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.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

A visit to Lyons

View over Lyons

On our way back from our last visit to the Cantal, we visited Lyons as although we have sped through it on the autoroute in the past, we have never actually stayed there. So we booked an hotel in the centre of the city, near the Place Bellcoeur, which was comfortable and easy to to walk to some of the places we were interested in seeing on a quick visit. Although the weather was mixed, we had enough dry spells to making walking round the city pleasant enough.
A street in old Lyon
Fourviere Basilica

We walked up to the Fourviére basilica on Saturday morning, while it was still fairly cool, and met many joggers running up and down the steep, narrow passages that thread their way through this part of the old city. We didn't manage to follow any of the famous traboules routes, but got a feel for those places on our way up and down. We made our way down and wandered towards the Opera, a magnificent mix of classical and very modern extension on top. By lunchtime it was raining so we found a small bouchon, for lunch, and following that walked to the Musée des Tissus, which houses a collection of beautiful examples of Lyons famous silks, many intended to decorate royal palaces, while the adjoining Musée des Arts Decorative contains many room sets, showing beautiful examples of how the Lyonnaise of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries lived and entertained each other. 
We returned to the same bouchon , Aux 3 Cochons, we had lunch in, for dinner that evening, as it was a fairly short walk from our hotel and was very welcoming, and the food was fairly typical lyonnaise, hearty and very tasty, welcome on a cool damp evening. We left with a small book of their recipes, in English.
 After dinner we walked across to the Rhone side of the city and followed the river for a while , passing a beautiful open-air swimming pool on the riverside, and admiring the lit -up upper old part of the city we had explored in the morning.
 We really enjoyed our brief stay in Lyons and would thoroughly recommend it as an interesting city to visit.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Miss Garnett's Angel

I had somehow missed reading Salley Vickers successful first novel Miss Garnett's Angel when it was initially published in 2000, but a good book will always find new readers. A fairly easy read, as Salley Vickers' writing  and story telling flow beautifully, yet there is a lot to think about in this tale of Julia Garnett's stay in Venice after her retirement.   I felt sympathetic towards Julia Garnett, intrigued by her wishing to live in Venice for six months and interested in the people she meets and in several cases, comes to love during her stay.  
 I loved the descriptions of Venice, which made me recall the couple of visits I've made to that amazing place, the little squares with small bars and trattoria where we had lunch of just a snack and a beer, usually with a church on one side, the water buses, the walks alongside the smaller canals, many, many happy memories.
 The story of Tobias, Raphael, Sara and Tobit  I was a bit hazy on, but Salley Vickers re-tells it clearly and had me hunting out a Bible with the Apocrypha in it, to read it for myself. The comparison of the behaviour of modern day Sara and Toby with that of the story from the Apocrypha is fascinating, showing how human emotions and reactions to them don't change much.

  One message I take from this story is to all retired persons: get out of your no doubt comfortable rut and do something -anything - a bit different. I don't think this is the intended message of the book, but it is one that appeals to me, as I am writing this while sitting in our holiday home in the Cantal department of France, listening to an approaching thunderstorm, the house we bought after our retirement from work ten years ago.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

I didn't find Chris Packham's memoir of his early life, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, a particularly easy at first, with its constant changes from first to third person and the changes in chronology, but it was an interesting one and explains a lot about his character. He describes his obsession with animals and insects starting from a very young age and his despair at the death of the young kestrel he reared. His relationships with his supportive parents and sister are fairly briefly covered but to contrast these, there are very full details of wildlife and nature descriptions as well as a few obviously very special moments in his early life. I did have a slight problem with some of the discussions between Chris Packham and his therapist (shown in italics) as he seemed to be expressing thoughts of the therapist that didn't seem to be spoken- so were these thoughts really the therapists, or the authors interpretation of non-verbal communication? One the whole it was an interesting read about a local boy made good ( I live in Southampton) and gives us readers an insight into the early life of a successful presenter of nature programmes, e.g. Springwatch and its spin-offs. In the end, I didn't find the back-and forth chronology too distracting, as that is often how memory works anyway.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Read in May

I finally got round to reading E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia. I have read the earlier tales about Lucia's life in Riseholme,Volume 1 of  a two volume paperback edition and enjoyed this tale of two socially ambitious women vying for supremacy over one another in a small seaside town, to the amusement of both other characters in the story and the reader. Widowed Lucia decides to take a house in Tilling  for two summer months after making up her mind that after a year of grieving she needs to re-join society. The house is Miss Mapp's and thus Lucia sets in motion the social rivalry between the two ladies.There are several highly amusing set-pieces in the book, such as the fete at Riseholme,  organised by Lucia before the death of her husband; the Art Exhibition at Tilling; the visit of the Italian Countess which revealed Lucia's lack of knowledge of Italian and finally the piece de resistance, the flood and its aftermath.
A clever and enjoyable tale, light-hearted enough, but also exposing the petty snobbery and shallowness of the main characters .

