Rule, Britannia!

The Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II were officially inaugurated in the UK last month.   It’s the centennial of Charles Dickens birth.  Plus, the 2012 Orange Prize Longlist will be announced on Thursday.

I’m feeling a bout of Anglophilia coming on!

And it just so happens that three books – all with connections back to the Isle of Albion – are coming out this Spring/Summer that I can’t wait to tell you about.  Too soon for the full reviews…so you’ll have to make do with teasers and the release dates (though I’m sure number 2 on my list will shock no one).

   The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen (available April, 2012).  This is a first novel for Grace McCleen – an author and singer/songwriter who lives in London, England.  It’s getting quite a bit of attention on both sides of the Atlantic. A 10-year-old narrator with a bully problem, a miniature town built from scraps and a mystical initiation of the End of Days: The Land of Decoration could be the Book Club read of the Summer.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (available May, 2012).  The sequel to Wolf Hall focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn and what it cost Thomas Cromwell to bring that about.    I love Mantel’s prose and have a bit of a crush on Cromwell, so I’m counting the days until I clasp those 432 pages in my grubby little hands.

City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History  of London, the Tower and its Famous Birds by Boria Sax (available July, 2012).  Legend has it that London will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London.  Sax delves into the foundation of that story and a host of others about these enormous (and scary looking) black birds.

Have a book to add to the list?  A new release you’re looking forward to or an old favorite everyone should read?  Tell us about it in the comments below.

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Hmmm….Why do I own this? – Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

I don’t know that much about Kingsley Amis, other than what was in a 2007 article in the New York Review of Books (NYRB Volume 54, Number 9 · May 31, 2007), most of which I have forgotten.  But I own an old, battered copy of Lucky Jim which I apparently paid 90 cents for and never read.  The cover states:  “No one has been so funny in this vein since Evelyn Waugh was at his best.”  – Arthur Mizener.  Since I’ve never read Waugh,  or heard of Mizener, it’s probably safe to assume that I picked it up because the cover was drawn by Edward Gorey.

Lucky Jim, lucky for me, turned out to be an enjoyable little book.  Jim, or Dixon as he’s called through the majority of the novel, is an underling in the medieval history department of a British University.  He has no illusions why he is there.  “He’d come up to college he realized, nothing very clear in mind, chiefly out of a reluctance to leave Beesley’s (his friend from the RAF) company.”  When asked by the same Beesley as to why he went into medieval studies, he admits, “…that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them.  Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific.  It’s why I got the job instead of that clever boy from Oxford who mucked himself up at the interview by chewing the fat about modern theories of interpretation…”  His motivating interests in the novel, the two that really propel the plot, are whether or not he’ll be fired and the fact that he’s fallen in love with his professor’s son’s girl.  Alcohol and smoking also rank high.

That’s the basic story:  Dixon maneuvering his way through the obstacle course of his antagonists, like the silver ball in a pinball machine, until he reaches his happy ending.  And just like on a pinball machine it’s the obstacles and not the silver ball that give the book all its color.  Each fits into their own stereotypical niche.  The boorish, long-winded professor who is completely out of touch with the reality of everyday people and whose only interest in the world around him is in how it directly effects him.  His son, Bertrand, is a pompous, self-aggrandizing faux “starving” artist – sure of his own greatness and more than happy to explain it to anyone who will listen.  Dixon’s current romantic interest at the opening of the book is an unattractive, suicidal, blue stocking with a multitude of affectations and a penchant for creating dramas where she plays the starring role.  They are all caricatures.  Not because they don’t exist as people, but because Amis has trimmed all the excess humanity from them.  We are left nothing with which to empathize.

Despite that, or maybe because of it, the book can be a lot of fun.  There is a certain pleasure to be taken in moral absolutes – where our choices are obvious and the outcome assured.  And the author has a way with banter, making it witty and quick, like a black & white Pre-Code Hollywood film.  This is found not just in the way the characters talk to each other, but in the way Amis talks to his readers.  Parenthesis mine.

“… The bathroom was evidently occupied; perhaps Johns had decided to blockade the bedroom belonging to the defacer of his periodical (that would be Dixon).  Dixon stood well back, straddling, and raised his hands like a conductor on the brink of some thunderous overture or tone program;  then, half conductor, half boxer, went into a brief manic flurry of obscene gestures…”

‘Over the whiskey bottle an hour and a half earlier Atkinson had insisted, not only on coming to the lecture, but on announcing his intention of pretending to faint should Dixon, finding things getting out of hand in any way, scratch both his ears simultaneously.  “It’ll be a good faint,” Atkinson has said in his arrogant voice.  “It’ll create a diversion all right.  Don’t you worry.”’

