Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Read in 2014 - 33: The Only Way Is Up

Reading the title „The Only Way is Up“ of course instantly put the tune of that late 1980s (or was it early 90s?) pop song into my head – I wonder if it will be the same for you now reading this review!


So far, I had not come across the author, Carole Matthews, although she has published 22 “hugely successful” (according to her website, www.carolematthews.com) novels in 16 years. They are, as you’ve probably guessed from a glimpse at the cover picture, what generally is known as Chick Lit. My mother-in-law, Mary, gave this one to me during my stay in Ripon back in June. It is the kind of book she likes; nothing too terrible, a plot easy enough to follow, a bit of simple humour, and some kitchen-table wisdom thrown in for good measure. This type of reading does have its allure, I don’t deny it – it is good to wind down with after a long, demanding day at the office, and I did want to know what’ll happen next.

But what does actually happen? In brief: Rich family loses everything and discovers life isn’t all about money, and money can’t buy happiness.

Lily, Laurence and their two children return from a very expensive holiday to find their posh home has been repossessed by the bank – they can’t even get in to fetch some personal belongings. All they have left is what little cash they happened to be carrying and the holiday clothes in their suitcases. There is no way they can turn to any of their former “friends” – who prove not to have been true friends at all – but end up in a council housing estate of the worst kind. Everything there is very different from what life had been like for them until now: the rubbish tip that doubles for a terraced house and “garden”, the state school for the children (as opposed to the posh boarding schools they attended before), the shabby little shop offering low quality food for high prices, the run-down pub, the neighbours…
With surprising swiftness, the family settle into their new surroundings. Nearly all of their neighbours turn out very different from what they expected them to be at first glance; the children like their new school much better than the old one, and although it takes some time before Laurence finds a job, Lily surprises everyone by getting work nearly as soon as she starts looking.
But every time something good happens to the family, something else occurs that threatens to throw them back to Square One. Even Lily’s job, although well paid and not strenuous, begins to create more problems instead of solving them.

Of course, it wouldn’t be this kind of book if things weren’t going to end with happy smiles all around. But to get there is not a straight, easy line, and (although predictable more often than not) the twists and turns kept me wanting to read on. The idea of what happens if you have to start over from scratch, and how different people react under the same (extreme) circumstances, is fascinating. I’ve had my own share of life-changing events (although so far the bank has not attempted to evict me from my flat – and hopefully never will!), so I can sympathize to an extent.

One thing I have remarked upon in what I’ll broadly class as “contemporary British novels” several times here in my reviews is the amount of booze consumed by the characters, and “The Only Way is Up” is no exception.
Everything that happens – good or bad – is an excuse for drinking. Lily finds a job? Get the cheap white wine out! The neighbour has a problem with a credit shark? Fetch the brandy! Laurence discovers the joy in working on an allotment? Hand him a beer or four! And of course, as is the habit of this type of book, it is always very, very funny (not in my eyes) the way people behave when they are drunk. I am actually a little surprised that Mary, who enjoyed the book enough to have given it to me, wasn’t bothered by all that drinking. She never drinks any alcohol and has had unpleasant experiences with alcoholism in her own family more than once. Please don’t get me wrong; I do drink alcohol, heck – I even throw cocktail parties for my birthdays and other occasions – and certainly like a few glasses of sparkling wine, but I simply don’t see the point in drinking all the time, or getting so plastered that the day after you either can’t remember what was going on or you remember only too well and are ashamed about what you did (and who with). If you’ve ever been out with me, you’ll know I am certainly not a spoilsports. I just can’t see why people (= characters in books) can’t have fun without copious amounts of booze.

OK, that was my rant for today. I did like the book well enough but I’m afraid I would never spend any money on Carole Matthews works.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

September Selection

Although my favourite times of the year are certainly spring and summer, somehow September has managed to establish itself as a secret favourite in recent years. Maybe it has to do with our weather, maybe it is the general atmosphere of getting back to familiar (and not unloved) routines, maybe it is the combination of often still warm and sunny days and the first cosy nights in, or the abundance of flowers and fruits in gardens and on fields, and the transition of summer wardrobe to more substantial clothes, the change of light and colours outside, or... Whatever it is, I like September very much.

