Friday, 25 June 2010

Summer at last

This last week has been spent settling into our house in the Auvergne, meeting the neighbours at the mobile bakery which calls twice a week and is a great place to catch up with some of the local gossip. We met M le Maire on Tuesday, when the weather had begun to improve: he had his fingers crosssed that the sunny day would last, as its been cold and damp since we arrived here. We heard that twin daughters ha.d been born to one of our neighbours. Apparently the mayor held a reception to celebrate. It is quite an occasion, as most of the residents are elderly, and many houses are only occupied for a month or so in the summer. We've also been catching up with some of the jobs that still need doing. In the meantime now that its warmer, for a bit of relaxation we can sit on the balcony, reading or just admiring the view.
I recently finished Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds, and loved it, despite its tragic moments. A cleverly written story of life in London as lived by a number of immigrants, both legal and illegal. One of the central characters is Polly, a Londoner and human rights lawyer, whose au pair Iryna suddenly disappears. Polly's eventual search for her leads her to meet and help other illegal inmmigrants, such as Job, a Zimbabwean taxi driver. There are many complex intertwining s of lives in the plot, but on the whole a satisfying read.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Our reading group discussion of Gillian Slovo's The Ice Road was mixed. It was a worthwhile read, though not a perfect book. The first few pages were rather confusing, as the story seemed to hop about between a bewildering variety of characters, but as these became fixed, the story became clearer.However, we felt that most of the characters were not quite fully rounded, and some were simply stereotypes. The political intrigues of pre-war Russia, in her soviet days, were interesting .and well covered. The significance of the title to the whole story didn't really become apparent until almost the end, which we felt a pity. We compared this title to Helen Dunmore's The Siege, a previous group read, also set in the wartime siege of Leningrad, although the period covered is a much shorter time,However we felt the detail describing the ice road and its significance to the people of Leningard is that much greater in Dunmore's novel.

A different book club and a different read. Still Alice by Lisa Genova is the story of Alice Howland a fiftty year old professor of neurolinguistics at Harvard University, who begins to realise that she is having memory problems and is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers disease. Alice is very successful in her field, has three grown-up children and a husband who is also a successful academic. The story is told from Alice's point of view, as her condition gradually deteriorates, and makes for an emotionally compelling read. Several book club members said they read it a one sitting. I found this slightly dificult to get into, but once I devoted enough time to get into it, found it a fascinating but harrowing read. Alice seemed such a real person and her changing relationship with her husband and children as her disease progresses is sympathetically drawn.
I've recently read a couple of Henning Mankell's Wallender books, The faceless Killers and The Dgs of Riga. Having watched both the English and Swedish TV programmes, and preferring the Swedish, I found the books interesting. My husband also read them, unusual for him as he prefers reading history or technical books to much fiction, but we both been gripped by the TV series, which has been well-filmed, whichever version you watch.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A library rant

Last weekend I heard Shaun Ley on The World this Weekend at 1pm on Sunday13th June, highlighting the KPMG report on public services. The only part he mentioned was libraries, by which he implied public libraries.
Both the presenter and his interviewee referred several times to dusty libraries, Victorian institutions, and at one point managed to link libraries to workhouses, saying the latter had been done away with, implying why not libraries? I'm not sure what relevance this has to public libraries today, as they are a statutory service and have been since 1964 and as far as I am aware the current administration has not expressed any desire to cahnge this situation as yet.
We still have several Victorian institutions in this country, our whole state education system for one. Although there are many cries for it to change, no one has suggested doing away with it in its entirety, so why do it to libraries. The cry is libraries are expensive to run, well many services are, but would doing away with them save the money suggested, or would it be re-directed to other public services which may be needed to replace some of the things libraries already do. Who for instance would run the People's Network, which libraries took on, set up and still run for the benefit of those who do not have their own PCs?
This item really irritated me, as it seemed to be under researched, despite visiting one of Tower Hamlets Idea Stores, which were heralded as the way libraries would be in the 21st century, and many library authorities have spent much time, effort and money on improving their public libraries. I also felt the item didn't really cover the technological advances libraries have made, making their catalogues available on the web, being able to renew books, reserve items over the web abd so on. Although still a fairly regular visitor to my local library, its not as frequent as it may have been in the past, because of those technological changes. I rarely visit the reference library to look for information, but using my library card, can access a number of important and useful reference tools via the library catalogue, such as the Dictionary of National Biography, The Times digital archive, Encyclopaedia Britannica, News UK ( a news archive of a large collection of newspapers) and many more. No wonder personal visits to libraries are falling.
If public libraries were to disappear, who would provide the storytimes for pre-school children which libraries hold regularly, the rhymetimes for babies and toddlers, and the summer reading challenge, with its encouragement for school age children to read for fun in the summer holidays. Who would provide the range of large-print books and unabridged audio books available to those who need these formats, often the older reader. Most bookshops only provide abridged audio books, and many readers who need this format cannot afford to buy all that they might want to read. The very young and the old, the more vulnerable members of society would be the ones who would suffer most from a lack of publicly accessible reading materiel, and we all would the poorer by depriving ourselves of the resources availble in any public library.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Getting ready

