Books

Red Stars by Davide Morosinotto

Regular readers of these (erratic) posts and viewers on my Instagram (@littlecitygarden) will know how much a book’s appearance matters to me: not just the front cover but the paper, the size, the overall design and, most importantly, whether it opens properly and is pleasant to hold. Almost every day I bemoan the advent of perfect binding and the loss of the stitched book.

Even at first sight this book looked enticing; there were maps, photographs, letters and ‘hand-written’ comments in the margins. Most exciting of all the main text was in two colours, one for each of the twins at the heart of the story, a blue fountain pen for Nadya’s story and a red crayon for Viktor’s. I haven’t seen this since the 1983 hardback edition of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, another book I love. I was captivated by Red Stars before I’d even read the blurb.

In every way the story lived up to the book’s appearance. It is set in Russia between June and November 1941 at the time of the siege of Leningrad. When the story opens the twins are twelve. Evacuated from the city for safety, they plan to jointly record their story in a spiral-bound notebook, one of six they are given by their father. Early on in the journey they are separated, each keeping three notebooks, the plan being that they will put their stories together when they are reunited.

What follows is a brilliant adventure story but not a jolly one in the mould of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome. There is no going home at the end of the day for ginger beer and cake. The twins are thrown into the midst of war in an uncompromisingly adult world. The horrors they see and undergo are vividly described but these are two children who are determined to survive and be reunited with each other. There are plots and sub-plots with good Russians and bad ones, bad Germans and good ones, and danger and treachery everywhere. The bravery, friendship and loyalty of the two groups of children stand out, meaning that one really cares about the characters.

In 1946 the notebooks are given to Colonel Smirnov of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). It is his task to decide whether the twins are guilty or innocent of a number of crimes and it is his comments that are in the margins. As he, and the reader, work through the notebooks it becomes clear that both Viktor and Nadya were guilty of a number of crimes but that there are mitigating circumstances including corruption at the highest level of the NKVD and the ultimate achievements of the children. It is a clever way of constructing the story because the reader is left uncertain of twins’ fate until the last page. Anyone with a sense of adventure, regardless of age, will be gripped by this story.

Red Stars is published by Pushkin Press on 3rd Sept as a trade paperback at £12.99. Please buy it from a real bookshop.

Jane

A Pleasant Surprise

I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles whilst on holiday in 2018. It instantly became one of my favourite books. At the time he had only written one other novel, Rules of Civility, which I read recently and also enjoyed. Not quite as much as A Gentleman but it would be hard for any character, fictional or otherwise to be as captivating as Count Alexander Rostov.

 

Via Instagram I discovered Amor Towles’ website, which contains more of his pieces and a link where one can register for news of his writing. He specified ‘rare news’ so I signed up without expecting much to happen. Then yesterday an email popped up with A Whimsy of the World attached. It is almost perfect. Written for his sister, it is the story of Ellie, a charming, slightly wayward and spirited girl. As the story progresses whimsy and wanderlust appear and Ellie follows them on an adventure that takes her from America to the cities of Europe. I say ‘almost perfect’ – it is a mere 15 pages and I would have liked it to have been a full-sized book. But, even so, it is a truly delightful read.

Jane

Instagram: A Little City Garden

I am now on Instagram! Well, to be honest I’ve been doing it for a while but I wanted to get the hang of it and, more importantly, establish a routine. As regular readers will know, our posts here can sometimes be a bit erratic. I would obviously love it if you followed me there as well. As I have a little garden in London I decided @alittlecitygarden would be a good title. As with this website it covers all the good things in life: gardening and also reading, making, baking and exploring London and beyond. This is the great thing about having a tiny garden; there is always plenty of time for other things as well. There are also guest appearances from Matilda the cat. I hope you like it.

