Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Christmas panic?

Well not quite a panic, but as by the middle of December I hadn't bought any cards or presents, it seemed as if a bit of action was called for. Anyhow, the tree is now up and decorated, cards written and posted, presents bought and most wrapped ( still a couple to wrap) cake made and decorated and wreath put on front door. Fortunately I have only a few presents to buy, as there are no grandchildren to buy for as yet, only immediate family, which is quite small. My mother-in-law is happy to receive flowers or a plant, as she is nearly ninety and doesn't want things or food as presents. Turkey is defrosting as I write, sprouts bought this morning, brandy butter, mince pies made, so all is pretty much there.
I did watch some of Kirsty Allsop's Homemade Christmas series on Channel 4 recently, as I've been doing quite a lot of most of my life, but on a smaller scale- I'm not into blowing my own glass baubles, nor putting gold leaf on pears, although one year I used gold pen on bay leaves for placenames when we had a lot of family for Christmas dinner. I found it interesting and hope that some of the younger generation can find inspiration from the programmes.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

I read Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping and loved the beautiful almost poetical writing. The bleakness of the place she describes, the bleakness of the lives of the two sisters and their grandmother and aunts made this a slightly uncomfortable read for me - at times I did wonder where it was going, but the images called up by Marilyn Robinson's writing will linger a long time in my head. The bleakness of the landscape is also echoed by the themes of loss and attachment

Nella Last's War, the diary of Housewife 49, describes the difficulties of housekeeping during World War Two. Nella lived in Barrow-in-Furness, then a ship-building town in north Lancashire, and fairly heavily bombed during the war. Nella's diary was written for Mass Observation, but edited and published after the end of the war. Nella's writing reveals her as being generally optimistic, cheerful under the circumstances and hard-working. She describes making dolls, which are sold in the Red cross shop set up in Barrow during the war as well as mending and making do with her own and neighbours clothes. A fascinatig read which added to my knowledge and admiration of those who stayed at home and kept the home fires burning during the Second World war.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Sunday walk

We went for our monthly ramble with a group we have been walking with for some years now, and perhaps because it was the Lord's day, we had a lovely dry afternoon, with sunshine for the greater part of the walk. Here is where we went. Our route took us along the river Hamble for a short while and the tide was in, so everything looked beautiful. Hard to think that warships of one kind and another have been built here through the centuries, including apparently landing craft for D-Day in 1944. Many years ago I used to walk here from Botley before the country park came into being; there was just a footpath through the old farmyard, through the woods and down to the upper reaches of the Hamble River.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Baking Day

(photo from

Tuesday this week I went up to London for the Persephone lecture and to have lunch with my son, who I haven't seen for ages- he spends weekends doing this, and if you watch the video of the cyclo-cross event, the last comment is absolutely true, I'm told. The Persephone lecture was by Bee Wilson, and was on the subject Mrs Rundell to Mrs Beeton. Mrs Rundell's book of Domestic Cookery was first published in 1806, by John Murray, and continued to be published until 1841, although the author had died in 1828. Her method of writing recipes was much chattier but less clear than Mrs Beeton's. Mrs Rundell was married to a surgeon , lived in Bath, and had five children who all survived to adulthood. She started writing her book a few years after the death of her husband, as a help to her married daughters in the management of their own domestic arrangements. Bee Wilson's lecture was both enlightening and entertaining, especially her description of following Mrs Rundell's method of making coffee, which made an undrinkable concoction!
However some of the recipes are completely followable.

Saturday was church Christmas Fair day, so Friday was baking day, as I'm on the cake stall again. Having made a fruit cake (earlier in the week), coffee and walnut sponge, Victoria sponge, chocolate cupcakes, gingerbread and some macaroons, I've almost gone off cake for a bit. We did sell everything and I also won a nice bottle of Bordeaux on the bottle Tombola.

Friday, 27 November 2009

After days of rain, the day we left for home was beautifully clear, dry and sunny, at least until we reached the Normandy coast. We were early for our late night ferry, so had dinner in a nice restaurent in Ouistreham before boarding

Having been back in home country for a couple of weeks now, the last one has absolutely flown by, as it seems to have consisted of meetings with people and cooking for them as well., culminating in today, when the Book Club I belong to came to my house for coffee, home-made parkin and chocolate biscuits and a discussion about the latest book read, Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Discussion was varied , as although most of us liked the read and enjoyed the humour, one or two didn't, but were happy to tell us why they didn't like it. We also had some discussion about the floods in Cumbria, as one member moved up there earlier this year and another had just visited her while the floods were flooding, so to speak. This afternoon I helped with the refreshments at a local tea dance. We hold these monthly, and this is the last one this year, as its held on the last Friday of the month and the December one is too near Christmas. This time we offered mulled wine and canapes for openers, then later after a few dances, served tea, proper tea in china cups and saucers, accompanied with small sandwiches and cake. I had made a delicious fruit cake ( I'm only quoting from a satisfied partaker, not boasting) and the mulled wine. An excellent afternoon was had by all, despite a lot of hard work by those of us doing the catering and clearing up afterwards.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Gorge St-Vincent

As the weather has been rather dismal here in the Auvergne for the last week or so, with only the odd day when the clouds have lifted and let a few glems of sunshine in, I was grateful that the weather on Sunday was at least dryer, that is , not actually raining, so went out for a short walk. We are not far from the Gorge St Vincent, a short but deep chasm in the valley, where the river Mars has cut its way through the rock. The gorge is diffult to see, especially in summer when the trees are in full leaf, but I managed to get a glimpse during my walk, as most of the trees have lost their leaves, exposing more of the landscape to view. Although short in length, the gorge is fairly impressively deep and narrow, especially when perched right on the edge overlooking it. My last walk here this year, as we leave for England on Wednesday and won't be back until next spring, when the weather will hopefully be a bit warmer and brighter.
Today we visited Bort-les-Orgues for lunch and tomorrow we pack up for our departure.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Two women of history

