Saturday, 21 December 2013

Nearly there

Christmas preparations gradually coming together - a cake has been made, mince pies made and put in the freezer, a few eaten by a visitor this week, cards written and posted, ,presents bought but yet to be wrapped, tree up and decorated (yesterday), washing machine engineer visited and machine to be replaced on Monday.. why do things like the washing machine having problems, ear infections, colds and other such tedious events happen just around the Christmas period, when one could do without the extra hassle?
Last week I paid a visit to my local library and picked up two Barbara Pym novels, Jane and Prudence and Some Tame Gazelle, along with Katie Fforde's A French Affair. Just the right sort of read for this time of year, I feel. I haven't read any of Barbara Pym's novels until this year, so catching up on an author whose popularity has waxed again in recent years is very satisfying and enjoyable.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Blog neglect

Having somewhat neglected the blog for a while, I'd better do a bit of a catch-up of some of my reading, most of it very enjoyable. Meanwhile, we have closed our house in France for the winter, and I have been busy with a few Christmas events, the latest being a Christmas Tree Festival at my local church last weekend.
Margaret Leroy's story The Collaborator was a very readable tale of life in Guernsey under the German occupation during the Second World War. I have had it on my bookshelves for a while, so picked it up after a few reads on my Kindle, feeling I wanted to hold a real book for a change, even if only a paperback. The story of Vivienne and her daughters Blanche and Millie and her mother-in-law Evelyn during the German occupation of Guernsey in the Second World War is quite sympathetically told, The choices Vivienne has to make to keep her family and home going at this dangerous time are difficult ones; who can she trust and also who trusts her? Life becomes more complicated when a group of German officers take over the next door property, and her younger daughter Millie begins to behave rather oddly. A well-written tale, with the complexities of living a life full of compromise, difficulty and loss beautifully drawn. The losses all the characters suffer make this a sad book in some ways, but there is also optimism. As this is the first title I have read by Margaret Leroy, I'll be looking out for others by her soon.

  • I thought Kate Atkinson's Life after Life a clever book, the idea probably best achieved in the novel format. Ursula Todd is born in a snowstorm in 1910  and dies- or does she? Ursula lives through the first half of the twentieth century, a time of incessant change, war and depression. She appears to live different lives at various periods.Is she actually re-incarnated? or is the novelist playing tricks on us readers. The premise of this book reminded me of Penelope Lively's Making It Up, in which the author takes various episodes from her own life and considers what her life would have been if she had made different choices, although in Life after Life Ursula's choices are made for her by the author. However this is a very accomplished book, and the surprises of Ursula's life make for an engrossing and entertaining read.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

A bit of eating and dancing

Le Vaulmier village centre, seen from the hillside above

Thursday evening (31st October) ASPECT, a local association in the Vallee du Mars held an event to celebrate the local autumn specialities, mushrooms and chestnuts, pumpkins and local venison.

We started the evening with a few country dances, to the music of two violins, and then sat daown to the feast, starting with mushroom soup with cep mushrooms, followed by local cured jambon cru and dried sausage. this was in its turn followed by the venison, of which we all had a small taste. The animal had been donated by a local hunter, and cooked by his wife. A selection of hot vegetable dishes came next, such as rice cooked in milk with nutmeg and almonds, and pumpkin and potato gratin. Local Salers cheese followed, and finally there was a choice of desserts, including pumpkin tart, cake made with chestnut flour, chocolate,walnuts and hazelnuts, or made with chestnut flour and apples. As we were munching our way through these last delicacies, someone was roasting chestnuts outside, and these completed the feast, together with some Limousin cider. Then the country dancing resumed  and continued until late into the night. A really lovely way to spend All Hallows Eve.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A bit of a rant

