Sunday, 15 December 2019

Quick Lit December 2019

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. After two moves and eighteen months in boxes, our books finally got to see the light of day! Here's a picture of our new fitted bookcase, ably made and installed by our friends, the Kutnar family. (No, those aren't all our books, but yes, we got rid of hundreds before moving abroad.)

T.S. Eliot - Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats
My short top pick for the month. All that controversy over the Cats movie trailer (which I haven't even watched), sent me scurrying to my (new!) bookshelf for the original inspiration for the musical, a short collection of comic poems on distinctive felines by the author who probably gave you headaches in literature class. If you want to add a short classic to your list, or to revise your view of Eliot, these fun, jaunty, and  - yes - musical poems might be just the thing. Even my four year-old enjoyed some of these.

I don't have this edition, but I think I'd like to

Octavia Butler - The Parable of the Sower
The second book I abandoned this year, but because it was so well-written, not because it was so awful. This is a novel set in a world where civilisation is slowly collapsing due to climate change and economic disparity (written in 1993 but set in the 2020s, gulp). While the adults around her seem to be clinging to hopes of returning to the old days, Lauren is quietly plotting a new way forward - spiritually and physically. However, the images of violence were just too disturbing for me. I read far more than I should have before I put it down. Only read if you have a strong stomach.

Jenny Colgan - The Bookshop on the Corner - US/ The Little Shop of Happy Ever After - UK
... But luckily, there was a Jenny Colgan novel sitting on my Kindle to get happier images into my head. Nina's job as a librarian is facing the axe, but she steps out of her comfort zone to chase her dream of running a bookshop. Unlike her dream, the bookshop turns out to be mobile, and her turf the Scottish highlands. And, of course, she finds an unexpected community -  and romance. Maybe it was just the contrast to my previous read, but I thought this was my favourite Jenny Colgan thus far. (P.S. I have no idea why the US title is so different, and misleading!)

Henrik Ibsen - An Enemy of the People [audio play from LA Theatre Works, full cast recording]
I needed something to help me get through sorting paperwork - this play is surprisingly topical: when a doctor wants to tell the truth about the contaminated water in his spa town, he finds himself the enemy of family and friends whose livelihood is threatened.

Daphne Du Maurier - The Du Mauriers
Daphne Du Maurier novelises her family history, focusing on the period when her English and French ancestors came together. Not in the same vein as her more famous works, but very engaging. If she is already a favourite author, you will probably enjoy learning more about her roots.

Anne Bogel - Reading People
Much as I love Modern Mrs Darcy, I gave this a miss when it first came out, since I wasn't that interested in the topic. However, the Kindle book was going so cheap, I gave it a go, and was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. It's often touted as an introduction to personality frameworks, but I would say it is also a great read for those who don't want to go further, but also don't want to look ignorant the next time someone mentions Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram.

Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas, or whatever you celebrate in December, and a wonderful reading year ahead!

Friday, 15 November 2019

Quick Lit: November 2019

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual for quick book reviews. At last, a book to get me out of my reading slump! In fact, October picked up in general.

John Fowles - The French Lieutenant's Woman
Like other readers before me, I thought I was picking up a historical romance, fuelled by the iconic image of the woman (Meryl Streep) standing, windswept by the sea in the film version (which I haven't seen).

Yes... and no, no, no. Written in 1969, this is on one level a Victorian, very Hardy-esque (deliberately, given that it's set in Dorset), emotional novel about a gentleman who considers himself modern, yet finds his life upended and his mores challenged when he becomes infatuated with an 'outcast' woman, while engaged to an icon of young, pure Victorian womanhood. At the same time, the novel has an omniscient narrator ever ready to remind us that he is only pretending to be a Victorian author, and who steps in to analyse both the Victorian age and the conventions of Victorian novels. The technical term for this is, I understand, metafiction (a novel aware of its own fictional status). At this point, you are probably scrabbling for your TBR list, or scrolling down the page. I loved it. Definitely one of the best novels I have read this year.

Nancy Warren - The Vampire Knitting Club
It was free, so, with a title like that, how could I resist? It also has a bonus kitten (I mean, not literally, though my family would appreciate that). It was professionally written and engaging, but, and I say this without irony, it lacked soul. I might, however, read another in the series if I didn't have to pay for it.

Sue Monk Kidd - The Invention of Wings
I get to feel a little smug here, because I actually knew about Sarah Grimke, the American abolitionist and women's rights campaigner whose story is fictionalized in this novel. Sarah's progress from plantation owner's daughter to abolitionist is told in tandem with that of Handful Grimke, based very loosely on the slave girl Sarah was given for her eleventh birthday. Kidd does a worthy job of  bringing to life Southern women whose stories deserve telling - slaves and the free women who risked both social standing and their personal safety to confront the status quo. Personally, I thought this novel was more mature than The Secret Life of Bees.

Dorothy L. Sayers - Clouds of Witness and Unnatural Death
I wasn't overly taken with the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, but I returned to the series, and really got into the second one, maybe because the cast was now familiar. After that, I went straight on and read the third. Sayers' gentleman sleuth solves two rather different mysteries in these novels. In the first, his brother is accused of shooting his sister's fiance; in the second, a chance meeting with a young doctor leads to his attempt to uncover the 'perfect' crime. (Sensitive readers be warned, Unnatural Death uses the N-word several times.)

