Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Some Summer Reading

Although I haven't written about what I've been reading these past few months, I have read a fair selection of books, mostly novels. Some are more memorable than others

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin tells the story of Angel Tungazara, a Tanzanian now living in Rwanda and running a small business making cakes for special occasions, parties, weddings, anniversaries and the like. The stories that people tell her about themselves as they choose their cakes form the basis of the book and also reveal the complexities of life in a modern African state, which has suffered a civil war and an AIDs epidemic. Although the tone of the writing is fairly cosy, this in some ways highlights some of the darker side of the tales Angel hears from people ordering one of her cakes, as well as some of the more difficult aspects of her own life - she is bringing up her grandchildren, as both her son and her daughter, their parents, are now dead. Nevertheless, there are several lighter tales in the book, such as how to ensure the tailor does not measure one too tightly for a new dress, so it fits more comfortably on one of traditional build!.

I'm a bit late to the party in reading James Rebanks The Shepherds Life: a tale of the Lake District, which came out to excellent reviews in 2015. It begins with young James Rebanks in school, listening to a teacher expounding on the Lake District, talking about the 'wild' landscape, but without really mentioning the farmers and other local workers, whose families had worked the land for generations and were no less proud, intelligent and ambitious as people elsewhere, and whose work over probably thousands of years, made the Lake District what it is today. The book roughly follows the seasons on the small hill farm  owned by his family, raising Herdwick sheep. He explains the business of the farm, raising sheep for sale, either as breeding ewes or for meat. Although the author had an early disdain for education, when in his early twenties, he attended evening classes to study for A levels and went to Magdelen College, Oxford. He then returns to farming, but also has a job as a consultant to UNESCO.

When I came across The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman in my local library, how could I not borrow it. Laura Freeman was diagnosed as anorexic in her early teens and gradually and gently restored her appetite for food by reading about it, not in cookbooks, but in novels, whose appeal to the imagination is much more powerful. She describes her anorexia as the voice in her head, which reading managed to replace with a more positive one. Reading about a dish or a meal roused her curiosity to want to taste it, which led to actually eating it. The list of books included at the end of the book is both extensive and varied, and includes many titles by Dickens as well as Virginia Woolf. A beautifully written book about the power of novels to change a life.

While we were away in France earlier in July we went for a walk up above the Vallee du Mars, following part of the Grand Randonee 400, one of France's long distance walks. The views over the valleys and mountains are well worth the climb up.

A view of the Vallee du Mars, Cantal. The  yellow flowers in the foregroud are a variety of gentian, whose roots are used to make a liquer.

I read W G Sebald's The Rings of Saturn on my Kindle, as I was away at the time and couldn't get hold of the physical book. Apparently classified as "documentary fiction" this is a somewhat discursive description of a long walking tour through parts of Suffolk and Norfolk,particularly those near to the North Sea coast.
There was a read-along on Twitter, hosted by Robert MacFarlane earlier this summer, with some interesting points raised.
The narrator, unnamed, raised many thoughts in his wanderings, with references to Thomas Browne, Roger Casement, silkworm raising in Europe, a hare which crosses the walkers path and is apparently terrified. The style is almost 19th century in its effect, although it was written in 1995, originally in German, (translated into English by Michael Hulse) and densely written, full of allusions and inferences. In many ways a visual book, as it has many photographs and illustrations, and many descriptions of what the narrator sees on his travels, it also considers listening and hearing. This is the first book by Sebald I have read, and will probably look out for others.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Spring reading

A quick round up of my recent reading.