Jane

Ismail Kadare Historical Nightmare- The Traitor’s Niche

 

The Traitor’s Niche was first published in Ismail Kadare’s native Albanian in 1978,  but the English translation by John Hodgson did not appear until nearly forty years later. It takes up 200 small pages of large type and in size sits on the borderline between a novel and, as Kadare described it to avoid the censors, a novella. However, there is nothing remotely slight about this work, which is both comical and awful and subverts any idea of the normal. It contains all the surreal apparatus of Kafka but expresses it on a vastly larger stage, matches the dystopia of Orwell but is set in the past, and equals the weirdness of Gogol but without his specifically Russian atmosphere. 

The story, and at first sight it appears to be just a story, is set the Ottoman Empire of the early nineteenth century, of which Albania was then a part.  It is structured around the journeys of the imperial courier Tundj Hata and incidents in the lives of those unfortunate enough to come into contact with him. Hata is charged with the safe transport of vital orders and death warrants to the outlying provinces of the Empire, often returning with the decapitated heads of executed traitors, preserved in honey and ice, for eventual display in a high niche in the centre of Istanbul. On his return journeys he presents theatrical displays of the heads in the villages through which he passes and in return for large sums of money, allows the fascinated inhabitants to watch. On arrival in Istanbul the heads terrify and awe the population into subservience.

The Emperor having finally tired of the continual rebellions of Ali Pasha, or Black Ali, the ageing governor of Albania, sends first one general to destroy him and, after his defeat, another who succeeds in his mission but is declared a traitor by his enemies at the imperial court and consequently and like the first pasha, loses his head. Who, of course, but Tundj Hata  should transport these gruesome relics back to Istanbul?

That Istanbul, although in some ways recognisable to those who know it even now, is filled with the mythical apparatus of a totalitarian state that far exceeds even the actual unpleasantness of the later Ottoman Empire. It contains not just the Traitor’s Niche, but the Palace of Dreams, responsible for interpretation of all forms of visions and symbols. The Palace of Caw-Caw is responsible for the total destruction of prohibited cultures and histories, and the ancient Palace of Psst-Psst, responsible for the creation and manipulation of rumours. It is not surprising that much of the book is filled with the dreams, visions, imaginings, recalled memories and associations of the main characters that substitute for any unknowable but objective facts about the state of the Empire. Hata day dreams of the state as a head, wondering to what animal it might belong when that head is situated in the centre of its body. He can only think of an octopus, and once he has done so, “Scared that he might have entertained a sinful thought, he banished the image from his own head”. The next night, Hata reaches out to touch the locks of the severed head he is transporting and “Then everything repeated itself as on the previous night. His brain resembled some clinging creature with the inner luminescence of a glow-worm, whose slime smeared the domes of mosques and mausoleums, banknotes and the wombs of women awaiting insemination.” That distorted persistence of nightmarish memories, while the state seeks to banish all forms of independent thought and action, is one of the underlying and unifying themes of the book.

Kadare’s book, despite its Ottoman setting, constantly references both the history of Albania and the oppressive political regime under which he wrote and whose censors he sought to evade. By the time Hodgson’s translation appeared in 2017, Enver Hoxha’s government had long fallen, leaving the arrays of crumbling concrete fortifications and pill boxes along the coast as little more than a curious memory of his paranoid fear of attack by an unknown and probably unknowable enemy and a tangible symbol of a regime that could express itself only through totalitarian control over the entire state and its inhabitants.

Direct opposition was likely to result in elimination and any form of criticism, whether in literature or otherwise, needed to be carefully disguised to have a  chance of the work, and indeed the author, surviving the apparatus of the state. Accordingly Kadare’s work tended to be distanced in time and place, making full use of political allegory and using the myths, dreams and folk tales found in his writing to create a highly effective mesh of symbols and allusions that represent the control of the state over all forms of individuality, to the extent of eliminating even memory and history.

Read it if you haven’t already, and please try to buy it from an independent bookseller for now, more than ever, they really need your support.