Wishing American readers a Happy Thanksgiving (that's the American holiday I loved best when I lived there), and happy reading to all.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Lipica: All the pretty horses

Posting has been sporadic, because the bulk of our 'adventures' this year have been in the realm of buying/selling/renovating houses, and when I've had the odd day out, I wanted to just enjoy time off rather than be in potential blog post mode (that requires me to think about photos, which I'm not good at). But - we got our first guests - my parents! The predicted week of rain happily (mostly) dissipated, and we discovered that "everything shuts for the holidays" actually doesn't include major tourist attractions, which meant we could peg Reformation Day (October 31) to finally visit the Lipica stud farm, which I've been intending to do since we first lived here 11 years ago.

This is a terrible photo of me, but the horse's expression says it all.

Our first excitement was blithely following the satnav, which decided the quickest route involved a dog leg through a corner of Italy. Since not everyone in the car had documents with them, we held our breath that we didn't get stopped at the border. This is called living on the edge (of the country).

A short, police-free, while later, we reached the beginning of picture-perfect pastures: thick green grass, shade trees, white fences - and, tantalisingly further from the road, a few white horses. Yes, several of the adults among us were pretty excited. A free guided tour was about to start when we entered the farm proper. I hadn't planned for us to take one, but we are glad we did. We shared the English-language tour with only one other British couple, and our guide, Katya, was clear, informative, and obviously deeply committed to her work at the farm. I soon learned all sorts of horsey things I had never bothered to think about, such as that dressage originated as a way of training horses to be extremely responsive to their riders in order to aid them in battle (I just thought it was dancing with horses). So, without trying to bore you, here is some of my newly-acquired wisdom.

First, a potted history - the website has tons more fascinating information, these are just my random favourite bits. Lipica is the oldest continually operating stud farm in Europe, dating from the 16th century. The area used to be the summer residence of the Archbishop of Trieste, and was named after the linden tree (sometimes called a lime tree) growing in his courtyard, so Lipizzaner horses are, I suppose, something like "linden horses". (There used to be a road leading out of the residence straight to Trieste. Very convenient for His Grace.) The farm was established by the Hapsburgs, Archduke Charles to be exact, in the 1580s. Lipizzaner horses were originally bred by crossing the tough native horses with Spanish horses. Four of the breeding lines of today's horses are descended from those established in the 18th century by the husband of the Empress Maria Theresa. (The more famous riding school in Vienna now has its own stud farm, but its horses are descended from here in Slovenia.)

The stud farm and herd have endured some harsh times, fleeing for safety during the Napoleonic wars, evacuated by train during World War I, kidnapped by Germans in World War II, and saved in a military operation by General Patton in 1945. It survived the ups and downs of post-war eastern Europe by the skin of its teeth until, in 1996, it became a public institution of the Republic of Slovenia. The whole area is now a region of special protection. Sounds like the stuff of movies - and apparently there is one, produced by Disney way back in 1963: Miracle of the White Stallions.

But back to the horses. First, did you know that white horses aren't born white? I mean, all you horsey people probably did (and yes, I know they aren't technically white, but bear with me, it's easier). They get paler with age  - a few stay dark. Whatever their colour, it sounds like they have a fun life here. The foals get to spend six months playing out in the extensive pastures with their mothers, then they are separated for training, the most important part of which, I gather, is bonding the horses to humans.

We got to visit the stables, where the horses have their pedigrees and names on display at their stalls. Brothers and sisters were stabled side-by-side. Horses arriving back from exercise greeted their friends, and were greeted back. ("They all know each other," our guide said.) Even if we hadn't seen the affection between the horses and our guide, you could tell how well loved they were by how friendly they were to we strangers. Even Alcuin petted them, and he's usually a little nervous around horses, being as they are about fifty times bigger than he is.

From there, we went to the older part of the farm, where, after giving us a final dose of history (see above), our guide left us in the original stables to explore the environs. From there we visited the chapel of Saint Anthony, and the museum, where we got as close to horse riding as we dared. And the shop, where my mother got a cup to pair with her one from the Spanish riding school in Vienna. There were a few other sights around the farm that we didn't get to see  - it was getting colder, and we wanted a good seat (and some shelter) at the arena for the show.

The show was themed, "The Story of Lipica", and began with horses running riderless around the ring to symbolise the beginnings of their relationship with humans, then went on to illustrate the bonds that have grown between them with training, dressage, and carriage riding. I think those horses can dance better than I can.

Afterwards, I asked Alcuin which bit of the show he liked the best. "The horses," he said. Fair enough.

We exited the arena to find the main thoroughfare cordoned off - we were right on time to see the mares and foals galloping back from their pastures to the stable. I positioned the camera and took photos without looking through the lens, because it was too good to miss in person. Just beautiful. A perfect end to the visit.

But man, once the sun went down, it got cold fast. Time to get back to balmy Koper. And we were very glad of a wonderful day out, because we got home to all sorts of traumas involving the scaffolding on and by our house (maybe that's another post!).