I picked up my copy in a charity bookshop while on a short visit to my brother-in-law, as I had read some interesting reviews of the book, and had also read Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built, a memoir of his childhood reading after a family tragedy. This is his first novel and for me a really good read. Set in New York in 1746, Richard Smith arrives from London with an order for £1000 in his pocket, but will not say for whom or what purpose the money is intended. Richard Smith has several adventures while waiting for the money to be sorted out: he  is entertained by the important families in New York at the time, a mix of Dutch and English.  He has his purse stolen, leaving without ready cash; he meets Mr Lovell, the banker who is to provide the cash for the money order, and Lovell's daughters, Flora and Tabitha; he gets into a fight, he is called to fight a duel with a man who is apparently friendly to him. Eventually we discover Richard Smith's real reason for his visit to New York. I enjoy historical novels and thought this a good read. The author has clearly done his research thoroughly, although sometimes near the start of the story I did wonder if the style was a pastiche, but the events carried my reading along for an interesting read.

How can a former librarian who worked in public libraries for over 30 years not read a book of this title? The short stories in  this collection all have something to say about the influence of literature, words, phrases, a particular writer on the author. These intriguing stories were interspersed with comments from librarians, library users and other who are and have been influenced by them as well as those affected by library closures that have taken place over the last few years and are still ongoing in many places. Although Ali Smith does not not say it in so many words, one of the contributors does -that closing public libraries affects the most vulnerable in society and that says something not very nice about those doing this - that they don't care about the poor and the vulnerable. Personally I think it is a bit more complicated; that local government who are the providers of most public services have invidious choices to make: do they provide social care for the poor, the vulnerable, the elderly or do they provide public libraries and other public services which have been cut. Their budgets have been slashed and choices have to be made as to how best to spend the money they do have. Nevertheless, it is wrong to close public libraries, as doing so probably contravenes the Public Libraries Act of 1964, which is still in force, but has been ignored by successive government ministers in charge of public libraries. Closure also impacts particularly on the youngest and oldest in society, as a local library is often one of the first places that children can go to on their own, as they are regarded as a safe place to visit. As some older people become unable to drive or travel on their own, so a local library becomes an important source of information and entertainment.
There are details on public library cuts at http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/ as well as some good news about public libraries.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

April reading round up

I seem to have been doing a bit more reading than usual the past couple of months , but not so much blogging. Many of the books I've read have been garnered on quick sweeps in my local library; some are titles I've bought to read for the book club I belong to, others just acquired on a whim, such as Bee Wilson's This Is Not A Diet Book. I picked this up at my local university bookshop and read it that evening. It 's an interesting take on how to have a more rational approach to food and feeding ourselves as human beings - not depending on fast food and takeaways, but creating something nourishing from scratch, which is something I've tried to do for a very long time. There are a few useful recipes within and simple guidelines as to how to eat well.
 For a bit of light relief, I read a couple of titles by Veronica Henry, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, and The Beach Hut Next Door. Both are easy stories, with enough about the characters for me to care for them and to want to find out what happens to them.

Fredrick Backman's " A man called Ove" is a beautifully told story about a grumpy old man called Ove, who lives in a small Swedish town. Ove makes several, fortunately unsuccessful attempts to take his own life. Ove's life story is revealed slowly, over the course of the book: his childhood, his meeting with his wife Sonja and her childhood in an isolated house. This book gives a picture of modern Swedish life in all its complexity, including the bureaucracy revealed when an old friend in need of care is being hustled off into a care home, despite his wife's pleadings against this action. Ove's daily inspections of his neighbourhood bring him into contact with the many people in the locality, including recent arrivals Parvenah and her husband. Parvenah is Iranian and forms a close bond with Ove, He even teaches her to drive. This story is a complete contrast to the Scandi-noir thrillers which have been popular for some time.
Having recently watched the final of University Challenge, which I've been watching since its Bamber Gascoigne days, I picked up Jeremy Paxman's A Life in Questions ,(a sort of autobiography,) in the library and read it fairly quickly. It does give a picture of his family background and working life, but little of his personal, private life. Nevertheless, I found it an interesting read, despite its slightly limited scope on his life.
I don't know how, over a long reading life I haven't read anything by Penelope Fitzgerald. however I have now made a start with her last novel, The Blue Flower, a story about the love of Freidrich (Fritz) von Hardenberg for Sophie von Kuhn, who was only 12 when they first met. Von Hardenberg went on to write poetry and philosophy under the name Novalis. Set during the 18th century, on reading it I became totally absorbed into the life of the characters: she makes the 18th century seem very real and immediate and describes beautifully Fritz's family's total bemusement at his falling in love with an apparently rather ordinary, plain young girl, who is also not of his class in society. It is good to find a new to me author who has a solid body of work to keep me reading.
Note: there is more about Penelope Fitzgerald and her novel The Bookshop over on Vulpes Libris blog.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Swimming along