Chris

A Book in the Garden: Diary of a Modern Country Gardener

In May 2007 I started a gardening diary. The plan was that I would keep an accurate record of which plants did well, successful (or failed) combinations and what I did when. It lives on the kitchen table and I have kept it up, on and off, ever since; although I have to admit that it’s been erratic. The main plan was to learn from it so I wouldn’t repeat my mistakes but, like history worldwide, this is easier in theory than practice. I am still seduced by bulb catalogues and enticing displays in nurseries and I rarely think to consult the diary until it is too late.

Tamsin Westhorpe, author of Diary of a Modern Country Gardener, is more disciplined. Or perhaps more organised would be a better word. I can sit and ramble on for pages one evening and then write nothing for weeks. This delightful book has brief diary entries throughout the year, each followed by reminders of things to do, seasonal plants and amusing anecdotes.

She gardens at Stockton Bury Gardens in Herefordshire – a garden which is 110 times larger than mine and open to the public during the summer. (Well, open during normal summers, as I write it is still closed.) So, at first glance, the diary might not seem very relevant for my garden but Tamsin has an enticing style and the book is full of advice and recommendations that are useful regardless of the size of one’s plot. I have discovered roses and tulips that I want to grow and she has possibly even converted me to they joys of nerines, something that I thought would never happen as I find their bright pinks jarring in amongst the yellows and golds of autumn. The trick seems to be to grow them in a pot, with a green backdrop, rather than in a bed surrounded by autumn colour.

The book starts in February; it was too cold to garden so Tamsin followed the dictates of the weather and wrote rather than gardened. My plan had been to read the book following the seasons but I was enchanted and suddenly I found myself in August even though real time was only April. I felt as if I was wishing my gardening life away, rushing on too fast and missing things, so I stopped. The book now sits on the kitchen table (mostly on top of my diary) and I am reading the entries at the correct time. It requires discipline not to jump ahead but this is definitely the way to get the most enjoyment (and use) from both the book and my garden.

Regular readers of these posts will know how fussy I am about the production of books. Unnecessarily unwieldy paperbacks, hardbacks that spring shut of their own accord and unattractive jackets can all doom a book before I’ve reached the first page. Orphans Publishing have produced a book that is a joy to look at and handle; it has an attractive jacket and charming pink flowery endpapers (of course I judge a book by its jacket and, if possible, its endpapers), it sits open in a well-behaved manner and has a perfect balance of text and pictures. In case you are wondering about their name, Orphans was set up in 1873 by Henry Stanley Newman to generate income for an orphanage and provide a trade for the orphans.  

Jane

You can order the book direct from Orphans Publishing, at the time of writing they had signed copies. Otherwise please buy it from your local bookshop, now they are reopening, they need all your support. 

A Book in the Garden: Bitter Honey

I have quite enough cookery books but my excuse is that I read them as well as cook from them. I’m clearly not the only person to do this as books by authors such as Nigel Slater, are often produced in a format that is easier to read rather than cook from. Even Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat was published in a novel-shaped paperback last year although in this case the book was so thick and heavy it might well have resulted in serious injury if someone had dropped off while reading it in bed.

Many years ago I spent a happy time working with Tish (Letitia Clark) at Slightly Foxed. I was in the bookshop they had at the time and she was mostly based in the office working on the magazine but every so often she would come to work in the shop and we would have a lovely time comparing recipes and discussing cookery books (as well as working, obviously).

My self-imposed rule of ‘no more cookery books’ didn’t apply to her new one which came out this spring. My book-buying rules are only ever guidelines, intended to curb too much excess rather than implementing a complete ban.

The subtitle is Recipes and Stories from the Island of Sardinia. I know Corsica reasonably well and have always wanted to go a little further south to Sardinia but, given the present state of affairs Tish’s book will be a welcome substitute. It is a delightful mixture of recipes, anecdotes and interesting background information. I have never seen the point of polenta, regarding it as tasteless flab or goo according to the consistency. Tish’s recipe, with a ragù of sausage meat, tomatoes and sage, topped with mozzarella, pecorino and basil, has transformed my opinion. Likewise my view of panettone has been changed. I had always viewed it as a poor relation of Christmas cake. Made into a superior bread-and-butter pudding with saffron custard it becomes a food fit for the gods – or ones friends as lockdown eases. Don’t wait till Christmas – this is perfect summer food.  