I recently finished reading 1421, The Year China discovered the World,by Gavin Menzies and found it ...interesting. The thesis he proposes, that the Chinese surveyed the whole world in a relatively short period of time, with a huge fleet of ships, is presumably possible, but there seems to be not quite enough solid evidence to back it up as yet, despite the author's claims. I found his assertions about Chinese genes being found in a variety of populations in different parts of the world not entirely convincing, also his claims that certain diseases were brought to the places they visited by the Chinese also a bit suspect. The explanation of how the Chinese discovered, or worked out latitude was very interesting, however and as the current re-appraisal of the European "Dark Ages" shows, the study of the past is always turning up new ideas and facts.
One point really enraged me, almost to the point of tossing the book across the room.In the Epilogue,: the Chinese Legacy, on page 441 (paperback ed) he states"By the Tang dynasty (AD 616-907) at a time when our European ancestors were dressed in rags, rich Chinese were dining off gold plates....etc. Well, the Book of Kells was produced in AD 800 or slightly earlier; England was also producing many gold artefacts - Saxon hoards are still being turned up from this period (which admittedly was one of unrest in Britain and  Europe, as various kings sought to establish supremacy) containing beautiful objects.Some people may have been dressed in rags, but I bet there were quite a few impoverished Chinese dressed the same way. In the latter part of the period the author says the Chinese were so superior to Europeans, English embroiderers were producing Opus Anglicanum, beautiful ecclesiastical embroidery, worked with precious metals, pearls and gemstones on silk or velvet. To dismiss the whole of European culture of the period in such an offhand  way is not the remark of a true scholar.  One of the questions which remains is : why did the mandarins destroy the reports and other evidence of these voyages? Could it perhaps have been because during their travels, the Chinese discovered other countries and places were as rich and powerful as they were, and their idea of bringing the whole world into their tribute system was an impossibility, and so was abandoned.
However, it made an interesting read over several days, and I might even read his follow-up book, 1434, which is about how China sparked the Renaissance in Europe,  as I did an Open University year on Renaissance and Reformation as part of my (OU) degree a long time ago.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A visit to Salers

As yesterday was an absolutely sparkling autumn day here in the Cantal, I went for a drive to Salers, "un des plus beaux villages de France"- one of France's most beautiful villages, and about half an hour away by road. In summer it is usually crowded with tourists, but today was almost empty, with only a few of the little restaurants open. There are several hotels there which all seemed to be open, as its school holidays here in this part of France, and there were a few people wandering about, admiring the somewhat sombre architecture of the place, and enjoying seeing the place at its autumnal best.
The view from the little parc Barouze, overlooking the site where three valleys meet was stunning,

and the drive back up the val de Maronne to the Col de Neronne and then down past the forest of the Cirque du Falgoux showed the beautiful autumn colours of the trees, contrasted with dark evergreen firs. We love visiting this part of France at this time of year, as we are often lucky with the weather, which enhances the natural beauty of the mountains.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Recent reading roundup

I recently finished Stoner by John Williams, which had been recommended by Ian McEwan on Radio 4's Open Book and what a lovely read it proved to be. Elegantly written, with absolute clarity of meaning, the story of John Stoner's life unfolds as the pages turn.
 John Stoner is born to a poor farming couple, works on the family fields, and as a bright boy at school, is given the opportunity to go to college to study agriculture. Yet during a lecture on English literature, his imagination is awakened as by no other subject. He changes his course of study to literature, graduates and also achieves his masters degree, all while working on a relatives farm for his board. Stoner becomes a lecturer in English literature, marries a banker's daughter who is the wrong woman for him, and who manages to take over their daughter, while also pushing Stoner out of his own study at his home.He has an affair with a lovely post-graduate student, and has difficulties with the university internal politics. Although the story could be seen as that of a sad and disappointing life,  it did not seem that way to me. Stoner had his weaknesses, faults and disappointments, but he also had good things in his life , including self-knowledge. He seemed to me to be a complete human being in this story.

Clair King's The Night Rainbow is a child’s eye view of life. Peony  or Pea as she is known, is a young girl, living with her mother on a farm in the south of France. The story tells of Pea's relationship with her sad, grief stricken and pregnant mother after the loss of her baby and the  death of her partner, as well as the grief of a neighbour. Pea’s “younger sister” Margot is her constant companion and although ostensibly younger in age, yet seems more worldly-wise than Peony herself at times. The relationship between Peony and her mother is tenderly described. Pea befriends Claude, a neighbour, who has also had a great loss in his life. There are beautiful descriptions of a heatwave during a French summer, as well as how relationships develop and change between adults and children, and how both cope with loss and unhappiness.

To The Lighthouse is one of Virginia Woolf's best known novels, a story in which not much seems to happen, yet is totally engrossing.The Ramsay family and their guests are holidaying in their house in Scotland, young James wants to sail out to the lighthouse, but bad weather prevents the trip. Time passes  and in the latter part of the story, set ten years later, the sailing trip to the lighthouse is achieved. The writing is wonderful, conveying how people think, feel and act on different levels but at the same moment in time. "All that in idea seemed simple became in practise immediately complex" (page 172, Penguin Modern Classics edition) This idea is also expressed in Virginia Woolf's diary, which I had read just before starting this novel. I am slowly reading as many of Virginia Woolf's writings as I can, but only one at a time, as I feel they are books to be savoured and reflected on, rather than rushed through all at once.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A Visit to Chenonceau

On our way back from France last month, we stayed the night at Chenonceaux. Although we had visited the chateau several years ago, we couldn't resist another visit, and what a contrast each visit was. Last time  was in summer, hot and crowded. This time, very early autumn, and as it was late in the day, very uncrowded indeed. We managed to see a lot more of the interior of the chateau than we had previously, although access to the garden the other side of the river was unavailable so late in the day. We had the long gallery all to ourselves, which in some ways made it easier to imagine the life that the place has seen over the centuries. I think one of the reasons for its popularity as one of the most-visited sites in France is its setting on the river, with the Long Gallery spanning the river, giving access to the land on the other side of the river, as well as its association with Diane de Poitiers, a king's mistress.

