Monday, 27 October 2014

Reading hiatus

Well, we are almost at the end oh October, so what happened to August and September.?Part of these months were spent in France, n our house in the Cantal, part in England at home. Both were busy months; in August we spent more time working on our French house, but also managed a visit to Sarlat-le-Caneda, one of the most beautiful villages in France, and to Beaulieu-sur -Dordogne, another beautiful place, although smaller and quieter than Sarlat. The Dordogne department is not too far from the Cantal, about two or three hours drive away and is very different in character. It is hilly rather than mountainous, and being at a lower altitude, its climate is warmer and its vegetation lusher.
Sarlat is somewhere we had not visited previously, so going in August was a treat for ourselves. We found a pleasant hotel/ bed and breakfast, which also had its own car park, within a short walk of the town centre. There was ample choice of restaurents in the town for dinner, despite it being August and therefore extremely busy. The weather was also ideal, as it was warm and dry, which it wasn't for quite long periods in the summer in the Auvergne - the visitors to this area were somewhat disappointed at not being able to get out and enjoy the countryside.
After a few short weeks in England in September, we're back in the Auvergne, enjoying beautiful sunny, clear days at the moment.
This view is of Le Falgoux, at the head of the Vallee du Mars. The river starts in the Cirque du Falgoux, below the Pas du Peyrol, a popular viewpoint, especially in summer when the carpark gets jammed with cars, and camping cars. Its also a regular climb on the Tour de France cycle race.The valley is much quieter at this time of year, even though its the school holidays.
Because we have been quite busy, working on the house here and catching up with gardening at home, less reading has been done,

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


We've been here in the Auvergne for nearly three weeks now; the first week was warm and sunny, the next slightly less settled and this last has been unremittingly wet, either with rain or cloud. It has however improved over the last couple of days. One benefit, if it could be called so, is that the many waterfalls in the valley are all full and rushing down the hillsides. Many are not easily visible, but there is one the other side of the valley, which we can see from our house.It was just a small trickle when we first arrived in late June, but is now in full flow.
The other day as a change from working on the house, I made some of these lavender strawberries. They smell really lovely.
This morning I decided to bake a savoury cake, with ham and Parmesan cheese. I've tasted savoury cakes at some of the receptions we've been to here, but not tried one until now.It turned out well and would be delicious with a glass of white wine or cider. The recipe I used came from a French magazine,   ( Modes et Travaux, I think) bought a year or two ago
The as follows:
Ingredients: 150 g plain flour, 3 eggs, 80 ml olive oil, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 2 large slices cooked ham, 60 g grated Parmesan cheese, a small bunch of parsley and the same of basil, 100 ml milk, salt and pepper.
Preheat the oven to 180 centigrade. Gas 4. Wash and chop the herbs,and mix with the milk. Cut the ham slices into small squares..Beat 2 eggs, half the flour and the olive oil  with an electric beater in a large bowl. Add the 3rd egg, the rest of the flour, the baking powder and the milk with the herbs.. Season with salt (a little, because the cheese and ham are salty) and pepper.and mix well. The mixture should be smooth. With a spatula fold in the ham and the cheese. Pour into a buttered  2lb loaf tin and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Serve with an aperitive, or a glass of wine. This loaf can also be part of a meal, with salad.

Because of the weather, we've managed to do quite a bit of work on the house, such as my husband laying vinyl, which he has never done before, putting up tiles in the kitchen, repairing the supports to the balcony and other jobs, including painting.

