Saturday, 31 December 2011

A quick round up

A Christmas table decoration, made over a week before The Day - it lasted well
To conclude my comments of books read before Christmas, one I really enjoyed and read very quickly was Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. A first novel and a very readable one at that, the story opens with Major Pettigrew learning of the death of his younger brother. The ramifications of this and the possession of his brother's gun, one of a pair of very expensive shotguns inherited from their father, become almost the widowed Major's reason for living, until he begins to find friendship and a shared interest in literature with Mrs Ali, widow of the village shopkeeper. There are a number of interesting themes in the story; Major Pettigrew's relationships with his brother and sister-in-law, his growing involvement in village life, his blossoming friendship with Jasmina Ali and entanglement in his son Roger's affairs, both social and business. So although a fairly light and gentle read, there is quite a lot of meat in it as well.

Our Book Club read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita recently, which was re-read for most of us; we are all femmes d'un certain age, after all. Several could remember reading not long after it was first published, and for many it called to mind other books read, such as Azar Nafizi's Reading Lolita in Teheran, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and a story from the collection A Little Aloud, which was Joanne Harris's Faith and Hope go Shopping. The themes we discussed were the excuse Humbert Humbert uses for his seduction of Lolita - that he was not her first lover; the convenience of Charlotte Haze's death for Humbert access to Lolita, the eventual murder of Clare Quilty and its awful humour. Other areas for discussion were the age of sexual maturity and consent in different societies and times, Someone pointed out that Lolita was published at a similar time to the Kinsey reports into sexuality in America. One thing that kept us reading the novel was the beautiul and lyrical quality of the writing.

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain was published in 1999, but despite being a fan of historical novels and also of Rose Tremain, I hadn't read this. Although the plot is somewhat rambling- King Christian's search for money to improve the Danish economy in the period 1629 to 1630. We learn of Christian's early life and friendship with Bror Brorson, his hiring of Peter Claire, an English musician, and Christian's wife Kirsten's affair with her German lover Otto. There are several different voices who tell their version of the story, but only Kirsten and Marcus, a young boy, brother to Emilia who is one of Kirsten's women and also beloved of Peter Claire are in the first person. The atmosphere of a Danish winter is beautifully evoked, with descriptions of coldness, fog, mist and frost. Love, sex, marriage, money and music and its importance to different people are all brought together in this woberful read of a book.

I started reading D J Taylor's Derby Day in November, and eventually finished it last night. I'm a fan of D J Taylors writing, having throughly enjoyed his previous Victorian mystery, Kept. Derby Days is about racing in the mid Victorian period. Mr Happerton buys a horse and enters it for the Derby, the great race held at Epsom; he also marries Rebecca Gresham, daughter of a wealthy lawyer and moves into her family home in Belgrave Square. For me, the book is in two parts, the first mainly setting the scene, while the second part has much more action, culminating in the running of the Derby and the cosequences of which horse won it. The caste of characters is well-drawn and intiguing and descriptions of the settings of Belgrave square, Lincolnshire and Epsom are also appealing. The plot is complex but comes to a satisfying ending, making this an excellent read, especially for a dreary wintertime.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes was a lovely read, beautifully written and although not quite totally unputdownable, certainly made me want to find out the ending, how these tiny carvings or netsuke, of which the hare was one, survived their journey from person to person and continent to continent. Edmund de Waal first saw the collection when he visited Japan when studying ceramics and eventually inherited the collection, which aroused his curiosity as to how they had come to him and who had owned them in the past. The story is of the family who owned them, delighted in them, and played with them. Edmund de Waal is descended from a branch of the Ephrussi family, who originated in Odessa, then travelled to Europe to set up branches of the family business. One brother set up in Paris, another in Vienna and the family prospered. One daughter of the family  married into the Rothschilds, and the Ephrussi- Rothscild Palace still graces the Riviera today. Charles Ephrussi bought the collection of Japanese netsuke from a dealer in Paris and had a glass vitrine made to display them. The collection later were transported to Vienna, where they were played with by the children of the family while their mother dressed for dinner. Their survival of the war was due to the ingenuity of a maid, who afterwards handed them back to the family. The range of emotions the author felt on discovering different stages of his family's earlier life is wonderfully and tenderly described . There are pictures of some of the netsuke here along with more information about the book and about the author.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


I really wasn't keen on the idea of reading Emma Donoghue's Room when we chose it for one of our Book Club reads. I felt the story, narrated by a five year old boy about existing in one tiny room with his mother, might be on the depressing side. How wrong I was. This, despite its theme of kidnapping and captivity is fascinating and ultimately, I feel, optimistic, revealing how resilient children and adults can be. Ma and Jack live in a tiny room, in which Jack was born and his mother, Ma, tries to bring him up and to educate him to the best of her ability. Jack describes the daily routine, how Ma obtains the food and other necessities they need  and the treats they ask for from Old Nick, the only other character we meet in the first part of the story, who visits the room at night. On one occasion when displeased, old Nick cuts off the electricity, after which episode Ma, a young woman in her early twenties, determines that she and Jack must get out of their captivity and devises a plot, which involves Jack in some danger. However, the second part of the story, after a successful escape, relates how Jack and Ma become acquainted with the real world, or in Ma's case, re-acquainted. This part is very tenderly written and I felt was ultimately optimistic in its outlook. An uplifting read, despite some of the horrorrs in it.
Our Book Club discussion ranged over a number of the themes, including the real-life cases of kidnap and subsequent imprisonment which have been published , how succeessfully Jack would be re-introduced to reality, and our admiration for Ma as a resourceful mother.

