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BOOK REVIEW: The Rose: A True History by Jennifer Potter

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

For fans of Anna Pavord's "The Tulip" and Andrea Wulf's "The Brothers Gardener," a vividly written and lavishly illustrated history of the Queen of Flowers Ever since Sappho planted roses at the shrine of Aphrodite, no flower has captured the imagination in quite the same way. Here, the acclaimed horticultural historian Jennifer Potter sets out on a quest to uncover the life of a flower that has been viewed so hetrogenously by different cultures in different countries across the centuries. Beginning her story in the Greek and Roman empires, she travels across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas to unravel its evolution from a simple briar of the northern hemisphere to the height of cultivated perfection found in rose gardens today. Whether laying bare the flower's long association with sexuality and secret societies, questioning the Crusaders' role in bringing roses back from the Holy Land, or hunting for its elusive blooms in the gardens of the Empress Josephine at Malmaison, Jennifer Potter reveals why this flower, above all others, has provoked such fascination.


My Thoughts:

Someone who loves roses – as I do – is called a ‘rose-fancier’. I’ve always loved that term. On the one hand, it has connotations of something that is fancy or fantastical: dreamy, whimsical, capricious, voluptuous. On the other hand, the word implies someone who is a ‘fan’ or a ‘fanatic’ in the sense of being excessively and unreasonably enthusiastic, coming from the Latin term fanaticus, meaning ‘worshipping at a temple’.

This gorgeously produced and illustrated book by Jennifer Potter is the perfect gift for a rose-fancier. It tells the history, mythology and romance of the rose from its very earliest days, many millions of years ago. As the author tells us, ‘roses appeared on earth after the dinosaurs but long before man.’

Jennifer Potter is described as a horticultural historian (what a wonderful job that would be!) and was, until recently, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at King’s College in London. The book moves through time and across geographies, from ancient Greece to Rome and thence through all of Europe, and from ancient China along the silk roads and the trade routes to Persia, and, eventually, to the United States. It is particularly concerned with the depiction of the rose in art and poetry. Jennifer Potter examines how roses flourished in the work of such diverse writers as Sappho, William Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein; and traces the history of roses in visual arts from the first depiction in Minoan Knossos frescoes 3,500 years ago to their overt symbolism in the 1999 film ‘American Beauty’.

The Rose: A True History
is gorgeous to look at and utterly fascinating to read, whether you dip in and out or devour it all in just a few sittings, as I did. 


If you enjoy reading about nature, you might also enjoy Hope Jahren's memoir, Lab Girl. 



Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Friday, May 12, 2017


Robert Macfarlane was one of my great discoveries in the past couple of years (meaning that I discovered his books, not him!) I’ve been slowly reading my way through his oeuvre and have loved everything he has written so far.

The Wild Places was his second book, and established his style – beautiful, poetic writing that twines together landscape, nature, history, literature, and his own personal journey. Robert sets out to see if there are any genuinely wild places left in Britain, and then writes about what he discovers. One of the chapters – ‘Holloway’ – I had read before as it was expanded and published as an exquisite illustrated book about the lost greenways of Dorset. The other chapters have equally evocative names – ‘Beechwood’, ‘Moor’, ‘Summit’, ‘Grave’, ‘Storm-beach’ and ‘Tor’, for example. It’s the kind of book that you can pick up, read a few chapters, then put down for a while, as each chapter is an essay on a particular place.  His writing is sublime. It feels so effortless, but has all the quick-fire surprise of the perfect metaphor. Just wonderful.


BOOK REVIEW: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose

Friday, March 24, 2017




BLURB:


In her study of the married couple as the smallest political unit, Phyllis Rose uses as examples the marriages of five Victorian writers who wrote about their own lives with unusual candor.The couples are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth.


MY THOUGHTS:


A really interesting look at the marriages of five different sets of men and women who lived in Victorian times. Most were writers and intellectuals, and so their lives were not the norm for the times; nonetheless these brief biographies show that Victorian society was not quite as rigidly stratified and straitlaced as most people think. 


The couples whose lives are examined here are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth. I learnt something new about them all, and about the cultural institution of marriage. 


BOOK REVIEW: Rising Ground by Phillip Marsden

Friday, February 10, 2017



BLURB:


Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land's End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe.From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions of Tintagel, from the mysterious china-clay country to the granite tors and tombs of the far south-west, Marsden assembles a chronology of our shifting attitudes to place. In archives, he uncovers the life and work of other 'topophiles' before him - medieval chroniclers and Tudor topographers, eighteenth-century eighteenth-century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters. Drawing also on his own travels overseas, Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man's perennial struggle to belong on this earth.


MY THOUGHTS:


I love books which take a place or a time or a person or a natural phenomenon, and then uses that as a springboard into a wide-ranging meditation on art, history, science, poetry, or any manner of things. And I have always wanted to go to Cornwall.


So I was interested in Rising Ground as soon as I heard about it. 


Philp Marsden has a degree in anthropology and has written a number of books about his travels in Ethiopia and Russia, as well as numerous essays for The Spectator. He was, however, raised in Cornwall and recently bought a farmhouse on a creek there with his wife and children. The book is not a memoir of the renovation of this old house, though some of his personal experiences are woven into the narrative. It is more about ‘topophilia’, a lovely word which means ‘love of place’, and examines some of the little-known but interesting people of the past who have loved Cornwall and studied it and written and painted about it. 


It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and enjoy, then put down and not pick up again for a few weeks, as each chapter is an essay on a particular aspect of Cornwall. I was particularly interested in the chapters on the standing stones and barrows and graves and other ancient monuments, and on the blind-and-deaf Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who I had never heard of before. 


A really interesting read. 



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