Touristy stuff: The Lipica website is pretty comprehensive (not always the case with Slovenian sites, I've found). At first glance, it looks a little pricey compared to other attractions in the region - 22 euros per adult in the high season, just under 20 in the winter, but that includes a free tour, access to all the grounds, and a 30-minute show (plus your car park fee back). I'd recommend taking the guided tour, and picking a day with a show if possible because it's only a few euros extra than the tour-only price (there is also an in-between option that lets you see a training session). Out of season is cheaper (but with fewer show days available) - wrap up warm against that karst wind! We did not pay extra for a carriage ride or horse riding lessons, though our guide pushed the carriage ride option. There is also a cave nearby, Vilenica, but we didn't get to include that in this visit - however, I'm sure we'll be back with more guests.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Quick Lit: October 2019

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. Both August and September's reading total turned out to be modest. We are still dealing with having moved into a new house (five days before a trip to the UK!), plus back-to-school stuff which includes the inevitable first sickness going round the family. Add to that a slow read, and the fact that I just haven't found an audiobook to tempt me lately. But, at least this segues nicely into my feature for the month, in praise of the palate cleanser...

H.Y. Hanna - Deadhead and Buried (The English Cottage Garden mysteries, Book 1)
I don't know who coined the term "palate cleanser" for a choice of book, but I first came across it on Modern Mrs Darcy. After The Physician (see below), that was what I needed, so I snapped up this mystery from a favourite easy-reading author when it was on sale. You know the plot already: young woman dissatisfied with life gets an unexpected legacy (bonus, it's near Oxford, literary murder capital of the world) - but oops, there's a body...

I've got more literature degrees to my name than I need, and I love intellectually challenging books. But even nerds need a break, or something to wash down a less pleasant reading experience, and I don't think we should be snobbish about writers who dedicate themselves to filling that light-reading gap. Hsin-Yi Hanna may not be a high-brow author, but there is plenty I admire about her. Like many of us, reality made her shelve her early dreams of being a full-time writer, but, later in life, armed with experience and a new publishing scene, she embarked on a career writing cosy mysteries as an independent author, even learning cover design. Her work is professionally edited (which is more than I can say for e-versions of a lot of small press novels), and she works hard to build a community with her readers, using that relationship to make it to the USA Today bestseller list. I like her Oxford Tearoom series best - the other two (this and a paranormal cosy series) each have a comic character that annoys me.

There's too much doom and gloom in the world. Let's own those happy, tea- or coffee-time novels and thank the people who offer us a book we can read in a weekend, and make us smile.

Noah Gordon - The Physician
This is a saga set in the early medieval period, that sweeps you from the streets of London to the palaces of Persia as young Rob Cole risks everything to follow his calling as a physician. This is apparently a worldwide bestseller, but not for me. I like long books. I like slow books. But this was a looong, slow book (over 750 pages), with a lot of time devoted to painstaking descriptions that would have been highlighted by my critique group with comments such as, 'This is a novel, not a history textbook'. However, by the time I was seriously tiring of it, I was three quarters of the way through, and it seemed a waste to give up. But if you do love it, it's part of a trilogy.

Hiro Arikawa - The Travelling Cat Chronicles
It's always a good day when you find something on your TBR in a charity shop. In this bestselling Japanese novel, Satoru takes his beloved cat, Nana, on a roadtrip to visit old friends, one of whom he hopes will offer the cat a new home - of course, you can guess why. Sad and heartwarming at the same time, told from the cat's point of view.

I noticed in retrospect that all three of my novels for the month featured a pet cat. Maybe there was a message in the month after all...

I wore this sweatshirt until it fell apart
Hope you are fitting in some good reading around whatever life is sending your way this autumn!

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Moreton: Resting place of Lawrence of Arabia

I am interrupting the usual content of the blog and my ironic, self-deprecating humour to bring you a literary-historical pilgrimage to the village of Moreton in Dorset, resting place for T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

I have a fascination with Lawrence that grew from reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom and was cemented with a visit to Clouds Hill cottage, his bolthole in Dorset, near Bovington. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is not for the fainthearted reader. It's hefty (over 800 pages), literary and genre-defying, blending truth and (a little) fiction in his accounts, memoir, military history, geography, topography and politics. As I wrote on Facebook when I finally finished it: 'I feel like I've been through the entire Arab campaign with Lawrence. Plus, I now know a lot about camels'. Lawrence is the scholar turned spy, commanded to infiltrate Arab communities during World War I to foment rebellion against the Ottoman Empire on promises of a fair division of land at the conclusion. Of course, Lawrence knew early on that the promises were not going to be kept, and, as I read between the lines, the strain that came from living intimately with the people he knew were going to be betrayed was one of the factors in his later behaviour, as, of course, was the deaths of his two younger brothers in 1915.

Lawrence lived long before PTSD was a recognised mental illness, but it's pretty clear that he returned from the war with just that. Shunning publicity, he took false names and bounced between various army positions before retiring from the military to Clouds Hill. The cottage is a shock: no electricity or running water, no kitchen. Apart from the downstairs room with a huge leather bed and lined with bookshelves, the place is pretty bare. An intelligent, cultured, wounded man was hiding from the world.

His end came all to soon. Riding his motorbike one evening, he had to suddenly swerve to avoid hitting boys belting along on bicycles. He crashed his bike, sustaining a head injury that killed him several days later. He was only forty-six.

The mourners at his funeral at St. Nicolas' church in Moreton read like a who's who of the 1930s: Winston Churchill, Siegfried Sassoon, Augustus John, Lady Astor and E.M. Forster to name just a few. His mother and one of his brothers were travelling in China at his death, and only one brother was able to attend.