Monday, 5 December 2011

No blogging recently, for a number of good reasons, so will do a catch-up of what I've read in the past few weeks - not as much as I might have, but some good stuff, such as Gerard Woodward's story Nourishment.This was an intriguing read. Set in south London, starting during World War 2, Tory has recently learned that her decorator husband Donald is missing, eventually turning up as a prisoner of warin Germany. Her children have ben evacuated to the country, her mother has returned from her country cottage, all set to help Tory. Tory herself gets a job in a local gelatine factory, set up by a former boxer turned businessman. One day Tory receives al etter from Donald, asking her to write a sexy letter to him in return. Tory is shocked by this and feels at first she cannot follow this demand, but eventually manages to write a series of extremely erotic letters, due to her having an affair with the gelatine factory owner, which has other consequences. The theme of nourishment has several implications, one being the finding of a joint of meat by Mrs Head, Tory's mother, after the bombing of the local butcher's shop. There is quite a bit of humour in this story, and also a lot of sadness, some of being the results of war and its continuing effects on those who were involved in it.There is a write up here by dovegreyreader and a review here.  I haven't read any other novels by Gerard Woodward, but will be looking out for them, as this was well worth reading.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Back home

Back home from France and back into life here again, its time to catch up with some of my recent reading.
Jude Morgan's A Taste of Sorrow (review here) was a moving and for me exciting read. I found the story of the early life of the Bronte children sympathetically but clearly described, and although a work of fiction, obviously based on a detailed research. The story begins with the death of Maria Bronte, mother of six children, a horrifying event, and then the running of the household by her sister, known as Aunt Branwell. The atmosphere of Haworth is well-described, with the rather bleak interior of the house almost echoed by the equal bleakness of the moors outside, and the hard working life of the village with its farming and wool production included in that harshness.
The school as portrayed in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was based on one to which the Bronte daughters were sent. Set up for the daughters of clergymen, but the conditions were poor, with inadequate food and heating, especially considering the hard winters of the Victorian period. The two eldest daughters of Patrick Bronte both died young, of consumption, as it was called, or tuberculosis as we now call it, a disease which was eventually to affect the whole family apart from Patrick Bronte himself. The descriptions of how this happened were certainly the most sorrowful aspects of this book, despite the increasing success of Anne, Emily and Charlotte;s writings. All were successful published novelists at a time when more and more people were searching for good, intelligent reading matter.

Roma Tearne's Brixton Beach was actually acquired at an author talk some time ago, but languished on a shelf until now. What a lovely read this was, despite the theme of violence which runs throughout the story. Although this was one of those books I kept putting down then picking up again, a slower, gentler read perhaps reflecting the characters of Alice and her mother Sita. Set in Sri Lanka and describing the build up of tension between the Tamils and Singhalese communities, eventually leading to a civil war  (which has only very recently ended). The possible repercussions of being a part of the British Empire are also one of the major themes of this novel. Alice is the daughter of Sita, a Singhalese woman and Stanley, who is Tamil. Alice is partly brought up by her grandparents, Sita's mother and father. Eventually the situation between Tamil and Singhalese becomes so difficult  for Sita and Stanley that they leave Sri Lanka and settle in London. Alice grows up there, and becomes an artist and sculptor, following childhood inclinations. Alice marries an Englishman, Timothy, but her marriage is no more successful than her parents was. However Alice has become a more complex and resourceful character than her gentle, retiring mother was, and suvives and develops on her own. A more complex book than it first appears and an intriguing read.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Boo Ritson

Last week I went to the preview of an exhibition of some of Boo Ritson's work, called D is for Donut at Southampton City Art gallery , which for me is a short bus-ride away. The work is interesting, being  photographs of people painted in vey thick paint and then photographed  as representing s particular aspect of American life. The effect is colourful, but slightly eerie - are you looking at a real person or object or a portrait of one? Fascinating. The exhibition also includes a selection made by Boo Ritson from Southampton Art Gallery's collection, which focuses on twentieth century art. There is a brief comment by Boo Ritson, explaining why the particular work chosen resonated with her. Well worth a visit

Friday, 30 September 2011

Andrea Levy's The Long Song (interview here) was a return to the tropics for me, where I spent my early child.hood, although on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean from the setting of this story. The descriptions of the heat of the Caribbean, the red earth and the lushness of the vegetation all made me recall memories from long ago. However this book is not primarily about the tropics as such, it is a story of people, and two main characters at that, July and Caroline. July is in fact the narrator of the story, with an introduction and encouragement by her son Thomas and the story opens with differing accounts of her birth. Our Book Club discussed this recently and opinions were very mixed. We all loved the sheer quality of Andre Levy's writing, but for several members of the group, the horrors of slavery and its effects on both slaves and their owners were difficult themes to read about. Having read Andrea Levy's reasons for writing this book here, I found the descriptions of the daily life on the plantation both moving and at times amusing  - the use of a stained bedsheet as tablecloth when entertaining a group of important neighbours, for instance. July's having to give up both her children, for different reasons, was shatteringly sad, but she nevertheless went on to make a life for herself. A wonderful, if at times emotional, read.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Auvergne September

