'It was a world that encouraged slowness, detail, attention," Adam Nicolson writes in "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History" (Viking, $27.95), of his boyhood years at the 16th century castle where Vita Sackville-West had her famous garden from 1930 until her death in 1962. Nicolson is the grandson of Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. His love for every square inch of the estate is contagious. Sissinghurst is in Kent, 50 miles south of London, in a part of England known as the Weald, which means forest. It covers hundreds of acres and attracts 115,000 visitors each year. It was opened to the public in 1938 and purchased by the National Trust in the 1960s, a long and difficult process of negotiation shepherded by Adam's father, Nigel.
Adam remembers the fields and forests, streams and crumbling towers. He writes about the hops garden, the orchards, the sound of nightingales and the mystery of ancient trees and mossy corners:
"Nowhere felt deeper or more like a vein under the skin than down in the bed of the Hammer Brook. It was an entrancing and different world, a green, wet womb, a place of privacy and escape. Along the banks, the alders and hazels were so thick that the wavering line of the stream was like a strip of wood run wild. Once beneath them, you were in a liquid tunnel, arched over with leaves, gloomy in its hollows, suddenly bright where the sun broke through, seductively cool when the day was burning on the fields outside. Where the shade was particularly thick, in the depth of the little wood, the sunlight still found its way between the alders and the maples, making spots of light no bigger than a hand or a face, dropped across the darkness as if by a brush, looking like the speckling on the skin of a trout, or those pools of light hair you find on the flanks of young deer."
This is vivid writing, made richer by the entirety with which Sissinghurst is woven into Nicolson's being. After his father died in 2004, Adam decided to revive Sissinghurst as a working, organic farm, which involved another set of negotiations with the National Trust. He and his family went to live there, and Nicolson spent a great deal of time researching farm records. Wheat, barley, hops, oats, rye, beans, potatoes, kale, sheep and other livestock - Nicolson steeped himself in the history of the land and the estate, which was visited in 1573 by Queen Elizabeth I and her retinue. He records his own efforts - successes and failures; the learning process. He quotes from Vita's diaries and from her poems, including this one, written in 1931, called "Sissinghurst": Buried in time and sleep, / So drowsy, overgrown, / That here the moss is green upon the stone, / and lichen stains the keep."
"I think the farmed landscape is the most beautiful thing the human race has ever made," writes Adam Nicolson. "More than the wilderness, it is our world, essentially cooperative and the great testament to what we are."
Twenty-eight-year-old Emily Gould has been called by many "the voice of her generation." She was an editor at Gawker.com, has written for The New York Times Magazine and now has her blog, emilymagazine.com. "And the Heart Says Whatever" (Free Press, $16 paper) is her first book, a collection of essays about what it's like to live the literary life in New York (even better, Brooklyn). It's not always glamorous - Emily's first job was guiding guests to Hyperion from the elevator to the waiting area: "The ritualistic aspect of this duty appealed to me." Directors, elderly bluesmen, frat boys and New School denizens populate the essays, which are written in a careful, direct, but almost willfully naive style. This girl is going to hold onto the bits she cares about, no matter how much glamour and trauma is thrown her way. The great path from editorial assistant to assistant editor and on to associate editor looms like the yellow brick road: surreal, nostalgic.
"There were still good times," she writes. "There were good times all the time."