Recent reading has included Simon Montefiore's novel Sashenka, followed by Larissa Juliet Taylor's The Virgin Warrior, a biography of Joan of Arc. Both are lives of women set in historic times, although one is fiction, the other an academic history. I've read some novels by Santa Montefiore, who is Simon Montefiore's wife, so picked up Sashenka with a certain amount of curiosity, especially since the author is best known as an historian. Sashenka is set in Russia, and follows the fortunes of Alexandra Zeitlin, the Sashenka of the title, and her family through the devastating period of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist purges of the 1930's.
The story does give a good insight into what happened to fairly ordinary Russians during this period, and how families were split up and destroyed by events and sometimes the whim of those in control unknown to them.
The final section is set in the post-Communist period, so brings the historical and family record up-to-date, so to speak. As a fan of the historical novel, this was a good example of the genre, a good page-turning read, though not without its faults.
The story of Joan of Arc, the Virgin Warrior, is a fascinating tale of a young girl who, known as the Maid of France, led the French forces into several victories against the occupying English towards the end of the Hundred Years War This is a well researched book, but written in very accessible language for the general reader, and an exellent introduction to the real Joan of Arc. I remember being taken to see the place where she was burnt in Rouen, when on an exchange visit while still at school, and we recently stayed overnight at Beaugency, on the Loire, where the hotel was almost next door to the remains of the chateau where the English were defeated in 1429. This is a useful book giving an understanding of Joan's position in both French and English history, as well as a clear description of the ending of the Hundred Years war.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I bought a copy of Muriel Barbery's novel the Elegance of the Hedgehog a little while ago, but decided to wait until I was in France to read it - it seemed to be more appropriate, despite the fact that the setting for the story is an elegant appartment block in Paris, not la France profonde. It was a beautiful read., full of delicious detail about the lives of the families who live in the appartments. The story is narrated by the concierge, Renee, who although from apoor background, nevertheless has read widely all her life and values culture even more than the rich and cultured occupants of the appartments. We also meet Paloma, the younger daughter of a politician and his socialist wife, who is thinking of committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday. She expresses herself through a series of profound thoughts, is an avid manga (Japanese comic book) reader and is teaching herself Japanese. There are numerous references to socialist and communist texts and people, to various philosophers, as well as to Japanese culture - a fascinating blend.
When one of the occupants of the appartments dies, both Renee's and Paloma's lives are changed in ways they never dreamt of.
A book I thoroughly recommend.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

An autumn drive

Today we went off to Aurillac to do some shopping and having completed that, decided to drive back a different route from the main road we took to get there. We headed for the Route des Cretes ( the Crest Road) which takes us up the side of the Jordanne Valley and via wonderful twisting mountain roads and one or two passes, such as the Col du Legal, which is 1,231 metres (4039 feet) above sea level, to the ancient town of Salers, then along the side of the Maronne valley above the little village of Recusset to the Col de Neronne, then down to Le Falgoux and back along the Mars valley to Le Vaulmier. A beautiful drive through lovely mountain scenery. There are places on the route where one minute you overlook a pretty valley on the right, and a couple of minutes later another one equally pretty on the left. The autumn colours on the trees were beautiful, and enhanced by an absolutely gorgeous sunset. We've been contemplating doing this drive for a while now, and think that this is probably the best time of year to do it, as some of the trees have lost their leaves, so you can see more of the scenery and views. In summer with everything in full leaf, there are places when you can't see so much when driving through woods.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Bon Courage

I took advantage of the extra hour in bedthis morning to finish Richard Wiles tale of renovating a barn or grange in the Limousin region. I'm glad we didn't take on such a lengthy project, although I admire his energy; the house we are renovating is enough work, considering it is a holiday home, not a permanent residence here in France. It's also a house, and had water and electricity already available when we aquired it. It could be a permanent home, as it's large enough, but I think I'm a city girl at heart and would miss not being able to hop on a bus for a ten minute trip into townfor a bit of shopping. The nearest town is about a 25minute drive away(though a very pretty drive), and has only limited shopping facilities. This area is also very cold in winter, and the heating in the house would have to be improved somewhat to spend winters here in comfort. The nearest large town or city, Clermont-Ferrand is a couple of hours drive away - not exactly local. The times we spend here are usually divided between working on the house and occasionally going out for a walk or swim (this last in the summer only) or visiting some of the other local towns and villages. Today the weather was beautiful, sunny and warm, much needed after yesterday's rain and mist.
Richard Wiles book is a lesson for all those who dream of a place in rural France - be prepared for a lot of hard work and also to learn to speak French, as otherwise communication is very difficult.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Here at last in the Vallee du Mars, a beautiful, peaceful place where the background noise is the sound of cowbells, not the constant but subdued roar of traffic as at home, we have experienced in only a few days almost all varieties of weather - sunshine, howling gales, rain and up on the mountains we can see from our house, the first snow of winter; only a dusting which will probably disappear in a day or so, but still a hint of things to come.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A book launch

The evening before leaving for France, I attended a book launch at Shirley Library. It was for Jayne Woodhouse's first children's novel, titled The Stephenson's Rocket. It was an honour to be invited, as I've never actually been to the launch of any book before, despite being involved in the library world for about 40 years. The evening was fun, with Maisy, also a retired greyhound in attendance, and meeting up with many former colleagues as well as Jayne and her publishers. There is a short interview with Jayne here. I'm really pleased for Jayne and wish her well in her future writing career.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Amenable Women

Just before setting out on our fnal visit this year to France,I was pleased to find a copy of Mavis Cheek's most recent novel, Amenable Women. It's mainly about two very different women, Flora, recently widowed and an important historical character - Anne of Cleves. So the story is a clever combination of an historical novel and a modern day novel. The link between the two stories is a history of Hurcott Ducis, the village in which Flora lives. Her husband had been writing the history when he died, and Flora decides to continue and finish it. Her researches lead her to a viewing of Hans Holbein's portrait of Anne, and overhearing a guide's remarks about the lady, becomes somewhat irritated, resolving to find out a lot more detail about Henry VIII's fourth wife. This Flora duly does, which leads her into a variety of situations with her solicitor, her grieving daughter Hilary, Pauline the village siren and others. I've always enjoyed Mavis Cheek's writing, as her sense of humour and of observation are nicely sharp.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

So little time..