Here in the Auvergne, we have had very varied weather the last week, plenty of sunshine, but also a really vicious storm with very large hailstones on the last day of August, and which brought down mudslides and rockslides, some of them affecting the road. There have also been days when the temperature is well into the upper 20's Centigrade, but despite the heat, there are some signs of the coming autumn, mostly in the subtle changes of colour on the wooded valley sides. Life is calmer now that many of the visitors have returned home, there are fewer out-of-department numberplates on the cars dashing up and down the local roads, and the supermarketsnow shut at midday for their hour and a half or two hour lunchbreak, except on Friday and Saturday. One day last week we drove over to Murat, a pleasant town situated on the side of a hill overlooking the valley of the Alagnon river. The old part has lots of little winding narrow roads, many pedestrianised. there is lots of information (in French)
here and some in English here and here, After a good wander round and a restorative cup of coffee, we headed off to St Flour, visited in one of the stages in the Tour de France in July this year. The upper town with its cathedral and museums, is situated on a small plateau, with a lower town down below by the river. Its an interesting place to wander round, and has many small cafes and restaurents. The view from the ramparts at the east end of the cathedral over the valley below and distant mountains is stunning.
However, despite visits and other doings, such as swimming,general pottering and so on, I have manged to fit in some reading.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011


Last Saturday we went to Bort-les-Orgues, a small town on the upper reaches of the Dordogne river. We pottered around, did a bit of shopping then drove up to les Orgues, which are rock formations which look a bit like organ pipes from below. Thanks to recent rain, the views from the belvedere were stunning, as the air was absolutely clear as could be, and we could see for miles. We usually drive through Bort on our way home, past views of les Orgues and think, well one day we'll go up there. So we finally made it.

Bort-les-Orgues used to have arailway running through it, which carried on to Mauriac and eventually to Aurillac, the main town of the Cantal department. However, in the mid 1940's, the Dordogne was dammed, cutting off the railway route. There were a few pictures in some of the shop windows, showing the valley just before the dam was built.

The dam is an impressive structure, and as well as providing electricity, is used as a place of leisure, with sailing, boat trips and other water sports taking place on it.There is more information about the area
here and here (some of it in French).

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

French outing

La st week we went on a coach trip with a group of French friends. First we went here, to the PedaloRail at Drignac, only the weathervwasn't very kind to us, as no sooner had one group set off, than a thunderstorm , lightning and heavy rain came down. Our second group were a bit luckier, as the rain stopped for the return journey.
Then we set off for lunch at this hotel, on the banks of the Dordogne river. Lunch was delicious, with an aperitif followed by an hors d'oeuvre of foie gras, an entree of pork stuffed with prunes, cheese from a wonderful selection, a lovely coffe and chestnut dessert and a cup of coffee to finish. A carafe of red wine was on the table for sharing. The dining room is very pretty, with delicate chanderliers and lovely china and glass.
After lunch , we visited this garden and had a guided tour, and a wander round on our own. All was very calm and peaceful, as it is tucked away in the french countryside, with only a very small village, Auriac en Correze, nearbye. Then back to the coach for the trip home, back through the gorges of the Dordogne. The roads are very narrow and wind up and down valleys, sometimes with splendid views, sometimes through shade-giving trees, through which only glimpses of the view can be seen.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Summer in the Auvergne

Back in the Vallee du Mars, in the heart of the Cantal department, the last few days have been exceptionally hot and sunny, too hot to do much work, except read in the shade with a cool drink to hand..
I first read D E Stevenson's Miss Buncle's Book more decades ago than I can remember, along with as many other of her titles as I could lay my hands on ( not too difficult as I then worked in a public library, but some titles were only available in  the large print version) They were easy to read, with interesting characters and plots, a readable style of writing, perfect at the end of a long day dealing with the foibles of the assumably literate public. This title is fairly typical of D E Stevenson's style, with Barbara Buncle, a single woman whose income, derived from dividends, is dwindling rapidly. Barbara discusses various means of raising money and decides to write a book. The subject she chooses is life in a village, which is where she lives. Happily a publisher for the book is quickly found, and the book published, under a pseudonym, to mixed reviews. The reading public fall in love with Copperfield, as the book is titled, and it becomes a best -seller. However, Barbara's fellow villagers have somewhat different views and would like the book withdrawn from publication. The shifts and turns they make to try and find out the name of the author are highly entertaining.
I hadn't read any Dorothy Whipple, until tempted by an offer from Persephone Books of a collection of her short stories ( along with three other titles, including the one mentioned above).I can see why she was a  popular author and still is. Her writing is sensitive yet concise, her characters ordinary people faced with some of the difficulties life throws at us all from time to time, and they all try to do what is right for them as individuals or family. Some of the stories in this collection are almost novella length, while others just a few pages, all have their own individual impact. I'll be looking for more of her tiles, as they are excellent reading.
I first read another title from a similar era, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, when I was studying for my Open University degree in the 1970's. What a difference another 35 or so years of living bring to a book, and reading it because I wanted to, not because I had to. I now don't remember if I enjoyed it at the time, but this re-read was very enjoyable.
Clarissa Dalloway, married to Richard a Member of Parliament and mother to Elizabeth, goes through her day, planning for her party to be held in the evening. The lives of her friends and acquaintances, Peter a former lover who wanted to  marry her and has just returned from India; the people Clarissa sees in the park as she walks through, Rezia and Septimus, he a war veteran suffering from what we now call post -traumatic stress and his wife, who he met and married in Italy. There are many other intertwined lives and emotions described, but I think what struck me on this re-read was how fresh it still seemed. The emotions evoked are those felt by almost all human beings and the descriptions of people and places still vivid in my mind, so lucid and elegant is the prose.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

