Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Living in Italy – The Real Deal, by Stef Smulders

Living in Italy: the Real Deal - How to survive the good life

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy, one of the world’s most beautiful places, is admired for many things – La Dolce Vita, pasta, wonderful wines, passionate people, and wonderful art. There is one particular institution, however, that is deeply puzzling to most non-Italians – its governmental bureaucracy. In Living in Italy, Stef Smulders relates the story of how he and his husband, Nico, relocated from the Netherlands to Lombardy to start a B&B. The grandfather of books like this is, of course, Peter Mayle’s bestseller A Year in Provence, published in the 70’s, and in 1996, Frances Mayes had similar success with Under the Tuscan Sun. Ex-pat narratives by now form a large genre of their own, and Living in Italy by Stef Smulders is a worthy addition to the category.

In 1998, Stef and his husband Nico moved to Lombardy from their native Netherlands to start a B&B. Being members of a very organized society, they arrived at their new home in Montecalvo with the assumption that the renovation of their new house would proceed efficiently. By the end of their first week, their belief in Murphy’s Law was firmly cemented. Living in Italy is a delightful series of vignettes, written with wry humor and an unpretentious air of befuddlement. How could all these snafus keep happening? It probably takes an Italian to understand. But for a year, Stef and Nico survived within the confines of their kitchen, surrounded by the noise, dirt, and chaos racket being carried out by a crews of artisans whose work ethic is decidedly, shall we say, casual. Forays into the intricacies of obtaining official documents and licenses (coda fiscale) are equally nerve wracking. Read these chapters and you feel as though you’ve personally known estate agent Olito, architectural engineer Cassini, and builder Torti. But Stef also writes engagingly about the local culture, on such topics as wine tasting, using public toilets, cooking lessons, and exploring the hardware store.

All’s well that ends well, and after a harrowing swimming pool installation, Nico and Stef are finally ready open the doors to Villa I Due Patroni. One of the pleasures of reading about their experiences, one that was not available for Provence or Tuscany, is visiting the property’s website to see the results of all their struggles. If I ever travel to Lombardy, that’s where I want to stay.

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Biography: Captive Histories

by Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney

 

haefeli_sweeney_300In 1704, a French and Indian coalition raided the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, destroying property, killing 50 of the inhabitants, and kidnapping 112. Forced to march in the dead of winter to Canada, many of the captives died along the way. Many survived, however, and later printed narratives of their ordeals. The most famous victims of this raid were members of the Williams family, and much has been written about them in subsequent centuries. In Captive Histories, Sweeney and Haefeli have gathered primary documents pertaining to the Williams survivors and those less famous. The difference in this book is the inclusion of multiple perspectives, including the Abenaki and Mohawk stories that have been passed from generation to generation via oral tradition. Letters, military reports, oral narratives,and memoirs are collated and evaluated in such a way as to compare and contrast the English, French, and Native American points of view, and to assess belief systems, traditions, the the reliability of the evidence. Captive Histories does not read like a historical novel; it is an important and valuable piece of research and socio/political/cultural commentary on one of colonial New England’s most notorious events.

Great Nonfiction:New England Nation, by Bruce C. Daniels

New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever wonder why America always has to “save the world”? Why the town meeting style of government has survived on the local level for 300 years? Why Americans are so intent upon personal independence? Why higher education is so important to us? And what about due process of law?
While world views and social standards have changed drastically since Plymouth was settled, our core values, those that show up time and again in protests, demonstrations, and speeches have remained the same. Historian Bruce Daniels explains how this came to be in his 232 page narrative, a witty, fluent explanation of how the Puritans thought and why they behaved as they did, for good or bad. It’s not always a flattering picture, but it is a comprehensible one. Worth checking out for any reader of American history and sociology.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: For Adam’s Sake, by Allegra di Bonaventura

Adam Jackson, for whom this book was titled, was a black slave who spent his life working in 17th-early 18th century New London, CT. But Adam’s own story does not begin until the book’s second half. The title’s second part, A Family Saga, is a more apt description of what this book is all about, though the word saga suggests much more drama than can be found here. Allegra Di Bonaventura, a scholar with a legal background, wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon the 47 year long Diary of Joshua Hempstead, an almanac-like account of his daily life in 17th/18th century Connecticut. For more than 30 of those years,Hempstead was Adam’s owner.

As a scholarly study, For Adam’s Sake is outstanding. The research is impeccable, much of it painstakingly extracted and interpreted from New London County Court records. There is a wealth of detail about the families whose activities shaped town development during its first century, with detailed information about the Rogerenes, a religious sect that engendered sharp conflict in the region, the Winthrops, of the ruling class, the Jackson family, part free and part slave, and of course, the Hempsteads. It is the chronicle of the way these factions interacted that forms the focus of most of the narrative. When Adam steps onto the scene midway through, most of the evidence concerning his own experiences is conjectural, based largely upon some 50 or so terse diary entries. Throughout the book, the narrative voice is dispassionate, as befits a study of this sort. Readers in search of a “saga” will not find it here; although there are some rather dry sections, there are also many interesting stories to be found within its pages.

Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mistake to think of history, any history, as static, and now Nathaniel Philbrick offers the general reader a new take on the earliest days of America’s War for Independence, most of which played out in and around Boston. Starting in the aftermath of the infamous Tea Party, he describes the passions, tensions, fears, squabbles, and the incipient battles in well documented and lively detail. Of particular interest are the character sketches Philbrick included in his larger narrative. about Washington, local hero Joseph Warren, and a heretofore little-known rabble rouser who called himself Joyce Jr. As a museum docent who talks about Washington and the Revolution on a daily basis, it was amusing to read of his appalled reaction, when this self-styled, Southern officer and gentleman arrived in Boston and attempted to take command of an army composed of poorly supplied, rough hewn, strong willed Yankees, who insisted upon electing their own officers and following orders only when they thought they were sensible. Joseph Warren has long been a local hero in Massachusetts, and Philbrick tells of how the New England soldiers revered him; Warren was brought down a few notches in my opinion, however. Until reading Bunker Hill, I had no knowledge of a vigilante calling himself Joyce, Jr., who patrolled the streets in flamboyant disguise looking to tar and feather any Tories whom he happened to encounter (tar and feathering is a brutal affair, not a joke.)

But as the author himself states in his closing, the real hero of this story is the city of Boston, and he has done it a great service in relating its history from the point of view of the courageous citizenry who gave birth to a revolution.

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