 Jane

It would obviously be great if you bought this book but, particularly in these difficult times, please remember your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it went.

A Different Approach

Talking to Chris (at the end of a phone), I realise my approach to lockdown has been very different to his. While we share largely common tastes and enjoy doing things together very much, for me the actual viewing of the object/garden/event in situ is much more important than just seeing it on a computer screen, however good the rendering. Looking at the objects virtually has almost no appeal for me. The same is true of visiting gardens; I want to look at the flowers close up, smell them, discuss their merits with whoever I’m with and make a note of ones I’d like in my garden. This sort of behaviour simply isn’t possible on a virtual tour; the camera always seems to stop at the wrong plant, leaving me to scroll back and attempt to enlarge the image of a small flower that was skimmed over. The photos are details from last year’s Chelsea Flower Show that I’m sure I would never have seen if I hadn’t actually been there.

I would be the first to admit that as far as I am concerned the accompanying coffee/lunch/tea, that is obviously impossible on a virtual tour, is also a hugely important part of the whole event: the wonderful tiled cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the beautifully painted restaurant at Tate Britain, the delicious food at the Garden Museum (although for me the garden has lost much of its ramshackle charm since the redesign of 2016-17) and charming cafes at almost every single National Trust garden. Even sitting on the grass on a crowded bank at the Chelsea Flower Show, juggling a vastly over-priced slice of pizza and an exorbitantly expensive drink was something I missed this year. 

This is not intended, in any way, to belittle what is being achieved by the gardens, events and galleries at the moment, it’s just not for me. Apart from what I’ve needed for writing, I have been on the internet far less than usual during lockdown. What I have enjoyed, since we’ve had such an amazing spring, is sitting in my garden reading. Even on the rare wet days I’ve simply retreated to the summerhouse rather than shelter indoors.  

A Book in the Garden: Garden Design Master Class

I still have piles of unread books in the house but, to be honest they don’t really worry me;

I know there is a perfect time to read any book and one day that time will come for most of these books. For the others I’m happy to keep them ‘just in case’, a simple mention from someone whose judgement I trust could miraculously save the book from its increasingly dusty place at the bottom of the pile. Lockdown for me has been more about rereading rather than new discoveries.

 

The exceptions are my gardening books. On a couple of occasions I have picked up an unread one and spent a very pleasant hour or so being transported to a garden or gardens outside my own. The first of these books was Garden Design Master Class edited by Carl Dellatore. The subtitle is 100 Lessons from the World’s Finest Designers on the Art of the Garden. Carl Dellatore is based in New York and it is published by Rizzoli, who are primarily an American publisher so, while I knew it would be beautiful, I also suspected that it might be a book I skimmed rather than reading straight through. It is a wild generalisation but I tend to find American gardens a bit too open, lacking the seclusion and privacy I love.

How wrong. It started with Cicero’s wonderful quote: ‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need’ so I instantly warmed to the editor. In the end I read the book straight through. The essays were short, just a page or two with a couple of accompanying photos but the perfect length for the writer to make their point. The subjects covered every possible aspect of gardening: Rhythm, Place, Meadows, Height, Annuals, Compost . . . There were Native Plants and Unusual Ones, Mystery & Surprise and Romance. The designers were an international mix with two things in common – they all had interesting opinions and wrote enticingly about them. At first I was infuriated that there was no information at all about the designers but I quickly realised that it didn’t matter; here it was their ideas that mattered and it is easy enough to research most people on the internet now. Many of the ideas are on a scale that is beyond my garden – I’ll never have room for borders or parterres, let alone a pool but none of that mattered, I was transported to other gardens in the company of Dan Pearson, Charlie McCormick, Margaret Brower, Matthew Cunningham and 96 others, and was inspired, not about what I could have in my garden, but by what was in those of others. 