For months now, I haven't shown you the view from my kitchen window. Not that it has changed much since you last saw it; there are still the same gardens and houses. But the ever-changing flowers and trees are something I always love looking at when I am in my kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil or doing any of the other things people genereally do in kitchens. This was what it looked like on the 6th of this month:


After the general view, I zoomed in on the yellow flowers. The green is still very much the green of summer, but everything else is strongly pointing towards autumn:


Speaking of autumn - the weather was finally right for me to wear this vintage dress I brought back from Ripon this year:


I am not sure what day I bought it; my best guess is that it was on the day described here. The shop is on Ripon's Westgate (that is the road leading westwards off the market square). It is called "Fabulous" and sells vintage clothing. The first dress I tried on was very, very pretty; a Fifties' ensemble with narrow waist and wide skirt with matching short-sleeved jacket in a caramel-brown cotton with tiny roses on it. However, it was made for someone much smaller than I am. The next one was a "Bond Girl" type of shift dress from the 1960s in a black-and-white dogtooth pattern. Again, it didn't fit. But by now I was in full clothes-shopping mode and my eyes fell on the dress the dummy in the corner was wearing. I asked the friendly lady whether she'd let me try this one. She did, and for the third time I went back to the tiny broom cupboard that doubles as a fitting room. Third time lucky - this one fitted so well as if it had been made for me! It wasn't exactly cheap, but the wool fabric was in top condition, it was clean and the zip ran smoothly (not something to be taken for granted - this dress is, after all, probably a few years older than myself!), and all of last year I had been thinking about getting something green to wear without finding anything I really liked.

The lady in the shop was very kind and friendly; she even said something like "I am so jealous because this looks so nice on you", and my sister (who had been very patiently waitng for me while I was trying on the dresses) and I left the shop in the best of moods. The shop has its own page on facebook, by the way.

I am not entirely happy with this picture; I look as if I don't have a waist (I do - believe me!), but it's the best I could come up with in the few minutes I had left before leaving the house to catch my train to work.

Have a good second half of September, everyone! 

PS: I have emailed the shop owner and she tells me she now has a proper changing room :-) That is one more reason (as if I needed one...) for me to go back next year!

Friday, 12 September 2014

Read in 2014 - 32: Autobiographical Sketches

Annie Wood Besant’s „Autobiographical Sketches“ were published in 1885 with the purpose of “…satisfy[ing] friendly questioners and […] as defence against unfair attack.” As I had not previously come across the author, not even heard her name, I had no idea what “friendly questioners” would have liked to know about her, and why she feared “unfair attack”. So, my curiosity wide awake, I began to read.


Annie Wood was born in 1847. She describes her parents as having an extraordinarily  loving marriage. One of little Annie’s first memories is of waking up on the morning of her 4th birthday, proudly exclaiming “Papa! Mamma! I’m four years old!”. Sadly, her father died only a year later, leaving her mother penniless and in charge of Annie and her older brother. To make ends meet, they started to run a boarding house for boys from a nearby school, but still money was so tight that Annie was handed over to a rich friend of her mother’s for further education. It must have been hard for the mother to send her daughter away, because the two of them were very close (and remained so until the mother’s death many years later), but she also knew that Annie would be in very good hands with her friend.

Now leading a rather luxurious life of studies and travels all across Europe, Annie developed a deep passion for knowledge, at the same time becoming religious to the extreme. At 20, she married Frank Besant, a vicar – not because she loved the man, but because she loved the idea of being a clergyman’s wife. To her, it was the next best thing to being a nun. In her book, Mrs. Besant does not speak much about what her marriage was actually like, but the fact alone that her husband is rarely mentioned over the years that follow (in spite of the two of them having two children together and Annie being very much involved in community and church work) is telling. 
During those years, Annie still used as much of her precious personal time as she could for personal study, mainly of religious and philosophical books, and of the Bible. It was then that she discovered discrepancies to what she had been taught and firmly believed until then all her life.
She did not want to give up her faith or openly rebel against anything or anyone – all she was looking for was knowledge and truth. She spoke to learned men, clericals and others, always hoping to have her former faith restored. But it was not to be, and eventually Annie realized she could not honestly partake anymore in Holy Communion at the church where her husband was vicar. This caused a rift so seriously between the couple that they separated.
 
