Friday, August 22, 2014

Revisiting the 'Merry Hall' trilogy by Beverley Nichols

This review of the first book in the Merry Hall Trilogy was first posted on this blog over four years ago on July 30, 2010.  Since then I have enjoyed the entire trilogy which the library now owns. The second title is 'Laughter on the Stairs' followed by 'Sunlight on the Lawn.'

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

A few weeks ago, Nancy Pearl, a librarian famous for her ability to recommend the right book for the right person and also for being the model for the librarian action figure with real shushing action, tweeted that gardening/readers who like P.G. Wodehouse's books and E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia series might enjoy Beverley Nichols gardening trilogy starting with Merry Hall. In any case, I retweeted her tweet admitting that I fit that trifecta of reader interests. What this all leads to is that BHPL staff member, Mme. P.,  who follows our Twittering, offered to loan me Merry Hall, because the library does not own this 1951 memoir of British journalist Beverley Nichols.
Mr. Nichols' book tells the story of restoring the gardens of an old country house outside London just after World War II. His passion for gardens, bordering on obsession, crossing the border actually, is told with dry wit and some withering accounts of local ladies with whom he has gardening disputes. The book combines British wit with the memoir genre, gardening trivia, eccentric characters and rambling country house dreams.
A sample: "I wanted a house. And I wanted a Georgian house. And I wanted a garden of at least five acres. A garden which, for preference, should be wrecked and lost and despairing...I was in a rescuing mood..." (p. 20)
The author finds a house and it's the spectacular lilies that seal the deal. He must have those lilies. His friend tells him it's "lunacy" to buy the house, but his manservant Gaskin rises to the challenge of taking care of the mansion single-handedly. The gardener Oldfield conveys with the house along with his stubborn methods and gardening opinions and oddly inpenetrable accent, as is the stereotype for gardeners in English books. The neighbors are nosy and opinionated, especially Miss Emily and "Our Miss Rose" whose rivalry regarding decorating the church results in a comical confrontation during the Harvest Festival about whose flowers should adorn the altar.
These scenes of English village life recall Bertie Wooster's visits to his aunts' houses in the country, or Lord Blandings dithering about the pigsty whilst admiring the porcine Empress of Blandings.  I'm pretty sure the church decorating rivalry popped up in the Mapp and Lucia books, or if not, it's a familiar theme. So, Nancy Pearl was right: this is a good book for fans of those authors or for gardeners. Although nothing touches the Master, P.G. Wodehouse, in my pantheon of authors, for he truly loves his characters and never condescends. Nichols' humor is arch and a bit mean at times, so be forwarned. Since "snarky" is in style now, perhaps he is due for a revival.

Related links:
Read Mapp and Lucia online here
The Wodehouse Society website for fellow Plum fans
A list of gardening memoirs from GoodReads

8/22/14 In memory of Mme. P.; many thanks for the book recommendations.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Very Unusual Visitor: Mother Mary Comes for One Week

