A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm

A Farmer's DiaryA Farmer's Diary
by Sally Urwin
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781788160698
Publication Date: April 4, 2019
Pages: 248
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

Sally Urwin and her husband Steve own High House Farm in Northumberland, which they share with two kids, Mavis the Sheepdog, one very Fat Pony, and many, many sheep. Set in a beautiful, wild landscape, and in use for generations, it's perfect for Sally's honest and charming account of farming life.

From stock sales to lambing sheds, out in the fields in driving snow and on hot summer days, A Farmer's Diary reveals the highs, lows and hard, hard work involved in making a living from the land. Filled with grit and humour, newborn lambs and local characters, this is the perfect book for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like on the other side of the fence.

It will come as no surprise to anyone, with the loony menagerie we have, that MT and I enjoy being surrounded by animals, and have both flirted with the idea of someday doing some small scale farming.  Extraordinarily small scale; a few acres with a variety of edible landscaping, a small garden, and a few more rescue animals that would seem sensible.

If we ever thought anything more than that would appeal, this book would have put paid to that fantasy.  Farming is hard, which isn’t a newsflash for most people, but more than that, it’s a form of voluntary indentured servitude that guarantees 365 sleepless nights a year, as Urwin’s diary attests.

From context, this seems to be the book form of one year of Sally Urwin’s blog entries.  They’re well-written, funny, heartbreaking and depressing all at once.  I mean, come on, one of their breeding rams is named Randy Jackhammer.  For someone like me, these memoirs of farm life are fascinating, and a potent reminder of why I’m still working in IT.  I enjoy living off the land, but as the author so brilliantly illustrates, depending on the land for your living is a horse (or a sheep) of en entirely different colour.

A fascinating read.

Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home

Howards End is on the LandingHowards End is on the Landing
by Susan Hill
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781846682650
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
Pages: 236
Genre: Books and Reading, Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again.

A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill's eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howards End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation's most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

I had issues with this book and with the author.  Mostly the author.  She starts off strong, impressing me with the fact that the first book she chooses from her library to read again is a Dorothy L. Sayers.  She goes on the name more than a few books we both have on our shelves, and I’m just settling in with delight, when she suddenly turns uppity.  And I don’t mean with the name dropping – she’s met famous authors and they make up important moments in her memoirs, that’s fine.  But in the fourth or fifth chapter she opens with “Girls read more than boys, always have, always will. That’s a known fact.”  Well, that’s a bold and rather inflexible statement.  I don’t quarrel with girls reading more than boys historically, or even presently, but to state categorically that they always will, and state it’s a known fact rankled.  I knew Susan Hill is an author and publisher, but I didn’t know she was a prognosticator too.

If only this was a one off, I’d probably have forgotten by now.  Alas it was not.  In a chapter about writing in books, she says “Bookplates are for posers.”  Wow.  She then explains how she unapologetically scribbles in all her books, folds down pages, cracks spines, etc.  But Bookplates are for posers.  Nice to know where Susan Hill draws the line.  Personally, I’d never use a bookplate or write in my books, or dog-ear pages, but I’m also not going to judge anyone who chooses to do those things to their books.  I’m totally ok judging Susan Hill for her self-defensive and hypocritical judging of others who enjoy bookplates, though.

In another chapter she talks about covers and fine bindings, offering a backhanded compliment to The Folio Society by praising their products, but suspecting those who own them as “not being a proper reader”.  To which she can kiss my south-side.  I own Folio Society editions and I read them.  In fact the list of authors and stories I’ve discovered because of my Folios is long and distinguished.

In between all these grievances, and in spite of all the books we have in common, she fails to connect with me, the reader.  While I admire her honesty and forthrightness about her trouble with Jane Austen’s work – even though it mystifies me – I can’t help but think her failing is the same one she perceives in Austen’s work:  “… I never feel empathy with, or closeness to, an Austen character.”  I could not find a closeness or commonality with Susan Hill.

I finished the book out of sheer cussedness, I think.  I have her second memoir, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, but I can’t see mustering any enthusiasm for it after this one.  Perhaps out of perverseness, to see who she manages to belittle or insult next, but I doubt I’ll ever be that curious.