I've also been able to read most of the books I picked up on a visit to my local library before leaving England for France. I did a rapid trawl of the shelves and picked four novels and one book on local history (left that at home). I found a new copy of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels. I've never for some reason read any of her books and this one was a good introduction. The story of Fred, who works as a junior fellow, and junior or assistant  to almost everything else in an all male Oxford college. One day while cycling to an appointment from outside Oxford, Fred is involved in a collision with a cart and another cyclist, a girl called Daisy. Both are rescued by the people outside whose house the accident happened, and end up in the same bed.  After many twists and turns, Fred and Daisy do meet again....
Another book which I picked up on my quick trawl was Alice Walker's The Colour Purple. I'm not sure how I came to miss this when it was first published in 1982, but catching up with a good read even years after all the hype about it has faded into history, is usually rewarding. This one definitely falls into the Well Worth Reading category and I'm glad I've finally caught up with it. I've not yet seen the film, either, so something else to look forward to.
Two more recently published books I gathered in the same swoop were Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour and Marina Lewycka's  Various Pets Alive Or Dead, this last I have yet to read.

Friday, 27 June 2014

A Year of Reading Dangerously, by Andy Miller,  which I've just finished, was an interesting read, though not to me particularly dangerous. It was refreshing to read about a man who reads fiction in the way that Andy Miller does, but I suspect he his not totally unique. Many years ago I did a survey of male readers in the library in which I then  worked. One of the questions I asked was to name some favourite authors. The majority of authors named were male, which I don't think was surprising. Given that one of the many reasons people read is to reflect on their own lives, surely  men will favour male writers and women will choose female authors on the same basis. But all real readers will choose authors of either gender if what they say has some resonance with them. Looking at Andy Miller's List of Betterment, he includes 39 male authors and 11 female, probably a slightly higher proportion of female writers than that chosen by those readers who responded to my survey. Certainly his reading was wide ranging, not genre-based and fifty books in a year , or about one a week is a good average for an average-speed reader. But its not how many books, or how fast  you can read that matters. What really matters about reading is that you read, with curiosity, interest, enthusiasm and hopefully some degree of enjoyment and even enlightenment. Just keep reading. Which is where I totally agree with Andy Miller.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A few good reads

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch comes in as a good read for me, and as I haven't yet read either of her earlier works, a good introduction to her earlier works. Although I thought some of the writing, particularly the descriptions of places and weather somewhat overblown, I still enjoyed the story.The plot centres on Theo's theft of a picture, The Goldfinch by Carl Fabritius, during a disaster in the Metroploitan Museum of Art in which his mother dies. Much of Theo's life after the death of his mother is concerned with his ideas of what to do with this beautiful little painting, as well as coming to terms with the loss of his mother. The story kept me engrossed as the characters who helped Theo, some almost despite themselves, were all fascinating although all were also flawed human beings, with their various weaknesses.

Anne de Courcy's tale of The Fishing Fleet:husband -hunting in the Raj is about the many women, mostly quite young, who left England to go to India to find a husband. Many had been born in India, and were returning to family after being educated n England. Others were joinng a fiance they had already met and become engaged to back home, but many were out to seek a husband, having failed to find one in England. The Victorians encouraged women and girls out to India, after the East India Company was pretty much taken over by the government, as it was considered more suitable for the men- soldiers, government  servants, and others to marry Englishwomen rather than Indian women. Many of the stories which Anne de Courcy relates are from the later part of the Victorian era and from the inter-war years, the 20's and 30's. Some of the stories of the women and their husbands are scattered across several chapters. Having had a colonial childhood,  although in West Africa rather than India, and much later than the period covered by this book, I enjoyed the read.
I have to add that I read both of these titles on my Kindle, which as it is a couple of years old, did nothing whatsoever for the illustrations in this last book.

One book I did read and enjoy as a printed book was Maureen Lee's Flora and Grace.
I don't remember reading any of Maureen Lee's many other titles, but this one was an easy and enjoyable read, fairly light despite some of  the themes it encompasses. Flora, a 17 year old orphan, has been sent to a small school in Switzerland, and one beautiful spring day during the war, is  standing at the local station when a train rumbles slowly through. Flora hears groans and moans and realises there are people inside. Suddenly an infant is thrust from one of the trucks to her, and she hears the plea. "Take him. His name is Simon" and Flora is left holding the baby as the train continues its journey. The plot then follows Flora's life as she eventually returns to England together with Simon, to her aunt, who had placed her in the Swiss school.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

