rascal: Episodes in the Life of a Bulldog Pup", "A Dog Day" and "Puppy Dogs' Tales". Also in print is the classic "Sleeping Partners" in which Aldin depicts his two dogs (an Irish Wolfhound named Micky and a Bull Terrier called Cracker) attempting to share a small sofa in positions of (seemingly) increasing discomfort.

Anyone who loves dogs and illustration will surely adore these small books. Cecil Aldin is particularly adept at portraying the puppy teens, that time, which in some dogs seems to go on forever, (yes, I'm talking to you Dixie) when every waking minute seems to be spent contemplating some deed that will have have you mop/ baby wipes /dog shampo in hand in no time.

His drawings of Sealyham Terriers are my absolute favourite. There aren't any on these three books but there are some prints available online if a little on the expensive side. An adorable breed - how incredible to think they are endangered.

Monday, February 06, 2012

"O Comboio Nocturno para Lisboa" - Pascal Mercier

Not much going on as far as reading is concerned...

Read "O Comboio Nocturno para Lisboa"(Night Train to Lisbon) as the year ended and Pascal Mercier's prose seems to have spoiled more mundane readings for me.

A book that manages to compile much of modern Portuguese history, which I, for one, tend to sometimes forget was incredibly tragic and harrowing, and create a complete philosophy in the shape of one of the most enigmatic and simultaneously magnetic fictional characters ever put to page, Amadeu de Prado.

We meet Prado through our protagonist, Raimund Gregorius, a schoolteacher in Bern who has spent most of his life buried behind books written in Latin and Hebrew. A chance encounter is all it takes - the apparently comfortable life of this middle aged divorcé is thrown into disarray after a casual meeting with a crying, Portuguese girl whose few words somehow spark an interest in an unknown language.

A visit to a book store puts a mysterious vanity press book into the hands of Gregorius: long winded meditations on several topics by a Portuguese physician who lived through the years of Salazar's dictatorship. Add a couple of books on grammar and suddenly, and completely out of character, he is boarding a night train to Lisbon, a city he has never visited.

Because luck has to favour intrepid gambles such as this, our increasingly hesitant protagonist begins almost at once to meet key figures who will help him navigate a strange city and, even more importantly, to slowly begin to make sense out of the puzzle that is Amadeu de Prado: a spiritual man who rejects organized religion and a natural philosopher and writer thrown into the path of medicine by his crippled father, a judge who, to his son's embarrassment, never spoke out against the dictatorship. Because of a tragic episode where he saves the life of a known henchman of the regime, Prado too is looked down upon by his once adoring patients - yet secretly, he collaborates with the resistance.

Slowly though, a doting older sister, a resistance brother, a former teacher and others seem to help Gregorius make sense of Prado. Or do they? Each seems to have met a different man... And so Mercier sends Gregorius and all his readers on an enthralling meditation on life, personality, choices, paths not taken and other conundrums.

Slightly over-melancholic at times the narrative holds the reader's attention through its sense of impending discovery. Will we ever get a sense of who Prado really was? Or is the answer in the first page where a few lines from Pessoa make an appearance?