For spring, two stories about flowers

I’ve been neglecting the blog a bit as of late, but I’m back with a review today. But first, a little story:

When I was growing up, an older couple, the Martinoffs, lived around the corner from our house. Most of my memories of Mr. and Mrs. Martinoff were of trick-or-treating with my friends at their house on Halloween, waiting on the porch of their tiny bungalow as they shuffled to the door and greeted the gang of us dragons, princesses, and Power Rangers. They were always so delighted to see us neighborhood kids, enthusiastically complementing our costumes in their thick Russian accents. The rest of the year, I sometimes saw Mr. Martinoff in front of his home, working quietly in his garden. One summer, as my mom was walking by and stopped to chat with him, she complemented his beautiful pink peonies, telling him how much they reminded her of the garden at her childhood home. (My grandma was quite an avid gardener of all kinds of plants, from peonies to peppers to pumpkins.) Almost every summer after that, when his peonies were at their best, Mr. Martinoff would gather a generous bouquet of the fragrant flowers, and make the long, slow walk down the block (he suffered from Parkinson’s disease), rang our doorbell, and presented my mom with a beautiful arrangement of the flowers he knew she loved so much.

When Mr. and Mrs. Martinoff had both passed away, the developers who bought their little house were tearing it down. My mom and some other neighbors asked the construction workers if they would mind if they took some plants from the Martinoffs’ garden, since otherwise they would be destroyed during the demolition. Happily, the hard-hatted gentlemen agreed right away. Which is why now, every summer, Mr. Martinoff’s pink peony plant blooms in my parents’ front yard. And I remember Mr. Martinoff, and his small, but beautiful, annual act of kindness.

Now, then. On to the book that made me think back on Mr. Martinoff and his peonies. Paradise Under ImageGlass is part memoir, part horticultural history, and part exploration of the modern world of plant lovers and growers. The author, Ruth Kassinger (full disclosure: Ruth is a friend of a friend, but we have never met), in a short time-frame had to deal with the loss of her beloved sister, Joan, to a brain tumor, her daughters’ tumultuous teenage years and departure for college, and her own harrowing bout with breast cancer. After so much upheaval in her life, Ruth sets on the idea of constructing a small conservatory garden as an addition to her suburban home. The conservatory, when completed, becomes a sanctuary of sorts for her and her family, providing a warm, lush escape from difficult days and dreary weather. Ruth claims at the start of her story to have no green thumb whatsoever, being barely able to keep even a low-maintenance peace plant alive in her home. Over time, however, Ruth schools herself on plant selection and care, and her conservatory thrives (with, of course, occasional setbacks). Throughout the book, Ruth weaves her own efforts to create her conservatory with historical tales of greenhouses and plant lovers of the past, from the introduction of the pineapple to European gentry, to the scientific and engineering advances of the early creators of the first glasshouses, to the adventurous profit-seekers who risked life and limb to bring exotic plants from distant tropical shores back to Europe. Ruth also visits many contemporary growers, both small and large, and introduces her readers to the industry that produces those hanging baskets and hardy houseplants you can buy at any grocery store or Home Depot. Ruth writes beautifully about the physical and emotional healing power of plants, historically and in her own life. And her book makes me want to run straight to Johnson’s to stock up on flowers for spring!

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J.K. Rowling’s big news…

A big announcement today for all of you Potter-philes out there…!

Free Books on World Book Night!

Have you guys heard about World Book Night? It’s a new celebration to spread the love of books around the globe. And the organizers are looking for volunteer book givers to hand out free books in communities across the country!

The first World Book Night (which coincides with UNESCO’s International Day of the Book) was held last year in the UK, and it’s making it’s American debut on April 23, 2012. This year, 30 books have been chosen to be distributed by volunteers. You can see a full list of the books chosen here, including a few of my favorites (Ender’s Game, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, among others). The books to be distributed will be delivered to various book stores, libraries, and other community locations for volunteers to pick up and pass out.

Want to sign up to be a volunteer book giver, and pass out free books on the subway, at a school, on a street corner, or anywhere, really? Click here to learn more, or click here to apply. They’re only accepting applications for book givers until February 1, so don’t delay. Spread the literary love.

The 2012 TBR stack is already growing…

After reflecting on some of my favorites from 2011, I thought I’d jot down a few books I’m especially looking forward to reading this year:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman  This one came out in November to rave reviews, and I was psyched when my grandma-in-law gave me a copy on Christmas!

Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books  I first read about this one in an excerpt in the Financial Times back in November, and added it to my wish list. And, lo and behold, it was also waiting for me under the Christmas tree!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, but I haven’t ventured into his other fiction yet. So I’m taking the plunge this year. Maybe beginning with Neverwhere or American Gods, but I’m open to suggestions from more experienced Gaiman fans.

I just read my first Jeeves & Wooster book (My Man Jeeves on my new Kindle! But more on that later). I can’t figure out how I missed out on P.G. Wodehouse for so long. More Jeeves, please! And if I finish enough of the stories, maybe I’ll check out the BBC series (starring a pre-House Hugh Laurie).

American Empress: The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post  I visited Post’s Hillwood Estate last month for the first time in a VERY long time, which prompted me to borrow this excellent biography from my mom.