“Christine began laughing noisily and blushing at the same time.  Dixon laughed too.  He thought what a pity it was that all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing.  Now that something had happened which really deserved a face, he’d none to celebrate with.  As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome face…”

There is a pleasure to be found in a well written book, with dry humor, that you can relate to.  Kingsley Amis accomplishes this in Lucky Jim.

I’ve been toying with reading something by Kingsley’s son, Martin, who I’ve heard is much darker than his father.  But as far as a summer read, a book to bring to the beach or read on the train, you can’t go wrong with this book.  It reads well.  It’s surprisingly not dated.  You should be able to get it fairly easily at the library or at the used bookstore – though it seems as if it’s still in print if you want to buy new.  If you’re really lucky, you might find a copy with the cover art drawn by Edward Gorey.

Venue:  This is strictly for entertainment, though its old enough to qualify as vintage.  If you get a good, beat up paperback copy,  stick it in your back pocket and read it anywhere.  It might look interesting enough to get someone walking by to start a conversation.  If not, download it to your iphone or Sony reader* – nobody needs to know.

* not available on the Kindle

Dig into a good book! (pun intended) Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

Voltaire said to cultivate your garden… so what are you waiting for?   It’s time to go outside and dig up the backyard.  No backyard?  Sign up for a community plot.  If all else fails, do a little guerrilla gardening.

In between pulling up the weeds I recommend Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf.  This very readable book traces how a mail order seed business between two men, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Peter Collinson of London, fueled England’s dual obsessions with botany and empire.

Don’t be fooled by the dust jacket – Brother Gardeners is more than a superficial overview on the lives of a handful of 18th century botanists.  This book is goes into informative detail, despite the huge amount of material it encompasses.  Andrea Wulf covers the years 1733-1820, intelligently choosing to bookend her narrative with the lives of John Bartram and Joseph Banks.  In between we are introduced to men such as Carl Linneaus (the father of modern taxonomy & ecology), Phillip Miller (caretaker of the Chelsea Physic Garden), Thomas Fairchild (who created the first man made plant hybrid), Captain Cook (famous explorer) and a host of others.  Brother Gardeners succeeds in smoothly transitioning from one character to another by employing a strange version of seven degrees of botanist separation.  These transitions help to establish a context for each man’s contribution to what was a botanical Golden Age.

It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world.  (Interesting aside:  Many of the plants Wulf discusses can still be found in British gardens today – putting a major hitch in the whole native plant movement.  There’s a useful glossary at the end of the book which gives the year when individual  plants were first introduced).  These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies.   They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events.   Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery.

It’s difficult not to be left with a newfound appreciation for what is often viewed as just the peculiar British national hobby – but was in fact the keystone of a colonial empire.  How so?  Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti.  You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry.  You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India.  These are just a few examples.

Overall it’s pretty fascinating stuff.  But what makes Wulf’s book so accessible is that Brother Gardeners focuses on the relationships between the men whose stories it tells.  It describes friendships that were based on a common scientific interest and which ultimately transcended nationality, politics and war.  With the current resurgence in the popularity of gardening – demonstrated by the increase in vegetable gardens,  as well as the growth of the slow and organic food movements –  it’s an important lesson for modern day readers to walk away with.

The Rodale Institute’s farm is located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and was founded in 1947.  It is home to the longest running U.S. trial comparing organic versus conventional farming methods.  (They also publish Organic Gardener Magazine).  You can find a whole section on their website on the topic of Global Warming.  It lists several articles on how climate change can be managed, even combated, by sequestering carbon in soil through organic farming.  Their stated mission is to “improve the health and well-being of people and the planet”. [2019 updated: in 2014 Organic Gardening Magazine became Rodale’s Organic Life. In 2017 it went digital only. Later that same year, Rodale’s publishing arm was sold to Hearst. Since then, I haven’t been able to find any update as to its fate, but I think it’s safe to assume it is no more.]

Here’s a link to a video interview with Tim LaSalle, the Rodale CEO, explaining how U.S. farmers can become leaders in the fight against global warming: [2019 update: this page no longer exists]

And here’s the link the main website:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/

Wulf’s Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession tells us the story of how 275 years ago, because a few men cultivated their gardens, the whole world changed.  Who knows?  If we’re lucky it might happen again.