On Kew and Books

For my birthday treat this year, I'd asked if we could go to Kew Gardens - there were three exhibitions there that I wanted to see before they closed on Sunday (11th March), so in some ways, I am back to my usual thing of sharing the details of something wonderful, just before it's about to disappear...but if you happen to have a spare day before Sunday, then I'd encourage you to go.

The exhibition that I was most excited about was Life in Death, where the artist, Rebecca Louise Law, had strung an entire room with dried flowers and created a meandering path through. My expectations had been high, but the reality of the exhibition made them seem quite flat in retrospect: it was incredible. Rebecca has created a magical world with her work and it felt like a privilege to be allowed to walk through it.

This photo shows the copper wire that the flowers were strung on - knotted and tied to keep the flowers in place. With 1,000 garlands suspended from the ceiling, it was hard not to fixate on how many hours it might have taken to construct.

While some areas offered a rainbow of flowers, other zones were themed by colour.

The shadows cast on the white walls mingled with the etherealness of the garlands themselves and added to the sense of every step offering a different viewpoint.

Although there were other people in the room, their forms were softened by the veil of flowers and the dark figures you can see in the photo above seem to have become a welcome part of the display.

It was maddening to have only brought the camera on my phone along - these photos don't feel like they do the exhibition justice at all. If you go before Sunday, it's worth walking through once with your camera and once without, because the temptation to photograph every little part of it is strong (I actually gave my phone to my husband for safekeeping the second time around because I knew that I couldn't be trusted).

We also visited the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition, which was beautiful. We decided that the early bird really does catch the worm when it comes to photography - there were so many beautiful shots taken in the early morning mist.

We also went to the Orchids Festival. My husband's father was a botanist and, as a consequence, my husband had spent much of his early childhood hunting for orchids on hillsides around the world. Even as adults, he encouraged us to have our eyes to the ground whenever we went on country walks with him. In that context, seeing the orchids en masse meant that they lost some of their appeal for us, even though the range of orchids was impressive.

The Palm House was the unexpected treat of the day and we were both charmed by the building's rusting elegance. As the temperature inside emulates a rain forest climate, it's hard to imagine how the building's decay could be stopped. We took a spiral staircase up into the roof and walked around a balcony where we could see the structure of the building more clearly and look down at all the palms.

I loved the flowers that dotted the framework.

My phone tells me that we walked nearly 15km. It rained on and off all day, but never enough for us to feel like it was the wrong day to visit and there are enough indoor areas at Kew to escape a heavy downpour.

Outside, some early flowers were starting to bloom.

And my husband met and photographed this fine fellow. 

At Waterloo, we stopped at Natural Kitchen to pick up some food to take home for a lazy dinner (if you haven't discovered Natural Kitchen, it's wonderful - lots of vegan and vegetarian food and exceptionally delicious) and I fell asleep reading Shirley Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' (now finished). It came recommended to me by my father, who in his retirement from work is a member of four book groups and a prolific reader. It's an ongoing challenge for my sister and me to discover authors that he hasn't already read and loved, as a memorable introduction merits many Daughter Points. My finest achievements in this area have been Kent Haruf and Nickolas Butler, but I am determined not to fall asleep on my laurels, even though these were considered to be exceptional offerings that could stand me in good stead for at least a decade. The hunt continues.

When I was out on a dog walk with my husband today, we ended up discussing the different rating systems we've been using for reviewing books and it left me interested to hear how others might be doing it. Here's how my own idiosyncratic system works:

The ratings I leave on Goodreads tend to be very different to those I'd leave on Amazon: on Amazon, when I rate something (relatively rare, but I still have a mental structure in place for it), I'm basing my star rating on whether I feel the book is a good, well-written book and fulfilled the promise of what it was offering. When I consider that my rating has the capacity to reduce the average star rating for a book at its point of sale, it seems unfair to rate it for something that's beyond the control of the author. By this I mean that if the book is autobiography when horror might be my preferred genre, or if the book is chick-lit, when I might favour literary fiction, it seems churlish to lower its rating on this basis (I should say that these are ridiculous examples - horror particularly would never be my preferred genre as I am such a scaredy cat). To me, the structure for reviews on Amazon makes it feel like it's less about what the book meant to me and more about my - still subjective - idea of whether something is good for the type of book it's intended to be (and if I didn't like it at all, then generally I wouldn't review it - I tend to only review the things I really loved on Amazon).

On Goodreads, I use an entirely different system, because of the way it's set up. Here, I've always felt that the idea is to create a personal bookshelf of what I'm reading and rate the books on it relative to one another according to my personal taste. So on Goodreads, something getting a lower mark because it doesn't fit into a favoured genre etc, feels more valid. As an overarching theme to my reading, I crave stories that offer a deeper understanding of people and what it means to be human and consequently, only books that fulfil this at some level tend to elicit a four or five star rating (for my mum, she's always looking for books that offer redemption - I expect everyone has their themes). When I was discussing this with my husband, I realised that - rightly or wrongly  - I haven't felt uncomfortable about giving a book a lower rating on Goodreads because in my mind it's not a reflection on the book itself, but more a reflection of what I'm seeking in a book generally and to what degree the book has succeeded in offering me this. I'm wondering whether most people are assuming this?

When it comes to written reviews, I'm probably more likely to write about a book here on my blog. The past month has been more about reading than sewing and as a result I seem to have made my way through quite a lot of books. In brief:

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett - my father bought me this in paperback as a Christmas gift last year, but I was struggling to get through it as I tend to read more on my Kindle, so that I don't disturb my husband by putting a light on. I really wanted to finish it though, so in the end I bought a copy on Kindle and then proceeded to romp through it - it's wonderful! A series of essays, that have all previously been published elsewhere, on a diverse range of subjects. Everything from the love of dogs, to training to join the LAPD.