Annie as a young woman
Annie took her young daughter with her (the boy already being away at boarding school) and lived on the meagre allowance from her husband and whatever money she could earn with jobs such as nursing the children of wealthy families.
Now that she had a greater degree of independence, she studied even more, eventually becoming a prominent speaker for the National Secular Society. She spoke and wrote about all sorts of subjects from religion to women’s rights to free thought and birth control. She was prosecuted and had to appear in court several times on charges such as having published an “obscene” book (about birth control, written by a medical doctor), and in the following years sadly lost the case against her husband who managed to take her daughter from her on the grounds that she was unfit for taking care of the girl with all those “unwholesome” things going on in her life.

For several chapters, the book now goes into much detail regarding the legal battle around the publication of the “obscene” book (and other works); committees are listed down to the very last name, court scenes are described and whole articles appearing in “The Reformer” are copied. These parts I must admit to having only quick-scanned, not read word for word. I was more interested in the general outcome, which was that freedom of thought and press were eventually confirmed and Annie Besant continued her work.

The book ends with her expressing hope of being reunited with her daughter when the girl would be old enough to decide for herself, a hope that came true according to what I found on Wikipedia. She was 38 when she wrote her “Autobiographical Sketches” and lived until 1933, so there was a lot more to come. I found the Wikipedia article about her very interesting; it is also from there that I have taken the pictures of Annie Besant.
 
Annie at 50
Something I found very interesting – because I have never thought about the subject in that way – is what she writes about her reasons for loving the work as a nurse:
I think Mother Nature meant me for a nurse, for I take a sheer delight in nursing anyone, provided only 
that there is peril in the sickness, so that there is the strange and solemn feeling of the struggle between the 
human skill one wields and the supreme enemy, Death. There is a strange fascination in fighting Death, step by 
step, and this is of course felt to the full where one nghts for life as life, and- not for a life one loves. When the 
patient is beloved, the struggle is touched with agony, but where one fights with Death over the body of a stranger, 
there is a weird enchantment in the contest without personal pain, and as one forces back the hated foe there is a curious 
triumph in the feeling which marks the death-grip yielding up its prey, as one snatches back to earth the life which 
had well-nigh perished. 
This was a fascinating glimpse at a section of not only one woman's life, but also the society in which she lived, and the contradictions she herself didn't even recognize as such. For instance, even at her very poorest (she does not have enough to eat proper meals every day, and her rooms lack even the most basic furniture until someone donates a few pieces), she employs a housemaid, the thought of doing all of her own housework herself apparently never crossing her mind. But aren't we all a bit like that, having facets to our thinking and our characters that contrast with each other, sometimes to the point of being opposites? I enjoyed reading this short autobiography, and possibly part of the enjoyment came from not knowing anything about the author beforehand and not having the slightest idea of what direction her life was going to take. 

(Needless to say, it was a free kindle edition.)
 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Read in 2014 - 31: Die Buddenbrooks

For my birthday present (back in March), my sister gave me a pile of books with the intention of doing something about the dreadful state of my reading. To improve the literary quality of what I was feeding my mind, she had put together a collection of books that are very good, classic examples of German literature of the 20th century. She put them in a chronological reading order for me, and I have only just now finished the first one:
 
Cover picture of the 1903 edition, same as mine, only without the line "Berlin 1903".
„Die Buddenbrooks“ (literally translated „The Buddenbrooks“, but the English translation is simply called „Buddenbrooks“) is a novel by Thomas Mann, first published in 1901, when Mann was 26 years old and 28 years before he would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

The story covers the years 1835 to 1875 in the life of the Buddenbrook family, wealthy merchants living in the northern German town of L├╝beck. It took the author three years to complete, and he wrote a lot of his own family history and circumstances into it, allowing for much detail in even the most (seemingly) trivial things such as clothing, the sound of a voice, personal habits, the food on the table, the layout of a house, and so on.