A little less-light reading

 To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World is a fascinating and disturbing read. It's basically an investigation into the environmental harm the desire the Western world has for fast fashion, by journalist Lucy Siegle. This book covers clothing, fabrics and textiles of all sorts, as well as accessories - shoes, handbags and so on, all in great detail. The condition of cotton-pickers in the Ukraine, school age children used as forced cheap,labour; thesweatshop conditions in garment manufacturers in India, and the hand -sewing of sequins by home workers, again in India alll make me look at cheap garments more cynically.The use of animal skins and furs for clothing or accessories is having a disastrous affect on wild animals, despite suppliers saying they use "farmed" animals. The Ganges is in parts of India where it is used as a sewer for the tanning industries, virtually dead. I'm not a particular fan of cheap, fast fashion, but it is sometimes very difficult to find midle-of-the- road priced fashion or even just wearable clothes, especially for older women. The It-bag thing has also passed me by, as I will only pay what I can afford to for a decent handbag. This book does have recommendations for a Perfect Wardrobe, which includebuying less but spending more, that is fewer but better clothes, as well as  recycling clothes by making them into something else, or altering them in other ways.

Kate Colquhoun's history of Britain through its cooking, Taste, is a fascinating discourse from on British cooking and what we Britons ate from the Iron Age through to Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater, Jamie Oliver and others. Scottish, Welsh or Irish cooking. There also seems , in some parts at least, to be a concentration on what  royalty, the wealthy and powerful ate, although the author also tells how their food and tastes did trickle down to "the middling sorts" The diet, or rather lack of it, of the poor is also described in its pitiful detail, showing just how meagre it was. 38% of soldiers going to the Boer war, at the end of the nineteenth century were unfit for service, and there was little improvement by the First World War in 1914. The richness of the diet of the wealthy in Victorian times, with dinners of elaborate food in many courses and eating at equally elaborately decorated dining tables highlights the contrast well. This is a detailed history of mainly English food and how it has changed and developed over centuries, and certainly well worth a read.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

July reads

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question, David Mitchell Black Swan Green , Meera Syall Life isn't all Ha Ha, Hee Hee, and Josph O'Connor Ghost Light were all read his month and a good mixed bag it was . All interesting, mostly character rather than plot driven but all adding to my reading pleasure and interest. Oddly enough, three out of the four were read for book club or reading group, so although not all my personal choice, they were all good reads, although good in this context does have a variety of meanings.
The Finkler Question, reviewed here, and which won last year's Booker Prize, is a wonderfuly readable winner, about Jewishness and its complexity as well as male friendship, love and loss. The quality of Jacobson's writing was what kept my interest, as much as the themes. Jewish humour is evident, reminding me of a novel by Leo Rosten called the Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, which I read several decades ago,, and which was extremely funny. I loved Howard Jacobson's characters, especially Treslove, with his constant questiioning.
David Mitchell's Black Swan Green was entirely different, life in a rural village as seen by adolescent Jason Taylor, a secret poet, an undisclosed stammerer and schoolboy. Jason's life with his increasingly distant to each other parents, and his older sister Julia is beautifully described along with his difficulties of hiding his stammer from his  bullying schoolmates and some teachers. Jason's need to be accepted by his peers wars with his desire to be an indiviual, with some amusing results. The 1982 setting , with references to Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands war rang very true, as well as Jason's keenness on computer games. A beautiful read.
Life isn't all Ha Ha, Hee, Hee by Meera Syal is the story of the friendship of three Asian women, Chila, Sunita and Tania, who have all known and looked out for each other since their schooldays. Chila, regarded as slow by most people, is getting married to Deepak, a playboy type. The three women friends lives are presented first, then later the views of their menfolk, Sunita's husband Akach, Tania's English husband Martin and Deepak. Although the story is written with a light touch, the themes it covers are serious enough: marriage, work for women, especially those in the Asian community, relationships within the family between parent and child, education for women, and the possibility of change and what that may bring.
Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light is beautifully and almost poetically written. The story of Molly Allgood, brought up in the tenements of Dublin, recalling her memories and life as an actress while living in bleak post -war London. Molly's life included John Synge as her lover, as well as two marriages, divorce, widowhood. Her life as a down and out actress in London is bleakly drawn, while her memories of her affair with Synge are warm, tender and delicate. Although I found this a little slow to start, the sheer quality of the writing soon drew me along, and I began to care deeply for Molly and the trials of her and her lover's life.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Some Summer reading.