The small cemetery is down the road from the church itself. You enter via a stone portico and take a short stroll through unassuming graves to the back, where Lawrence's resting place is, not ostentatious, but still notable for its size compared to the others. There was a steady stream of visitors, some there just because it was a place of note in the tiny village, others, like me, who made a pilgrimage, and who perhaps, also like me, said a silent prayer that he found peace at last.

Lawrence's mother chose that he be remembered as a scholar rather than soldier and statesman, and his headstone bears the motto of Oxford University, and is from Psalm 27: the Lord is my light.

The church at Moreton was bombed in World War II, so I can't claim it is intimately associated with Lawrence, but it is notable in its own right for the etched glass windows chosen to replace the stained glass lost, designed by Sir Laurence Whistler. A traditionalist, the idea of 'plain' glass in the church had me wrinkling my ecclesiastical nose, but I went anyway.

And I was amazed. I could never have predicted how beautiful the glass looks, with the simple background of the countryside, the nave of the church painted a plain sky blue to echo the view. Photos cannot do the church justice - you need to see the windows in situ. But here's a link to the photo gallery on the church website.

One of the most stunning is the Forgiveness window. Nestled at the back of the church, it is behind a screen and can't been seen from the inside. If you step outside and around the church, however, you will see a hanging Judas Iscariot at the moment of death, with the divine light shining down upon him. Apparently the artist designed this window, the thirteenth, early on, but it took many decades for the church to finally agree to install it.

Moreton has a new gem, too: a five-acre walled garden/ nursery that is a secret garden of little rooms. It is run to offer training to students with various special needs. There is a small farm and playground to entertain children, plus a cafe. We loved exploring the grounds, but didn't check out the cafe. Instead, we went to the tea rooms situated in the old school house and had a lovely tea. I discovered later, and wished I had known then, that the tea trolley is the bier that carried Lawrence's coffin. Not sure what I think about that. A shout out to their niceness: Alcuin slipped while climbing onto his chair, and even though it was not the cafe's fault, the proprietor gave him his choice from the ice cream cabinet.

Touristy stuff. The place is tiny, so everything is close together. Summer is better to visit as the tea room at least is shut in winter, and the walled garden won't be at its best, though I bet the church windows would be stunning in a frosty landscape with the winter sun. Also, there was a small field open as a free car park, whereas at other times of the year you would probably be parking on the side of the road. There is a railway station a good walk away and some bus connections. Or, you can have very kind parents who drive you there and mind your child while you take in your fill of the place.

And there's more if you got this far: Lawrence captured my imagination so much that he became the basis for a character in a novel set in the 1930s that, after several years of unexpected upheaval (see the rest of the blog), I am finally getting ready for publication. Here's a little extract. Phoebe Harris has come to Dorset for the summer with her cousin, but a series of chance encounters draw her into a relationship with a reclusive World War I veteran, Alex Milne. Here, they meet again among the barrows of the Dorset hills...