 We stayed at Le Relais Chenonceaux,  a fairly reasonably priced hotel, one of the several  which now seem to  make up the greater part of the village. It was a very comfortable night, with a delicious dinner and the whole visit was a lovely break on our last evening in France for a while.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The first  weekend in September we went to Lausanne, to visit a young friend who works there. We stayed in Ouchy, on the lakeside, which was busy on Friday evening when we arrived. We spent Saturday visiting La Chaux de Fonds, which is the main centre for Swiss watch making. We last visited La Chaux de Fonds about 20 or so years ago, while staying in a gite in the Franche Comte area, just over the border. The town seemed to be much brighter and more lovely this visit, possibly having benefited from the success of the Swiss watch industry. We paid homage to this by spending some time at the Musee International d' Horologie, which is a fascinating place. The following day we visited a couple of buildings not usually open to the public, but that weekend were, as part of the Swiss/European "Jours de Patrimoinie"or European Heritage days. We visited a concert theatre at Vevey, which is a building site at the moment, as it is undergoing major restauration work, and we had a walk along the lakeside, past the statue of Charlie Chaplin, and also paid a short visit to the Alimentarium, a museum about food, how we taste it, digest it and so on. It has lots of interactive features, and as it was a weekend, there were plenty of families all enjoying finding out stuff about food.
 Then we drove up into the mountains, to visit Leysin, to visit what was an hotel and tuberculosis sanatorium at the end of the nineteenth century and is now the Swiss Hotel Management School. Leysin is also a winter sports resort, and has beautiful south-facing views, which we could only get glimpses of through the clouds which kept drifting about. We drove back down to the lakeside via a more-or-less single track road, which at one point gave us views of Lake Geneva and the valley through which the Rhone river runs. Amazing.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Le Vaulmier, in the heart of the vallee du Mars

In the Cantal, summer continues, with hot sunny day, clear blue skies and warm calm evenings, although my favourite swimming pool, open-air, is now closed. Sunday was its last open day this season, and I had the pool all to myself for at least an hour, until a family came and swam. Swallows are gathering; yesterday there were flocks of young birds flying all round the house and perching on the electricity lines, presumably practising before setting off for Africa. Life in the Val du Mars is quieter, as most of the summer visitors have left, with only a few walkers enjoying the peaceful mountains and valleys. Most of the traffic is now local farmers and others going about their daily business, and other departmental numberplates are fewer.
Reading still continues, however, along with decisions as to what to say about a classic novel.
Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse has long been called a classic, but when first published in 1927, it was its modernity that drew comment. This novel, first published in 1927, was a first read for me, despite having read other books by Virginia Woolf. I had a copy with a lengthy introduction, which I skipped, and with notes at the back, ditto. Only after reading the whole work did I dip into the notes and introduction, as when originally published, neither introduction nor notes would have been available; both are products of years of interpretation by a large variety of scholars and critics, and are useful if making an in-depth study of the work. But I think it would have been written originally for entertainment; that is to make the reader think about the events, emotions, actions of the characters she wrote about, to present a different way of expressing how other lives are lived, and how other people think and feel about what is going on around them, while participating in those same events. That at least is the effect that reading this story of the Ramsay family and their guests, on two different summer days, had on me. This is a book which I will probably re-read. Alongside To the Lighthouse, I've also been reading A Writer's Diary:being extracts from the Diaries of Virginia Woolf, the one-volume edition recently republished by Persephone Books. Reading the two together certainly gave me a lot more insight into what Virginia Woolf was trying to achieve in her novels, and other writing, and the sheer hard work she did to obtain the effects she sought.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Holiday reads