A non-reading period - sometimes there seems to be so much to do, so little time and things that are important to me, but not maybe to others get pushed aside. I've managed to read half of Dickens Dombey and Son, part of Louis de Bernieres The Partisan's Daughter and started Bon Courage by Richard Wiles about living in rural Limousin and converting a barn. Meanwhile life goes on, shopping gets done, parish Harvest Lunch takes place and the church is decorated with flower arrangements, visits to hospitalized sister-in-law and from my sister happen, phone calls to mother-in-law in hospital for knee replacement take place and so on, and now we are planning a final trip to France this year to close up the house for the winter and hopefully admire the autumn colours in the vallee du Mars.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Sitting in a Book Club members garden this morning, discussing Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture was a lovely experience - civilisation at its best. Lovely coffee, homemade cakes and biscuits and intelligent talk, in warm early autumn sunshine - what a beautiful way to pass an hour or so. The book we had all read won the Costa prize last year and after reading it, was obviously a worthwhile winner. We all had enjoyed reading the story of Roseanne Clear, although we all had differing reactions to it. Most of us loved Sebastian Barry's wonderful use of language, and read out many extracts and favourite lines and although several of us thought the ending was somewhat contrived, we hadn't seen it coming, at least on a first reading - some of the club had read it more than once, and found clues on the second reading.

Friday, 18 September 2009

A Temporary farewell

So its farewell to France for another few weeks, until sometime in October when we'll return for a few weeks work and then shut the house up for the winter. We took a couple of days to return, driving up to Normandy one day, staying overnight in a comfortable small hotel in Conches-en-Ouches, with a delicious dinner. Next day we drove north of Le Havre and wandered round the small town of St Romain-en -Colbosc, quiet and pretty, then after a quick lunch in a bar/brasserie, went down to Le Havre and had a walk along the beach front, despite the not very nice weather.

In the last few days before leaving France, I managed to read A L Kennedy's Day, a story of a young man taking part in a war movie, who remembers the grim reality of life as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber in the war itself, but also remembers fallimg in love for the first time, and the friendship of his fellow aircrew. The novel is told almost completely from Day's point of view, almost as a stream of consciousness, which makes you feel that you really know how this young man thinks and feels. Although at times a painful read, still a wonderful book.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Reading and painting

Still here in France, in the beautiful vallee du Mars, the weather which when we first arrived in August was very hot and sunny is now a bit cooler, though there is still plenty of warm sunshine, lovely for a swim in Mauriac's outdoor pool, which closes on the 13th of September. The leaves on the trees are just beginning to take on autumn tints. A local friend said she went hunting for girolles (a type of mushroom) the other day, but found none worth collecting, only the odd tiny ones, and they were difficult to spot being the same colour as the fallen leaves from the hazelnut trees in the woods.

Finally finished Little Dorrit, what a wondrful read. I'm now a Dickens fan, having avoided his writing in the past(probably due to mental laziness). The stories within the story are beautifully told and add to the wonderful texture of the book.

Much painting of walls and some woodwork has been done, although there is still lots to do, the house is beginning to become more homely. It would seem that since it was built in about 1920, not much redecoration has been done, most of the stuff we are doing is decorating over the original, much-deteriorated decorations.

What with painting and swimming, not that much time for reading, but I have recently finished Tim Winton's Breath, a story set in a small Australian country town, not too far from the sea. Bruce Pike or Pikelet, befriends the son of the towns pub owner, and both set off to the sea, to learn to surf. They both become hooked and attract the attention of Sandy, an older surfer who takes them under his wing. The addiction all three have to surf and surfing is beautifully described, as is young Pikelet's growing up and friendship with Sandy's young wife Eva. The emotions of a young boy coming to terms with his ability in the surf, his changing relationship with his parents, school and his eventual growing up are tenderly written. A wonderful story, I recommend it.

Monday, 31 August 2009


Yesterday we went on a bit of a hike. We set out from Le Vaulmier, walked through a footpath towards St Vincent-de-Salers, then followed a path uphill to the plateau above the valley . The path went through hazel woods for some of the way, mixed with other trees, so was pleasantly shady on what was a hot day. When we woke up in the morning, the sky was a clear cloudless blue, and remained that way all day and evening.

I must say that when we got higher up the path, past the waterfall which is signposted a couple of times ( and didn't have much water in it at this time of year) we met several obstructions, in the form of either metal or barbed wire fences strung across the way, which we had to crawl under a couple of times.There is also little if any signage for the path higher up, although it is marked on the blue series IGN map of the area. Much of the higher reaches of the path, indicated in a couple of places as part of a Grand Randonnee were quite overgrown with bramles and nettlesand other vegetation. It would seem that not many people use it to gain access to the plateau, or to descend from it. This is a great pity, as the path could well disappear completely in time if it is not used or maintained, and it is a really lovely way up past the mill at Orfaguet and higher. We eventually reached the plateau above the valley and were rewarded with gorgeous views , seemingly over half of the middle of France. Its almost like another world up there, as there is nothing between you and the endless sky; almost like flying. On one walk we did earlier this year, we saw an aeroplane flying along the valley below us. There are usually few if any other people, only the cows on their summer pastures, birds, and wild flowers for company, and of course no traffic noise, except possibly a passing 'plane. A fascinating place to get away from it all, but an hours walk downhill through a shady path brought us back to Le Vaulmier and the house.