A fly settled on the top edge of my page. As I raised my chin to blow it away, I caught sight of another figure ascending the hill. Quickly, I buried my nose back in my book, not wishing to invite interaction. Hopefully, the person would pass by on the bridle way and not demand the walker’s etiquette of a conversation about the weather or scenery.
In fact, I did such a good job of ignoring the walker that I didn’t see it was Alex until he was close enough to recognize me as well. He was dressed for walking, in his ubiquitous khaki, a tripod under his arm and a stuffed backpack hanging over one shoulder.
I had longed, even dared to pray, for another private encounter. Now it had been granted, I sat frozen in panic. Should I raise my hand, be bold and call out, or simply pretend I had not seen him, and let him choose whether to acknowledge me? There was no path other than the one leading past the foot of the barrow, so if he wanted to avoid me, he didn’t have the excuse of veering off in another direction.
I waited until our eyes met, then nodded. He offered no greeting in return. I retreated behind my book, though the words were now a blur to my racing heart and mind. If he marched by on the bridle path, my chance would be gone. What could I say or do?
Instead of passing by, he strolled up to the barrow until his head was level with my feet. I lowered my book, clutching it tightly so that my hands wouldn’t shake.
‘Miss Harris. You do seem to stray into my path peculiarly often.’ He sounded as though he could not decide whether to deliver this remark as a joke or an insult.
‘I believe this is a public right of way,’ I retorted. The steadiness in my voice surprised me. I found I was less afraid of him now I had been in the lion’s den.
He indicated my seat with his tripod. ‘I used to sit on that rock before you were born.’
‘But you’re not from Dorset,’ I said. ‘Or if you are, you have lost your accent.’
‘We spent every summer in Studland when I was growing up.’ His voice trailed away, and he gazed across the hills. The wind tousled his hair, making the sunlight dance across the shades of gold and copper. My fingers itched to reach out and stroke it.
I yearned to ask whether the painting in his cottage was from his childhood, but sensed I had not yet earned the right to mention it. Instead, I said, ‘I can see why you would return. I think I could sit here until I grew into the rock.’
‘The only reason I’m up here is at the behest of His Majesty’s Armed Forces. My task is to inspect possible sites for firing ranges. I am about to declare this unsuitable.’
I imagined gunfire echoing across the hills, multiplied many times over from yesterday, drowning out the symphony of nature. ‘I’m glad of that. The view is beautiful.’
‘And a firing range would encroach on land belonging to the Stephenson family. At least I can repay the Major with this small favour.’
I wondered what he had to repay him for: an incident from the war? Giving him shelter, or a bolt hole?
‘Is the Stephensons’ estate in danger? I can’t believe the army is permitted to requisition land that has been owned for centuries. It’s not as if there is a war on.’ Indignation and fear welled up in me on behalf of the kindly Major.
Alex planted his tripod in the ground. ‘The army can do what they bloody well like. And even if I save the Major’s land for now, this won’t be the end of it. The dogs of war must have their bones, and no one in the Home Counties cares if people down here lose their ancient rights of way or a few sheep get shot. Ironic, isn’t it: modern democracy is supposed to free the common man from encroachment by the crown or landowners. Now the same, snivelling common men can sit on their backsides in Parliament and decide to knock down your house or take your livelihood if someone wants to widen a road or to rehearse killing his fellow man.’
I think he could have denounced votes for women, or spewed Hindi poetry, and I would have hung on his every word, not for their meaning, but for the simple fact that he spoke them to me.
He swung around. Given our last encounter, I expected him to leave after he’d had his say. Instead, he sat down at the foot of the rock and pulled an apple from his rucksack. ‘Would you care to share with me?’
I stabbed a hole in the page with my pencil before I recovered myself. I could not decide whether the more dangerous—or desirable—option was to react to his political rant or accept his offhand offer. With timid hopes, I chose the latter. ‘Only if you don’t want the whole apple.’
‘I wouldn’t offer otherwise.’ He slipped a penknife from his shorts pocket and flicked it open. He traced the tip of the blade around the apple until he found a spot to pierce its skin, then cut in a slow, deliberate circle. He held a half out to me. I set my book and pencil on the grass and accepted the fruit. The newly-cut flesh glistened. I took a delicate bite from the edge, aware Alex watched me.
‘Still working on Dante?’ he asked when I had swallowed.
‘I’m trying to brush up on my Italian. I hope to save enough money for a trip to Rome next summer.’ I decided it was no use reacting to his mercurial moods. Maybe if I let him be whom he wished, the real Alex would eventually emerge.
‘Is the Casy translation any good?’
‘I’m no Italian scholar. I bought it because it was dual language and cheap.’ I took another bite of the apple. A speck of juice trickled down my thumb. I caught it with the tip of my tongue. The simple action of eating helped ground me.
‘My brother was. An Italian scholar, I mean. I gave him his first copy of Dante when he was in grammar school. He turned out to be a natural polyglot, got a first in Modern Languages at Cambridge.’ A brief smile lit Alex’s face. ‘I thought he might become a professor, even a Dante scholar.’
‘What did he do with his talents instead?’
The smile vanished, his eyes darkened. ‘Sacrificed them to King and Country, like most of us. What god of the mundane do you sacrifice your talents to, Miss Harris?’ He crunched into the apple and chewed, waiting for my answer.
A retort to his barb would be pointless. Conversation with Alex was like trying to tempt a wild animal to eat from my hand. One tiny false move, and he would flee back within himself.
‘I’m a governess,’ I said, and did not ask more about his brother. There were no photographs of middle-aged siblings in Alex’s cottage. That told me enough.
Had he returned to be close to the spirits of their youth, to walk where they had played as boys? Even if his brother’ s body lay overseas, did Alex feel his presence here, receiving comfort as James’s ancestors comforted him? If so, they must have been close, as close as Lavinia and I. Something we shared, then.
And what of the other boy in the painting, surely a sibling or cousin? Was he dead also, or did he live a separate life, as indifferent to Alex as Lavinia’s and my brothers were to us?
Alex nodded. ‘A governess. I suspected as much. You are too smart to be idling your life away, but you would be slaughtered in a classroom full of little savages.’
‘You do have a peculiar way of talking,’ I objected. I preferred the Alex of my fantasies, who had the elegant hauteur of a Mr Darcy.
He tossed the core into the grass below. ‘Do I? I haven’t spoken to a woman for years.’
The strange thing was, I was pretty sure he was not joking.

From: A Dorset Summer (hopefully to be published 2020!)

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Quick Lit: September 2019

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for Quick Lit as usual. August was pretty slow on the reading front because we moved house and I travelled - and had lots of copies of Country Living magazine to catch up on while on the beach in Dorset. Not to mention scouring second hand book shops and summer fetes for titles and authors on my TBR list, and to stock my son's library. And - literary confession - I gave up on an audio version of The Pickwick Papers after I fell asleep three times while trying to listen. Maybe I need a new narrator or the paper version to keep my attention.