The Cantal in summer is lovely and green, despite the heat. In July and early August temperatures were in the 30's (C) , but the day before we arrived a couple of weeks ago, there was a severe storm, with extremely heavy rain, which filled up streams, rivers and waterfalls. The time we've been here has been mostly hot  and sunny, with a bit of coolness in the early mornings and late evenings, and we have spent our days mostly cycling (my OH) or swimming in the nearest open-air pool (me) or walking (both of us). We have had a day out on a coach trip to the river Lot, which included a very civilised lunch on a boat meandering slowly down the river and back again, with local French people, attended the village Kermesse, visited a local vide-grenier ( like a car-boot sale) Some of the time I have spent sitting on the balcony, reading, especially in the afternoon when the sun has moved round and there is some shade.
 I read Alexander McCall Smith's Trains and Lovers: The Hearts Journey very quickly, as it's a fairly light read. Four people on a railway journey all tell their own very  different stories about how love came into their lives.
I regret to say I abandoned Elanor Dymott's Every Contact Leaves a Trace for another read, as it seemed to be rather slow-paced and I did not feel very sympathetic towards the narrator. The writing lyrical, but I couldn't work up any feelings for the characters.
Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate is a retelling of the story of the Lancashire witches, and is published by Hammer, some of whose horror films I've watched in the distant past. I've also read Harrison Ainsworth's novel The Lancashire Witches, published originally in 1848 and still in print, probably because witches and similar tales of the supernatural seem to have an everlasting appeal to human nature. I enjoyed Jeannette Winterson's version of the tale: her writing is strong with very vivid descriptions of the place and characters are also very clearly drawn. It would definitely make a walk on Pendle Hill in Lancashire a very chilling experience, even on a sunny day.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was a seemingly gentle read at the start, but as Harold progresses on his pilgrimage to visit his former colleague Queenie, dying of cancer at the opposite end of the country from Harold's home, his mood, and that of the book, becomes more complex. Harold initially sets out to simply post a letter in reply to one from Queenie, but then decides to keep walking. He tells various people he meets about his idea of walking the length of the country to see Queenie, and eventually his story is picked up by a journalist, and Harold becomes household news. Other people join Harold on his walk, although none knew Queenie. Meanwhile, Harold's wife Maureen is coping with Harold's absence from home in her own way. The story of their relationship is at the heart of the book and at the conclusion their relationship has changed utterly. Although Rachel Joyce uses fairly simple, straightforward language to tell Harold's story, and the journey itself is a basic plot, yet this is not quite the simple tale which it first appears to be. Well worth reading.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Holiday reading

About this time of year, many newspapers and magazines publish list of books to read while on holiday. Some mention classics, some include recently published rather heavyweight non-fiction, most include fairly lightweight fiction. Many assume that the holiday is flying off somewhere, lying on a beach for a couple of weeks, perhaps doing a little bit of exploring in the local area, and doing a fair bit of drinking and dining out. But holidays and people who take them are much more varied than that, and may include hiking or rambling in a variety of European mountainous areas, deep-sea diving, sailing, paragliding off a mountain somewhere and other adventurous pursuits. Or possibly staying in a rented house or gite, in the middle of some quiet countryside, with or without a pool. Or even cruising, if that's what grabs you (not me, I suffer from sea-sickness).
I think that the type of holiday will surely influence to some degree what you take to read, even if it's all loaded on to an e-reader. If you're doing a lot of activity during the day, and going out in the evening, finding the time to concentrate on a more demanding read may be difficult, so something shorter and lighter may be easier to pick up and put down, while staying put in one place may make the choice of something more demanding just the job. What every constant reader probably wants is a choice of reading matter, to suit their mood and the circumstances they find themselves in, and now that is much easier to organise on an e-reader than taking a pile of books, despite my own preference for the book as a physical object.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A lttle detour

Back home in England after a detour via Switzerland to visit a young friend, who works there. She lives not far from Lausanne, which she visited with us and then after lunch we went to Gruyeres,

where the cheese comes from. We had a quick glimpse in the cheese storage warehouse, where all the cheeses are turned, washed and so on by robot now and then went up to the village itself, which is very pretty, full of nice looking restaurants and hotels. It's almost a perched village with lovely views of the surrounding alps, a chateau which looks a bit like Colditz,and a museum dedicated to the work of H R Giger, creator some of the artwork and visual effects for the film Alien. Gruyeres is very popular as a tourist destination in Switzerland. Lausanne is a large, busy city on the shore of Lac Leman ( or Lake Geneva, if you prefer, but it is in French-speaking Switzerland), with a cathedral at the top of the old town, to which we climbed up a good part of the way. The weather when we visited was lovely, but it started to thunder and rain while we were wandering round Gruyeres in the late afternoon. There are lots of small pretty towns along the shores of the lake, with harbours, promenades, parks and other facilities for recreation or just relaxing walks.

We visited Reims on the way back through France, staying for the night. It seemed the whole city was out eating in the evening, or just walking up and down , enjoying the evening being a little cooler than the day, which had been very hot.