I finally read the third book in Patrick Leigh- Fermor's epic walk across Europe in the early to mid 1930's, The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos., published in 2013. I'd read the two earlier volumes in the trilogy a long time ago. This volume describes his walk across Bulgaria, parts of Romania and Greece. It was published posthumously and is based on his diaries of the time, and an early draft written in the 1960's. It also has his reflections on his earlier behaviour and appearance during his travels. These follow a similar pattern to the two preceding titles, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. He sleeps in huts, shelters and peasants homes as well as staying with consuls, ambassadors and other well-to-do people from time to time, thus contrasting rural life with urban life. The final section details his visit to the monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece, their treasures, the monks and their welcome, how they fed him - food and drink are important to a young man! He eventually arrived in Istanbul in 1935.
The places he visited during his journey were changed absolutely after 1939 and changed even further after the rise and subsequent fall of communism in the area. 

 Peter Carey's Jack Maggs was discussed enthusiastically by my Book Club, as most of the group had read other titles by the author. This story is a sort-of spoof on Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, but includes Charles Dickens within his own story, although with a different name. Although there are similarities to Great Expectations, there are a lot of differences too, and these make it an exciting, fast-paced read.
Jack arrives in London,after having been transported to Australia for his crimes, seeking out one Henry Phipps, his son, whose expensive education he has paid for. Jack manages to be taken on as a footman to Percy Buckle, next-door neighbour to Henry Phipps, who is away. Jack searches throughout England for Henry, aided by Tobias Oates, a writer with an interest in magnetism as a cure for various ills. After many adventures, Henry is finally tracked down, but Jack has a life to lead elsewhere. 

Jenny Landreth's Swell: a Waterbiography is more than the author's own story of learning to swim and develop her swimming abilities, it is also a brief history of how swimming suffragettes, those women who were determined to swim and to encourage other women to swim as well. The waterbiography part is Jenny's own swimming journey, in which she progresses to becoming a cold-water swimmer in Tooting Bec Lido, which is unheated and open all year round, although winter swimming , from October to April, is only available to South London Swimming Club members. Jenny Landreth also describes sea and night swimming in Greece. There are several passages which had me laughing out loud as she describes various aspects of swimming behaviours of other swimmers as well as her own. She has strong and amusing views on these.
This book certainly brought back many memories of my own swimming, which I've been doing all my life. The only competitive swimming I did was at school, a lifetime ago. I've swum in the sea, in pools indoor and out, in rivers, especially in France and now swim regularly in an indoor pool and an outdoor when I can. This book was a must-add to my small collection of books on swimming.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reading, not writing

A few short notes about some recently read books, which I have written about in my reading journal, but not here on the blog.

Set in Ghana and America, this debut novel by Yaa Gyasi is a really interesting read. The story concerns two African half sisters, one of whom marries an English slaver, the other being taken into slavery. The repercussions of these events continue down through subsequent centuries and succeeding generations, descendants of the two women. For instance, Quey child of James the slaver and Effia the Beauty is educated in London at his father's expense, but returns to the Gold Coast.
There is a good description of the Ashanti wars in the 19th century as well as grim details of the conditions slaves were held in at Cape Coast Castle before they were shipped off to the Caribbean or America.
There is also excellent detail about the power of the Asantahene, the head of the Ashanti ( and whose position still exists today), how he lived in his compound, the customs and complications of dealing with him and his courtiers.
The author, a Ghanaian, doesn't shy away from including the involvement of Africans in selling slaves to the English, but presents an interesting read on a very complicated period in West African history.
I found it particularly interesting as I had spent my early childhood in Gold Coast/Ghana and found the images described by the author had a particular vivacity for me, conjuring up memories of long ago.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien is an emotionally demanding read, the background to the story being the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990's. The story set initially in a small Irish town, includes several themes about immigration;about how people are affected by events most of us only read or hear about through newspapers or television. Also about how a war criminal attempts to escape the law , but is eventually caught and brought to justice.
Edna O'Brien's writing is as strong as ever in this sometimes harrowing read, but it is also lyrical and

I've read most of Robert Macfarlane's writings since his first book and enjoyed them all. This one is intriguing with its lists of words to describe local landscapes from many parts of the British Isles . There are chapters on various types of landscape, such as mountain, moorland, hill, stream,marshland to name only a few. Each chapter has a glossary of words from many places in the British Isles, from Shetland to Cornwall, Wales to Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex and include words and phrases from dialects which are now unspoken.
He also cites other writers on the land, from Nan Shepherd's book on the Cairngorm, The Living Mountain, Jacquetta Hawkes' A Land and Roger Deakin's books on nature. 