We've been back in Le Vaulmier for over a week now, having driven down on a baking hot day. The weather has remained very warm and sunny most of the time, except for one day last week when there was a storm followed by a day of rain, which helped fill up the waterfall we can see from the house. Although there is still quite a bit of work to be done to finish the house, we decided to leave things until we had had some holiday time, that being why we bought it in the first place. So we went swimming in Mauriac's open air pool, sometimes just lazed about the house and balcony, did a bit of tidying up in he garden, and went to some of the local events which help enliven the summer here. On Sunday there was a Marche du Pays, where everyone congregates and buys their supper from the various stalls which have been set up, selling grilled sausages, aligot, salads, crepes or gauffres, and of course something to drink, either a soft drink such as fruit juice - we had some delicious locally produced apple juice - or Auvergnate wine, also good. Its an opportunity for everyone in the commune to get together and chat over a meal, and is very pleasant.
I've been reading Charles Dickens Little Dorrit, a Book Club choice, and although I haven't read much Dickens, mainly ones for examinations ( that tends to be a bit off-putting, sometimes), I'm enjoying this just as a story to read, mainly for my own entertainment. At which Dickens is absolutely a master. So I've been enjoying it much more than I expected ( and I didn't watch the whole of the television series, only the occasional glimpse). I now appreciate why some people only take one book on holiday and make it a Charles Dickens or something equally long. However, I still couldn't do that, I need at least 3or 4 books a week if we're staying put somehwere, fewer if we go touring, as there is less time for reading then.

Monday, 24 August 2009

South of the River

Blake Morrison's novel is set in Fulham, at the start of the New Labour government, but its not especially about politics as such.It did take me a while to get into this story - I started it last summer but put it aside after only a few pages. However when I picked it up again I persisted and finished it in a few days.For some reason, it took a little while to get used to the multi-voice narrative, as the story is told by several people,young, old, male and female, each giving their own point of view on sometimes the same event, but sometimes carrying the story forward. There is also more than one storyline, as each character has their own, while still being part of the others as well. Nat, a failed dramatist and part-time lecturer, married to Libby, a hard-working mother and advertising executive. Harry is a friend and former pupil of Nat's, as is Anthea, who is a bit of a lost soul, obsessed with foxes. Nat's Uncle Jack is similarly obsessed, although in his case the obsession takes the form of fox-hunting twice a week. Foxes in fact are a continuing theme in the novel, which includes the New Labour anti-fox hunting Bill. When I had finished this novel, I found it had been a satisfying read, with its mix of personalities, politics, journalism and life in south London.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

For a supreme example of the power of both the human spirit and imagination , this short book would be hard to surpass. The author, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered from Locked-In syndrome following a cerebro-vascular incident. He was unable to walk, talk or do anything except move his head slightly and blink his left eyelid. By this means he and his helpers devised a way of communicating, and he managed to write this book, even though it took a couple of minutes to describe one letter of the alphabet. The short chapters cover a very wide variety of subjects, ranging from his memories of work, his life with his wife and children, his girlfriend, and life in the hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, sometimes sad, sometimes funny but never self-pitying. Recommended to me by a fellow-reading group member, and I recommend it also. I haven't yet seen the film which has been made of this book, but apparently that is very sympathetique to the story.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Rupert of the Rhine

I recently finished Charles Spencer's biography/history of Prince Rupert. A good read, well-written, seemingly well-researched ( I don't know enough about the English Civil War to criticise). It certainly threw a bit more light on this period of English history for me, but I don't yet feel impelled to follow up by reading further on the subject.Perhaps later. I did read a novel about Prince Rupert of the Rhine many years ago, written by Margaret Irwin, who wrote a number of historical novels, published in the 1920's to 1950's. She was highly regarded as a historical novelist at the time, and as far as I remember, her books were extremely well-researched. She also wrote a series of novels about Elizabeth I, covering her childhood as well as her rule as Queen, which apparently is due to be re-published this autumn in a single volume edition.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Dressing Thoughtfully

I've just finished reading Linda Grant's book The Thoughtful Dresser, a most interesting read,especially to anyone with the even the slightest interest in clothes and appearance. Don't we all want to look our best most of the time? I should have thought that most people think about they look at least once a day, and some of us much more frequently than that, without it being the be-all and end-all of our existence. Although I have never spent large amounts of money on clothes, shoes etc, I have always thought about how I present myself to the world - that is at the very least clean and tidy, and at most extremely well-groomed. As my mother used to say, soap is cheap, so there is no excuse for being dirty, and as for tidy, it doesn't take too much effort to make sure clothes are clean, ironed and mended when necessary. Most people seem to be able to manage this, and even in very poor parts of the world, people make an effort to keep themselves and their clothes clean, to indicate they still have their human diginity. I don't think appearance is all, but how we present ourselves to our fellow human beings is important, not just for them but for ourselves too. Looking at people in the supermarket, or wandering along the local high street, very few just seem to have thrown on the nearest thing; many have obviously given a bit of thought as to how they want their fellow beings to regard them. The majority of people in this country, men women and children, seem to give at least a modicum of thought to their appearance and although the result may not be fashionable, it is at least clean, tidy and reasonably presentable.

As for beige, that typical middle-aged women's colour, I never wear it, as it does abso;utely nothing for me - my sister told me so about a decade ago, when I mistakenly bought a beige jumper and cardigan. The jumper, too high a round neck, went to the charity shop and the cardigan I dyed jungle green and still wear from time to time, as its a nice lightweight merino wool and looks good with some brown jeans and a tee-shirt.

Saturday, 8 August 2009


A friend recently lent me a copy of D. J. Taylor's Kept, which is a mystery story set in Victorian times. The main mystery is how a young wife disappears and exactly how her husband met his death. The answer includes a major train robbery, a seemingly haunted house, a mysterious face at a window and much else besides, including some wonderful descriptions of life in Victorian London. I like D.J. Taylor's work very much, and enjoyed this novel, although there was a slight question mark about who the narrator actually is. Nevertheless, the suspense is well-maintained and although the point of view seems to switch from character to character with a sometimes confusing rate of change, the story continues on its way notwithstanding. The mystery side of the novel remains just that until near the end, and the title also raises the question as to just who it is who or what is kept. I look forward to what he will write next.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Readings from America