Pym illustrating how I feel when I read one of her novels

Barbara Pym - Jane and Prudence
I came late to discovering Barbara Pym, but she is now a firm favourite. To say I am working through her books would be a mis-description, because they are never work. As I have said before, they are light and witty without being shallow. She is, for many, the Jane Austen of the 1950s, with the backdrop of London, the suburbs, and the Church of England. Her heroines live lives, if not of quiet desperation, at least of quiet compromise. In Pym's eyes, post-war Britain is still in so many ways a world for men. The role of women is to support and soothe, whether as the wife at home, or the career woman whose position is inevitably that of serving a male boss. But don't let that description put you off - she tells her stories with a wry humour, and her female characters triumph by being more aware of the game than the men. Jane and Prudence follows this pattern: Jane is the promising academic who married a clergyman, whereas her younger friend, Prudence, is the spinster working woman who may have her love affairs, but is never asked to be the wife. Jane's desire to set Prudence up with a young widower in her husband's new parish becomes a catalyst that awakens rivals on all sides and gives Prudence new insight into herself and her chosen path. I identified so much with Jane: the aborted academic career in English literature, quotes that pop into her head for every occasion, and the wish to make witty but inappropriate comments on situations (excepting that she is loud, and I am withdrawn). Pym remarks in this book that Prudence likes to read the sort of novel without a definite ending, just like real life, a defense of her own conclusions, which, although bringing the immediate plot to a close, and remaining hopeful, never let us see a concrete future for her characters. Pym's career languished in the mid 60s-70s when she was deemed out of step with the times, but this injustice was happily overturned by the championing of other distinguished British writers. Long may she reign everywhere there is a pot of tea and a jumble sale.

Trying to show a few of my finds, plus a view down the street from our new house in Koper

Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility
Ok, I confess, one reason I re-read this was so I could imagine Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon (it was a tough month). I haven't read Austen since I got through all her novels as a young adult. I was glad to find that it was just as riveting thirty years later. In my teens, I was a little dubious about Marianne's 'happy' ending with someone as old as thirty-four, but now Brandon seems the true romantic hero of the novel. And FYI, Emma Thompson's screenplay is the only film that I have ever declared "as good as the book".

Colleen L. Donnelly - Out of Splinters and Ashes [audiobook]
This was a first for me - I've never before listened to an audiobook written by someone I know (Colleen is a member of my online critique group). In this historical novel with a slight paranormal slant, a German journalist travels to the US in the hopes he can dispel a disturbing accusation: that his writer grandmother had a child by an enemy lover on the brink of the Second World War. Truth and fiction merge in surprising ways in this lyrical novel with a difference. This was a finalist for the prestigious Indie RONE award.

On a vaguely literary front, while in Dorset, I visited the grave of T.E. Lawrence in Moreton village, aka (if you don't know) Lawrence of Arabia, so here's a couple of snaps. I have the badge for reading his hefty, genre-defying literary memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom (and a bonus badge for his Oxford thesis, Crusader Castles).

Have you ever listened to an audiobook read by someone you know, or do you have any recommendations for narrators of Charles Dickens' novels?

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Quick Lit August 2019

I was feeling it was time for a change, and to bring book reviews more in line with the general point of the blog, so for this and maybe future link ups with Modern Mrs Darcy I decided to feature one book, be briefer with the others, and highlight good travel reads. Hope it works.

Caroline Fraser - Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
I've mentioned before that, being British and only having read the Little House books as an adult, I don't have the same emotional investment in Laura the person as many US readers - and what an investment that is, judging from the impassioned reader reviews of this Pulitzer-Prize winning biography. Still, even I felt the almost bodily blows as I plunged into the full extent of the homesteading failures of both Laura's parents and herself and Almanzo, and I am not ashamed to say that I had to choke back tears as I read of Almanzo's death. It is, though, ultimately a story of victory, of the little girl who weathered poverty and starvation to become an author beloved around the world, who rallied a nation in the midst of the Great Depression and immortalized the values of the pioneers. There's a lot of general history to set Laura's story within context (which I admit to not always reading very closely), and you may take issue with Fraser's opinions (she certainly doesn't like Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane), but it was a fascinating read. She deals honestly with difficult subjects as well, such as Laura's ambiguous attitudes towards race, not unusual for her time, but jarring to us today. My favourite part was, of course, the writing of the Little House books, with Fraser's analysis of the literary mystery as to the extent of the collaboration between Laura and Rose, an established journalist. My girls are grown, but I am already wondering if my little boy will stand to have the books read aloud to him. Surely plucky Laura appeals to boys and girls alike?

Oscar Wilde - The Canterville Ghost [audiobook]
This is the sole reason I signed up for the Audiofile SYNC YA summer reading giveaway (though I ended up downloading a few other books). I know I read it as a child, but there is only one scene, from the end, that sticks in my memory. A comic short story of ancient English ghost meets progressive American family. Nice theatrical production, with a  wonderful range of tongue-in-cheek voices by Rupert Degas that captures Wilde's satire.

*BEACH READ* Jenny Colgan - Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery
I thought this sequel was possibly better than the first. Polly, her American boyfriend Huckle, and their pet puffin, Neil, seem to be enjoying the perfect life living in their lighthouse and running a bakery on Polbearne island. But when unexpected disaster strikes, they must temporarily separate in order to save the life they love. Will it work out? Of course, this is Jenny Colgan, so I knew the answer to that, but she had me glued to the book as usual.

Sayaka Murata - Convenience Store Woman [audiobook]
Keiko has been stuck in her convenience store job for eighteen years. Socially dysfunctional, it offers a world of set rules that help her navigate life. But her friends would rather she was a 'normal' person with a partner and problems than the happy abnormal person she is. Funny, sweet, and disturbing by turns, with a sensitive narration by Nancy Wu with just a hint of an accent to get us into character.

Alex Martin - Daffodils
I am trying to make myself read the backlog of books that I got for free, just because they looked interesting at the time. This is the first in a family saga series. Circumstances curtail Katy's wish for adventure before settling down, but then World War I brings upheavals and opportunities she has never dreamed of. A light read.