Jane

Making Week 23: Waylaid by a Poem

Gyles Brandreth’s new book Dancing by the Light of the Moon is in the Hatchards catalogue so, for some time I have intended to look at it properly. The Hatchards review is accurate but based on a quick read and a skim which gives me an idea and feel of the book which is all I need for the sixty or so words I am meant to use for each review. Most of the ones I really want to read have to wait till later.

The premise of this book is that everyone would be better in every way if they learnt poetry. A nice idea, I thought, but never one I would put into practice. By the second page I was intrigued, by the fourth, completely hooked. My plan, written here so I stand a faint chance of implementing it, is to learn a poem each week next year. 

Jane

Holiday Reading

First, a warning: I’m afraid this is a ridiculously long post – but there was no way round it as it contains seven books and several discoveries. I went to Edinburgh recently and, as always, based my reading on the rhyme from The Stockmistress of the now-closed QI Bookshop in Oxford:

Something old, something new, something made-up, something true, one that’s here and one that’s there and one that could be anywhere.

Something old: Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I have not read this since I was about ten but an erudite friend who is a poet rereads it every year. I was curious as I simply remembered a rather charming story about a capable water rat, an over-excited mole and a ridiculous toad. How wrong. The descriptions are the things that make this book special; wonderful glimpses of countryside, waterways and picnics:

 

The Water Rat’s picnic for the Seafaring Rat: ‘Then he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.’

Or the Otter’s description of snow: ‘My! it was fine, coming through the snow as the red sun was rising and showing against the black tree-trunks! As you went along in the stillness, every now and then masses of snow slid off the branches suddenly with a flop! making you jump and run for cover. Snow-castles and snow-caverns had sprung up out of nowhere in the night – and snow bridges, terraces and ramparts – I could have stayed and played with them for hours.’

Something new: Caroline Scott, The Photographer of the Lost

Three brothers enlist in the army during the First World War and, predictably, not all return home. Harry, now a photographer, is searching for his elder brother in France, whilst Edie is searching for the same man, her husband. A man who quotes Yeats to her on their first meeting, telling her to ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. Caroline Scott is a historian so, as one would expect, the story rings true but what is remarkable about this book is the extent to which she has recreated the feel of the period and landscape of war-ravaged France. I really cared about the characters and I found myself sitting for hours in Edinburgh cafes, never quite able to tear myself away from the intertwining tale she so skilfully weaves.

Something made-up: Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

In July I rather rashly said that I would buy ‘fewer books’. There were lots of exceptions and a complicated set of rules regarding what I was allowed (known only to me) but I have pretty well stuck to it. This has allowed time for rereading. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials easily stood up to the umpteenth reading, so I am now rereading the first in his Sally Lockhart quartet. It is a Dickensian mystery with Indian palaces, opium dens, a charming photographer and, at its heart, a heroine with a pistol. And yes, it’s well worth a second read.

Something true: Gillian Tait, 111 Places in Edinburgh That You Shouldn’t Miss

I wish this book had been published when I lived in Edinburgh. Admittedly that was years ago and many of the recommendations in the book didn’t exist or were lying forgotten but it is packed with things you might otherwise miss so I’m sure Gillian Tait would have found the same number of interesting things then.

 

I rediscovered the Stockbridge Colonies; small, affordable dwellings built for and by skilled workmen and artisans in the nineteenth century. They are ingeniously-designed terraces of ‘flattened cottages’ with raised front doors on one side of each terrace so each flat has its own private entrance and garden. Situated alongside the Water of Leith, these properties are now ‘highly desirable’ in estate agents’ parlance and humble artisans have probably been priced out.