I’ve also just barely started reading about another Post (unrelated, I believe?), in Laura Claridge’s Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners. Apparently I have a thing for reading about extremely rich ladies of the recent and not so recent past. Hmm…

Anyway, those are just some highlights from my to-be-read pile(s). What about you? Any exciting things in your TBR stack? Or any New Year’s reading resolutions?

A Reader’s Year

Now that the holiday craziness has ended, I’m finally taking a moment to remember what I read during 2011 and which books meant the most to me. I’ve picked five six seven favorites from the past year to share. (Okay, it’s hard to limit myself to just a few!) “Past year” means that I read it in 2011, not that it necessarily was published in 2011. (I’ve got some oldies I just got around to in here as well.)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks If you haven’t read Rebecca Skloot‘s incredible 2010 book yet, go get a copy right now. No, seriously. It’s that good. It’s the true story of the life and death of an impoverished African American woman in Baltimore in the 1950s, and what happens when her family discovers that Johns Hopkins doctors have been using and distributing her cells for medical research purposes for decades.  It’s a book about race in America, about bioethics, about the sociology of poverty, and about one family’s struggle to come to terms with a legacy they never chose for themselves. Oh, and it’s a fantastic read.

The Night Circus I think I’ve probably written enough here about Erin Morgenstern‘s gorgeously rendered fantasy of magicians in love. But between my love of the book and the author’s terrific talk at Politics & Prose in November, The Night Circus is most definitely on my favorites list for 2011.

Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim I kicked off 2011 by reading about this famed heiress, art collector, dog person, resident of Venice, and total headcase. Peggy’s extensive network of friends included artists, writers, collectors, fellow millionaires, and starving bohemians. Quite a fascinating group of people, and quite a life.

The People of the Book I’m not sure why it took me so long to start reading Geraldine Brooks, but after starting with her Pulitzer-winning March last winter, I soon moved on to The People of the Book. The novel masterfully weaves the story of a contemporary book restorer with that of the famed book she’s working on, the (real!) Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks covers hundreds of years of the book’s imagined history, and the fates of the Muslims, Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths who encountered the beautiful book during their lives.

The City of Falling Angels I wish John Berendt would write books faster, already. This 2005 book is his latest work of narrative nonfiction, and his more well-known Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came out all the way back in 1994. Too long to wait! Falling Angels covers the months Berendt lived in Venice, Italy, immediately following the tragic conflagration of La Fenice, the beloved Venice opera house. As in Midnight, Berendt paints a portrait of a complicated city and introduces us to many of the colorful characters who call it home.

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t A recent Pew study found that only 66% of Christians can correctly identify Genesis as the first book in the Bible. Only half of Christians can name all four Gospels. When you look at Americans as a whole, barely more than half can identify the Koran as the Muslim holy book, and less than half know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Religion professor Stephen Prothero makes a persuasive argument that not only are Americans woefully ignorant about world religions (and about their own), but that this ignorance is a dangerous form of civic illiteracy, particularly in the post-9/11 world. Lots to think about in here.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith I’ve been a big fan of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life for several years, but this was my first foray into Anne Lamott’s other work.  Learning more of her history as a writer, addict, and single mom—and how she found faith after many dark years—was fascinating.

So that’s my best of 2011 round-up. An eclectic list, I supposed. Keep an eye out for my list of what books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2012!

Scotland’s Mystery Book Artist

Since I love all things bookish and all things Scottish, I am obsessed with this series of sculptures made out of books that mysteriously appeared throughout Edinburgh this year.  I can’t choose a favorite, but here are a couple:

You can view photos of each of the sculptures here.

Teensy Weensy Authors

Miniature Maya Angelou

Man, you can find anything and everything for sale on Etsy.com. How funny are these little author dolls by Debbie Ritter at Uneek Doll Designs? They look like they’re made with a lot of love.

The little details crack me up–check out Maya Angelou’s gold hoops, Ray Bradbury’s big black frame glasses, and Isaac Asimov’s muttonchops! And each author holds a tiny copy of one of his or her books. They sell book character dolls, too. Bertha Rochester from Jane Eyre is suitably scary.

Snickerdoodle-ooo

Today is my glorious Friday off (hooray for comp time!) and I decided to celebrate by baking some cookies. I settled on snickerdoodles. (The Joy of Cooking — it never lets you down.) Now the apartment has the glorious smell of cinnamon & butter wafting about, and I’m enjoying a mug of lavender Earl Gray.

I have fond childhood memories of snickerdoodles, in spite of the fact that I didn’t actually taste one until I was a teenager. That’s because snickerdoodles were featured in one of my favorite series when I was a kid, the Supergranny books by Beverly Van Hook. They were the best. The basic premise: Three kids and their giant English Sheepdog make friends with the little old gray-haired lady down the street, Supergranny. Supergranny likes to put on a frilly apron and bake snickerdoodles for the neighborhood kids. Then she hops in her red Ferrari with her ’80s robot (named Chester) and fights crime. AWESOME.

I had about half a dozen of these books, in which Supergranny and the kids retrieved stolen museum artifacts (shrunken heads, in the first book), prevented several murders, and reveled the truth behind various fraudulent schemes. And in every book, they took time to munch on Supergranny’s delicious homemade snickerdoodles.

Do you have a favorite “book food” from a story you love? Did anyone but me ever read the Supergranny books? Or are they lost to history (of the early ’90s)?

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