Sunday, 14 July 2013


Friday evening we were invited to the opening of an exhibition of sculptures by Ebba Kaynak, a German sculpter whose material s wood, carved using mainly a chain -saw. The forms she develops are inspired by nature, in all its variety. Ebba also demonstrated how she starts one of her pieces, reducing a large log to a shape she would then go on to finish another day. The exhibition is on at the Salle Polyvalente, next to the Mairie in St-Vincent de Salers, a small village set in a wonderful and impressive site in the Vallee du Mars, with huge rocks towering above it. There are several walks in the area, through the forests which partially cover the valley sides, also many waterfalls or cascades, although spring is the best time to see them, preferably before the leaves appear and hide many from view.
 After watching Ebba demonstrate her art, we had an introduction to the exhibition, a few words from Ebba Kaynak about her work and subject matter., followed by the nibbles and drinks. A very pleasant start to the French holiday weekend, as today is July 14th, Bastille Day a French national holiday, when all France commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison  in Paris, freeing the prisoners and starting the events of the French Revolution.

Monday, 8 July 2013

More reading

More comments on what I've been reading recently. I've enjoyed, if that's the right word for my feelings about reading a detective story in which a number of elderly women are brutally murdered, Susan Hill's A Question of Identity, one of her Simon Serrailler novels. The suspense in these stories is well maintained, and the descriptions of other family members' lives adds another element. Simon's relationship with his widowed sister and her growing children helps relieve the tension of the murders he is investigating, adding a more humane perspective. I've read most of this series, I look out for them when visiting my local library.
I thought John Mullan's What Matters in Jane Austen intriguing when I read reviews of it on various blogs and newspapers a while ago, so when I read it I thought it fascinating. I've read and re-read most of Austen's novels, since first being introducd to Pride and Prejudice when studying  A level English many decades ago. The Austen novel we were actually studying was Persuasion, but our English Literature teacher suggested we read Pride and Prejudice as an introduction. We just had to read it, not write notes or an essay on it, although we did have a fairly brief discussion one lesson, I'm sure.  So John Mullan's book can only increase my interest in Jane Austen and her books, as the topics he covers are aspects of her writing, her attitudes, reflections of late eighteenth, early nineteenth century life in England.
 The Road by Cormac McCarthy was made into a film, recently shown on television. I saw it before I read the book, which I don't normally like doing, as the pictures put in my head by the film tend to be the ones that I see when reading. In this instance, I think the film was fairly close to the book, which I found a fairly emotionally harrowing read. Some of the discussion at the book club meeting at which we discussed this book centred round the theme of the ending - was it ultimately hopeful to some degree, or not? Our small group couldn't decide, so we had to each make up our individual mind. As a picture of a dystopian future for the planet and for all life on it, including human, it does not offer very much in the way of optimism, perhaps just an odd glimpse now and then, including the way the father is prepared to sacrifice everything for the son. Some of the scenes described in the book are real horror-story stuff, but then that is the nature of a novel about a world in which all life has changed catastrophically.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Cycling mad?

Just to prove that perhaps France IS mad about cycling, while the Tour de France is going on its way down in the Pyrenees, locally  there was the 4th stage of the Tour du Cantal cadet ( for young riders of 15-16 years) which started in Le Vaulmier this afternoon.
People began gathering just after midday for the 3pm start, until the little place was almost jammed with cars disgorging young cyclists and their bikes. Just after the start the place emptied of cyclists and cars and returned to its usual peace and quiet.

Friday, 28 June 2013

It's supposed to be summer

Although it's almost the end of June, we've had few really warm sunny days here in the Cantal. Today the clouds have descended right into the Vallee du Mars and obliterated the wonderful mountain views completely. And it's fairly cold with all the dampness as well.
The other day we went up to the Buron de Chaussedier for lunch with a group of mostly Auvergnates.  The weather was sunny, but with a strong and cool wind, but once high up , you could see for miles. Lunch was a fairly simple menu, but good, and with all the catching up of gossip and so on, lasted until about 4pm.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Reading round up

To allievate the guilt feeling about not having blogged for a while ( although I've been reading ather blogs and have commented on some ) I'd better do a round -up of some recent reads.
A book about cricket in New York didn't sound too promising when I picked it for a reading group read, but Joseph O'Neill's Netherland was an interesting read. A book about New York, cricket and a marriage. Also about the effects of a catastrophic event on that marriage. At times I wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading this, but perseverd and eventually found i cared enough about the narrator, Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman, to want to find out more.Hans is a commodities analyst, his wife Rachel a lawyer and they are in New York with their young son. It is gradually revealed how their lives were affected by the event of 9/11, as it is known. Rachel and Hans have moved from their damaged apartment to an hotel; Rachel still feels unsafe in New York and decides to return to London, her home, with their son. Hans, left in New York on his own, meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian who invites him for a week-end game of cricket. Most of the other players are also West Indian or Indian immigrants and are very supportive of each other, off the cricket field as well as on it. Although this is partly a story about male friendship, it is also a mystery.