 Although posting has been non existant of recent, I've still been reading although not quite as much as I usually manage.  However here is a quick run down of a few titles I've read these past few weeks.

Mari Strachan's first novel, The Earth hums in B Flat (reviewed here) is a lovely read, despite its subject matter and themes of madness and murder,  Gwenni Morgan, aged 12 and a half, is the narrator and lives in a Welsh slate mining town just after the end of the Second World War with her mother, father and older sister Bethan. Gwenni, bookish and with a vivid imagination, goes to help her former teacher when she has to go to the dentist and arrives to find Mrs Evans and her two daughters at a tense atmosphere. Later Mr Evans' body is found and a murder hunt ensues. The writing flows easily and the characters, plot and setting are all believable. Recommended.
 I didn't get into Esther Freud's The Sea House from the first page, but gradually came to really love this gentle read, set on the East coast. Two intertwined stories, that of Max Mayer, a refugeee from Germany in the nineteen-thirties and architcture student Lily who is studying Klaus Lehman, a well-known German architect, All stayed in the same small East coast town of Steerborough and the climax of both strands of the story is a flood.

 The hero, if he can be called that, of Ian McEwan's Solar is not a particularly likeable man, in the opinion of several other book club members as well as myself.. Although the story is amusing in places - there are several set-pieces which are very funny, the main thrust of the story is one of serious research into solving the effects of climate change. Some of the science escaped several of our book club readers when we discussed this, but we all found it an interesting read ( we mostly read modern fairly literary fiction, with the occasional classic thrown in)

Friday, 27 May 2011

Future of Libraries

I watched the Newsnight programme the other evening which included a short article on the future of libraries. Supporting libraries was Tim Lott, while the government representative merely took the view that everything was on the Internet, and that "everyone has a computer now". He gave no facts or figures to back up this argument. The film of Alan Bennet speaking at a meeting to save Kensal Rise Library, in Brent was much more useful, concentrating on use of libraries by children as he did. The local public library is often one of the first places that children can go to on their own, as it is regarded as a safe place to be in. There children can find books to help with homework, use the Internet and also just begin to develop further as an individual being. Tamsin Greig's comments about the effects of closing a libarary in smaller communities was also spot on, which is why people in rural areas whose public libraries are under threat are fighting so hard to keep them open. The Public Libraries News website gives the current situation on possible closures, as well as links to other useful websites on the subject.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

One book, two book, three book, four and five

Saw this meme on Random Jottings of A Book and Opera Lover, (and see right)so am following suit.

1.The book I'm reading now: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Although originally published in 1932, after watching a Tv ad (on French TV for a programme called I want to be a porn star), I think that Brave New World is almost becoming reality.

2.The book I've just read: A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Some of the financial wheeling and dealing left me a bit behind, but the story and characters kept me turning the pages, and the ending is superb.

3.The next book I'm going to read: Hector and the Secrets of Love by Francois Lelord. Must read something French (although the book I'm going to read is an English translation) as I'm in France at the moment.

4. The last book I bought: Trespass by Rose Tremain. A book with a French setting, about complicated family relationships, together with incest, murder - a thrill of a read, with an amazing twist at the end.

5. The last book I was given: Romantic Moderns:English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, by Alexandra Harris. I'm not given books very often, but this was a real treat. Not only a very interesting read, but a rather nice production as well.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

A balcony with a view

Have been catching up with a bit of reading recently, some of done on this balcony overlooking this view.

I started reading Sarah Dunant's Sacred Hearts before we left for France and finished it there. Set in the convent of Saint Catherine in Ferrara in 1597, the story concerns those women who were sent to convents in lieu of being marrried, as dowries for upper-class females had become so expensive that fathers could only afford to marry off one daughter. The main characters in this story are just such women, without a particular vocation but finding a home and a reasonably dignified life within the convent. When Serafina, daughter of a Milan merchant and a renowed singer, enters the convent she causes much upset with her reaction to her enclosure. Eventually Suora Zuana, the sister in charge of the dispensary, is asked to look after the new arrival. Zuana is the daughter of an apothecary and was encouraged by her father to study herbs and their healing properties and eventually earned herself a place in the dispensary. The story follows the convent's preparations for the season of Lent, including the Carnevale just before, and shows how Zuana and Serafina gradually become companions in the dispensary, as Serafina shows an aptitude for the work. Serafina appears to accept her place in the convent, but as the increasing revelry of carnevale outside is heard within the convent, so life within is increasingly disturbed as well. I really enjoyed this novel, being set in one of my favourite historical periods and places - Renaissance Italy, and have equally enjoyed Sarah Dunant's earlier novels set in the same place and period, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan.