This week has been spent in preparing for a return to the Auvergne. That means a certain amount of time has been spent on tidying up the garden, reading a Reading group read for the meeting on Monday evening, finishing off recovering a chair to match one done last year, so we don't have to fight over who sits on a padded chair, and getting various things sorted out.
This chair was last year's effort, although the picture shows it without its finishing braid covering the raw edges.

One of my recent reads was Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant. The story is set in late eighteenth century Portsmouth and Australia, the main character Daniel Rooke born into a working class family, nevertheless receives a good education, thanks to his mathematical ability being recognised. He joins the Marines, gets sent to Antigua, where he witnesses the results of disobedience to the Navy's orders and eventually, because of his mathematical and navigational skills, is sent to Botany Bay, Australia with a convict ship. Here Daniel meets a very young native girl and manages to begin to learn their language. Their relatonship is described very tenderly. Kate Grenville's use of language is very poweful. Her writing seems to me to be spare, but with emotions very carefully described. I was so caught up in the growing relationship between Daniel and Tagaran that I almost didn't want that part of the story to end. Having read Kate Grenville's The Secret River, which I also found a riveting read, I wqas glad to pounce on this in my local library when I spotted it.

Friday, 4 June 2010

A cultured week

This last week has been very cultured, as I have been busy visiting exhibitions here and there before returning to France for a month. I went to the Quilts exhibition at the Vand A - how could I not, as years ago I attempted a little patchwork, and also made a simple quilted bedcover for my bed. I'm also currently remaking a piece of patchwork my mother made for one of my sons. It's being "quilted" by button quilting, so not too complicated to do, and will go to France for the guest bedroom. The bits and pieces shown have been produced over a period of time, and for me the time taken to produce the wonderful examples seen at the Vand A was an important theme.

I went to visit my sister on Tuesday, and we went out to lunch in Cookham, afterwards wandering round the Stanley Spencer gallery, which I drive past on the way to my sister's house but had not yet visited. It's only small, but has some interesting paintings. We are both fans of his paintings, partly because I think they represent a part of our past. When the lady at the reception desk asked us how we had heard about the gallery, we could only reply that we had known about it for a long time.
For a bit more local culture, I visited the Sea Fever exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery, which has an interesting collection of art works on the theme of the sea. Some are by local artists, such as Eric Meadus, others by well-known names like Turner, Lowry, Maggie Hambling. It's only a temporary exhibition, ending at the beginning of September.
My final cultural visit was to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which my husband had also been wanting to visit, especially as they have added a beautiful modern extension. There is so much to see at the Ashmolean, that I think you have to be a bit choosy. We visited a very interesting temporary exhibition on the lost world of Old Europe, which had numerous artefacts from Europe, the Danube valley mainly, dating from 5000 to 3500 BC. Very enlightening, except as to why it all came to an abrupt end. The numerous copper mines stopped being worked, the type of farming changed and life apparently reverted to nomadic, instead of settled. The time we spent there was very enlightening, and as we used the Park and Ride facility, with free bus passes the cost was very little.

Blooming wisteria

When we arrived home in England, our wisteria was out, almost in full bloom. The scent is quite strong, too. The plant is well over 30 years old, a it was in its spot when we moved in, and it was fairly well established then. It does have all its trailing bits cut off in spring and summer and a bit of winter pruning as well, otherwise it would take over our garden as well as next doors. It annoys my sister no end, as she has a wisteria about thirteen years old, which although it climbs exhuberantly up her wall, has never flowered.
Before coming back from France, I finished Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I read this fairly slowly for me ( so my husband said) and took a few days over it. It is quite long and although I'm not usually keen on books written in the present tense, this read so well it was an exception. It was an amazing reading experience. Because of the present tense and the almost single-minded viewpoint - that of Thomas Cromwell himself, I almost felt that I was there at Henry VIII's court, perhaps as some sort of onlooker hiding at the back of the crowd of courtiers. The tale of Thomas Cromwell's life does not seem like history, but more like reportage of current events, making for an immediacy in the storyline. I loved it.

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