The Orchid Thief

The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780449003718
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
Pages: 300
Publisher: Ballantine Books

A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.

In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.


The first thing you need to know is that this is a book about Florida and orchidists.  I am a (born and bred) Floridian raised in a family of orchidists.

I preface this review with these facts because there’s going to be a strongly sentimental bias to my feelings about this book.  I can’t possibly be objective about either subject, because — let’s call it “Old Florida” even though I’m young enough to have missed out on the truly old Florida — is what my soul is made of.  If it were a visible thing it would be full of scrub forest, swamp land and the Gulf of Mexico (and hush puppies and iced tea).  And no way could I be objective about orchids; I literally grew up in greenhouses.  My mother’s flower shop, which my father’s greenhouses and laboratory were attached to, was a road, a small-town library parking lot, and a dirt alley away from our home.  I’m pretty sure were there a way to tally up time spent at home vs. the shop, the shop would actually win.  And there are very few memories of my dad that pop into my head that don’t involve him watering his orchids, replanting his orchids, or bent over his sanitised glove box – a design of his own creation – or… the least pleasant from a sensory aspect: him cooking up his growing media, which often consisted of combinations of vegetable and fruit never, ever, designed to be together, like bananas and potatoes (omg, the smell).  I have lost hours of my life to greenhouses sprinkled throughout Southwest Florida (and Illinois), and orchid shows, before I was old enough to be left to my own devices.

So believe me when I say that, other than my pedantic nitpicking over calling Florida’s ecosystem a jungle, Susan Orlean nailed both the state and the crazy orchid loving people in it.  Including herself in the story creates a nice foil for the eccentric mix of people that make up the less civilised places of Florida (which is pretty much all the places).  My sister would be a better judge of how close she came to the personalities of the players; I recognised the names but given my relationship with orchids (YOU MAY CALL ME DEATH), I was only ever a spectator, and a pretty disinterested as only a teenager can be, but Orlean captures the atmosphere, the close-knit community and the cattiness of the orchid world perfectly.

According to the publisher and book flap, this is a book about John Larouche (whom I’d never heard of until I read this), but really, it’s about all orchidists and their often unfathomable passion for a plant that is, objectively, ugly. Until it flowers, and then it’s spectacular.  Specifically, this book is about the Ghost Orchid, a Florida native known only to live in a very few spots in the Fakahatchee Strand.  A plant that consists of nothing but roots and a flower, no leaves.  While Larouche is absent for much of the book, the Ghost Orchid is always present. This is a good thing because I doubt anybody could take an awful lot of a character like Larouche.

I could meander on in this review for quite some time, but I wouldn’t really be talking about the book, so I’ll just say: it was good; it was enjoyable and well written and enlightening.  If eccentric characters a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil appeal to you along with the swampy, humid, atmosphere of Florida, you might find something to like in this read.

On a slightly related side note, my father passed away on this date in 2004, so the read felt especially timely for me.  What made it even more poignant though, was what I found when doing a bit of googling about the Ghost Orchid; it seems Larouche was not entirely correct when he said nobody could breed the Ghost Orchid (breed, not clone, which is what Larouche was trying to do):  it turns out my daddy could, and did.  I found this except on an orchid site out of Delray Beach called HBI Orchids:

The Ghost Orchid, Polyrrhiza lindeni (old school name).  We at HBI have been working on growing ghost orchids from seed for over 28 years ever since we first bought 3 ghost orchids flasks from Larry Evans.  Larry did curating and flasking work for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby once green housed the top premier specimens of this Florida species.  The ghost orchid parents used by Larry originated in the Fakahatchee Strand and were first bred by him many years before ghost orchids were designated as an endangered species.  Fakahatchee ghost orchids with their longer frog-legs/tendrils and ghostly all-white flower surpass the truncated short-tendril inferior class lindeni green-flower ghost orchid pretenders named Dendrophylax sallei from Cuba and Dominican Republic in any competition and will always be the more valuable type of this vanishing species to own. 