Francesca Kay's novel An Equal Stillness , winner of the 2009 Orange Prize for New Writers, is the story of Yorkshire-born artist Jennet Mallow. Her parents were Lorna, born and raised in Jamaica and Richard a first World War survivor and vicar. Jennet showed her artistic leanings early, drawing on the blank wall behind her bed with a piece of burnt firewood; fortunately her mother then bought her coloured pencils and paper. Jennet goes to Oxford, then London, where she meets David Heaton, a promising artist. Marriage to David follows, and when life in a cramped London home proves difficult, the couple and their young son move to Spain, to a house with a glimpse of the sea. Here Jennet manages to find the time, inclination and will to paint for herself, and begins to taste the success which so far has been David's. Eventually the couple move back to London, Jennet finally managing to buy a neglected old house with a view of the Thames, and also to continue her rise to the heights of artistic success, with commissions and exhibitions over the years. David meanwhle returns to teaching and to success of a somewhat more muted kind as a portrait painter.

I found this book intriguing with its descriptions of places and paintings, but couldn't quite make up my mind as to how the paintings "looked". The main mystery is who is the narrator, as the book starts off from one point of view, but then switches to a different one. For a first novel, it is a very accomplished one.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

April doings

Another month past. This year seems to be flying along as we are planning our first visit of the year to the house in France. Meanwhile a short break in the Lake District was very enjoyable and the weather just right. The fisrt day f our visit was fairly typical Lakes weather, rainy, cool and cloudy and was spent visiting friends up there, but the remaing few days were lovely, warm and generally sunny, ideal for walking, which we did for a couple of days. The day we left for home , the lake was like glass , reflecting the boats perfectly.

While there I did a little reading, mainly during the evening after dinner ( not prepared by me, thank goodness) and got well into Antonia Fraser's Must You Go, about her affair with and marriage to Harold Pinter. I enjoyed this very much, although I'm not a great biography reader. The life these two writers eventually settled into sounds at once slightly bohemian but well-orderd at the same time, although thinking back, her description of her early life at home in north Oxford, before her father Lord Longford inherited his title, perhaps life wasn't always as well-ordered as we like to think. The book is sometimes described as a love letter to Harold Pinter, but there is no trace of sentimentality in it, not that any would be expected from Antonia Fraser's pen. It is a wonderful description of the life of two writers, both supportive of each others work. Although Harold Pinter is described elsewhere as being an angry man, here he comes across as passionate in his opinions, sometimes angry but more often vehement in his arguments. His moods seem completely normal to me, the moods of a man who cares deeply about things and is unafraid of others opinions.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

March reads

I seemed to have a bit of catching up to do, although as we have been finishing off decorating a bedroom and de-cluttering two others, replacing beds and so on, there hasn't been quite as much time for reading as Iwould like.

One book I enjoyed was Downhill All The Way:walking with donkeys on the Stevenson trail. (here's a sort of review ) An amusing tale by two women friends who decided to follow Robert Louis Stevenson's footsteps in his journey in the Cevennes with the donkey Modestine. The writers, Hilary Macaskill and Molly Wood hired donkeys, and the personalities and foibles of these animals, as well as the attitudes some have to the accompanying dog, Whiskey, make for some hilarious moments in the tale. The journey is spread out over a few years, and the weather and some of the places the little group stay at during their travels add to the amusement, although they are careful not to make fun of the French people they meet ( one of the writers lives in France, in the Cevennes) I don't think it is meant as a serious guide to the route, although the writers do give signposts to more detailed guides.

Michael Frayn's Spies was a Reading Group read and an interesting one: Stephen Wheatley, now an old man, returns to the street where he spent his childhood, and reminiscences about his life then. The period he returns to in his mind is during the last World War, when his friend and playmate Kevin Hayward became convinced that his mother was a German spy. The two young boys begin following Mrs Hayward whenever she leaves the house, and aslo start investigating her desk at home. They have a den in the garden surrounded by a privet hedge, a place which Keith calles private, but, spelling not being one of his accomplishments, ends up being called "privet". Various secrets of adult life slowly come to light, the two boys not really understanding what it is their activities have revealed , although Barbara Berrill, another child from the street is much more aware of what is going in the adults lives, and tries to enlighten Stephen when she finds her way into into the secret den. Part mystery, part war story and part coming-of-age story, this is a good read, with a beautiful twist at the end.

