Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, The Busy and The Indolent By Ruth Stout

I highly recommend Ruth Stout’s book Gardening Without Work to anyone who is interested in gardening or thinks gardening is too much work. This is not Stout’s first book on gardening but it was the only one I could find at a reasonable price (some titles are out of print). I hear all her books are worth the read. She even wrote a few nongardening books which look interesting. Her casual, articulate, and witty tone reminded me of Alice Thomas Ellis (they both wrote weekly columns). This was such a delightful read I didn’t even feel like I was reading a gardening book. It was more like enjoying a cup of coffee with one of your opinionated, knowledgeable, funny, lifelong friends.

Her advice is simple: stop tilling your garden and apply a thick layer of mulch to your soil instead. Stout preferred spoiled hay but said that old leaves, straw or wood also work. As The mulch breaks down, it feeds the soil. It also stops most weeds from growing and keeps the soil moist all season long even during dry spells.

Stout didn’t start gardening until she was 46 and only started her heavy mulch method years later because she was tired of waiting for the plowman. I found this encouraging since I’m mostly self-taught. My last garden was urban and done solely in containers everything did well. It was certainly much easier than the traditional tilled method that I did in years past. This year we’ve moved and have some raised beds. I started my no till garden and threw some potatoes on the ground and covered them with old leaves. My husband is a skeptic, but that never stops me.

“If you have the soul of a gardener, not for anything would you work with gloves on.”

“Why not plant asparagus in the tulip bed? The flowers will be on their way out and their leaves will begin to die and look ugly just about the time asparagus turns into an attractive fern. And think what fun it would be to “tiptoes through he tulips” together your asparagus.”

-Ruth Stout

P.S. I wonder if Wendel Berry ever talks about her no dig, no till, heavy mulch method? If you know please let me know. Wasn’t he against greenhouses? to which I say, “Bah!”

-Mrs. Karl T cooper, Jr.

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A Child’s Garden of Verses

A Child’s Garden of Verses

Every child needs a copy
Maybe two or three-
Copious editions!
Tell me, which is best?

Fujikawa, Tasha Tudor,
Jessie Will Cox Smith,
Hilda Boswell, E. M. Wilkin,
or . . .
A & M Provensen!

A joy to read with anyone,
Fun to memorize.
Poems of adventure,
Poems of Surprise.

So find a cozy spot,
That’s all you really need
for Robert Louis Stevenson’s
Delightful poetry.

Mrs. Karl T. Cooper Jr.

A Breath of Air By Rumer Godden

A Breath of Air by Rumer Godden is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Filled with juxtaposition and tension the story unfolds: The sophisticated playwright/ the Islanders, the pagans/ the Christians, the masculine father / the feminine daughter, lovers/ the world.

Although this novel is not one of Godden’s best, (Greengage Summer remains my favorite) her writing always makes me think. There were themes that I never really thought of while reading the Play that struck me anew in this fantastical retelling: The need for culture, its limits and fragility, Civilization [Liturgy] as a birthright.

“Awake, dear heart, awake. Thou hast slept well. Awake.”

Setting Up House, A Home is Never Finished.

Here are some books that have influenced my interior style:

buy this if: you find yourself at fleamarkets on the weekends, love ikat prints, and your home is described as "eclectic"


I liked this step by step guide. It shows you how one inspirational piece can inform the overall vision of the room- creating a domino effect. It separated the trees so I could appreciate the forest and create my own. Also, the cover is so pretty I’ve put the book on my coffee table just so I could enjoy it.

Create The Style you Want on A Budget You Can Afford 

I find a lot of interior design books impractical and flashy but not this one!  Desha Peacock’s book was down to earth, showcasing many different homes and designers, many of whom were not professionals, just happy and creative homeowners. It wasn’t pretentious or obnoxiously lowkey and bloggy.

Hardcover The Little Book of Hygge : Danish Secrets to Happy Living Book

The Little Book of Hygge

I finally read this cozy little book, mainly because I loved the cover.  While the book isn’t an interior design book per se, it is helpful in realizing that the simple pleasures in life are important, home comforts can contribute to our overall happiness and can bring a family closer together. It off balanced my minimalist tendencies nicely, and allowed me to relax about the very “lived in” look my home seems to cultivate so well.

Hardcover The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up : The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Book

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up

KonMarie: Are you sick of me recommending this book yet? I’m recommending it again.  decluttering your home will go a long way in designing your home. Really you should start here.  I feel as if I’ve almost reached that click point konmarie talks about. Where you have just the right amount of things and they each have their homes.