I bought Alexandra Heminsley's book "Leap In: A woman, some waves and the will to swim "on a whim, as I'd heard her talking about on the radio, and as a regular swimmer myself, it sounded interesting, and so it proved. She details her desire to not just swim, but to swim in the sea next to her Brighton home, and takes in other open water or wild swims as well. It also adds to my small collection of books about swimming - or perhaps that should be the literature of swimming, as there is nothing in the form of training manuals. There are a couple of guides to open water swimming, which in my young days was just called outdoor swimming. Brought up partly on the isle of Wight during the 1960's, swimming was for the majority of people a summer activity, in the sea or in the few open air pools on the island at that time. My sister and I were both in our respective school swimming teams, but training was fairly minimal, and we did quite a bit of leisure swimming in the sea during the summer. I've since swum in rivers and lakes as well as the sea, but only as a leisure swimmer, not competitively. However these days I mostly swim in pools, indoor or outdoor whenever possible.
Alexandra Heminsley's book is enthusiastic about open water swimming and I have to admit it is a lovely way to swim, but not always accessible She includes several tips about how to swim in open water, recommends some places to swim in the open air and also has tips about equipment to use while swimming.
There are some guides as to where to swim outdoors: this website has links and maps to hundreds of places in the UK and beyond:  http://www.wildswimming.co.uk/.
Go  on, leap in and enjoy the water.

Monday, 20 March 2017

A boarding school tale

Terms and Conditions; a history of girls boarding schools between 1939 and 1979 by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham was a must read for me on purely personal grounds. I  attended a small boarding school in Berkshire during the 1950's, together with my sister. Some of the descriptions and events recalled in this book are highly amusing, some terrifying and others recall the boredom of times at school. We were sent to boarding school because our parents worked abroad, in West Africa, in the Gold Coast/Ghana and after about the age of 10, coming up to secondary stage education, what was available for English children in that part of Africa was somewhat problematic.
 The school we went to in England was small, with few teachers, but reasonably friendly. Accommodation was in small dormitories, with usually only about 4 -5 girls to a room, all the same age.The education was not terribly good and when I passed the 11+ exam, I went to the local grammar school, on the recommendation of the headmistress of the boarding school, while still boarding at the school,
 The tales Ysenda Maxtone Graham tells of life in a variety of girls boarding schools, all revealed by former pupils, now grown women, do reflect some of my and my sister's experiences and their lasting effects. These include a certain independence and self-reliance from a young age, few expectations and a tolerance of not very good food.
For those of us who went to boarding school during the period covered by this book, I think this book will probably bring back a host of memories

Monday, 30 January 2017

Contrasting reads

Kent Haruf's Benediction is a quiet, sad story about an old man dying. Put like that, it would seem to be not a book one would search out and read. But do search it out and read it, because Kent Haruf's writing about the daily lives of his characters is the best. His prose is spare, quiet, thoughtful and  immensely readable. His characters are ordinary people living ordinary lives, which is what makes his books so sympathetic, because his characters and their lives are just like our own, immediately recognisable.
Dad Lewis, retired businessman, is dying through a long, hot summer in Holt. Cared for by his wife and daughter, he is visited by old friends and looks back over his life in the small Colorado town. He also reflects on his relationship with his son Frank. The Lewis's next-door neighbour  looks after her young granddaughter, and a recent arrival in town the preacher Rob Lyle has problems of his own.
I have enjoyed Kent Haruf's writing since first reading Plainsong many years ago. He is not a prolific writer, but one who makes every word count .

Amy Liptrot's book The Outrun is a completely different take on life.  Brought up on a farm on Orkney, Amy leaves the island for university and then life in London, where she throws herself into its vibrant social life, and the drinking that goes with it. Gradually as she becomes increasingly reliant on alcohol, she loses jobs, homes and lovers. Eventually she enters rehab and decides to leave London ,returning to Orkney for a summer job which involves counting corncrakes for the RSPB. She decides to spend the winter on Papay, the small island she had spent summer on and writes - marvelous descriptions of of the wildlife, the clear starry skies, sea swimming and snorkeling with a local group and meditating on how she can continue to be free of the alcohol addiction which blighted her younger life.
Amy Liptrot comes across as warm, friendly and self sufficient. A wonderful read- part memoir, part nature description, showing how paying close attention to our surroundings can be a source of healing.

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