I've also enjoyed Katie Ffordes's A Perfect Proposal, a nice, cheerful, story with an eventual happy ending as required by a romantic novel. Sophie Apperly is hard-working, practical and very unacademic in a family who are all the complete opposite, and who undervalue Sophie's skills, and Sophie herself. She is invited to New York by her old schoolfriend Millie, now working there. Sophie manages to save up for the journey, and finds herself a job, which unfortunately falls through at the last minute. Sophie stays on for a holiday, during which she accompanies Millie to an evening event and meets Matilda, a rich elderly lady who invites Sophie to her home in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. Sophie is first vetted by Matilda's grandson Luke, extremely arrogant but very attractive and who is also one of the Thanksgiving party. A delicious tale of mistunderstandings and eventual making up follows, making this a lovely comfort read for me.
Another sort of comfort read, although of a very differnt type was Susan Hill's The Shadows on the Street, although to call a story concerning the murder of prostitutes a comfort read is a bit odd. I, like many other readers, enjoy crime stories because they follow a pattern in which evil deeds are committeed, but the perpetrator is eventually found out and punished. In this story Simon Serrailler is on holiday on a Scottish isle, while back in Lafferton his sister Cat is gradually coming to term with the death of her husband. Simon returns home to find that two prostitutes have been murdered and their bodies dumped in a canal. The story lets us into the lives of these girls and those who try to help them. Another girl is attacked but manages to escape. Meanwhile the Cathedral has a new Dean whose wife is busily trying to set up a committee to help the local prostitues, involving Cat somewhat against her wishes.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


At a recent reading group meeting, we discussed Peter Ho Davies The Welsh Girl., which is the story of Esther and her life in a Welsh village, fiercely nationalistic in its attitude, at a time towards the end of the Second World War. There are English sappers nearby, building something (which turns out to be a prison camp), one of whom becomes Esther's friend. The German prisoners captured after the D-Day landings, eventually occupy the camp and are taunted by the village boys, including the evacuee living with Esther and her father. on their small farm. One of the prisoners, a young German who surrendered because he could speak a little English, learnt from visitors to his mothers pension in a tourist area, escapes and spends a little of the time he is free on the farm and builds a relationship with Esther. Some of us found this easy to get into, but then found their interest waning a bit, while others enjoyed the whole story. We had a fascinating discussion about the question of identity and "belonging", which are important themes in the story, as several members of the group had had childhoods in which they moved around a lot, so felt quite keenly the problem of belonging somewhere. I thought Esther was a well drawn character and seemed in some ways more mature than her actual age , perhaps because she had had to take on the housewifely duties of her mother after her death. Her reluctance to marry Rhys, is I feel quite understandable, as she had dreams of a life away from the village that were encouraged by her mother, yet failed to be realised because of changing circumstances.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Free books

Not World Book Night books, but a passed on present from my mother-in-law. She was given Nigella Lawson's Kitchen for Christmas but as she now does very little cooking (she will be 90 later this year) and wasn't very interested, she passed it on to me. I've got Nigella's How to Eat: the Pleasures and Principles of Good Food and her How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, both of which I have cooked several recipes from. Although I've dipped into the other titles she's produced, I wasn't tempted to buy them. I was interested to see this latest title but have found it a little disappointing, as it has quite a lot of cake recipes, which I'm now not so interested in cooking. However if I were setting up a kitchen for the first time, the section at the beginning which tells the reader how to just that would be very helpful. One thing I dislike about modern cookery books is their sheer size and weight, which makes them impossible to read in bed. One very useful aspect of this book, however, is the notes which tell you if the dish can be made ahead or frozen, and the what to do with leftovers sections for some dishes are also excellent.

The other free book I received yesterday was Antonia Fraser's Must You Go, the story of her marriage to Harold Pinter. I've read an extract of this in NewBooks magazine and various reviews, so am looking forward to reading one of the great love stories of our age.
I was given a World book Night book - Seamus Heaney's New Selected Poems, 1966-1987- by a friend who was giving them out at her local library. I'm not familiar with his poetry, so am looking forward to becoming acquainted with it.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A sunny day at last

At last a sunny day. We visited my sister-in-law in Shoreham today and were grateful not to have to drive through rain, mist, drizzle or fog, which is what we've had as weather for most of the last week. And we had a beautiful sunset on the drive back home.

Preceding this visit, I've finished a few books, such as Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, which I found more a collection of essays on reading and its importance than a totally coherent book, but interesting. Susan Hill starts from the premise of not buying any new books for a year, as when searching for a particular title, she finds several books she had not read, or wished to re-read but had forgotten about. This leads to a meditation on books and reading which for anyone with any interest in the literary is fascinating and enlightening. Her list of 40 titles she would read over and over again is not exactly my choice, although several of the same titles would be on my list.
Another recent read was Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd. A thriller in that a murder takes place, but as we learn quite early on who actually committed the deed, the plot is more of a why dunnit than a who dunnit, and the why leads the reader through some quite strange places, meeting some very odd people. The main character, Adam Kindred comes out of an interview for an academic post in London after spending time researching thunderstorms in the US, and falls into conversation with another man , a Doctor Wang, in a cafe. This simple event has the most awful of consequences for Adam, as he decides to return a file belomging to Dr Wang in person. On reaching the Doctor's flat, he finds him stabbed and dying, and thus starts a new life as a homeless down-and-out. There is a host of interesting characters whom he meets along the way, such as Mhouse, a prostitute and her young son Ly-on, the leader and congregation of The Church of John Christ and eventually Rita, a policewoman who lives on a boat with her disabled father. Although some of the characters verge on the picaresque, the plot is fairly easy to follow, as Adam eventually finds out why Doctor Wang's death occured and who was partly resposible. The theme of identity runs throughout the novel, as Adam changes his front respected academic to down-and-out and again to lowly hospital porter which again slides into undercover researcher into the failure of a drugs trial. A thrilling and engrossing read.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Lacuna