I clearly remember my dad doing Selby’s lab/flask work; at that time they couldn’t do it themselves without contamination (orchid seed has to be handled in a completely sterile environment, sprinkled across growing medium in sealed, sterile flasks; otherwise just about any microbe floating in the air will overtake and kill the seedlings before they can start), so they’d asked him to do it in his lab.  But I never knew they were ghost orchids or how special they are.  So tip of the hat to Orlean for leading me back to my father in more ways than I bargained on.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You?

How about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in CartoonsHow about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in Cartoons
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250062420
Publication Date: December 8, 2015
Pages: 288
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Picador


My life waiting for Halloween Book Bingo to begin has been frustrating.  I’m in the tail end of a weird book slump that feels like it’s lasted forever (over a year to be sure), and my recovery still feels precarious, like it could go either way.  Because of this, I’m not doing any pre-planning for Bingo, but I still know there are a few books I’m waiting to read that will fit, so I’m trying to hold off.

Last night, I was sooo bored with this plan that I almost scrapped HB all together and just started in on the small stack I’m trying to wait on, and in a last ditch effort to find something else on my TBR to hold my attention, I found How About Never? Is Never Good for You? on a very small outlier of my TBR pile.  I’d forgotten all about it, and honestly can’t remember where I bought it, only that I did so because I like most of the New Yorker’s cartoons, and I’d read Mary Norris’ Between You and Me which I thoroughly enjoyed, leaving me with a positive feeling about the staff’s extracurricular writing.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You? turned out to be a very engaging, and very fast read.  I knew nothing about Bob Mankoff before reading it and therefore had no expectations.  The subtitle is My Life in Cartoons which is a nice double play on words, as this memoir covers almost exclusively his career as a cartoonist and cartoon editor for The New Yorker, and the book is liberally sprinkled with cartoons, both his and others’ works, which is, along with the engaging writing, the reason the read goes so fast.

He discusses the rise of the periodical cartoon as an art form, the genesis of The New Yorker’s cartoons, the process by which the magazine chooses the cartoons each week, and the advent of, and the fiendish difficulty of, the “add a caption” contest and how not to win it.  And he does it all with a charming brevity that is just long enough to be interesting and just thorough enough that the reader gets something out of it.

All in all, it turned out to be a delightful way to kill 3 hours or so last night.

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the MississippiLife on the Mississippi
by Mark Twain
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 2006
Pages: 384
Genre: Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Folio Society

Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain’s life before he began to write.

Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America’s most profound chronicler of the human comedy.

I have to admit, here, to a bias; a prejudice.  It’s a bias that I have fought against a spare few times in my life, but by and large, it has ruled my reading life.  The bias is this: It is my perverse nature to avoid books and authors considered to be classics.

I know it’s contrary and based on no rational; I just don’t like being told what to do and what to like.  Occasionally, the grown-up in me will rear her annoying head and insist that I at least try a classic or two – who knows?  I might like it, and I don’t have to finish it if I don’t.

This it is why Life on the Mississippi has been sitting on my TBR shelf; that, and the fact that I found a Folio Society copy for a bargain.  I grabbed it earlier this month, figuring that I could fulfil my yen for non-fiction and mark off a classic author at the same time.

The Introduction to my Folio edition doesn’t fill the reader with optimism.  The story of Life on the Mississippi‘s creation is interesting, but finding out that fully half the book was considered ‘filler’ is not an auspicious start.  The author of the introduction made it sound like Twain just filled out the second half of the book with a hodgepodge collection of other peoples’ articles and anecdotes.  Which he does, but what they don’t tell you is that he folds it all into a cohesive narrative that works fairly well, if a little chaotically.

So with this introduction read, I resigned myself and started.  What I found was a very time-consuming, but absorbing read, made enjoyable by Twain’s voice and trademark humour.  Definitely not riveting, but it draws a picture of life in the late 1800’s that is vivid and brings both a pang of nostalgia for those easier days and a relief not to have been born in that age.

Twain gets full marks for making the life of a steamboat man sound romantic; it’s a testament to his talent that he even makes it interesting to read.  And while I can’t say I loved it, or that I’ll ever really re-visit it, except for perhaps to randomly dip in and out, I can say that I feel I got something out of it, if only a better respect for the mighty Mississippi as it once was, wild and independent.