Posted by: Sally Ingraham | January 16, 2014

The luxury of plants and books

I began this week with a leisurely stroll through Phipps Conservatory, downing the last sweet dregs of the holiday season via the Winter Light Garden and Flower Show.

East Room, Jan. 12th 2014

The Phipps is easily one of my favorite places in Pittsburgh. It’s maze of glass houses and botanical gardens has been around since 1893, and the permanent collections (orchids, fern room, tropical forest, cacti, bonsai) are fantastically beautiful. The seasonal flower shows are suitably festive – I enjoyed the Fall Flower Show in October, with it’s millions of mums, and the Winter Show was of course overflowing with poinsettias. There are nifty glass sculptures scattered throughout the plants, some permanent and some which tag along as part of the seasonal show spectacle – “Night Magic” was the installation that accompanied the Winter Flower Show (glass mushrooms and ferns) – but I was delighted to see that my favorite “Longfellows” by Hans Godo Frabel were still in the Orchid Room (seen below, circa my October visit):

Another Longfellow - Oct. 22nd 2013

Sunday was the last night of the Winter Light Garden, which is certainly a sight not to be missed:

Winter Light Garden, Jan. 12th 2014

I splurged for a membership on my way out this time, and I have every intention of busing, biking, or walked up to the neighborhood of Oakland regularly to hang out in the Conservatory, drawing plants, sitting by the waterfall in the Tropical Forest, and reading in the Japanese Courtyard Garden. Sounds lovely, right? Come visit me, and you can come along (I got a dual membership!)

I kept to this slow, indulgent pace as I moved into the week. My two days off were spent having tea with friends, drinking cappuccinos while reading 2666 at favorite coffeeshops, walking the long way round wherever I went, and spending hours and hours poking around in bookstores. The ultimate indulgence was of course actually allowing myself to buy a few books.

I am trying not to buy too many books off Amazon or in Barnes & Noble this year, preferring instead to explore and support my local bookstores and smaller presses. I spent two hours in Barnes & Noble on Monday night, however, making a thorough perusal of the entire selection, just to remind myself of what’s out there. I wound up purchasing one book, which was too beautiful to resist:

The blurb on the back was enough to grab me (Icelandic winter, an elusive fox, part mystery part fairy tale) but this article by A. S. Byatt, who mentions Sjón, Borges, and Calvino in the same breath, makes me feel like I’ve stumbled across a treasure. Can’t WAIT to read…

Yesterday I hiked up to the neighborhood of Bloomfield, where “bookstore row” (three bookshops within four blocks) makes me very happy. Fortunately, perhaps, for me (at least for my wallet…) only the East End Book Exchange was open. I was there for ages, found a nice heap of books that I wanted, and then had to make tough choices and whittle my pile down to only four. Things I put back were at least five Europa Editions that sounded great (and at the very least wound up on my TBR list…), a rather old Penguin Classic copy of Beowulf, Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour, and a copy of Marguerite Yourcenar’s A Coin in Nine Hands (which I read in 2011 but never reviewed…silly). Obviously, this shop is well stocked. What I DID purchase was:

I haven’t read Virginia Woolf’s first novel and I’m so intrigued by the idea of it being written in a non-experimental style. And it was just so beautifully yellow, I had to have it!

I’ve never heard of J.G. Farrell or this book, but my habit of keeping an eye out for NYRB editions made me pull it off the shelf. As so often happens with these things, it sounded extremely interesting, so I kept it.

I was just thinking fondly of the sweet times in the past when I’ve succumbed to buying NYRB’s, because they ALL sound fascinating or funny…which led to a sick, sad feeling as it occurred to me how many beautiful books I gave up during my last two years of transient life. I had quite a few NYRB’s there for awhile, before I left Maine. I remember seeing A Month in the Country at my parent’s house recently, but did I leave Witch Grass in Oregon?? Boo… And whatever happened to the Open Letter Press books that I was so excited about gathering back in the spring of 2010? Oh, the agony of scattering a library to the four winds… 😦

Ah, but NOW! *gives self a shake* Now I have the joyous task of rebuilding my library. And lookit what I found:

photo (2)

I mentioned recently that I wanted to read some medieval Scandinavian sagas, so when these presented themselves it seemed like fate. The shop also had Njál’s Saga, but I think these’ll be enough to start with. Between these and the Sjón book, it looks like my winter reading will be full of Icelandic chill – the perfect things to read in the Stove Room at Phipps, while warm and surrounded by earthy planty smells, and accidental impressionistic paintings…

Accidental Impressionistic Painting...? Jan. 12th 2014

More pics from the Fall and Winter Flower Shows at Phipps Conservatory can be found here.



  1. Sounds like a fascinating place.

  2. I have been enjoying, or puzzling over, the Icelandic versions of the Nibelungenlied stories, in prose and verse. It is something else. I thought the prose Penguin version was great (and the tension really builds). There is now a complete poetic translation, too, that I should try.

    Egil’s Saga is simply insane.

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