The book also introduced me to Dunbar’s Close Garden, just off the Canongate on the Royal Mile. The series of courtyards looked lovely, even on a cold, damp, foggy day (the Scots have a word for this: dreich, which perfectly describes the grey skies and thick mist which is almost rain but not quite). In the seventeenth century this area was outside the city, just beyond the grand but heavily-fortified Netherbow which was one of the six points where people could cross the city walls. The area consisted of spacious mansions, outside the cramped city and conveniently close to Holyrood Palace. Forty years ago Dunbar’s Close Garden was created to give an idea of the terraced gardens attached to many of these houses. The structure ensures it looks good year-round but the planting merits several seasonal visits.

Another discovery was Dovecot Studios. This is a swimming bath converted into a weavers’ studio. You can look down from the gallery, which also hosts exhibitions, and see the weavers at work. It’s fascinating to watch them but the building is also a stunning piece of Victorian architecture with graceful arches and rooftop windows.   

One that’s here: Alexander McCall Smith, The Importance of Being Seven

Whenever I go to Edinburgh I read one of the 44 Scotland Street books. Many years ago I lived a couple of streets away and Alexander McCall Smith captures the area and its residents perfectly. Starting one of the books is like meeting up with an old friend after a long gap; there are no unpleasant surprises, it is gentle, funny and yet surprisingly thought-provoking. If you have ever stayed in, lived in or even just visited Edinburgh’s New Town (actually largely Georgian) I cannot recommend them highly enough. But you must read them in the correct order: 44 Scotland Street is the first.

One that’s there: Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News?

When the fifth Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky was published this autumn I decided to read the earlier ones again. Each story is complete but the back story about Jackson develops through the series. In this, the third, he is again embroiled in a slightly unbelievable series of coincidences but it doesn’t matter. The books are excellent and definitely stand up to the test of rereading. The crime is there but doesn’t dominate and Jackson definitely passes the charisma test – I’m not a huge fan of crime unless there is a charismatic detective (Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, or Kyril Bonfiglioli’s the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai: ‘Degenerate aristocrat, amoral art dealer, seasoned epicurean, unwilling assassin and knave about Piccadilly….’).

One that could be anywhere: Neil Gaiman, Stardust

A young man goes on a quest to find a star to win the heart of the woman he loves. So far, so usual. But this quest involves the land beyond the Wall – the land of faery, and three princes and a witch are racing against him. Reasonably enough, the star herself does not wish to be taken by anyone. The story gallops along with the urgency of a traditional fairy tale enlivened by Neil Gaiman’s amazing imagination. Another book which gives more with each reread.

Jane

These books should be easily available at ‘all good bookshops’, please buy them there, if you can, rather than from a characterless online site.

Making Week 15: More Boats, Finally

For the last few weeks I have been treading water as far as these posts are concerned. When Ann Wood first wrote about the Hundred Day Project, way back in March, she warned that it was important to have a plan for the bad days. Recently there have been a lot of days which have been busy rather than bad but the end result has been the same. The plan for these weeks was to make boats and bunting and castles, improve my drawing and push my making. Instead of which I have relied on patchwork to fill the posts.

My job as the Shop Scribe at Hatchards is always uneven; the year is split into times when I work long hours and other times when I barely do any work at all. Now I’m used to this, I love it. The past few weeks have been taken up by the Christmas Catalogue, which is now done. It is in the shop and has been sent out and is, I trust, solving everyone’s Christmas list problems. It’s full of lovely books, is very pretty and I hope there will be something for everyone in it. If you’d like to be sent a copy, just email the shop (books@hatchards.co.uk). If you’re after recommendations Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth was, predictably, my favourite book. The runners up were Dr Seuss’s Horse Museum, Restoration Stories by Philippa Stockley and Scent Magic by Isabel Bannerman. The first is fun and the second two are full of houses I’d like to live in and ideas from Isabel Bannerman’s garden that I want to incorporate into my, admittedly much smaller, plot.

I now have almost six weeks of only working in the children’s department one day a week and I want to make the most of the time. Here are the next six boats for the bathroom bunting – numbers 41 to 46. 

Jane

I would obviously like readers to visit Hatchards and buy the books but I appreciate that may not be practical for everyone. If you can’t come to Piccadilly, please buy them from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.