Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Passalong Plants

Passalong Plants
by Steve Bender and Felder Rushing

Blurb (from back of book):
Passalongs are plants that have survived in gardens for decades by being handed from one person to another.  These botanical heirlooms, such as flowering almond, blackberry lily, and night-blooming cereus, usually can't be found in neighborhood garden centers; about the only way to obtain a passalong plant is to beg a piece from the fortunate gardener who has one. 
In this lively and sometimes irreverent book (don't miss the chapter on yard art), Steve Bender and Felder Rushing describe 117 such plants, giving particulars on hardiness, size, uses in the garden, and horticultural requirements.  They present this information in the informal, chatty, and sometimes humorous manner that your next-door neighbor might use when giving you a cutting of her treasured Confederate rose.  And, of course, because they are discussing passalong plants, they note the best method of sharing each plant with other gardeners.

My Reaction:
This book was a Christmas gift from my parents-- something I'd added to a wishlist because the description sounded promising.  I don't often read non-fiction cover-to-cover, but if you're a Southern gardener with a soft spot for old-fashioned, traditional, "hand-me-down" plants, this book is well worth a look.  It's only within the past few years that I've only gotten more seriously interested in gardening, and I'm in the process of building my garden from scratch, so the subject-- plants that have historically done very well in this part of the world-- holds a lot of personal interest for me.

The book was published in 1993, and though (I think) the edition I have (paperback) was printed in the early 2000s, it doesn't seem that the text has been updated from the original '93 version.  Difficult as it is to believe, it's been over 20 years since 1993, and as I read, there were a few times when I wondered if the authors would change anything, given a chance at a rewrite.  One or two plants that they thought rare or underused in '93 strike me (in early 2016) as being fairly commonplace-- certainly not that unusual, based on what I've seen and read in the blogs of fellow gardeners around the world.  However, the book has aged very well, over all-- not surprising, considering that the subject is heirloom plants, some of which have been passed along for hundreds of years!

When it comes to recommending plants, you can only be so objective, so there are occasional plants that the authors treat favorably, but which I find to be undesirable weeds-- and on the other hand, there are plants that they seem a bit less excited about that I really enjoy.  But that's only to be expected, since no two people ever agree on everything (in a garden or out of it).  Possibly it's a reflection of the fact that I live further south than either of them (and some plants might go a little crazier along the Gulf Coast than they do where the authors live, in more central Alabama and Mississippi).  Maybe, too, some things have changed in the last twenty years...

Perhaps the biggest change to come along in the past 20 years is the explosion of the Internet.  When this book was published, it was difficult to locate sources for many of these old-fashioned passalongs.  Therefore, the carefully cultivated list of nurseries that sold each one was probably an invaluable tool for someone set on growing an impossible-to-find-locally plant.  These days, it's so much easier to search out rare plants and order them online-- not to mention the possibility of doing plant swaps with people you've met online.  (Personally, I'm still a little scared of ordering plants online-- but if there's no other option and you're desperate for a particular plant...)

I heartily recommend the book to Southern gardeners with an interest in plants that have proven to do well in the South-- plants with a sense of history and place, including many that you'll probably remember from the gardens you grew up in.  It's written in a casual, conversational style that makes for easy, enjoyable reading, but there's also plenty of information, including helpful hints about propagation methods and where each plant performs best.

Many of the plant descriptions are accompanied by color photographs, but some are not, so one of these days, I intend to page through the book again, look up the ones I didn't recognize by name, and make a wish list of the most exciting candidates for my own garden.  And I'll be keeping the book for a handy reference (the index makes it simple to locate a particular plant's entry).

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Airs Above the Ground

Airs Above the Ground
by Mary Stewart

Blurb (from GoodReads):
Lovely Vanessa March, two years married and very much in love, did not think it was a strange for her husband to take a business trip to Stockholm. What was strange was the silence that followed. She never thought to look for her missing husband in Vienna -- until she saw him in a newsreel shot there at the scene of a deadly fire. Then she caught a glimpse of him in a newsreel shot of a crowd near a mysterious circus fire and knew it was more than strange. It was downright sinister. 
Vanessa is propelled to Vienna by the shocking discovery. In her charge is young Timothy Lacy, who also has urgent problems to solve. But her hunt for answers only leads to more sinister questions in a mysterious world of white stallions of Vienna. But what promises to be no more than a delicate personal mission turns out to involve the security forces of three countries, two dead men, a circus and its colourful personnel. And what waits for Vanessa in the shadows is more terrifying than anything she has ever encountered.

My Reaction:
While not my favorite from the author, this was an entertaining read with pretty much everything I've come to expect from Mary Stewart.  There's the absolutely essential foreign setting-- Austria, this time-- and the requisite element of mystery/gentle thriller/mild suspense with just a touch of romance thrown in to sweeten the p(l)ot.

If you find the idea of travelling abroad more appealing than the actual travel (or if personal finances and/or responsibilities curtail your ability to journey far or often), Mary Stewart's novels offer a nice vicarious vacation.  She's surprisingly good at bringing the ambiance of a place to the page, and I always finish her books with the sensation of having (almost) gone on a trip, myself!

The relative innocence of a highly civilized version of the 1960s is a charming respite from the often crass present day.  On the other hand, there are also a few instances that make modern sensibilities cringe.  (I'm thinking particularly of the heroine's strangely strong reactions to the dwarf, but some of the male/female dynamics also elicited sighs of exasperation.)