This review was first posted on this blog on Friday, May 16, 2008

Our Lady of the Lost and Found

Last night my local book group discussed Our Lady of the Lost and Found: a novel of Mary, Faith and Friendship by Diane Schoemperlen. This was a book that I never would have read, maybe never even have heard of on my own. This shows that bookgroups can push you beyond your literary comfort zone, which, aside from the social aspects, is probably why they are so popular. Our Lady... took me into unfamiliar territory and really made me think, but it is a book that probably has narrow appeal.
The narrator is an author who wakes up one day to find a woman in a blue trenchcoat, sneakers, and a veil, carrying a large brown purse and pulling a small wheelie suitcase who introduces herself as Mary, you know, Mother of God, the BVM, Blessed of All Women etc etc, she explains rather slyly. She asks to stay for a week to rest up for the coming month of May. May is Mary's month and she is usually really busy then. The narrator of course says 'OK;' what else could she do? So this is the humorous premise. The book goes on to alternate the story of the developing friendship between the host and her very unusual 2000 year old house guest with chapters that Mary tells about some of the thousands of her miracles and apparitions over the centuries. Schoemperlen also weaves in rather difficult to understand musings about quantum physics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, theories of History and ideas about Faith versus Reason, the "thin places" between our real world and the spiritual world.
Anyway, the book was weird and thought provoking, sometimes frustratingly abstruse and I really would like to ask the author a few questions about how does quantum physics relate to Mary and religion etc? Some readers just don't like flashbacks, long digressions and historical narrations in books, so this would not be a good choice for them. But if you like a big dose of philosophy and rambling digressions, try this book, but don't expect it to be just a funny story of what if the Virgin Mary came to visit.
This is what Ms. Schoemperlen says about her book,
"The structure of Our Lady of the Lost and Found was determined by the material I wanted to include. At first I intended to write a simple novel about a woman who is visited by the Virgin Mary. But then I began to do the research and the more I learned about the historical apparitions of Mary, the more I realized that I had to find a way to include some of this material in the book. After many unsuccessful attempts, I settled on alternating chapters as it now stands: one chapter telling the story of this woman and Mary, the next giving some history of Mary and also delving into the other topics that arose, such as the Uncertainty Principle, the nature of recorded history, the thin places between fact and fiction, and so on. " from the author interview on the publishers website -
Publisher's website
Interview with the author
The Mary Page at the University of Dayton

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Display: dystopia

Check out a book with dystopian themes this month. Popular with teens these days, stories of scary, dysfunctional worlds is not a new literary theme. We have selected new books like the 'Hunger Games' series and classics like 'Animal Farm.'

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Day at the Reference Desk

Q: Does the library own a well-known university's alumni directory.
A: We do not own any alumni directories, but we can search the 'Reference USA' database for people in the U.S. and Canada and we can teach patrons how to access that database from their home computer or by using library computers. Go to our 'Databases and Articles' page, find 'Reference USA', type in your library barcode number when directed.

Q: Can we find an obituary in a local newspaper?
A:We will be glad to look through online databases of 'The Star Ledger' and 'The Independent Press' and other resources that we have at the library, or we can teach patrons how to access these databases so they can search them. See above for how to get to our 'Databases and Articles' webpage.

Q: Can you help me download an ebook to my device?
A:Yes, we can help you do that. The best way is to stop by with your tablet or smartphone, and be sure to have all your usernames and passwords handy. We will help you download ebooks or e-audiobooks to your iPad, Kindle, Nook or other portable electronic device. Go our our 'All Things E' webpage for a list of library ebook providers.

Q: Can you tell me the resale value of a certain car?
A:Yes, we have the so-called 'blue books' which are really orange and called the 'NADA Official Used Car Guide.'  Ask at the Reference Desk where we keep them or we can look up a car for you if you know the model and make and year.

Q:Where do wildfires occur the most, what is the cost of wildfires and who has lost the most from wildfires.
A:The National Interagency Fire Center has a page of statistics that we found helpful to answer these and other wildfire-related questions.

Q: How can I find which cookbook has the recipe I want?
A: We recommend the app 'Eat Your Books' which has indexed millions of recipes. You can even enter the ingredients you have and it will find recipes to match. You can enter the cookbooks you own and it will find the recipes in those cookbooks.

Q: If BHPL does not own the book I want, can you find it for me?
A: Yes, we can tell you which local library owns it by looking in their online catalog and/or we can request it on interlibrary loan.

Q: Do we have downloadable travel books?
A: Yes, we have some travel books available from and we also have a database called 'A- Z the USA' and 'A - Z World Travel' which has information for travelers.

Q: What are the latest audiobooks you have gotten at the library?
A: If you look on our Wowbrary list, you can find what audiobooks were acquired by the library in the last week and then click back week by week to see what was acquired in past weeks. You can also subscribe to to get a weekly email of new library materials.
Dave Coverly cartoon