Thursday, February 15, 2007

Flower Confidential

At 8 a.m. tomorrow morning [16th February] I'm setting out on a trip, an adventure into the unknown. Whether I'll be able to blog much remains to be seen. I shall certainly try, but please be patient if there are long-ish gaps.

Yesterday, in the News Books column at Arts & Letters Daily, I read "The old song tells of the “last rose of summer.” Today there is no last rose of summer, nor a first rose of spring. Flowers are an industrial product... "

So I clicked on the link and was taken to Adrian Higgins' Washington Post review of Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart. [See photo]

Mr Higgins writes : "Indeed, readers of Flower Confidential will be surprised and appalled to learn the extent to which something as fleeting and romantic as a rose or a lily has been turned into an industrial widget. You might accept today that a desk fan or a flashlight has been made somewhere other than in the United States, but a flower? An old Irish song speaks of the last rose of summer "left blooming alone." But today, there is no last rose of summer, nor a first rose of spring -- just roses spewing forth continuously from the jet-age conveyor belt of floriculture. Stewart believes these roses are enchanting as a single bouquet, a personal expression of caring. But force us to look at the machinery of this mass production, as she does so well, and the feeling is a little more queasy."


"Stewart's journey takes us down many such paths, all connected by her own curiosity and highly readable prose. The greatest value of Flower Confidential, however, is that it was written at all. We know so little of the ways simple daily items are brought to us that such a book helps us grasp our modern world. Who knows? Flower Confidential may compel us to return to something purer, more local. It may send us in search of our own version of Teresa Sabankaya's flower kiosk. "

At Amazon US I found the following -

From Booklist : "Along with the making of sausage and politics, flowers can now be added to the list of commodities that it's best to look upon from afar. Who knew floriculture--the big business behind those little blossoms--could be sabotaged by internecine skirmishes, sullied by sexual harassment, and contaminated by industrial pollution? Yet there's good news, too: organic growers as concerned with the welfare of their workers as they are with the health of the environment, and innovative local entrepreneurs providing creative alternatives to impersonal toll-free ordering hotlines. From the Netherlands to Ecuador, Stewart traveled the world, tracking the scent of the hottest stories in a $40 billion per year international industry. What does it take to bring those three-for-$10 bouquets to Wal-Mart? Why don't roses smell like roses anymore? And if a blue rose can be produced, would anyone buy it? As candid as she is circumspect, Stewart combines a romantic's idealism with a journalist's objectivity in this tantalizing expose. Carol Haggas Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

From Publishers Weekly : "Stewart, an avid gardener and winner of the 2005 California Horticultural Society's Writer's Award for her book The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, now tackles the global flower industry. Her investigations take her from an eccentric lily breeder to an Australian business with the alchemical mission of creating a blue rose. She visits a romantically anachronistic violet grower, the largest remaining California grower of cut flowers and a Dutch breeder employing high-tech methods to develop flowers in equatorial countries where wages are low. Stewart follows a rose from the remote Ecuadoran greenhouse where it's grown to the American retailer where it's finally sold, and visits a huge, stock –exchange–like Dutch flower auction. These present-day adventures are interspersed with fascinating histories of the various aspects of flower culture, propagation and commerce. Stewart's floral romanticism—she admits early on that she's "always had a generalized, smutty sort of lust for flowers"—survives the potentially disillusioning revelations of the flower biz, though her passion only falters a few times, as when she witnesses roses being dipped in fungicide in preparation for export. By the end, this book is as lush as the flowers it describes. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. "

Can't wait to read The Earth Moved, though I wonder how many readers under 70, unless they happen to be Hemingway fans, will see the joke?

Finally I looked for Amy Stewart's website. She also has a blog called Dirt where I was interested to read this.

"I'm pleased to announce that the nice people who host my blog at TypePad have chosen Flower Confidential as their Book of the Month. Each month they feature a new book by an author who blogs on TypePad; check out some of their past selections here.

If you've been thinking about starting a blog or switching your blog to TypePad, now's your chance to make the leap and get a free copy of Flower Confidential. I've tried almost every blogging platform out there, and I finally settled on TypePad because it requires no HTML (but makes it easy to add a little HTML if you want to); it allows a lot of customization; and because they make it easy to blog on the road. (If you don't have a smart phone, you can also blog by e-mail.) Check it out, y'all. And thanks to everybody at TypePad for their support."