There are a number of novels by this author that I've yet to read, but based on my experience thus far, I find that her romance-writing leaves me cold (with possibly one or two exceptions).  I'm not sure what it is, but it's just not at all stirring or particularly exciting... Fortunately, the romance is rarely the main subject of her novels.  (Actually, that might be part of the problem; it's usually too abridged to work well.)

The mystery kept me guessing.  At one point, I thought I'd figured it out well in advance, but it turns out I'd fallen for a red herring.  Then, just when you think the story's nearly over, there's a new spurt of action and drama.  There were a couple of times when the novel bogged down in too much action (though for some that might seem a contradiction), but all in all, this was a good book.  Not a masterpiece, but a good book of its type.  Classic mid-20th-century escapism.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- The parts of the novel that bogged down for me were the rooftop/cellar/stables scene (which just went on for too long, imho) and the chase-the-villain bit.  To be honest, I don't have fond memories of the dramatic-mountain-top-confrontation scene, either... I think I have a very low tolerance for descriptions of action.  A little is good, but not so much!  Keep it sharp and to the point, please.

--  The jewels had me totally fooled.  (That's the red herring referenced earlier.)

--  How amusing (and rather silly) that Lewis turns out to be Secret Service-- or whatever he is.  Secret-Agent Man.  A monogamous, toned down version of James Bond.

--  This book was my introduction to the Lipizzaner stallions.  Of course I had to look them up online, and they're stunning.  I've never been particularly interested in horses, but those highly-trained animals are truly amazing.

--  Vanessa and Tim's discussion of "phrase books" was amusing (and so true, based on an old book of English phrases we have somewhere on our shelves): "Don't you just adore phrase books?  The things they imagine one might want to say... they're almost as good as one's Greek grammar at school.  I remember one of the first sentences I had to put into Greek was 'She carried the bones in the basket.'  I'm still wondering whose bones, and why." ... "The best thing I've come across in my German phrase book is in the section for 'Air Travel'.  'Will you please open the windows' seems to me a funny thing to say to anyone on a plane, somehow."

-- Every so often-- usually, if not always, in British novels-- I've come across a reference to un/glazed windows... or the act of glazing windows... or glaziers.  Maybe I've never bothered to look it up.  I think I had some vague idea that it was something applied to the glass-- a glaze, you know-- to make them more durable/waterproof/something mysterious that is necessary in the UK.  (Though now that I search for it, I find local glaziers, too, so maybe the term isn't necessarily British only.)  Anyway, now I know that an unglazed window is simply a window without glass.  Huh!  As simple as that...

--  Though the novel was originally published in 1965, there's a reference to Hurricane Chloe ("...she swept into that room like Hurricane Chloe"), which (as far as I can tell) was a storm during the 1967 Atlantic season.  (From what I see, it made landfall in France.)  I wonder how that happened...

--  The reference to Stockholm in the blurb made me hope briefly that this would be set in Sweden, but then of course, the same blurb makes it fairly clear that the action's all in Austria.  Oh well.  Maybe someday I'll come across a Mary Stewart style book set in Sweden.  Modern books in Sweden all seem to be part of the recent (on-going?) craze for Scandinavian Crimes.  Possibly interesting, but not at all what I'm really craving.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Audrey Rose

Audrey Rose
by Frank De Felitta

Suppose a stranger told you your daughter was his daughter in another life? Suppose you began to believe him? Suppose it was true?

My Reaction (possibly SPOILERish):
I think perhaps my opinion of Audrey Rose suffers because it wasn't at all what I was expecting.  I knew it involved reincarnation, of course, but very little beyond that.  I was under the impression that this was primarily a work of horror, but I find that it doesn't fit into that genre very well.

...Unfortunately, I found much of the book boring-- plodding, in fact.  There are "page-turner" sections, but in between, it's so dull that I had to convince myself to keep reading.

My chief complaints?
--Too repetitive.
By the time we get to the courtroom transcript, we've heard most of this stuff so many times that the reader could easily testify in Janice's place.  I certainly felt that I was familiar with the facts!  Even Ivy's excruciating nightmare is repeated so many times that it loses most of its power to horrify.

--Too much meaningless detail.
Maybe this is just me, but the insistence on telling us about every single meal-- exact times that this or that happens-- and street names/numbers grated on my nerves.  For one thing, I don't have the street-map of NYC committed to memory, so that info means exactly nothing to me.  For another, does it really make one shred of difference to the story?

--Too drawn out.
Some paring down would help.  I guess I shouldn't complain that the book rises above pulp fiction, what with the inclusion of interesting secondary/tertiary characters (the lawyers, the judge, the expert witnesses) and the slight forays into the philosophical and spiritual-- but sadly, I often didn't enjoy the reading experience...

A tauter editing could have made the pages fly.  Of course, not every book has to be a page-turner, and some of my personal favorites are relatively slow-burning.  I think this simply wasn't meant to be one of my favorites.  The core concept is interesting enough, but the ending is not exactly unpredictable, and the slowness of much of the book didn't do it any favors.  I won't ever want to re-read it, and I would be unlikely to recommend it except to those who love both the paranormal and legal thrillers-- with a dash of suspense and comparative religion thrown in.