North America, with a diverse range of environments and climate zones it makes a wonderful place to see and discover all manner of different plants. One plant family in particular, the Cactaceae (Cacti) family is endemic to the Americas.
For many years exotic gardening enthusiasts in temperate climates have long searched for hardy cacti and succulents. One highly recommended cacti for temperate gardens is the Opuntia Polyacantha, known commonly as the plains prickly pear, it is found naturally on the great plains and prairies of the US and Canada. Given the harsh continental climate with ragingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters it fares well in a temperate climate winter.
Another gem from North America is the Echinacea Purpurea, with its bold flowerheads it has become a firm favourite in the cottage garden. It is fairly easy to grow and prefers a freely draining site. It has been given recognition from the RHS as being perfect for pollinating insects
Californian Lilac (Ceanothus) is a much loved and commonly used garden shrub in the UK. It has lovely clusters of electric blue, honey scented flowers in the spring time. It is an evergreen and has small dark green leaves and stems the year round. It attracts lots of bees and is generally a fast growing but relatively short lived shrub.
Obviously this is merely a minute selection of all the wonderful plants that originate from North America but they are certainly gems and highly recommended for temperate gardens.
Our new topic in our Countries and Continents theme is the USA and will run across a few months partly because there is so much to cover and partly because we are all so busy at the moment! To start this new theme, I want to highlight a really important read that recently blew my mind!
What is so intriguing about this book is that I had never heard of the Osage tribe who were extremely wealthy in the first part of the 1900s due to them living on oil rich lands. Though similar to the Australian aborigines, they were treated like children by many of the white population and not trusted to look after their own affairs and finances, hence a system of white guardianship was introduced. This meant that white senior men in the community were entrusted to look after the dividends and financial wealth of the Osage population. This system of guardianship was open to abuse and more sinisterly led to murder. This book follows the investigation of the murders of the Burbank family, a prominent Osage family in the area.
The system was so corrupt that when numerous numbers of Osage either went missing and turned up dead or were poisoned, no one was held accountable. This turn of extraordinary events coincided with the formation of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI which ultimately was sent to solve the murders. This task was so dangerous that previous investigators had been murdered during their investigations. This meant that most of the new detectives (apart from the lead Tom White and partner John Burger) had to go undercover. One posed as an insurance salesman, another a cattle rancher and one was native American himself. The story of how the case was solved is ingenious as they had no real forensic knowledge compared to now. It was old fashioned and dangerous hard detective work. Although the outcome of the case is startling, the story doesn’t end there as David Grann travels to Oklahoma to find out about more about many of the other Osage murders that were unsolved. What he finds is horrific and for this discovery alone and for making these atrocities more widely known, Grann should be applauded.
This is such an important book to read, I highly recommend that you do so.
France has a rich and well known history of gardens and gardening, from the large palace gardens to the wonderful potager gardens. However there are some very well known and some lesser known elements of the French horticultural scene and we will explore some of these today.
Santiago de Chili
The Square Santiago de Chili is a wonderful green retreat in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. A kind of oasis in the city with magnificent Oriental Plane Trees and a bust of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, poet and pioneering aviator. Not forgetting the gorgeous marble fountain, the garden makes for a welcome change to the busy urban environment.
Lavender Stoechas (French Lavender)
French Lavender is one of the most recognisable lavenders as it has distinctive petals at the top of each flower, somewhat reminiscent of butterfly wings, and typically they will flower earlier than common lavender, with flowers appearing as early as May. One important thing to note however is that they are far less hardy than the common lavender, so if winter is very cold it can be the death knell for them.
Jardin botanique d’Èze
The Botanical Garden of Èze, in Èze not far from Nice has the most wonderful array of exotic succulents and cacti. It is situated in a steep area that falls over 400 meters towards the sea and has magnificent panoramic views of the coast. Amongst the plants you will find an impressive variety of Agaves, Yuccas, Aloes and various species of Cacti.
Garlic (Allium Sativum)
Garlic, often associated with France and French agriculture has been cultivated for thousands of years over the Mediterranean region and is a firm favourite with growers and chefs alike. It is a close relative of onions, chives, leeks, shallots and ornamental alliums.
Overall there are many elements that give France a long and exciting horticultural history and today we have touched on just a few.
Our new theme is France and all things French relating to culture. I have chosen to write about Delphine De Vigan, an author that I have recently discovered, who is causing a bit of a buzz on the literary scene with her latest title ‘Based On a True Story.’ She is Parisian and captures a very personal view of France that resonates with many readers.
No and Me
No and Me is DeVigan’s first title translated into English and was chosen as a Radio 4 book of the week. No and Me tells the story of Lou Bertignac an Autistic teenage girl who experiences a disruptive home life due to her parent’s unhappy marriage. She embarks on a school project about homelessness where she meets ‘No’ another teenage girl who is homeless and persuades her parents to let No live with them. This charming novel is reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye as it reads as if it was written by the protagonist. A really innovative book that highlights homelessness and humanity.
This was the first book of De Vigan’s that I read and is the beginning of her move into what we now know her for, her autobiographical fiction or ‘Autofiction.’ Underground Time is based around the story of two principle narrators; Mathilde a single mother of two boys who works in a market research firm and Thibault who is an emergency doctor on call who has a complicated romantic relationship. Mathilde owns the bulk of the narrative as she experiences the most awful experience of ostracising and workplace bullying from her boss Jacques. The incidences of bullying are so realistic that you cannot help to feel that De Vigan has gone through something similar in real life. You want these two to end up together but this book may not guarantee a Disney-fied ending!