It's a long time since I added a book to the shelves reserved for Gardening Writers, so I'm delighted to have discovered Ms Stewart.

Should you want to make contact while I'm in orbit, my dot com address is out of action for the moment, but I'll be picking up emails at Please put Bookworm in the subject line.

Editor defends The Adultery Club

[Posted 15 February 2007]

Also in today's blog

Reading obits
Anonymous comment
Commissioning editor defends adultery book

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a senior sub-editor on a provincial daily. In those days, all the national newspapers were laid out on a table in the subs' room and the reporters were expected to skim-read them before starting work or during gaps between assignments.

Soon after I joined the paper, the sub said, "Do you read the obits? You should. They're the most interesting part of any paper."

At 19 I wasn't much interested in the lives of people who had died in their sixties and later, unless they were exceptionally famous. But I took his advice and reading the obits became a habit. This morning, at The Times website, I read the obit of magazine editor Jill Churchill. After breakfast, while curling my hair with an electric flexibrush, I read the obit of Cynthia Longfield, "Intrepid traveller and naturalist who searched the world for dragonflies." [See photo]

Unfortunately this obit was published in July 1991 so you are unlikely to find it online, but it can be read in a marvellous book Chin Up, Girls! edited by Georgia Powell and Katharine Ramsay and published by John Murray at £17 in 2005. But now it's out in paperback and not to be missed.

Here's the Amazon UK synopsis - "From the self-styled 'Queen of Soho' who sued BA, claiming to have been bitten on the bottom by a flea, to the butcher's daughter from Oldham who performed topless as 'the world's strongest woman' before becoming becoming the mistress of a peer whom she met while living in a Pyrennean mountain hut, this is a celebration of the women who refused to fulfil society's expectations. Their company includes the woman who survived four months adrift in a dinghy in the Pacific and the woman who played professional polo disguised as a man for fifteen years, as well as the inimitable Dame Barbara Cartland and Fanny Cradock. And there are over one hundred more. This is the first time that the Daily Telegraph has dedicated a book to women's stories; very few of the women featured were 'celebrities', yet their stories represent a century of progress and change, capturing the spirit of those who came of age between Emancipation and the Equal Opportunities Act, whether high life or low life, pioneers or bluestockings. Taking its title from the inspiring lines of a matron whose nurses faced a WWII firing squad, this is a fascinating portrayal of unforgettable and extraordinary characters united by their refusal to accept society's constraints."

Anonymous comment

Commenting on Monday's blog, Anonymous asked, "So why should we take your comments seriously?"

Because I've been spending my pocket money on books since the Thirties, and keeping a close eye on the publishing/bookselling world since the Fifties. My views are based on a lifetime of enthusiastic reading and a strong desire not to see British publishing become increasingly rubbishy.

Editor defends The Adultery Club

Also yesterday I received, by email, the following -

Dear Ms Weale
Richard Charkin drew my attention to your comments on Tess Stimson's THE ADULTERY CLUB on your blog, and as the commissioning editor reponsible for publishing it, I felt I should respond.
Reading is, by nature, a solitary matter, and what one person thinks is a good book, another thinks is dreadful. This, for me, is part of the rich variety of human nature. How dull life would be if we all liked the very same thing. I'm sorry you felt compelled to quote the entire amazon review in full. There are others on the amazon site which are favourable, and as the book has featured in the Sunday Times top ten bestseller list, and we have over 100,000 copies out in paperback, and many re-orders coming in, clearly some people like it and are happy.
Adultery may sometimes be followed by murder, but often it isn't. If there are readers out there who feel that adultery is 'on a par with shop-lifting', then so be it. How very small-minded they are. They don't have to buy the book - it's quite clear from the title what it is about. What I admire about it is the way the author manages to keep all three voices very individual, and we see all three sides of the proverbial 'eternal triangle'. It may not be a literary classic, but it's well constructed and beautifully balanced, as well as being extremely compelling. And as for Tess Stimson's own background, why shouldn't she write this sort of fiction? It sells, and she enjoys writing it. Many well educated and clever individuals make a living out of entertaining people.
I really don't think THE ADULTERY CLUB reaches the 'murky lower reaches of chick-lit', and actually, I think these remarks show a rather unpleasant snobbery. Having said that, I'm not sure that you've actually read the book. Yes, you've read the blurb, the author biog, and you've clearly clicked on amazon, but then we can all do that, and jump to the wrong conclusion about something.
Yours sincerely
Imogen Taylor
Editorial Director, Fiction

Ms Taylor's comment "If there are readers out there who feel that adultery is 'on a par with shop-lifting', then so be it. How very small-minded they are" was surprising.