I loved reading Mary Ann Schaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potatoe Peel Pie Society and will recommend it to my book group. Although written by an American, the characters are all English or Guernsey. Set just after the end of the second World War, it's a series of letters, started by a writer looking for a topic for her next book, the first having done quite well. She receives a letter from a man in Guernsey who found her address in a copy of a book she had owned. She replies and sets in motion a life-changing course of events, as well as discovering just what life was like for the islanders under the German occupation during the war. The subject is one of interest as well as familiarity to me, as flights from Southampton to the Channel Islands are common and regular, and when a book was published a while ago on the history of the occupation of the Channel Island, there was a huge local demand for it. This tale although fiction, has a solid foundation in the truth, and is memorable for that reason.
Barak Obama's Dreams from my Father, a book club read, proved much more interesting than I had anticipated. I'm not usually a fan of political biographies, especially American ones, but this book, written well before he bcame President was very readable, and certainly explained his family and background in some detail. Worh a read, if only to conteract some of the wilder opinions to be found in the media.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Well back in Hampshire after a nine hour drive from the Auvergne, a five and a half hour ferry trip from Le Havre and a short drive from Portsmouth, the grass has grown , as has the alchemilla, the geraniums and almost everything else, especially the weeds is also looking extremely lush and well grown. Can we walk up the path between the garage and the house? Only if we don't mind crunching a snail or two. Such is our homecoming late in the evening after a day driving through France to catch the ferry back home. Unload car, unpack suitcases, fill up laundry basket, a quick coffee and bed after a long day.

Reflecting on what I've been reading the last weeks in France seems like another life, which in a way it is. Much of our time there has been spent on working on the house, replacing items the builders took out and hadn't put back, either from incompetence or neglicence. We managed a few swims in the local pool, along with a handful of other middle-aged swimmers who do their lenghts in the section roped off for "nageurs" as soon after opening time as we can. The other part of the open-air pool is for young children being given swimming lessons by a very bronzed, fit youngish male instructor. Later on the pool will get busier with people coming to treat it as the local "plage", to sunbathe and swim as the fancy takes them.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Just before coming to France, I ordered Anne Fadiman's two books of essays, Ex Libris and At large and At Small, the confessions of a Literary Hedonist, and what delightful reading they turned out to be. I ordered them through The Book Depository, a speedy, efficient service. How could I as a librarian resist a title called Ex Libris? I found the essay on how the author and her husband combined their respective book collections intriguing, as my husband and I have never even thought about doing this - our collections are too dissimilar, and we have no room in our house big enough to house all the books we collectively own in one place. Instead, they are scattered throughout the house, in collections grouped by subject - my husbands books on clock and watch making and collecting in his workroom, my books on literature, fiction, and history on one set of bookshelves and books on crafts and sewing on another bookcase in my work area. My collection of cookbooks is elsewhere, but not in the kitchen, as it's too big a collection and the kitchen too small to house it. We seem able to find what we want most of the time, anyway. Here in France in a barely furnished house, we have just bought one small bookcase/ cupboard, adequate for the small collection of books we currently have here, mostly English novels imported by me, but a few in French acording to our interests.
I found Anne Fadiman's essays really good reading. I loved the range of subjects, including ice-cream and coffee ( both of which I also adore - my first coffee maker was a percolater that sat on the hot plate or gas ring of whatever digs I was living in as a student in Manchester - it made strong coffee) I've tried every variety of coffee maker, but seem to have settled for a filter, both here in France and at home, although I also have a cafetiere, a Moka espresso and a old wedding present of a rather posh Russell Hobbs percolater, unused for about twenty-five years. I must admit I've neve seriously considered using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream - I use a rather primitive electric churn machine, with bowls which need to be put in the freezer overnight to freeze them before you can even get round to making the ice cream or sorbet you have set your mind on making. A bit tedious but reasonably effective. It only makes tiny quantities, though, so OK for small households, useless for a crowd. This is the joy of Anne Fadiman's writing - it leads you into an examination of how, what, where, and why you live the way you do, think the way you think, and possibly consider a better way.
One thought that occured to me was the connexion with the French verb essayer, which means "to try". Almost too obvious to mention, really.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

That Certain Age

My library based reading group wanted something light to read, so I chose Elizabeth Buchan's That Certain Age for us. It's a story in two intertwined parts, about two very different women and their different lives. One woman, Barbara is married to a former fighter pilot, now an airline pilot who flies off to exotic places, leaving his wife and children in their comfortable home. The other character, Siena is a modern career woman, married for some time to a husband who wants children, but does Siena herself want them? The comparison of the different periods that these women lived in ( Barbara' life is set in the 1950's) is interesting. Barbara's husband doesn't want her to work outside the home, while Siena's is quite happy for her to jet off to the States for a project. A novel to make one think about the delicate balances within any relationship, about what happiness is, and how it can differ from person to person and time to time, and also about the importance for a woman of her own money, to do with as she wishes. This last point has always been important to me, as it was to my mother, also a working mother in her time. Barbara's life is more restricted than Siena's by the fact that she has to rely on her husband for finances, and has to find devious ways to be her own self, in a way that Siena does not, although she has her own difficult choices to make in life.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Clothes at a certain age

Have recently read for a book club Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, which I enjoyed but felt ultimately vaguely disappointed in, and was not alone in this feeling. Nevertheless an interesting read with something to say about how much clothes can matter to an individual, male or female. The narrator Vivian is the child of Hungarian refugees from the Nazi era, and describes growing up in a mansion flat in London with her parents. The other residents of the block are beautifully sketched in. Her family has few visitors, except once her father's brother who stayed in Hungary during the war, only escaping during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. Her uncle and his companion's clothes are described in loving detail. The story is told by the adult, looking back to her childhood, adolescence and early womanhood, including her first brief tragic marriage. I heard Linda Grant, who also writes The Thoughtful Dresser blog talk to Catherine Hill, also a concentration camp survivor, about the importance of appearance in such appalling circumstances. The group discusing the book were of mixed opinion about the idea of the importance of clothes, but most of us cared in some way about what we wore and how we looked.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Current reads