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

Back To The Classics 2020 Better late than Never

1. 19th Century Classic
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Next year, I may be ready for The Golden Bowl or The Wings of a Dove.

2. 20th Century Classic
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
To coincide with the 1920 club.

3. By a Woman
Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier
Planning to read a few du Maurier books this year. This one is about her ancestress.

4. In Translation
The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
Also about the author’s direct forebear. My third time to read it. It’s better than ever.

5. Non-white Author
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I want to read Aunt Sara’s Wooden God as well.

6. Genre Classic
In A Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Hassee
Historical fiction. Scandinavian author.

7. Person’s Name in the Title
Pere Goriot by Honore Balzac
Followed by Lost Illusions!

8. Place in the Title
Survivors in Mexico by Rebecca West
And then The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene. . .

9. Nature in the Title
The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
And maybe Wilderness Essays by John Muir Or A River Runs Through It.

10. About a Family
The Zelmanyaners by Moyshe Kulbak.
My favorite category this year! Also need to read The Oppermanns.

11. Abandoned Classic
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Fast Food Nation a possible companion read.

12. Classic Adapted for the Screen
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
And perhaps read aloud A Tale of Two Cities.

Thoughts on Books and Minimalism

How many books should a family own? I heard somewhere that Kon marie, the tidying guru, recommends no more than 30 books (I couldn’t find this number in her book however and have my doubts that actually she said such a thing.)  I find such arbitrary limits on books disturbing, here are 30 children books:


30 Books

As much as I love the kon marie method of tidying up I will never pare down my library to 30 books. I recently read about a study that confirmed the benefits of a larger home library.  The study found that a home library promoted reading and math skills (more than college alone), children that lived in homes with at least 80 books had greater literacy and numeracy in adulthood.

Here’s what 80 books looks like:


80 Books

That’s a little better but not nearly enough.

The same study found diminishing returns once you hit 280 books. Here’s what 280 books look like:


280 books

Much better. This is nearly all our children picture books. But we have well over 280 books in our home library. Of course, we homeschool and use a living books curriculum so every year we acquire at least 20 new books that we intend to keep and use for years to come. Our library grows very quickly.


If you’re a minimalist, you should have at the very least 80 books in the house. If you’re a wanna-be-minimalist at least 280. If you’re a book-lover-wanna-be-minimalist-homeschooler I  recommend at least 280 for each category. There are no limits on categories.

A Review: Far from The Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd (Penguin Classics)

Far From the Madding Crowd was an elaborate Victorian valentine of a book. Having only read Tess before this out of Hardy novels, I did not expect the gentleness and forgiveness that the characters in Far From the Madding Crowd find among their fellow human beings. But I certainly see in shadow here the more chiseled tragic lines of the later Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Three features of Hardy’s writing in Far From the Madding Crowd especially impressed me. The first is the agricultural, pastoral, and wild settings of the story, the weather in the woods. I used to read some books for this kind of thing alone. There was a time later when I had no use for it. In this first reading of Far From the Madding Crowd though these were possibly my favorite parts. I copied passages about sheep-shearing, about the oat harvest, about a lightning storm. In the opening pages, the cold, distant, anciently named and charted fires of the constellations enthralled me. Hardy venerates the antique customs that characterize and ennoble the works and days of country dwellers, even the mentally dense ones. The country setting must be the reason for the novel’s title. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the beauty of the countryside does nothing to cancel a jot or iota of human misery. But it is a constant tantalizing reminder of the earthly paradise so close in human vision, so absolutely remote from human fallenness. Here at least some of the characters live in a degree of harmony with nature, of philosophy and religious faith.

Hardy also gives rein to an unexpected spirit of playfulness in Far From the Madding Crowd. He draws little diagrams now and then which seem to be just for fun. The men in the taverns have amusingly ignorant conversations. A horse stops chewing and looks up while a man makes Bathsheba a passionate declaration of love. Even at moments most intense for the characters, Hardy will step back in the narrator with a cool or amused observation on their humanity.

And then there is what you could call the Gothic element, the melodrama. Certain plot elements are actually ridiculous but constantly redeemed by Hardy’s sly sense of the ridiculous. That sense of humor however doesn’t cancel out the chilling quality of some of the situations. In one chapter, there is a horrible “gurgoyle” in the church architecture that, though inanimate, behaves with spite and vengeance. There are other examples in the novel of a bad magic or imp of perversity at work. Not to mention a freaky (but very humanely portrayed) case of mental derangement.