Wishing you the best for end of summer reading!

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Medieval Days 2: Celje Castle

I tagged along (in a semi-official capacity) to the annual maths workshop in Rogla again this July. Here's last year's post. I didn't write an update because, with no elder children to serve as babysitters, my experience was not as hedonistic or adventurous as last time. (Basically I took the four year-old swimming every morning and read chick lit while he was passed out in the afternoon.)

Anyhow... on the way back we decided to stop off at Celje Grad (Celje Castle), with Ted's American PhD student in tow. The Counts of Celje rose to power during the medieval period. In an effort to free themselves from subordination to the Hapsburgs, they forged an alliance with Hungary, which propelled them onto the scene of medieval European politics and helped them rise to the rank of Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately, their line petered out soon after and ended with the assassination of the last heir in 1456. Their castle in Celje was abandoned in the 18th century.

Photo credit:

We visited a castle they owned in Croatia, Veliki Tabor, at the end of our Krapina holiday, but I never got around to writing about that visit. It was interesting to note that both castles claimed to be the site of the infamous, tragic legend of an heir to Celje, Frederick, and his low-born love, Veronika. I think that's worth a blog post in itself, but in summary, Frederick's father, Herman II, not too much of a nice guy by all accounts, forced his son to marry dynastically. Frederick fell in love with a non-noble woman,Veronika, and abandoned his wife. Herman demanded a reconciliation, but mysteriously (or not, ahem), Frederick's wife was found assassinated the morning after, and the two lovers went on the run. The irate father eventually captured them, had Veronika drowned, and threw Frederick into a tower for several years of solitary confinement.

Barbara became Queen of Hungary, Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire

The infamous Herman

The castle claims to be the largest (by area) in Slovenia. I don't know if that is true, but the visit was pretty much castle tour plus bonus thigh workout, climbing hills, ramparts and towers, surrounded by wonderful views. They seem to have rotating, often interactive, exhibits, so not everything was open (including, sadly, the virtual reality combat zone).

Yes, I am looking red, a result of my "forest bathing" experience in Rogla

A tour of our tour: The museum tower recreated castle rooms, complete with costumed mannequins: the armoury, a scribe's room, and a solar (lord and lady's living room). "Look," said our son, "there's a dead monk... and there's a dead princess."

Dead monk hard at work

"Frederick's Tower" was the supposed place of imprisonment for the disobedient son - where, according to accounts he almost starved to death and/or went insane. It posed a less serious dilemma for us: climb to the top first for the panoramic view, or down to the dungeon for the exhibition of torture instruments? We decided the tougher part was the climb, so that first, egged on our way by curiously computer-generated images of Veronika and Frederick. And then down to the torture chamber, which I went round swiftly, with the lightest of explanations to Alcuin. "Look at those funny hats people had to wear if they were bad!" Apparently this sort of torture was going on into the 18th century, which shocked me. I only took one photo, for the blog, because it turns my stomach if I think too much about what those devices actually inflicted on people (the wheel, the rack, the iron maiden... you get it).


In a grassy, thankfully shady, inner ward to the side of the castle gate, there was a small medieval encampment, part of their living history programme, where we enjoyed our picnic. Whereas the players at Kubed waited for us to step into their world, the people here were aggressively interactive, almost leaping on us to drag us into the medieval spirit. There was a chance to dress up, handle weapons and armour, practise archery, check out cooking and camping, play an outsize game of skittles, or experience the tamer punishments of the stocks.

That's an unfortunate shaft of sunlight falling on Ted's head - not a bald spot

A stop at the somewhat ironically-named Veronika cafe - feeling thirsty, anyone? - rounded out the visit (plus a visit to the toilets, which curiously looked more like a modern art installation than a loo). Apparently, the Counts of Celje owned more than twenty castles in Slovenia alone, so I suspect we will be bumping into them again.

Touristy stuff. Good value. The entrance price for all four of us was about the same as one ticket for a National Trust or English Heritage property, plus we got credit for the cafe, which had normal (i.e. not tourist) prices. Plus, there were detailed, free guidebooks. During the summer, there are various events such as tournaments and concerts (with a major medieval event towards the end of August), and you can also book extras such as guided tours or a medieval feast. The website is not very good, though. Here is some basic info via the Celje tourist site, and their facebook page. We would have explored downtown, too (Celje is the third largest city in Slovenia), but it was a very hot day, and we knew it would be miserable traipsing around surrounded by concrete. We definitely plan to go back.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Medieval Days 1: Kubed

The village of Kubed, within the municipality of Koper, and not too far from the more famous Hrastovlje, puts on a yearly medieval festival. It runs over two days, with evening games and entertainment Friday night, and a pilgrimage-style hike of the region Saturday morning (apparently with goulash thrown in), followed by festivities on the grounds of a ruined castle fortress. With our teenager away in the UK digging up the Dorset landscape, we had no extra help with the hurricane that is our four year-old, so we had to opt for one event that looked child-friendly. We went for Saturday afternoon.

Taking a chance on the thunder showers sweeping across the region (see photo above), we set off up the ubiquitous winding roads, forearmed against the satnav inevitably missing the crucial hairpin turn. When we got to Kubed (someone was there to direct parking, hurrah), we got to wind uphill again, but on foot this time. But we were rewarded with free shots of local liqueurs - except Ted declined because he thought he'd be facing insane drivers on the mountain road home responsible.