A pair of Alexander McCall Smith's

Just finished Alexander McCall Smith's "2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom" a collection of stories about Dr Marie Moritz von Igelfeld, Professor of Romance languages. Very amusing and enjoyable and an ideal antidote to another book I have recently read. Back in February, I went with my Book Club to a talk at Winchester Guildhall by McCall Smith, and he was very funny, especially on the subject of this book. The audience had a good laugh at von Igelfeld's expense.
The other title I had read by A M S was his most recent, The Forever Girl. Set in the expatriate community of financial wheeler-dealers in the Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, I had found this on the shelves of my local library only a few weeks after its publication earlier this year. The atmosphere of the small community of Europeans working away from their home, going to the tennis club, the yacht club and generally finding ways to entertain themselves on a small tropical island with little in the way of sophisticated life is depicted very well.   The relationship of Clover and James as children is tenderly done, but when Clover, as she decided to call herself aged four eventually goes to the same Edinburgh University as James, yet doesn't see him or encourage him in any way, I felt I wanted to shake her. This was an OK but not too gripping read.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Cuckoo's Calling

I read Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling for a Book Club read, and I enjoyed it more than I had expected. A murder mystery of a fairly classic kind, it has good page-turning properties as to plot, and more-or-less believable characters. Actually written by J K Rowling, it is clear she has moved on from the fantasy world of Harry Potter and into the adult novel world. This is a fairly accomplished read, hopefully with more to come. I enjoyed meeting the main characters, Robin and Cormoran Strike, and found the set-up of their office realistic. The setting in London in all its variety is also well described and believable. Although the plot , the death of a young but troubled super model in a fall from a snowy balcony is a classic did she fall or was she pushed example, nevertheless, it hangs together well. The supporting characters of elderly,dying mother, distraught brother, a fellow model.a gay fashion designer are quite believable , even though most behave quite badly and selfishly. I'm planning to read the next one , titled The Silkworm.
Here in the Auvergne, we have heard a cuckoo calling up the hill ever since we arrived a few days ago.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Travels in the East

A friend lent me Amitav Ghosh's novel The Glass Palace, as she had enjoyed it very much, as did I. I have read some of his other tales but not this one, which was published some time ago.  The story of Rajkumar and his friends and family set in Burma and India is full of colour and excitement and sorrow, as the characters deal with marriage and love as well as war, exile, and loss. Rajkumar finds himself alone in Burma, his parents and siblings dying on their travels from India to Burma to find work. He begins by working in Ma Cho's cookshop, but eventually becomes involved in the teak trade, at which he is very successful. He visits the Burmese Royal Palace, sees Dolly, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and falls in love with her, but has to wait many years before he eventually marries her. The Royal family and their servants are exiled to India after the colonisation of Burma by the British which is where Rajkumar finally courts and marries Dolly.There are several jumps in time, always forward, which makes for a more exciting pace to the story. The large cast of characters, the long period of time that the story covers and the major historical events all make for a thoroughly engrossing read.
Another book I enjoyed recently was  Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists. The Garden of Evening MistsThis story , set in Malaysia during the Malayan emergency, describes the fascination a young Chinese girl forms for the Emperor of Japan's garden while on a visit there. After the Second World War, she retires from her profession as judge and becomes apprenticed to Nakamura Aritomo, the Emperor's former gardener, now living quietly in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya, not far from the tea plantation of Magnus , a survivor of the Boer War and a refugee from South Africa. Written in the first person singular, and from the point of view of a woman, this is a beautiful, lyrical read, despite some of the dramatic circumstances in which the characters find themselves. The descriptions of the garden, the tea plantation, and the surrounding jungle are elegantly done, and create a stunning imaginative landscape in the reader's mind. This is the author's second novel, so I will look out for his first.

Friday, 21 March 2014

To re-read or not?