My ancient copy of Collins English Dictionary defines small-minded as "having narrow views; petty; ungenerous". It defines adultery as "violation of the marriage vows".

Has the moral climate in Britain really sunk to the point where it's seen as narrow, petty and ungenerous to disapprove of breaking promises? I can't believe that. I know too many people whose word is their bond, and who have been happily married for decades, to be convinced that the tabloids' view of UK society is accurate.

If I spot a copy of The Adultery Club in a charity shop in Spain or Guernsey - and in both places they are awash with "bestsellers" - I will read it. If it really is as well constructed, beautifully balanced and compelling as Ms Taylor claims, I'll admit my conclusions, based on the title, the blurb and one Amazon review, were wrong.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Jason Cowley and W F Deedes

[Posted 14 February 2007]

As the creator of Longwarden, an imaginary stately home, I've done a great deal of research on historic houses.

I would much rather see the most beautiful countryside in Britain in the hands of a few conservation-minded landowners than subject to politicians' whims, and I don't agree with Jason Cowley's views on this subject.

See his article headed "A few rich people, many of them aristocrats, own 69 per cent of the land in Britain. As a result, house prices are so high, millions can't afford to buy a home."

However I have enjoyed some of his other articles and look forward to reading more. For example, in July 2004 in the New Statesman, he wrote -

"A couple of years ago, when I was editing these pages, I telephoned W F Deedes at the Daily Telegraph to ask if he would review Nicholas Bagnall's memoir of a life in journalism. I had once been scornful of Deedes, whom I imagined to be the personification of Conservative Man, but of late I had begun to read his journalism--columns, despatches from sub-Saharan Africa, countryside diaries--with intensifying respect and admiration. Deedes agreed to review the book without hesitation, and delivered his neatly typed copy on time and at the agreed length. He never once asked how much he would be paid. His review, like most of this book's 18 character studies of influential figures he has met during a long dual career in politics and newspapers, was concise, wise and compassionate.

To read Deedes, especially in the company of those who, like him, are regular contributors to the op-ed pages of the Telegraph--the pious Charles Moore, the strident and bellicose Barbara Amiel, the inane Mark Steyn--is to encounter an unexpectedly liberal voice amid so much complacency."

At Cowley's website [see first link] we read that he is "a journalist, cultural critic and editor. His interests include literature, music, politics, foreign affairs and sport. He is a senior editor and writer on the Observer, with overall responsibility for the award-winning Observer Sport Monthly magazine, and contributing editor of the New Statesman.

His essays, reviews, profiles and reports have been published in most major publications in Britain and the United States. He is a former literary editor of the New Statesman and staff writer on the Times. He was a judge of the Whitbread Book of the Year awards in 1995, the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997, The London Writers’ Awards in 2001, the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001 and 2002, and the British Press Awards in 2004. His novel, Unknown Pleasures, was published by Faber and Faber in 2000."

Earlier I wrote, "There being no photo on his site, I've been scouring the Net – well, checking 100 Google links – for a picture of him. Without success."

However, thanks to advice from reader Helen, [see her comment] you can now see what Mr Cowley looks like.

Grumpy Old Bookman to blog less often

[Posted on Tuesday, 13 February 2007]

Yesterday was overshadowed by the news that Grumpy Old Bookworm is stopping his Monday-Friday blogs.

As he explained : "I have decided, for a variety of reasons, to make some changes in the way the GOB blog operates.

In short, I have decided not to post material here on a regular, five-day-a-week basis. I am not going to retire from blogging completely, and will appear here from time to time. But posts will be irregular and less frequent than they used to be.

Everything that follows in this post is background to that decision -- background which may be of interest to some, especially anyone who is thinking of running a blog of their own."

I took his advice to subscribe to Bloglines [it's free] in order not to miss his future blogs.

In a comment on his semi-retirement, writer and publisher Susan Hill asked, "However long do you spend on blogging then Michael ? Mine takes me about 10-15 minutes a day MAX. I couldn`t decorate a room in that time, or write much of my book either."

I should have thought it obvious that GOB's long blogs, with their many links, took a lot more time to write than Ms Hill's usually short-ish blogs.

I started my own blog because so many people told me they missed the Bookworm on the Net website review column in The Bookseller. But I've always been a little uneasy about writing anything that didn't earn at least a little money.