Having recently read Susie Orbach's Bodies, I have a whole lot of questions going round in my mind. Do all women think about their bodies as some of the cases in her book do? Does it matter whether your body has a bit of cellulite, fat, curves, call it what you will, as long as it functions in the way nature intended and you want it to? I think too many young women needlessly worry too much about their bodies and its state of perfection or otherwise. I'm just grateful to have reached an age when the perfect body is harder to attain and wonder if I can be bothered. I am still healthy and fit enough to carry on doing what I want to when I want to. I have dieted a couple of times in my life, consciously, but last winter manged to lose 4 kilos in weight without dieting, just by walking a bit more and keeping whatever I ate to a reasonable portion. I wasn't aware of being or feeling deprived, since I ate and drank whatever I felt like , but just not too much of it, and the weight seems to have stayed off too. Ultimately I don't feel this book provides answers to questions, just explores the subject of our apparent dislike of our bodies.
I zipped through Gok Wan's How to Look Good Naked fairly rapidly, as its not a difficult read being mostly pictures. At least he seems to be interested in making women look better and to accept their bodies how they are. I've also watched his television shows and found the part of the show where very overweight women criticize the clothes supposedly designed for them very heartening. At least he recognises that all women want to look good, no matter what their size or shape.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Random reading again

While away in France, I kept dipping into Mourjou: life and food in a village in the Auvergne, by Peter Graham, an Englishman who has spent most of his life in France. I found this through the Prospect Books website, a wonderful resource for anyone interested in food and its history. The village we have a house in is in the Auvergne, though further north than Mourjou, but much of the food is the same. The dish aligot is a regular at the evening fairs held in August, when all the villagers gather together to buy their supper and eat and chat at long tables set up outside the Mairie. The descriptions of past village life are fascinating and obviously the same for the villages in the region. However life has changed somewhat, as the author reports, and is more like life in the rest of France, as communications have improved a lot in the last century or so.
I picked out an old Katie Fforde book on a recent trip to the library, Living Dangerously. Published in 1995, it seemed to have passed me by, yet I'm a keen fan of Katie Fforde's writing. Her books are an easy read, and fall into the romantic category, but for me are ideal comfort reading in between something a bit more demanding. I usually borrow them rather than buy them however.
The more demanding read I read before this was Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief. It might seem strange to call a book written for young adults more demanding, but the setting of Germany in the Second World War, and the dreadful things that happen to the central character Liesel and to the family who foster her after her mother disappears and her younger brother dies on a train journey is an emotionally demanding read. The Book Club who chose and discussed this felt it was "I'm glad I've read this book" title, and it led onto various memories for one or two of the older members who'd lived through the same war in England, some as children and some as adults. Reading this made me feel much more compassionate towards those ordinary German people who didn't agree with Hitler, but had no means of expressing their disagreement outwardly - it was only expressed by hidden acts of resistance, like fostering the daughter of a communist, and hiding a Jew in their basement. Although I describe this as a more demanding read, the writing is beautifully simple and clear, it is the emotions aroused that are more complex and demanding.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Kitchen window view

The view from my kitchen window includes this beautiful wisteria, which flowers reliably every year, except one year a long time ago when we had a very severe frost in April just as the buds were just starting to develop. The scent is quite powerful too, as I walk underneath it, and the leaves when developed provide shade for the table and benches underneath.

I've just finished reading Celia Lyttleton's "The Scent Trail" in which the author describes her journeys to many different countries in search of the raw ingredients for her own personal scent. She travels to Grasse, in the south of France, in search of mimosa, to Florence for irises, to Turkey for roses, to Morocco for oranges and neroli, to India, Sri Lanka, to Yemen and finally Socotra in search of ambergris. She tells us a lot about te history of scent and how it was and is used in some of these places, and we also learn about how the scent is extracted from the individual flowers, how these flowers have to be picked at certain times of day for the best perfumes. I love scent and would love to have a personal one as Celia Lyttleton has done, but usually wear my favourite Yves St Laurent "Rive Gauche". Celia Lyttleton's writing is enthusiastic about perfume and lyrical about the scents and places she visits. An intriguing read for anyone who loves perfume.

Another recent read was Alexander McCall Smith's eighth title in his No 1 Ladies detective series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive. The setting is familiar to those who have read others in the series. Although violence and death are mentioned, they are not dwelt on as in some crime novels. In fact I sometomes wonder if these are actually crime novels; they seem to be more philosphical musings on human behaviour in all its variety. Nevertheless,despite the deceptively simple writing I find them an enjoyable comfort read.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Reading Round-up

Although I haven't blogged much recently about my reading, I'm still there with a book in my hand or on my bedside table, although if I have any serious reading to be done, bed is not my ideal place for it. However it's a rare night when I don't pick up a book and read for about quarter of an hour or so before falling asleep.
Reading while in France included Nicola Beauman's "A very great profession", which is a very readable study of popular women's novels and their authors writing between the two world wars. Nicola Beauman has written the survey under several main themes, as to the subjects covered by the novels she describes so well. Persephone books, which was founded by Nicola Beauman, publishes many of these novels, some of which are familiar to me from my early years in the library profession as the authors were still popular during the late 1960's and early 70's. The books are not only a pleasure to read, but are also well produced, on thick cream paper with an elegant type-face, nicely bound with distinctive grey covers.
Julian Barnes' book Flaubert's Parrot was another read while in France, quite appropriately. I've had this on my bookshelves for ages and finally decided it was time to read it. The story is of a retired professor who becomes obsessed with finding which of the various stuffed parrots he comes across while researching Flaubert's life is the original. During the hunt, we learn a lot about Flaubert, the man and the writer, and his life, loves, relationships, habits, and writing. It is very funny in parts, both from quotes from Flaubert and the narrator. How much is actually true about Flaubert I'm not sure, not having read a biography of him. Good fun, though and worth waiting for.
I took The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale to France with me and found it an interesting read. A complicated and true story about the murder of a young child, the youngest son of the father's second marriage. The setting is Road Hill House, which still exists, although now has another name. The family living in the house at the time of the murder, which took place in the Victorian period, were middle class, the detective eventually called from the Metropolitan police force was a working class man. Kate Summerscale gives us a lot of historiacl detail but manges to keep up the suspense and a desire to find out who dunnit. I found this a satisfying read.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Katherine Swynford