I have to say something more about religion in the novel, after glancing at it above. You know that beautiful poem of Hardy’s “The Oxen.” In this novel, I get the same sense of complex respect for religious faith and even a hint of that child-like hope that “it might be so.” Even as he tears apart the religion of the establishment and the theological gymnastics of “simple people.” There is a recognition in the plot of prayer’s power to transform a moment of crisis. And the love story, of course, is redolent with Christian allegory (or at least allusion).

It may be that Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a better book than this one. It may be that this is a more real and generous book than Tess. It may also be that Hardy is better in poetry than in fiction. My juries are out on all those questions but I found Far from the Madding Crowd to be a special and thoroughly effective novel.

-Mrs. Aldertre

Back to The Classics Catch-Up

The end of the year is drawing near and I find myself rushing to finish my challenge. How many books do you have left?

Death Comes to the Archbishop By Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics)

I was anticipating a more plot driven novel but this is a beautiful episodic book; each chapter complete on it’s own and yet connected to the others. It is descriptive, nevertheless, the language remains sparse, sharp, and clear. I was struck by it’s almost cinematic clarity. It is a book of places, a portal to both the old and new world.

“He was overcome by a feeling of place.”

“Either a building is part of a place or it is not. Once that kinship is there, time will only make it stronger.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a candid coming of age story. It follows Francie Nolan as she grows up in urban America.  Set in Brooklyn, this is another novel of place:

There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.

It is also about the power of the imagination and education. These life-changing gifts shoot up in ordinary places yet Betty Smith portrays an everyday sacredness to them a type of grace poured out:

“The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church. She pushed open the door and went in. She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library past and freshly inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense at high mass.”

The theme of a meritocracy is at the center of the novel as well:

“A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel up climb.”

We watch Francie, like the tree, rise from the filth and toward the sun.  But we know it wasn’t through her own efforts. She is able to rise up through sacrifices, her grandmother’s, her mother’s, even by her alcoholic father’s love and her scandalous Aunt’s clever schemes. Yes, Francie Nolan grows and is able to overcome poverty but we are always reminded of her roots, her yard, her family, her city and the ordinary graces amongst the pain:

Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard.

Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?

. . . It meant that she belonged some place. She was a Brooklyn girl with a Brooklyn name and a Brooklyn accent. She didn’t want to change into a bit of this and a bit of that.”



An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

An Ideal Husband (Dover Thrift Editions)

I love Oscar Wilde; his works are descriptive, funny, and plot- driven. An Ideal Husband is filled with Wilde’s eye for detail and oh, so quotable wit!

Lord Goring: I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.
Lord Goring: To love oneself is the beginning of a life long romance.

Wilde’s plays are extremely entertaining in fact, the confusion which ensues in his plays are quite Shakespearean. But don’t let the charm and humor fool you, like Shakespeare Wilde has heavier themes at play. Themes of  honor, integrity,  corruption, sin and redemption.

“It is not the Perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love.”


Lord Goring: Everything is dangerous, my dear fellow. If it wasn´t so, life wouldn´t be worth living.


Sooner or later we all have to pay for what we do.

An Ideal Husband is a short play (just 80 pages) but every page engaging. I was quickly whisked away into high society and impressed with how much of societies’ problems were divulged within simple conversations:

Lord Goring: “But no man should have a secret from his own wife. She invariably finds it out. Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious”

Mrs. Cheveley: “I suppose that when a man has once loved a woman, he will do anything for her, except continue to love her?”

Mrs. Chevely: “How you men stand up for each other!”
Lord Goring: “How you women wage war against each other!”

The play was a treat to read and especially interesting  to re-visit after reading his Fairy Tales last year*

*which are exquisite, perfectly sad and yet perfectly uplifting. They echo the gospels’ good news of redemption and everlasting life.

Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

This very long book took me a long time to read: I began toward the end of June and finished at the very end of August. There can be no other book like it, a multi-faceted whirlpool of history and personal reflections: on history, theology, friendship, love, marriage, tradition, beauty, food, textiles, the landscapes and peoples of what was then Yugoslavia. It’s complex, not to say complicated, and Rebecca West changes registers on the least twinkle of inspiration. 1150 pages and not one was boring. In fact, it was, at
the risk of sounding narcissistic, as unfailingly interesting as reading my own old notebooks. I think because of the extraordinary intimacy of the narration.

Here are some themes:


of Yugoslavia, of course. There are long passages devoted to specific events, persons, or epochs. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand early in the book. The life and fate of an assassin, as told to the author by his sister, an intimate portrait of them both. The Karageorgevitches, the Obrenovitches — dynasties of rulers. The battle of Kossovo. And many more.