In a fun (and clever) marketing ploy, we had to exchange our euros for the festival currency, the cubidum. And we had to exchange that within minutes for a child who saw all the food stalls and decided he was starving.

Not much was going on yet, though it was past starting time. There was a ring with assorted 'medieval' weapons for children to kill each other with. Alcuin was itching to jump in the fray, but it was mostly monopolized by older children, and he couldn't understand why it wasn't a good idea to throw himself in the middle of no-holds-barred eight year-olds. Eventually, the small(ish) kids got to take over, and he had his time in the ring.

At last! Something happened: a bunch of cosplay people processed up and down the pathway. As you can see below, included in the procession were people in national costume, who proceeded to put on a little play for bystanders. From my amazing grasp of Slovene, I can tell you it was about eggs and sausages, and then they played the accordion.

After that, it was historical reenactment time: players hung out by the armoury and practice areas, interacting with anyone who wanted, with music and dancing. And medieval drinking, which they deserved for wearing all those clothes - and armour - in the heat. One fun addition to the festival was a full-size combined trebuchet and catapult. When they felt like it, the players livened proceedings by lobbing some (non destructive) ammunition at the castle wall.

This isn't a great picture, but you need to note the chairs, because they appear in the next post, too!

Someone rashly let Alcuin handle a bow twice as big as he is. I stood well back to take the photo.

Finally, much later than advertised, and just as we were about to give up and leave, the combat began. And, after the wait, it was pretty good - professional and well scripted. But we had been there too many hours: Alcuin had reached the end of his attention span, and it was time to head off before all was over, thankful that we had missed the thunderstorms, and wiser for the next visit.

Ted pronounced that it was the sort of thing that would be more fun if you went in a group, with a designated driver (i.e. not him). I have to say that worrying trying to outrun (outdrive) the storms also made it less of a good time for him. I'd like to participate in some of the other events as well, so maybe there will be an update post coming!

Postscript. On the way to the car, Alcuin tripped on the pavement. It was a seminal moment - his first bad fall on concrete. He wasn't badly injured, but he was so traumatized he refused to walk for the next 24 hours. I had to carry him everywhere. Honestly, he is the most single-minded child we have, and that is saying something.

Touristy stuff. The festival, Medieval Days in Kubed, runs around the beginning of July. Here's a link to this year's festival (still working at time of posting), and one to a tad of history about the place. I promise, it's far from the worst mountain road we have been on. It's Slovenia, so you might want to turn up a little later than advertised - that's what the locals in the know seemed to be doing. If you are dedicated to efficient tourism (don't have small children), you might also squeeze in the famous Dance of Death fresco at nearby Hrastovlje.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Quick Lit July 2019

 Linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy as usual. I didn't read too much in June. For one, I was in the US attending my daughter's graduation - and getting in a little literary pilgrimage to Salem, home of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For two, we are in the throes of purchasing a house. And three, I was a beta reader for an upcoming historical novel, which I loved but can't reveal!

Picnicking in front of the House of the Seven Gables in Salem!

Robin Sloan - Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
I picked this out of the library in my daughter's dorm house in Cambridge, MA, while staying there for her graduation (from MIT, excuse the proud parent moment). It's a tale of ancient literary mystery meets Google (quite literally). Out-of-work Clay stumbles into a job as a night clerk at Mr Penumbra's bookstore, and soon discovers that the mysterious night-time customers are novices and initiates into a centuries-old secret society. With the aid of his tech-savvy friends, he sets about finding the final solution to the coded secret left by its founders. I especially enjoyed how this novel wove friendships across generations and celebrates the craftsmanship of both the past and the future.

Barbara Pym - Less Than Angels
I was feeling in a slump, and Pym is always the perfect pick-me-up. Her books are light and witty, but never shallow. In this 1950s comedy of manners, she draws on her experiences working at the International African Institute in London to pen a tale of love and petty rivalries among anthropologists, dissecting the lives of those who consider themselves experts at dissecting the lives of others. This novel has a larger cast of characters than other Pym novels I have read, and it was hard to keep everyone straight at first (you know, all those kinship ties), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Where The Scarlet Letter began: the Custom House, Salem

Katherine Pym - The Barbers
Surnames a coincidence! This roistering Restoration tale is from a member of my online critique group, one in a series (not particularly interlinked) of London novels leading up to the Great Fire. Celia illegally practises surgery in her father's barber shop, a career not generally allowed to women, and then only outside the City of London. She is naturally skilled, with psychic powers that match her scientific curiosity. However, Celia's greatest threat is not her status but her ne'er-do-well family, who continually threaten to come between her, success and love. Katherine Pym's unusual style seeks to immerse you into a 17th-century experience - this is for you if you want a fun read with a difference.

And, Make Way for Ducklings in Boston Public Garden! (Mrs Mallard's and my own)

Ruth Hogan - The Keeper of Lost Things
Author Anthony Peardew has been collecting lost things since the tragic day forty years ago he lost not one but two precious things in his life. Now, he leaves his legacy to housekeeper and assistant, Laura, herself a 'lost thing' he rescued after a confidence-shattering divorce. Laura's mission is to reunite objects and owners - but she has to deal with lost souls as well as lost objects who need happy endings (including her own). A sweet, magical story.

Any plans to make your own literary pilgrimage this summer? Happy reading!