I absolurly adored Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. The story of Harrison Shepherd, a writer told from his own point of view as well as a one or two others, this is an absorbing story, taking in much of early twentieth century history, with that of the Aztecs and the Russian Revolution as sideshows. There are aspects of American history that I knew nothing about, such as the treatment of veterans of the First World War, and some aspects of Mexican history of which I was only just aware, such as the life of Trotsky with Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo after his flight from Stalin. With its major themes of identity, memory, loss, and how individuals both form historical events and are part of history. A rich and rewarding read, with amazing details, research, stories and colour. The writing at times has an almost filmic quality, such are the qualities of description, and the characters are living, breathing people It certainly deserved the win of the Orange prize for fiction last year.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Save our libraries day

As a retired librarian, and I retired when my job description was going to change into something that no longer required the skills of a qualified librarian, I feel immense depression at the level of cuts proposed by many library authorities. Even my local authority is proposing two cuts of smaller part-time branches, replacing them with a mobile srvice. The particular branch libraries were built on large council estates during the early 1960's and were originally designed to offer a service to children, opening in the afternoons around school closing times. Over time, some had their opening hours extended so that they could offer a bit more, such as story times for pre-school children and some adult services, later computers for public use were included. The people using those branches will be denied easy access to books, free public computers and so on and the children on the estates will have one less place to go to find help with homework and leisure reading. Libraries are rarely the most expensive part of local government, but because they are a service and can't generate income, are an easy target for cuts, despite the requirement under law that the service provided should be comprehensive and efficient..
I've made my comment on the voices for the library site a while ago and also took part in the campaign to save a local branch library a few years ago, when its closure and sell-off was proposed - it is still open and well used.

Friday, 21 January 2011

I've been reading Maggie O'Farrell's The Hand That First Held Mine, just finished it and it was a can't put it down sort of book. Difficult not to rush it, but worth a slower read as there is so much to absorb. I haven't for some reason read any of her other titles, but will be searching them out soon. The story has two areas of focus, Lexie and Elina, Lexie leaving home and eventually becoming a respected and successful journalist, Elina a generation later, already a fairly successful artist, becoming a mother at the start of the story. The difficult birth of Elina's son and its consequences for her , and how she gradually recovers are gently and subtly revealed. Slowly the link between these two women is revealed, along with complex family stories and relationships. With its themes of love, loss, identity, marriage and the importance of creativity in an individual's life, I found this a superb read. I found that Maggie O'Farrell captured the feeling of the 1950's and 60's very well when telling Lexie's early life and affair, a time of freedom and infinite possibilities. A wonderful rich read of a book.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Foodie books

I picked up Clarissa Dickson Wright's memoir, Spilling the Beans for 50p at a Christmas Fair, as I was intrigued to read about her connection with the Books for Cooks bookshop in London. The whole of her life story is fascinating read, even the tale of her descent into alcoholism. I had picked up snippets of her story from watching the Two Fat Ladies cooking programmes and bits of reading, but the story straight from the horse's mouth is obviously more revealing and more interesting.
Another book about food which I gathered on a library swoop just before Christmas was The Foodie Handbook: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to Gastronomy by Pim Techamuanvivit. The author writes a food blog, Chez Pim, which is quite interesting, although somewhat American in recipe detail. The book does include recipes as well as all sorts of advice on how to eat, drink, cook and be a 'foodie'. Some of the recipes reveal the author's Thai background, but as ingrediants for Thai cooking are now more easily available everywhere, there is no problem sourcing them. The tone of the writing is chatty and friendly and the photographs are lovely, although not every recipe is illustrated. Although Pim is US based, her foodie recomendations have a world wide spread and appeal.
It's not the first foodie handbook I've read: in the mid 1980's Ann Barr and Paul Levy produced the Official Foodie Handbook, which although I haven't read it since then I seem to recall as being somewhat more dictatorial as to what to eat and drink to be considered a foodie.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Some alliteration

I've recently been dipping into Elspeth Thompson's Wonderful Weekend Book with some interest. There are some suggestions that could be off-putting to some readers, such as how to go about looking for a country weekend cottage, but many others are things that I and others of my baby boom generation have been doing most of our lives, along the recycling, handmade route. It's an inspiring book, but I wouldn't recommend following up every suggestion, just those that are really within your own personal reach of time, energy, and money and then only one or two at a time. There are also lots of useful suggestions of ways of involving children in weekend activities as well.
The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine is an interesting take on the theme of Sense and Sensibility, but set in modern day America. Joseph Weissmann decides to divorce Betty,his wife of over forty years and to kick her out of their apartment in Manhattan, for which she made the down payment. His two step daughters, Miranda and Annie, for a variety of reasons, move in with their mother when she is offered a cottage in the summer resort of Westport on Long Island. The story follows the vicissitudes of the lives of the three women and their circle of family and friends, including a trip to a desert resort with Cousin Lou and his wife, which offers a nice contrast to winter in Westport, as well as the ups and downs of romances of Miranda and Annie. I enjoyed this as a read and found it very amusing in places.

google tracker