The genius of Eastern Christianity

As a Roman Catholic, I was frustrated by West’s failure to see that there is in Western Christianity a different manifestation of the same genius. But what she sees in the East is really there and really splendid. Her comments on Orthodox art, architecture, and above all, liturgy — the spirit of the liturgy — are charged with the Christian mystery, as encountered by one apparently not religiously committed.


Rebecca West has been called a feminist. Everywhere she goes she notices the women and makes judgments and observations on the male-female dynamics, whether the women seem happy, whether their talents are exercised and valued, how they dress. It’s all fascinating and much of it far from the feminist orthodoxies of today. “A chalice filled with a rich draught of tradition”: she sees this as one of the best things a woman can be.


West has a wonderful insight into tradition and how inheriting a noble tradition (she mostly looks at the tradition of Byzantium as it survives in the Balkans, but also at strands of Jewish and Muslim tradition) can make a people who are materially poor rich
nevertheless, in a deeper way. Related to this is her sharp distinction between imperialism (she critiques empire but doesn’t absolutely condemn it) and nationalism (which she sees as deeply related to the fullness of human life). What she does condemn, absolutely, is Nazism and fascism. She doesn’t seem to see Communism as a serious threat or to take other people very seriously when they do (an error common in the historical moment).


All along the way, we get little glimpses into Rebecca West’s relationship with her husband who is travelling with her. They banter with each other, they extend small courtesies, they sympathize, they analyze their experiences and the people they travel with and meet on the way. Chief among their companions is Constantine, a poet, a government official, Serbian, Jewish, married to a German. When his wife Gerda joins the group for part of their travels, we get a portrait of a much less happy marriage — and a portrait of the blindness and evil afoot in Germany.


In many ways, the book is the story of Rebecca and her husband’s friendship with Constantine, which begins so brilliantly and ends with strain almost amounting to estrangement. Constantine himself is a man of contradictions, someone waiting perhaps to resolve into the paradox he is called to be.


Rebecca West is exquisitely attuned to the all the little paradoxes that make up the authentic texture of beauty. She finds the paradox in the ancient bridge, in the movements of water, in the wildflower. It’s one of the many things that kept me reading,
this series of gentle surprises, linguistic and aesthetic. And while she plays with these little paradoxes, she struggles with a great one. It’s only in the epilogue that she takes the leap and resolves it. I was afraid of how it was going to end as I turned those last pages. But I wasn’t disappointed!
My teeth chatter as I seek to wrap up this review. It’s as if, in writing all this about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I’ve revealed, somehow, more than I fully intended. I will end by saying that I loved this encounter with a lively mind (and breath, heart beat,
foot step) and I’m now eager to meet the same mind, the same person again, in her works of fiction.


-Mrs. Aldertree

The Power and The Glory

“The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of Christians.” – Tertullian

The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene is a must read. This is one of Greene’s “Catholic” novels (he disliked the term Catholic novelist). The book is set in Revolutionary Mexico; The government has outlawed Catholicism and rounded up and martyred priests, who must now celebrate Mass in secret.

The story follows a “Whiskey Priest” on the run. His pursuers think he is the last priest left in Mexico. The priest continues to serve his flock albeit imperfectly. He is often drunk and interiorly praying the authorities would finally catch him to end his misery. 

Greene has an unlikely and brilliant sense of humor; I found myself laughing as I read about this dark post-apocalyptic world.  It seemed to be an ingenious mixture of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and Walker Percy’s “Love in The Ruins.”

Greene is at once accessible and insightful and avoids sentimentality when it comes to religion. Although it deals with death, martyrdom, damnation and salvation the book isn’t morbid or preachy. Green simply captures the internal struggle to avoid evil and do good, to love God and neighbor, to become a saint.

The Power and The Glory reminds us that we are called to work out our salvation in fear and trembling and yet we must also trust God to perfect our imperfect love. Near the novel’s end the priest reflects on his need for salvation: “It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful,”  The world, “needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.” The whiskey priest knows that he is the half-hearted and the corrupt. He is keenly aware of his habitual sins, his mortal sins (still unconfessed) and continually prays for salvation knowing he is undeserving. The empathy we feel for the Whiskey priest becomes a sign of hope for us. We too are half-hearted and corrupt. This empathy is what fills the plot with hope, and gives the end an uplifting tilt, despite the Post- Apocalyptic landscape.

Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.