I've just finished reading Alison Weir's biography of Katherine Swynford: the story of John of Gaunt and his scandalous Duchess. A lovely absorbing read, about a medieval woman of repute. Like many people, including the author herself, I first came across Katherine Swynford in Anya Seton's novel Katherine, which I read as a teenager, and still have an ancient yellowing copy on my bookshelves, complete with bodice-ripper type cover. I haven't read it for ages, but did read and re-read it several times in the past. Alison Weir's book goes back to the original medieval sources, but despite their lack of mention of Katherine at times, nevertheless there is enough material to build a convincing picture of an woman, who despite being of relatively humble birth, managed to become one of the most important women in the history of the monarchy in Britain, and from whom other world leaders are descended. Katherine was fortunate enough to mix among people who encouraged women to be educated, interested in literature, music and also be able to manage an estate, as she had to when her husband Sir Hugh Swynford was away fighting with his overlord, John of Gaunt in France. I really enjoyed this read, as it put the flesh on to the bare bones of the story that I remember, and made Katherine come alive again.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Reading at random

I recently borrowed, read and returned to my local library forthwith Camilla Morton's A year in High Heels. I had quite enjoyed her "How to Walk in High Heels", but the more recent title was not so informative, nor so useful. There was the occasional intersting snippet, but much of it was either stuff I've knoen about forever, or else stuff I've never felt the need to know.

However another random read was R C Sherriff's "The Fortnight in September" first published in 1931 and republished by Persephone Books. This was a delightful read, The Stevens family have booked their seaside boarding house accomodation in March, and now the day before their holiday has arrived. The story tells of their organising their departure, packing, setting off on the train to Bognor, and their happiness at being away for a whole fortnight. Their pleasures are simple ones - being on the beach and having a family game of cricket, going for a walk over the dons or along the shore, meeting a new friend and going out for an evening stroll, listening to the band playing. The story is written in simple language but nevertheless complex emotions and feelings are described, for although life for the Stevens family seems at first to be straightforward, different members have differing feelings and ambitions. The eldest son, Dick works out how to work towards an ambition he has to becoming an architect; the father enjoys the feeling of absolute freedom his solitary walks on the downs give him, away from all the cares of work; the mother enjoys her evenings on her own, sewing, which she never seems to have time for at home. Although the story ends on the last day of their holiday, the life of this family lives on in the imagination, as it would have done in real life. One part I particularly enjoyed was the journey to Bognor from Clapham Junction. Having recently undertaken this very same route by train, by inadvertently taking the wrong train at Clapham Junction, I could recall the stations and views R C Sherriff describes very clearly, which certainly brought the tale to life for me. I first came across R C Sherriff through reading his play "The Long Sunset", about the Roman abandonment of Britain in the 5th century AD, which although I haven't looked at since leaving school, still seems to be in my memory as a powerful piece of writing.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Glorious day here in the Vallee du Mars in the Auvergne region of France, following a pleasant one yesterday, when we walked down the valley to the next village, St Vincent de Salers, then back again through the woods the other side; however this entailed a very preciptious up- and down footpath, which kept disappearing under last years leaves . We made it back home in time for supper. The snows on the Puy Mary and Puy de Tortue at the top of the valley are beginning to melt with more and more darker patches of ground appearing. We seem to be lucky with the weather at this time of year, as it was sunny and warm last year too. The road and pathsides are full of wild flowers; cowslips, wood anemones, violets, wild hellebores, pulmonaria are some of the ones I can recognise and name , and there are others that I can't. More and more are coming out each day as the weather warms up and the days get longer. Last week the weather was misty and a bit gloomy, with some rain on Thursday and Friday.
We have been here for over a week now and are feeling more settled in. The house is responding to being occupied, as it is getting warmer inside, after being left cold for several months during the winter. Fortunately all the hard work we did last year in the garden has paid off, as it still looks fairly tidy, only the grass is just beginning to grow a bit, and the few shrubs we left are in bloom.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Random reads

Cherry cake and Ginger Ale by Jane Brocket was a nostalgic read. Based on descrptions of food in a wide-ranging list of childrens books, the book takes a look at the occasions in which food is described. Quite an interesting idea, as I had read many of the books the author includes, and the recipes seem to reliable home comfort food.

A complete contrast was Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide, a story set in India, in the Sunderbans, an area of islands and rivers at the mouth of the Ganges. I love Amitav Ghosh's writing. He describes India so clearly and sympathetically that I can almost see, hear and smell it , as well as visualise both people and places. This story is one of loss in so many different ways, but also a story of hope. Pia, Indian-born but raised in Seattle, comes to the area to research the lives of river dolphins, a subject in which she is an expert. On the journey to the islands, she meets Kanai, who is visiting his aunt on a mission. The story concerns Pia's meeting with a local fisherman who has a uncanny ability to find the dolphins Pia is so concerned about, together with Kanai's researches into his uncle's past life on the tiger-infested islands. The violent storm which occurs near the end of the story changes everybodies lives, some for a more hopeful future.
I recently read a comment by Erica Wagner in The Times, suggesteing we read more writers who write in English but are from non- English countries. I can thoroughly recommend Amitav Ghosh as one of those writers to read.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Reading under the bedspread

New bedspread is now made and on the bed it was destined for.

Recent reading has been fairly random, some book club reads, some just following my own interests.

Book group reads have included Sadie Jones 'Outcast' a story set in the 1950's., and is a tale of loss, of love and growing up in suburban Surrey in the post-war years. There are boken families, broken and damaged people and yet the possibility of happiness at the end. The main character, Lewis, is described on his release from prison and returning home. We next read of his childhood, of his father's returning from the war and settling back into normal life. Lewis loses his mother in a drowning accident, but is unable to talk about it to his father. His father re-marries and Lewis is sent away to school. The build -up of unresolved tensions of love and loss - Lewis's increasing desperation, his self-harm and drinking, his relationship with the various members of the Carmichael family, near neighbours and work colleague of his father, all are beautifully and gently but clearly described. Lewis's friendship with the younger Carmichael daughter may be the hopeful end to the story.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, first published in 1938 and re-published by Persephone Books was a delightful and quick read for me. The story of a poor, dowdy and underpaid governess who is wrongly directed to an actress's apartment for a job. She is immediately drawn into Miss LaFosse's glamourous life, and acts as friend, chaperone, replacement mother,as well as undergoing a complete transformation during the day. All ends well, and Miss Pettigrew finds herself more happily settled that she could have hoped for.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Self-help and shopping

I recently picked up Mary Portas' book on How to Shop, out of curiosity - I had watched some of the TV programmes on which the book is based. The book, like the programmes is well presented, but does it really tell you how to shop for clothes? I've been shopping for clothes for decades now, and I feel that it didn't give me much in the way of guidance, probably because I don't actually spend that much money on my wardrobe. I'm still not sure about which shopping tribe I belong to, but I can't say I'm really worried about it - never did like being one of a tribe anyway, I'd rather be independant and make up my own mind. I thought the when to shop section quite useful, even though I'm unlikely to follow the advice.