My Book Club recently read A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel, and had a fairly lively discussion on its varied themes and locations. 
The novel is set in 1980 in Norfolk, where Anna and Ralph Eldred live in a rambling house, taking in good souls and sad cases as part of their charitable work, and bringing up their children. The story goes back in time to the 1850's , to South Africa, where Anna and Ralph were missionary workers and later to Bechuanaland after their deportation.
There are several themes, such as how religion makes people behave, how can children be protected from some of the awful events that happen around them, how relationships in a fairly long marriage can change. 
Hilary Mantel also gives clear, detailed descriptions of places and houses that the Elders live in. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Second novels

New Forest in winter

The second novel seems to be regarded with trepidation by many authors, or so we are told, and also with a certain amount of curiosity by readers - will it be as good as the first one. The three I've read recently are all as accomplished as the debut novels I enjoyed when they first appeared.

Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons is as accomplished as her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. The story is told alternately by narrative and letters. Gil and Ingrid are married, with daughters Nan and Flora. Gil is a writer, apparently typing away in his shed in the garden, while Ingrid keeps house and tidies up the garden of their home, which is the swimming pavilion of a much larger house, Gil's family's former home on the Dorset coast. Ingrid writes letters to Gil, hiding them in apparently random books in Gil's shambolic and vast collection, and whose titles reflect the subjectof the letter, before she apparently disappears in a swimming accident. Many years later,  Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, and has a fall with serious consequences for his health. His daughter Flora comes to help look after him.
Claire Fuller's writing has many nuanced themes within the story: Ingrid considers herself a bad mother, but is she, while Gil's fatherhood is perhaps questionable.

Eowyn Ivey's second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World is another epistolary novel, and also is based on journals of an expedition to explore the Wolverine river in Alaska in the 19th century. The journal was written by Colonel Allen Forrester, and his wife Sophie, left behind, while the letters are apparently written in the present by a relative of Allen Forrester's to a small museum in a former mining town on the Wolverine river in Alaska.  The journals tells of the difficulties of the expedition, and their contacts with the Athabaskan Indians in the area, while also telling of Sophie's experiments in photographing the bird life of the countryside around her. This story gives a wonderful impression of early life in Alaska from the American and Indian points of view, as well as Sophie's experiments in early nature photography.

Cecilia Ekback's second novel is an historical crime/mystery in a similar vein to her successful first tale, Wolf Winter. Set in the same area of northern Sweden, it tells of the difficulties Magnus, a minerologist, has when sent north from Stockholm to investigate the murders of three men and to survey Blackasen mountain during the summer of 1856. He is accompanied by his sister-in-law, Lovisa, who has been rejected by her family for her behaviour. Magnus and Lovisa react very differently to the long summer days and absence of proper night.
   There are several different points-of-view in this complex tale, with different voices telling their own version of events. This is a fascinating read, with much to engage the reader in a very different world to the current one.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Autumn reading

Although I haven't been writing much about my reading recently, I've been steadily reading, so here are my thoughts on a few of the non-fiction I've got through in the last few weeks.

