Category Archives: Non-Fiction (Other)

The Morville Hours, by Katherine Swift

This is another one, like Mr. Rosenblum’s List, that’s on my local library’s sort-of-book-club list. Unlike Mr. Rosenblum’s List, I had heard of The Morville Hours before.  It had always sort of intrigued me, but other things always had my attention. Plus, I’m not really a gardener, so it never seemed like the kind of book that I just had to read right now.

But I am a medieval connections afficianado, and when it’s on a book club list, you’ve got to at least give it a try. And I liked it – not that I thought I wouldn’t. But I did find it a bit soporific – I could read a full section at a time, but that was about my limit, and after finishing it this morning I slept for two hours.

I’m not completely blaming my narcolepsy on the  book – I’ve been very mentally and physically busy in the last while, and it’s been hot (highs around 90F, lest any of my US readers think I’m exaggerating), and I’m on a sort of down time until my job starts. But reading a book that is so imbued with the rotation of the hours, months, and years added to my sense of placidity.

The book combines descriptions and history of the medieval “book of hours” – a prayer book detailing the prayers and readings for the times of day (Matins, Vespers, etc.) – with the liturgical year, the agricultural year, the building of a massive garden (really a series of gardens) in a stately home over twenty years, and some of her own personal and family history. It’s organised around the canonical hours, and each of the chapters fits the emotional theme of the part of the day –  Matins is about beginnings, childhood, newness, planning, and Christmas and early winter, for example.

In addition to giving the history of the garden, and herself somewhat, and the liturgical calendar, Swift gives us the history of the house and the area. The area has been settled since Celtic times, with a fortification from the Saxons and a castle and stately home since the Normans. It was important in the Civil War, saw the transition from farming to mills and factories to industrialised unemployment. The house itself shifted from family to family over the centuries, as these things often do, and those families are also touched on in some of the chapters.

It also, as it’s a book about a garden, has descriptions and histories of some of the plants. I have to admit, I’m not very good at botany. I always wish I were better at it, but I’m really not good. I’m an inside person primarily, who looks at flowers and plants and goes “how pretty!” but usually doesn’t know or remember the names (either common names or Latin names) beyond “tulip” or “rose” – and only those if they are blooming. That said, Katherine Swift’s descriptions helped me see the plants, even if I didn’t have a good cultural memory of what she was describing. She’s a very evocative writer; I found myself living in a Shropshire village through the seasons even though I’ve never been to Shropshire in any sort of weather.

It’s a good book; I don’t think I’d read it again except as a reference for some of the liturgical and monastic references, but I’m glad I’ve read it once. It flows very well, moving seamlessly between the garden and the history and the personal anecdotes. Especially if you like gardens, it’s one you should pick up.


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The Wonder Box, by Roman Krznaric

This book was a birthday present from my lovely friend  Rachel. It purports to be an exploration of various themes of life (death, belief, empathy, etc.) and how various cultures have treated them through the years. There are some fascinating concepts included – some familiar to me, like the various definitions of love in ancient Greece and some not, like the funeral customs of various Asian/African/Oceanic cultures that he mentions.

I suppose there’s not really a lot to say about it, though. Most of the arguments come down to communication and empathy. Our modern culture, according to Krznaric, doesn’t communicate as well as other cultures used to, in part because we don’t put ourselves in the place of others the way that our ancestors did. If we could do that – re-establish our sense of empathy and start talking about now-taboo subjects like death – our culture would be better in some way. More open, at least, and we as individuals would probably be happier. He’s not exactly clear about how it would be better for society as a whole.

Some of the concepts he brings up are very interesting. I already knew about the five kinds of love as defined by the ancient Greeks – I grew up Christian and the concept of “agape” was a common topic of sermons and studies, especially when discussing 1 Corinthians 13, and I have also studied ancient Greek as a language. But one that I didn’t know was the ten senses idea. There’s the five “physical” senses, but some neurologists are coming back to incorporating senses like balance, direction, and rhythm. The odd thing is that, in English at least, we talk about them as senses (with the word “sense”) but don’t include them in our lists of the senses.