Nothing Holds Back the Night
Nothing Holds Back the Night was my most difficult read of De Vigan’s work as it is imbued with such melancholy. It concerns the difficult life of her mother Lucile and comes across as a painfully real account. Lucile suffered from Bi-Polar disorder and alcoholism. She was from an extremely large family and had many siblings who experienced neglect and tragedy in their midst. The house was extremely chaotic and full of anxiety. Lucile’s mother Liane preferred her children when they were babies, turning cold to them when they grew up. (At one point she is described as physically pushing the elder children away when they wanted attention). The children also experienced neglect with the mother regularly going out in the day leaving them alone in the house. Liane and her husband even went away for a business trip to London leaving the children alone in France when the eldest were not even teenagers yet! The figure of De Vigan’s grandfather is presented as another story altogether. He was a classic Narcissist and most probably had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as he demanded attention from all of those around him and frequently got into heated arguments at social gatherings with those who dared to contradict him. He was consistently unfaithful to his wife and inflicted his criticisms and moods on to her and their children. As if this was not stressful enough, De Vigan obliquely references that he may well have committed sexual abuse with his children and children’s friends. De Vigan strongly points this aspect as being a key one which may have caused her mother’s mental state to freefall into chaos. This is a difficult read as it is quite depressing at times but hopeful for the future in that De Vigan has clearly chosen to raise her children very differently and break this dysfunctional family cycle.
Based On a True Story
The most recent book to be translated into English is the aforementioned Based on a True Story This fascinating tale explores the character of L, an immaculately presented female who infiltrates the life of Delphine the protagonist. This book is a really innovative twist on the hugely influential and popular psychological thriller genre in that it is written in the style of autofiction. So, you are not sure what is true and what is not. De Vigan has a very distinctive writing style that has been cleverly maintained by the excellent translator George Miller. I have read some reviews that feel that this book is not as exciting as some of the more conventional psychological thrillers as it is not completely action packed with twists and turns. That is true to some extent in that it is less action focused but what it does offer is a detailed character study and fascination with the topic of identity that I really enjoyed and would recommend that you seek it out.
Overall, these books represent just a small slice of contemporary French literature, but De Vigan is a fascinating author if you are at all interested in psychological aspects and the merging of the genres of autobiography and fiction. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us next!
Japan is a lively country, overflowing with life. It is filled with many aspects of interesting popular and traditional culture. I have chosen to focus on the popular culture aspect and write about two different films by one of it’s most famous exports, the animation studio ‘Studio Ghibli.’
Studio Ghibli rose to prominence in the West with Spirited Away [DVD]  in 2002/3 in the US and UK, but has been producing films for many years before that in Japan. Studio Ghibli has many animators and is largely known for the work of its two directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata who have produced the bulk of Studio Ghibli output though the tradition of animation sets to continue with the son of Hayao Miyazaki, Gōro Miyazaki directing the Ghibli films Tales From Earthsea [DVD], From Up On Poppy Hill [DVD] and the new TV series Ronja the Robber’s Daughter find the original novel here. In Hayao Miyazaki’s films it was said that he only allowed a maximum of ten per cent of his films to be computer animated and the bulk of it was hand drawn and coloured! This shows an incredible amount of skill, dedication and hard work which shows in the final product. When you compare the quality of the animation on Studio Ghibli films with their contemporary US or UK equivalents, you can really see the difference in the quality of the art work. My Neighbour Totoro compared to The Little Mermaid is a good comparison as they were both created at the same time (1988 and 1989 respectively). When it comes to animation they were streets ahead of the US and UK in Japan at the time, although the increasing use of computer animation makes this harder to compare today.
My Neighbour Totoro
My Neighbour Totoro [DVD] is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli fims. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released in Japan in 1988, it still holds today in the quality of the animation. The film is about two sisters, Satsuki and Mei who have an ill mother in hospital. They move to the country with their father in hope that the cleaner air would allow their mother to recover and come home. When out on an adventure in the garden Mei, the younger sister, discovers a tiny Totoro dropping acorns and that is where the story begins… This story is full of magical adventures with the two sisters and the large Totoro (a tree sprit creature) plus a crazy cat bus! It is a tale of love and adventure between two sisters and is really all about change. What is lovely is that there are lots of examples in animated films where moving house is seen as a stressful and anxious time for children (Toy Story is an example of this), but in My Neighbour Totoro despite the mother being ill in hospital and the family having to move to a totally different area, the girls embrace the change positively and have adventures. The film shows that a potentially stressful change such as moving house can be fun and full of adventures. As an example of the incredible detail used in Ghibli films; there is a scene just before Mei finds the small Totoros, where she sees some tadpoles and puts her hand in the water and they swim away, this scene which lasts a few seconds took a whole month to animate!!
When Marnie Was There
The second film I would like to write about was produced much later and is called When Marnie Was There [DVD]  When Marnie Was There is a story adapted from the book of the same name which is originally set in Norfolk but is set here in a rural area of Japan. This is a story about a girl called Anna who has to move to the country for the Summer to stay with an aunt and uncle in hope that her asthma will improve. When she is away, she uses a boat to sail across a lake to a mansion and meets a young girl called Marnie who dresses differently and looks as if she is from another time in the past. She continues to meet her and is concerned for her, as she cannot always find her as sometimes the house is shut up and deserted. She wonders if Marnie is a dream or something created from her imagination. She is very confused but in the end she finds out the truth which surprised me! Unlike most of the Ghibli output, this film is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but still looks similar to Miyazaki’s artwork.
These are just some of my favourite films by Studio Ghibli. There are rumours that Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to create a new film called Boro the Caterpillar! Some rough cut animation exists of this work and I hope that this does find the funding to get made as it looks good!