My Book Club recently read and discussed J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. The story takes place over one weekend, after the narrator, Holden Caulfield has been asked to leave his private boarding school. Holden basically runs away to New York, stays in a somewaht seedy hotel and sets out to behave like a grown up, smoking and drinking heavily through the weekend. He refuses to go his home, an apartment in Manhattan where his parents and younger sister live. He makes vague plans to run away out west and get a job on a ranch, but when his young sister tries to go with him, he backs away from the idea. His relationship with his parents is complicated, made more so by the death of an older brother, Allie, which happens before the story begins. and to whom Holden was very close.He is also very close to his sister Phoebe, even though she only ten to his sixteen years old.
 Several of us had read before, some several decades ago. Re-reading a book after such a long time does put an entirely different light on it, as there is a whole life's experience to bring to the book which naturally changes one's perspective. One of the group could remember the excitement she felt on first reading it aged 18; now recently retired her feelings about the book were very different. I had read it about 4 or 5 years ago, so my emotions were not so different, but this time I appreciated the craft in the writing, the exposition of Holden Caulfield's emotions and actions so much more. One of the group queried its status as a classic novel, as it appears regularly on reading lists for GCSE and A level exams. I think because it is such a detailed description of a young man's mix of emotions about being or becoming an adult , or grown-up, that it has immediate appeal for the same age group, and also because the quality of the writing is so good are among the reasons that it is still being read some 60 years after it was published.
  I do't often re-read books, but I'm glad I did with this one, as it is well worth a second read. Most classic become so because they are worth reading  again and again, as each time we add something to our reading, a deeper exploration of character, narrative and plot, which adds to our sum of knowledge of self and of others.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

I picked up Nigel Slater's latest book Eat on a quick visit to the library and have enjoyed dipping in to it. I've had a copy of Real Fast Food on my bookshelves for a long time, and use it from time to time for inspiration. I find the lack of illustration almost more inspiring than the lavishly illustrated cookbooks of today, which have carefully composed colour photographs of many recipes.My serving dishes and crockery are not the same as those photographed, and I find the pictures a little distracting - but then I usually prefer the original book to a film based on it, as the latter never matches up to the scenes in my imagination. However I enjoy Nigel Slater's writing and find his recipes usually easy to follow as well as inspiring. One thing I enjoyed about this book is the simplicity of the recipes: most are pared down to the basics, with exact quantities given only when necessary.
Another recent read was Jenny Eclair's Life, Death and Vanilla Slices, which was an enjoyable mix of laughter and tears. I've heard Jenny Eclair on radio and television, and read an occasional article by her, but have only just caught up with her novels. As this is her third, I'll look out for her others. Life, Death and Vanilla Slices follows Anne Armitage as she leaves her comfortable London life to be with her mother, who is in a coma after she was knocked down while crossing a road near her home. The story gives both Joan's and Anne's memories of their lives, Joan's reminiscences are from the depths of her coma, while Anne's are looking back on her life, while also trying to make sense of her mother's life in the Northern town which Anne had moved away from, creating a successful life in London, married to a doctor  and the mother of two spoiled teenage boys. An interesting take on the mid-life crisis scenario.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Great sewing

I watched the first series of the Great British Sewing Bee with a mixture of interest and some scepticism. The latter partly because I've been sewing all my life, although mostly out of a desire not to spend too much money on certain items. I made dolls clothes as a child, progressing to clothes as a teenager, encouraged by my mother who also made many of her dresses. I even made my own wedding dress when I married over 30
years ago. I've also made several sets of curtains, cushion covers and bedspreads for my homes. So when I saw the Great British Sewing Bee book in my local library, I picked it up for a thorough perusal at home.
It's certainly a useful book to have on the shelf for anyone who sews, although the actual technique section , at the beginning of the book,  is fairly short. However the projects are quite ambitious in range and several would probably suit someone who had some sewing experience at least. The illustrations and instructions are both very clear and there are helpful tips throughout.
So when Series Two the GBSB was announced and then appeared on the television, I couldn't resist watching. This series seems to be a bit more ambitious in its scope of fabrics and projects for the competitors, so I'll probably continue watching. Personally I wouldn't now wish to sew against the clock as the sewers have to do in the GBSB, but its interesting to see the different choices they make as to fabrics, patterns and so on.
Two recent makes by me are a top in a knit fabric from the pattern on the left, and a plain black skirt from the one on the right. Both were easy makes and I've worn both items several times.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Reading and looking