It’s a fine book, but a bit imbalanced. After the chapter on empathy, the point of each chapter became a little bit obvious and repetitive: communicate and think of other people more. Once that was established, I was really hoping for more discussion and comparison of each of the different cultural aspects, not just mentions that could almost have come from National Geographic articles – good mentions but not the depth or connections that I wanted.

I did like it; it just wasn’t as culturally informative as I was hoping. As a sort of lifestyle/self-improvement guide, though, it’s great, and I’ll be keeping it around to dip in and out of for quite a while.

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Made in America, by Bill Bryson

I normally adore Bill Bryson’s writing. I love his travel books, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Mother Tongue (although it’s been a while since I’ve read that one). I kind of want to be Bill Bryson, with his balancing between US and UK language and culture and his wonderfully readable and unique voice.

I didn’t adore this. I thought I would – it’s a linguistic history book about American English after all – but I didn’t. I found it too reliant on lists and not enough on stories and personalities. When he manages to tell the stories of etymologies, it’s fairly good, but even then Bryson’s voice is missing. There are a few good phrases, just enough to hint that it’s actually Bryson writing and not a ghostwriter, but overall it’s not nearly as entertaining as anything else I’ve read by him.

One of the things I’m most disappointed about is that I couldn’t find the reference in the book to one of the things mentioned in the back-of-book blurb: “why Americans say “lootenant” and “Toosday”. I’ve never understood why it’s pronounced “leftenant” in the UK, even though “lieu” is still “loo” – maybe a handwriting difference? – and I was looking forward to reading Bryson’s take on it. But I couldn’t find it – if anyone else has read the book and knows where I was reading too fast, pleeeease let me know.

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The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure

I miss Decorah. There’s a bit at the end of this book where they’re staying in Decorah (after seeing the Laura stuff at Burr Oak) and they stay at the Super 8 and go to Bookends and Beans – which isn’t named, but anyone who’s spent time in Decorah knows that’s where they went – and now I want a raspberry chai from Bookends and Beans and to wander through their carefully selected shelves where I always saw a book that I’d been craving. And then I’d take the chai and the book and go to Dunning’s Spring and read (if it were warm enough) or maybe up to campus and sit by Pioneer Memorial or up to Phelps Park or walk along the river….


I quite enjoyed this book. It helps that I’ve been to most of the sites myself, although a few of them I only have hazy memories of. I always enjoy books that reference places that are familiar to me, as long as they get the details right. (See also: Housewives Eating Bonbons, or whatever it’s called, also presumably set in Decorah, but an unrecognizable version of it, and if you’re going to change such an important feature of the town as the college that has been there since 1861 – just change the name of the town already.)

If you don’t know, this is a book about one woman’s journey around the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, in an emotional search for “Laura World” – the sense of recapturing the world of the series as she experienced it when she was a child. It’s not a particularly calculated journey. She didn’t set out to write a book or a travel guide about the Laura sites. And I like that. There are plenty of books out there that serve that function. This is much more personal. It’s about the journey, the exploration, and in some ways the pilgrimage aspect. She’s trying to recapture her childhood connection with Laura and her old sense of the world Laura lived in. The book doesn’t really try to evoke that world – although there is some of that – as much as it does her reaction to that world, or what is left of it, and trying to fit Laura into her adult urban life.

And I think she’s pretty successful at it. She discovers along the way what she needs Laura to be – an example of girlhood and exploration – amd what she doesn’t – a lifestyle example to help prepare for the End Times. She meets some interesting people, in both good and bad ways, and learns how to do quite a lot – cooking some of the Little House recipes, twisting hay, surviving a Midwestern thunderstorm.

The only thing I didn’t like was a vague sense of condescension to the more rural people that she met and some of the small town things she experienced. It wasn’t really explicit, but I got a feeling that she saw small towns in the Midwest as a kind of foreign country and “oh, aren’t their customs quaint and cute!” That could just be oversensitivity on my part, though, seeing as I grew up in small Midwetern towns – large by local standards but smaller than the university where I did my MA.

The main thing that I came away from this book with was a desire to reread the entire Little House series. It’s been years since I’ve read them. I also want to give them to some young girls I know. I think they’re at the right age to start them, and one of them at least will get a kick out of the history of it all.

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