The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson - I actually listened to this book on Audible, rather than reading it. I chose it because it's set in Rye, which is an area I love and know well. The story and characters were engaging, but ultimately, I probably didn't fall in love with it in the way that I do with some books.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson - this is a modern classic, first published in 1962, and probably fits into the Mystery genre, which isn't my normal stomping ground. It's a curious and unique book that I feel pleased to have read, but something about the writing or story left me feeling quite detached and I failed to become lost in it at any point.

A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler - I absolutely loved this book. It felt like it had so much to say about families and how they work. The characters were all flawed, but hugely likable - my favourite kind. Since reading it, I've often found my mind distracted by wandering around the rooms of their house (which features quite heavily in the story) and thinking about the lives of the people it contained.

Back When we were Grown-Ups, Anne Tyler - Continuing with the Anne Tyler theme, this book was more of a mixed bag for me. I loved the characters and the relationships that the book explored, but I struggled with some of the peripheral content - the central character organises a lot of parties and I found the details of those slightly excruciating and tiring to read about.

How to Break up with your Phone, Catherine Price - I pre-ordered this book after seeing the reviews. It's the perfect book for anyone who finds themselves taking their phone out to fill in a spare minute while waiting; opening Instagram for a few minutes and looking up to find twenty minutes have passed; or starting the day by reading the news in bed, when actually a book might be a better start. I've been guilty of all of these things. I enjoyed this book, which isn't saying that you should throw your phone out altogether (for photography, texts, listening to audio books, using an online shared calendar, banking, planning journeys and a whole host of other things, my phone feels indispensable and isn't something I want to forgo), but instead shares ideas of how to stop it being such a time sap. I've previously struggled with how to separate out the bits of my phone that I find useful and the bits that were stealing my time - this book has all the practical answers and a wealth of information into clever settings and apps to help. It also shines a much-needed light on how utterly bizarre the role of the phone has become in our society and why it's worth taking steps to change that. For my own part, I've had more free time since I read this book, which is a delicious luxury that I wouldn't want to unwittingly give up again. I haven't followed the 30 day plan that the book includes, but instead I've pilfered many of the ideas from it and instigated them straight away. It's an excellent resource and worth the cover price.

The Creative Writing Course Book, Julia Bell & Andrew Motion - At the start of this year, a friend and I enrolled on an creative writing class at the local adult education centre and I've enjoyed it so much that I bought a few books to supplement the course and I've been working my way through the exercises inside. I'm not sure which book I prefer yet, so I'll withhold judgment until I've finished working my way through the other one.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett - Ann Patchett is one of my favourite writers and I'm currently listening to this one on Audible. It's set in the Amazon rain forest and I'm finding the atmosphere and storyline somewhat claustrophobic and stifling, which is making me love it a little less than her other books, but I'm keen to see it to the end despite that. It feels a little like cheating to add it to this list when I haven't yet finished it, but as I'm two-thirds of the way through and will probably finish it before the end of the week, so it's going on to avoid being missed off at a later date.

I'd love to hear what you're currently reading and what your own system for rating books is.

Florence x


  1. Hi, Florence! I'm jealous of your art exhibition day -- it looks wonderful and I wish I could go but I'm far away.

    Your thoughts on rating books completely make sense. I don't rate books on Amazon because I don't buy books there, but I do use Goodreads. On Goodreads I, too, mostly rate books that I liked, and if I do give something a low rating, I think it's because it disappointed me so much that I would like to save other people who have my taste the same disappointment. Or just register my unhappiness somehow.

    Three books that I've loved recently are: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (very lovely and sad), Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (engrossing and plotty), and Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (stressful but good).

    I would love to send you a friend request if you are game! No pressure if you keep your friend list carefully edited...On Goodreads I'm Ann G.

    Thanks for your little reviews here! I'm going to check out the Anne Tylers. I think I read one a million years ago but I'm not even sure and I know almost nothing about her work.

    Have a good day!

    1. I've just read the synopsis for those on Goodreads - they all look like things I'd enjoy too. Red Clocks looks scarily topical - I hadn't heard of that one before you mentioned it.

      It was you who recommended How to Behave in a Crowd a while ago, wasn't it? Thanks so much for your friend request - I'm going to enjoy looking through your shelves.

      I hope you enjoy the Anne Tylers if you get to them.


  2. I totally agree with your philosophy on book rating. The book I've most loved that I read recently is The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers - two intertwined love stories, mixed in with the story of how the genetic code was cracked in the 1950s.

    1. That one sounds very tempting! Thank you for sharing it. I hope you've found something good to follow it up with (when I really love a book I often find it hard to settle into the next one, unless it's by the same author).

  3. Happy Birthday! My mum took me to Kew quite often when I was little, back when it cost only pennies to go in. Makes me sad that the entry price is so exclusive now. Looks like you had a lovely day and your husband's childhood spent scouring the globe for rare orchids sounds wonderful! Am astonished by the thoroughness of thinking on book reviews!! I'm not as nice as you and if a book's really bad, esp. a non-fiction book, I will leave a very scathing review in the hope of sparing others the waste of time and money - fortunately for the sub-standard authors of the world I don't read much! Audiobooks - am still plodding along in a gently entertained way with 'Don Quixote', and seriously considering '10 Days That Shook The World' after re-watching 'Reds' (one of the rare films A and I both like so much that we've agreed to buy the DVD), but am concerned by the audio sample where the reader says "in-tell-ect-u-als" in a way that threatens to be irritating over 14 hours... x

  4. Do you know about Persephone Books? I've found some very excellent books through there.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and discovering that we share some favorite authors -- Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett. I look forward to reading your book - congratulations!
    Anita (Atlanta, Georgia)


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Florence x