More to my taste was Danielle Proud's House Proud: Hip Craft for the Modern Homemaker. This is about how to achieve a quirkily stylish home on a budget, and includes all sorts of ideas for furnishing and decorating a home. As I've been doing this most of my life, some fresh ideas were very welcome - my ancient copy of Jocasta Innes The Paupers Homemaking Book is almost unusable because of its disintegrating condition. Danielle's ideas are fresh and modern with quite a lot of emphasis on the current recycling trend.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Sea of poppies

Having ploughed through some crafty books recently, in search of inspiration, I finally got round to cutting out the fabric I've had for a while to make a new bedcover. The colours are blue and ivory, that is blue flowers on an ivory background. Well, its now half made, and will be finished this weekend. Ideas gleaned from the gardening book I've now returned to the library are put on hold, as the back garden is too boggy to walk on at the moment, what with snow and then a month's worth of rain in a day on last Monday.

A really lovely read recently was Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies.

This wonderful historical novel, starting out in early Victorian India, has a huge cast of characters and a wide sweep of events, from the death of a husband and rescue of his wife from suttee (or self-immolation) to the preparation for the first Opium war in China in 1838, and the shipment of migrant workers to Mauritius. All manner of fascinating details of life at this time are here, from poppy growing and opium production, to the table placements for an early Victorian colonial dinner party and the arrangements of sails on a converted slaver, to the costumes and dress of sailors, Indians, convicts, rich and poor, high and low. The characters include Indians from village peasants to a Raja, Chinese sailors and others, a variety of British inhabitants of India, a mixed blood American freeman, a young French girl and include the ship, the Ibis, on which most of these people end up. The language used to tell this story is a complete mix of Bengali, Bhojpuri, English slang of the period, pidgin English and more, but nevertheless carried this reader on through the tale. I can barely wait for the next instalment to be published, so much do I want to find out what happens next.

Friday, 16 January 2009

A good turn and life as a wife

Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn is a book I've only just caught up with and thoroughly enjoyed. A thriller cum mystery without too much overt violence, a character we have met before in Jackson Brodie and some lovely little twists and turns in the plot make this a really good read. The atmosphere of Edinburgh at Festival time is well done without overemphasis. The other characters are well drawn, especially Gloria, Julia and Louise Morgan - all seemed real enough people to me, and would recommend this read to anyone, but especially to those who read nothing but thrillers or murder stories. This is definitely on a higher plane than most of those. Must hastily order her next one , When Will There Be Good News, from my local library - I try not to buy too much fiction as the house is full enough of books already and I'm not now a great re-reader.

One writer I am tempted to re-read from time to time is Elisabeth Luard, especially her biographical-with-recipes books. I've not long finished her story of My Life as A Wife, :Love, Liquor and what to do about the Othet Women , a sort-of follow on to her book Family Life, although it is mainly concerned with how she came to marry Nicholas Luard, founder of Private Eye and the adventures that marriage led her through. I found that some of this book recalled instances in my own life, such as my mother's comment " I'm off to join your father ", who was working as a mining engineer in Ghana, almost as soon as I received my A-level results - the sort of that's life, now jolly well get on with it attitude.

However Elisabeth's life was very exciting to this outsider - working at Private Eye, even as secretary, marrying the boss, going to live in Spain with four young children, then France for a year just to ensure that the children spoke fluent French as well as fluent Spanish, and finally returning to Britain - all this sounds very dashing, and doubtless very hard work too. It also gives a view of life and attitudes in the '60's that seem much more care-free about how children are brought up than today .

Monday, 12 January 2009

Foreign parts

Some books I've just finished took me to Africa ,India and Germany.

Bernard Schlink's The Reader ( now a film, which I've not yet seen) is something that escaped me when first published. Although set in Germany after World War II, this story of a young boy and his relationship with an older women describes how they first meet, how their affair develops and then ends, almost abruptly. However while a student, the boy sees his former lover again, in court being tried for crimes committed as a concentration camp guard. In both parts the boy reads to her, which she loves. Although this is a fairly short book, the depth of emotions described make it one of the most satisfying reads I've had in a while. The issue of illiteracy is one of the most important of all, as without literacy, so much of life is inaccesible, and can be lost, forgotten and abandoned.

I visited Africa courtesy of Chinua Achebe's classic story Things Fall Apart, which is almost a classic novel of the colonisation of Africa. Set in Nigeria in late Victorian times, the story describes the life of an African village, self-sufficient and stable with its own organisation, religion and explanations of events that affect people. The main character Okunkwo is regarded , and regards himself, as a strong, successful man, maintaining three wives and their children, but despite his apparent success, his life eventually ends tragically. Some of the events which bring this about Okunkwo had some control over , but others, such as the arrival of white missionaries in his village during a period of his absence, Okunkwo had no control over, and this lack altered his image of himself. There is an acute sense of loss of the past, which while it may not have been perfect, was nevertheless understood by the village society. I'm really glad to have read this at last.
Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance took me to India in my imagination. Life in a village, and life in the slums and suburbs of a large city are beautifully described, the story flowing along with almost unstoppable impetus. The series of terrible events that happen to Ishvar and his newphew Omprakash throughout their lives are documented almost clinically, and the lives of the other two main characters, Dina and Maneck are also descibed in detail from childhood on. The discussion at the Book Club considered the meaning of the title, and concluded it showed how difficult that balance was to both achieve and maintain.

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