I followed this with another book about men and sport, this time Lloyd Jones  (review here)The Book Of Fame.It is about the 1905 tour of the New Zealand rugby football team, to England, Wales, Scotland, France and home via America.. It is based on notebooks written by members of the team and their management., and describes the games they played, , the huge crowds that went to see them play, the newspaper reports of the events of their successes, until they play Wales and are defeated. The feelings of some of the players as they become famous for their success on the tour are described, as well as their feelings on their eventaul return to their home in New Zealand.

A totally different read , Beth Gutcheon's Still Missing describes the emotions felt by Susan Selky, a divorced mother of Alex, aged almost seven, when he disappears one day on his way to school.Most of the story is about how Susan copes with her feelings of shock, guilt, numbness - a whole range of often conflicting emotions, as well as dealing with the police, the press and other media, all in the hope that Alex will be found. Ssan's relationship with her ex-husband, Alex's father, and his new partner is also a complex area. Some of the story shows the feelings of the police detective, himself the father of a son of Alex's age, and how that fact partly drives him onto keep searching. I found this book personally involving, as my younger son, also called Alex, once disappeared briefly when we were on holiday in France, and  I could fully emphathise with the feelings ascribed to Susan. Merciully we didn't have to call the local our Alex was found in a short while. This story recalled all the mixed emotions felt on that sunny afternoon in a small southern French town, including the kindness of the people who helped us at the time.

Going for variety, another read was C J Sansom's Dissolution., the first in a series of tales featuring Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer and Commissioner of Thomas Cromwell, and set in the turbulent reign of Henry VIII. Matthew is requested by Cromwell to discover who murdered his commissioner Robin Singleton, when on a mission to the abbey of Scarnsea. Shardlake is a  reformer himself, and travels down to Scarnsea, with a companion, Mark Poer to discover what has been going on. More brutal murders are committed while the pair are investigating the first murder. The cold wintry atmosphere of the abbey and its setting in the sea marshes isolated from the nearby town are well described, and the Tudor and late medieval background are well drawn. An interesting , fairly quick read, and also gives another point of view on Thomas Cromwell, after having read Hilary Mante's Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

Thursday, 2 May 2013


The other day , our neighbour gave us a handful of fresh morel mushrooms, picked on his land. We had them as a starter for supper, fried with a little butter and garlic. I've seen these dried in jars in local shops and supermarkets at fairly expensive prices, so these fresh ones were a real treat.

Two different worlds

Kyung-Sook Shin's novel Please Look After Mother was a thought-provoking read. The story about an elderly woman who goes missing in Seoul station, not following her husband onto a train, is told in several different voices. The eldest daughter, a writer, starts the story, and we hear from a son, the woman's husband and finally the mother herself. The children and father each reveal different aspects of the mother (we never know her name) and how she lived a life of self-sacrifice for her family. The mother's own voice tells us more, including how she, an illeterate woman, managed to have her daughter's books read to her, so she could understand what her daughter had written.One unusual feature of the writing is the use of the second person singular by several of the narrators, which I felt made for a more personal iand immediate nvolvement in the story The discussion we had at the Reading Group about this book was quite wide -ranging, and we all agreed that we were glad to have read it.. We read it a couple of weeks ago, when North Korea was posturing about war and so on, so it was also a timely read..

Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child, set in Al;aska in the 1920's was a lovely read, and a very accomplished debut novel. The story of Jack and Mabel, who have become homesteaders in Alaska. Jack comes from a family of farmers, Mabel's father was a  university professor. Jack works hard to set up the farm, while mabel works indoors to provide food, clean clothes and so on. Neither of them are very young and find the hard life quite arduous. One winter, following the first snowfall, they build a snow maiden, putting a red scarf and red mittens on her. The next day, she has melted somewhat, but the miitens and scarf are gone, later glimpsed on someone running away through the woods. Mabel and Jack are befriended by a local family, who have three sons, one of whom comes to help Jack work his land. The descriptions of life in the wilds of Alaska are beautifully  well as Jack and Mabel's are thoughtfully brought out. A joy to read, and a complete contrast to Kyung-Sook Shin's novel.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Winter in Spring