Bee Wilson's book Consider the Fork was a fascinating look at the history of cooking and eating through the techniques and equipment used to provide meals, not the food itself, although there are many books which cover that subject.With chapters on Pots and pans, Fire, Grind ( which  briefly tells the history of how humans have ground grain to make bread from earliest times). Although this book doesn't go into the minutest detail, it gives a through introduction of how our cooking and eating techniques have changed through the ages, with a brief mention of how some eating techniques have changed us as humans. There is also an excellent bibliography and list of further reading for those of us with a deeper interest in food history in all its ramifications.
 As my book club had booked to hear Alexander McCall Smith when he came to Winchester Guildhall last Thursday, I quickly re-read the title story in the Sunday Philosophy Club series to remind myself of his writing. He is as entertaining a speaker as he is a writer, and was well worth the short trip up to Winchester, and has encouraged me to read some of his other series set in Edinburgh, as well as trying to catch up with Mma Ramotswe and her detective agency.
 Another fairly quick read was Libby Purves Holy Smoke, a memoir of her education as a Catholic girl growing up in a variety of places , following her father in his career as a diplomat. I picked this up at my local library, out of interest, as I'm a fairly regular reader of her Times column, and have also read most of her other books, both fiction and non-fiction. I must say her education at Catholic convent schools, mostly, was completely different to mine., even though I also spent time abroad with my parents ( father a mining engineer) and went to boarding school in England while parents worked abroad, West Africa in their case.

 A friend reminded me the other day that there is an exhibition of the work of Eric Meadus, a local artist, in Southampton City Art gallery , until 22nd March. Many of he scenes he painted are only about a mile away from where I live, and it was interesting to see his vision of his home city. There is a good write-up of Eric Meadus' work here, and some biographical information here.I personally love the colours he uses , even some of the darker ones, and think his drawing is beautiful. I agree that not all his work is of the same standard, but it is all worth looking at and studying. I'll probably  try and visit this exhibition again, as I only concentrated on part of it at this visit.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Gillian Slovo's story of Gordon of Khartoum, An Honourable Man seemed a bit disappointing, in that I didn't actually care enough about the characters. The story of the relief of Khartoum, two days late, is fairly well-known, but the addition of the story of a doctor who joined the relief party, and his wife at home in London added a more human depth, and yet..I still couldn't feel quite sufficient sympathy for them.
The details of the siege of Khartoum are given somewhat sparingly, but with an ever-increasing sense of the impending doom. The more interesting action of the novel is the journey of John, the doctor, inspired by the journalist and editor W H Stead to join the army's expedition to relieve Gordon, and the journey and inner turmoil of John's wife Mary, left at home in London to cope with an increasing dependence on laudanum and the turns and twists she goes through to satisfy her addiction. Of all the characters, Mary's was in many ways the most sympathetic, in that I came to care what happened to her, as she made her choices.  This was a well-written story, with several beautiful descriptions of exciting events, but with characters that failed to evoke sufficient sympathy. This novel had some personal relevance, as the Gordon family had a home in Southampton, and there is a memorial to him in a small city park, Queens Park ( which caused much debate and argument between the family and the town council at the time of its proposed erection) There is a good description of the setting up of the monument here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014


These red carnations were part of the Christmas display in my church; they were taken out of the church last Thursday, but are still going strong almost a month later. What a bargain!

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Bonne Annee

I spent Sunday evening putting away the Christmas decorations, clearing out some of the older stuff and having a  quick tidy-up, as today is Epiphany - yesterday's Church service included a sermon on the significance of the gifts of the three Magi, gold, frankincense and myrrh. While listening to the sermon, I recalled T.S Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi", which I remember learning as a student many years ago.

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