When I looked in at GOB's place early this morning, there were 28 comments from people who love his blog and will miss him.

Coming tomorrow : If you're missing GOB and haven't yet discovered Jason Cowley, do so now.

Monday, February 12, 2007

[Posted on Monday 12 February 2007]

Also in today's blog
Simon Heffer on the Great Divide

Reading Richard Charkin's blog on Saturday morning, I was surprised to see that the list of "just a few of our recent and sure-fire future successes" included a book called The Adultery Club by Tess Stimson.

Of the many titles, in recent years, aimed at readers with nothing between the ears, surely this is an outstanding example?

Here's a review of the book from Amazon UK. "Absolute rubbish. Trite, plagiarised and hackneyed. Buy it only when you have thrown away any other form of reading material including cereal box ingredients. Miss Stimson has taken well known and well circulated round robin emails and is passing them off as her own work (clearly as there is no credit in the book that I could see). Her florid and sweaty prose with regard to the male lead character's public schoolboy-esque longings is tedious and hormonal and none of her characters are remotely likeable. Don't bother."

At Ms Stimson's site, her bio tells us that she "was born and brought up in Sussex, England. As a child, she lived for several years in Greece and Africa, before winning a scholarship to Notre Dame School, Lingfield. She subsequently read English at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she received the Eleanor Rooke Award (for English Literature), the Dorothy Whitelock Award (for Anglo-Saxon), and was made an Exhibitioner."

You would think with that interesting start in life, she would have aspired to write in a more rewarding field than the murky lower reaches of chick lit.

Yes, there's a lot of adultery about in the real world, but there are also many, many bookworms for whom adultery is on a par with shop-lifting, arson, lying etc. They can't identify with people who do these things.

But, you may argue, a great many decent people enjoy reading crime fiction, so why should they reject tales of adultery? The reason is probably because most crime fiction is concerned with murder, and murder is not something most of us ever encounter except in the press. Adultery is more commonplace. Even if we've never had any direct experience of it ourselves, we almost certainly know someone who has and have pitied or despised them, depending on whether they were the victims or the adulterers.

Tess Stimson has herself experienced adultery. In an interview on the Pan Macmillan page [this site can be slow-loading] she is asked –

"So – whose side are you on in The Adultery Club? Is there a character that you sympathise with more than the others?"

To which she replies -
"I identify with both women – the younger woman, Sara, who falls in love with a married man she can’t have, and the loyal wife, Mal, betrayed and afraid of losing her family – because I have worn both pairs of shoes. My first husband left me and our two sons, then aged 4 and 1, for a woman twenty-two years his junior, which was extremely painful. But I can’t claim to be an innocent, either, because when I was in my early twenties, I had a brief affair with a married man (though I didn’t know he was married at the time.) But as to whose side I’m on: that of each character in turn, as they tell their story. I hope the reader is, too."

Simon Heffer on the Great Divide

Earlier on Saturday morning, I read a piece by Simon Heffer at The Spectator which concludes –

"It is pointless to complain about the utter lack of academic rigour in all this, since such a concept seems to have gone out of the window years ago. Were one a conspiracy theorist, one might conclude that it suits the Government very well to create such a bovine population so lacking in curiosity. Or, perhaps we must accept that schools are now designed to be expensive and inefficient child-minding operations. Their new purpose is to teach children things their parents should, and to try to engage their curiosity in the most basic fashion because many parents don't, and won't."

"So perhaps we need a national curriculum for parents. Since the Government is happy to interfere in family life (or what remains of it) in every other way, this shouldn't be beyond them. It would be much better, of course, if the parents of this country realised that it might be better if they took a firmer hand themselves. Otherwise, in 20 or 30 years' time, the gap between the small, educated minority and the massive, uneducated majority will represent the greatest class divide in this country since before the 1870 Education Act, and will present our country with a social danger greater than most of us can bear to imagine."

From where I'm sitting, the gap is already a frighteningly wide crevasse. Every day the so-called broadsheet newspapers become more and more like the tabloids. On Friday Susan Hill was having a rant about the quality of the stuff in The Times. But as she prefaced her comments with – "I don`t buy newspapers now apart from my Daily Mail-over-coffee-fix" – I couldn't take her strictures too seriously.

But is it really necessary for supposedly reputable publishers to cater to the market for tripe? Silly question, I guess. All any of the the big publishers care about nowadays is the bottom line.