We've been here in the Auvergne for a couple of weeks, and so far spring has been slowly getting on with it; trees coming into life, the hillsides becoming gradually greener as the leaves appear. Some days have been warm and sunny, even hot, but this morning we woke up to falling snow, which is beginning to settle a little down here in the valley. Doubtless the mountain tops will covered, at least for a while, until the weather warms up again. The view has disappeared behind white wetness. But all this wetness means the rivers will be full, also the waterfalls, of which there are many along this valley, and several quite large ones in the area.Many of them are not easy to access, being up steep mountain sides and somewhat hidden amongst the forests which cover the hillsides, especially once the trees are in leaf.
While the weather was reasonable, we have amused ourselves by being active, going on a walk or two, and for my OH, going on several longish cycle rides. I've also had a swim in the new indoor pool in Mauriac., which we've watched being built over the last couple of years. It,s very pleasant, although with only two showers in the changing rooms (there are more as you enter the pool area itself) seems a bit odd.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Reading round-up

Don't seem to have posted for a while, and haven't read as much as I'd planned to, either, so will do a quick write-up of those books I have read and enjoyed recently. Two by Alan Bennett are A Life Like Other People's, a biography of his parents marriage and life together, and Smut, two short ish stories which are very funny.
A Life Like Other People's is touching and sad, as well as amusing in part. His parents married very quietly, early in the morning, as his father could not get time off from his job as a butcher to arrange and go to his own wedding, and his mother seemed to be happy to have a very quiet ceremony, with no reception for relatives and friends. All their lives they tried to fit in with other people, but never seemed to quite manage it, not helped by his mother's periods of depression which required treatment in hospital. The nearest mental hospital was 25 miles away from their home, and his father visited every day his wife was there. After his father retired from his butcher's job, Alan Bennett's parents moved to a small village, where they tried to make more of an effort to be like other people, but still with little success.The gradual revelation of past family tragedies is very sad, but also tells of the attitudes to such events by many families in the past, and some still today. A touching read.
Smut is very different, execept for the polished quality of the writing. Two stories, one about a widow who becomes a fakes various illnesses at the local medical school, and takes in lodgers to help pay for the upkeep of her home. When the lodgers fail to keep up-to-date with their rent, an unusual way of paying their debt is revealed. The second story, The Sheilding of Mrs Forbes, concerns her son, an extremely handsome man and his marriage to a very rich but plain girl, and their joint concern to keep the true state of the marriage from Mrs Forbes.   The neatness of the final twists in these tales reminded me a bit of Maupassant, a French master of the short tale.

Grace McCleen's The Land of Decoration is very different. Judith Macpherson, the 10-year old narrator makes a fantasy land in her bedroom from bits and pieces of basically rubbish. She and her father are members of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Judith decides one day that she heard God, and he has given her special powers; she prays for snow and the next morning, there the snow is. Judith is bullied at school, by one particular boy, and when the factory where her father works goes on strike and her father carries on working, both father and daughter are harassed in their home. Despite their troubles, eventually both father and daughter realise that things can change, and the problems which their religion has caused them can be overcome. Although the writing is fairly simple in style, appropriate for Judith's age, this is a fascinating tale and prompted quite a varied discussion in the book club for which I read it.I look forward to other stories by this author.

Geraldine Brooks is a well established author, and a favourite of mine and many others . Her recent   story Caleb's Crossing is set in 17th Century America, on Martha Vineyard, and tells the story of Caleb,  who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. The narrator of the story is Bethia Mayfield, a young girlwho meets Caleb while exploring the island, which is her and her family's home. The young people manage to teach each other their languages. Bethia's father is a minister who aims to convert the Native Americans to Christianity through teaching; he also is preacher to the local community. He eventually takes Caleb into his own home to prepare him for studying at Harvard; while Bethia was discouraged from getting an education, other than reading the Bible.Her search in life is for an education and a husband who would be a true partner in life. Written as a diary by Bethia, with a finale written as she lies dying in her daughter's house much later.
To end this round up, I recently finished Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies, her Man-Booker winning second part of the story of Thomas Cromwell..Her writing at times recalled for me Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels: there is the same large cast of characters, the position of someone not part of the aristocracy yet holding an important place at court, the intrigue and plotting of those at court, aiming to please royalty. I enjoyed this story, as I did Wolf Hall, as I do like a good historical novel whiich has obviously been well researched. I think, however, some of the hype is a bit overdone.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus was an exhilarating read, as long as you can suspend disbelief and accept the reality of a winged woman. Fevvers life  is different from anyone else's, as she appears to have been hatched, raised in a brothel and spends her life as a circus entertainer. The details of this story are fascinating and apart from being a rollicking good read - the description of Fevvers teaching herself to fly is amazing - it also says quite a bit about the position of women in society as the 19th century becomes the 20th. Surprisingly, this is the first Angela Carter novel I have read - as it was published quite some time ago, in 1984, can't think how I missed her writings. The events in the brothel in which Fevvers grows up and begins her life as a performer starting as a cherub perched on a mantelpiece, then graduating to a winged Victory are concluded by the Madam of the brothel dying in  an accident, and the occupants, discovering the house has been left to Madam's brother, burn the house down and go their separate ways into the world.  Fevvers, after one or two  adventures, joins a circus which has an engagement in St Petersburg. During this episode the clowns, including Jack Walser, an American journalist who interviewed Fevvers in London and has followed her to Russia, seem to take centre stage. After the St Petersburg episode, the circus takes a train to Vladivostock, but is blown up while crossing Siberia.