Rebecca Solnit A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not necessarily about getting lost physically in the wilderness, although she does give some examples of this. It is more about losing oneself and changing, becoming someone other, which we all do to some extent as we age and change. Some people do change, having experienced a literally life-changing event. Some examples are people, both children and adults, who were captured by Native Americans in the early days of exploration and pioneering in North America and treated as members of the family. When found by their own kind, they often never returned to their former lives. Several chapters are titled the Blue of Distance, and in one , she discusses the blue pigment used to delineate distance by Renaissance artists.
I couldn't resist picking up a book titled The Art of Reading, by Damon Young in a local bookshop. It discusses how the act of reading, while giving the reader independence also makes certain virtuous demands of the reader, such as curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice.
The book starts with how we all learn to make sense of the words on the page reveal the story they are telling, how most of us are read to by parents and others and then read for our selves. Many of the chapters refer back to the virtues of the Greeks, to the necessity of applying reason, moderation, intelligent criticism in all aspects of life.
The final chapter, called The lumber room, is a gathering together of the books and other items which inspired the author and which he considers may inspire us as fellow readers. As a life-long reader I thought this a useful addition to my shelf of books about books and reading.

Although I didn't manage to see the exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 2015 on which this book is based, it was nevertheless an interesting read, especially for anyone curious as to how people managed to clothe themselves and their families in a time of hardship.
The needs of the armed forces were paramount, so clothing manufacture was directed to supplying uniforms for the troops, and in contrasting the three main services, the RAF uniform was regarded as smartest, especially if it had wings. Clothing changed to make most economical use of fabric and women were encouraged to rework and refashion clothes for themselves and their families, so that they could have something newer or at least a bit different to wear.
The importance of looking smart in dire circumstances was seen as a morale-boosting activity, so everyone was encouraged to make an effort.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Summer reading

Recently read a right mix of books, some more memorable than others. Some are a considered read, others a bit like a quick snack, enjoyable but not particularly exciting. I sort -of plan a certain amount of reading for when we visit our house in France, as I like to take a few print books, but also have a Kindle, onto which I can download whatever titles I fancy while there.

 I've read a couple of titles by Laurie Graham, A Humble Companion and The Liar's Daughter. Both historical in their setting, but also about people and their complex lives. A Humble Companion focuses on Nellie Buzzard, daughter of brought into the palace  to be a companion to one of George III's many daughters., Princess Sophia. Nellie is the daughter of the Prince Regent's major-domo, so not remotely aristocratic, and she eventually marries a confectioner, and works in his shop, while Princess Sophy leads a very cloistered and contained life. George III's illness and madness form part of the story, giving the reader a different point-of-view on this devastating event.

The Liar's Daughter is set in the early 19th century, and Nan Prunty's mother claimed that Nelson was her lover and Nan his daughter. Few people believed this, and Nan spends a large part of her life trying to find the truth of her mother's claims. Despite her working as an apothecary's apprentice, then being married to an Edinburgh qualified doctor, Nan persists in her search for the truth about her parentage. A story about how much our origins matter to us, and is truth better than not knowing.

I read  and loved Sue Gee's The Mysteries of Glass, a gentle telling of bereavement, loss of faith and change in a lovely, tranquil rural setting. Sue Gee's descriptions of the natural world surrounding the small place, Lyonshall, where Richard Allen is newly appointed curate are lovely. Richard is  but trying to be of service to the parish, but also trying to resist falling in love with Susannah, wife of the vicar. The writing is fairly gentle, but also reflects Richard's inward struggle, which becomes more intense as Susannah's husband draws nearer to his death from tuberculosis.

For a different read, I chose Eve Chase's  debut novel, Black Rabbit Hall, a family story set in a large Cornish house, used as a summer holiday home by the family who owned it. There are two time-lines, one set in the 1960's and the other 30 years later, when Lorna is searching for her ideal wedding venue. The story is mainly told in flashbacks, with the past narrated by Amber while the present, Lorna's, is told in the third person. It 's an accomplished first novel, with engaging characters and dramatic events to keep one turning the pages.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Bird behaviour

We woke up to promised rain this morning,after a fairly mild thunderstorm last night, as thunderstorms go,  and noticed the birds around our house. They looked like young house martins and were flying and darting around the windows, hiding from the rain under the eaves, and perching on the telephone wires. There must have been hundreds of them, we don't usually see them this close up. As the weather slowly improved during the morning, so the birds gradually disappeared.

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