Another first was Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale. First published in 1985 ( What was I reading in the 1980's to have missed this as well?) and set in an unspecified future America where the position of women has changed radically, not for the better. Offred, whose tale this is, has become a handmaid to the wife of a Commander. Her function is to bear a child for the commander and his wife. She is not allowed to smoke, drink, read or even work, except for a bit of shopping in company with another handmaid.
Offred's future if she fails in bearing a child is either to be hung at the Wall or be cast out of Gilead, to die of radiation sickness.  Offred's past , recalled in a series of flashbacks, was as a wife and mother, but we do not learn precisely what has happened to her daughter or husband; neither do we learn what happens to Offred herself. A somewhat chilling tale of how that which we presently take for granted can disappear in an instant, and very relevant still today.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Reading at whim

Most of my reading is at random - I just pick up books in my local libraries, or occasionally charity bookshops. Sometimes I order books from newbooks, as I have a subscription and can get free books. although I have to pay postage, and some I order from The Book Depository or very occasionally from Amazon. This last I mostly use for my Kindle, which I regard as a useful addition to my library, not a total replacement for it. Who knows how long digital editions will last? Print, as we know, can survive in readable form for hundreds of years, but digital hasn't been around long enough. and backward compatibility is a real problem in information technology.  Of my recent reading, the bulk have come from libraries, and one a Persephone classic, Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness.
I enjoyed this tale of Emily Fox-Seton, and her life of at  first refined drudgery and later luxury. The first part of this story is how Emily, alone in the world and living in a cheap boarding house, doing errands for wealthy women, is invited to a country house by one of the ladies for whom she works. The time she spends there includes organising a fete for the local village, an exhausting job. The next day when Emily is sent on another errand, involving a legthy walk , Lord Walmerslet, another guest and a widower, rescues her  and proposes marriage. Happily settled at the Marquis' estate, Emily sets out to help her husbands presumed heir, Alex Osborn, recently returned fro a tour of work in India, along with his wife and her servant. The marquis is called to India on business and leaves his recently wedded wife alone . The second part of the story becomes more of a mystery or thriller, as threatening attempts  are made on Emily's life. The story however does have a satisfying ending, after a period of suspense and tension. A  really good read.

I thought Joanne Harris's Peaches for Monsieur le Cure another satisfying, enjoyable read. The third novel with Vianne Rocher as the main character and narrator, a follow up to Chocolat and the Lollipop Shoes. In this story Vianne and her daughter Anoushka returns to Lansquenet, the small town in which Chocolat was set, for a summer holiday, after receiving a letter from her now dead friend, Armande. Lansquenet has changed, however. The cure, Monsieur Reynaud seems to be in a precarious postion, especially over his relations with a group of Muslim immigrants, who have settled in the older part of the town near the river. A young Muslim, Karim Bencharki and his sister Ines seem to be setting a new stricter way of life for the younger Muslims, which is creating tensions in that community and with the local French town dwellers as well. Vianne gets involved  in the events and tries to sort things out in her way, by making some of her  delicious, seductive chocolates and also some peach jam. She also helps a young Muslim girl who runs away from her family. The tensions between the communities and different charaters is well maintained and provides a delightful read. I think this follow up more successful than Lollipop Shoes.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Anita Shreve's story Sea Glass sems to be a quiet novel, gentle, apparently a bit like the heroine. But appearances can be deceptive, and the tension mounts slowly to a very shocking event which has life-changing effects on all the characters. I hadn't for some reason read any books by Anita Shreve before, and found this story very readable, with believable characters and lovely descriptions of how Honora and her husband start to make a life for themselves in a small seaside summer resort. But the Wall Street crash of 1929 will have devasting results for the couple, and for the people they get to know in the small mill town nearby. The deepening effects of the Crash and how different people react to it make for a fascinating read.

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