Due to all that minute detail, the book boasts 759 pages to tell a story that could be told much shorter: The family face problems in their personal lives as well as in business; their elders (and some of their young ones) die, their young ones get married (or not), have children, are successful (some more so, some less) in business and local politics, but there is an atmosphere  of inevitable decline throughout the four generations portrayed.


The characters are very lifelike, each with their faults and virtues, each with something to like and something to irritate the reader, just like real people are. The minute detail in all aspects makes for vivid pictures rising before the reader’s inner eye; I know there have been several TV adaptations of the book, and I will surely watch one of them soon (because my sister has it on DVD) to see how close it is to the book and how good my imagination was.


It took me a while to get into the story, and I never found it to be quite the page-turner, but I held on until the end and was moderately saddened by the way some threads of the story turned out.

There were a few surprises; for instance, several times expressions are used I had no idea were already known in the second half of the 19th century, and I also had not expected the family members dealing with each other in such an open, emotional and even fun-loving and tender manner, although bound by the strict conventions of their times.

Of course Thomas Mann's writing is of a quality a lot of my other reading material can not even remotely compare with; apart from my weekly paper "Die Zeit", I don't read much German, so this was a welcome change.

If you look up "Buddenbrooks" on wikipedia, you will find a lot of information about the book and its author (in English).

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Towards the end of August...

...my sister and I went for a long walk on a sunny Sunday. Actually, we walked for enough hours for it to be safely called a hike. It is that time of the year when you really should take full advantage of each sunny day before it gets too cold and nasty out there, and so we put sandwiches and bottles of water in our bags, did not forget to add something rain-proof to our outfits, and set off.

I did not bring my camera, so all the pictures in this post are courtesy my sister; she has taken them with her mobile (which has a much better camera than my mobile). 

The place we went to has featured on my blog before; I posted pictures of it here, for instance. We did not walk directly there, but took a sort of "scenic route" round the small palace by the lake and across the fields. So, instead of the 4,5 km a direct path would have covered, we more or less doubled that - one way.

Vines and roses, and that incredibly blue sky!


Greeting the visitors above the gate is this smiling (?) lion.
View from the top of the hill towards our hometown of Ludwigsburg.

The hill (Asperg) was a settlemend already in the Bronze Age (or even earlier) and has been used as a fortification for various purposes throughout history, from defense post to prison. Today, it is a prison-hospital, but about half of the area on top is open to the public, with a museum, a restaurant and some beautiful spots to enjoy the view from. We sat on a bench there, enjoying just such a view, to have our sarnies, and then took coffee from the restaurant which has recently started to operate a kiosk for those who just want to grab a quick bite or a drink and sit outside instead of visiting the restaurant proper.

Where we have just been, seen from the top of the smaller hill.
The same view, zoomed in.

After that well-deserved break, we went to a smaller hill from where these panoramic pictures were taken. This smaller hill is the tomb of two VIPs from the Celtic tribe that used to rule the area for centuries (until the Romans came), but of course nothing of the tomb itself remains; it was opened and its contents taken to a museum already back in 1879. Some of the pieces found came from places as far away as Greece and Italy, which goes to show how well connected our world already was when the rich people who were  buried there died, in the 5th century before our time. A picture of the smaller hill can be seen on the town's official website; just click here if you are interested.

We walked straight back from there, having probably covered a distance of at least 15 km, if not more. For me, this is the best way to spend a sunny Sunday, and I hope to get in a few more walks before it gets too cold.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

A Bargain!

In July or early August, I can't exactly remember what day it was, my Mum and I went shopping. Now, if you know me a little bit from my blog, you know I love my Mum, and I love shopping for clothes, and can hardly resist a nice dress when I see one.
And if that dress happens to be one of the few the shop have in my size, PLUS it is reduced to half its original price - well, you can imagine there is only one thing for me to do: buy it!
And buy it I did. (The silhouetted picture is from an online clothes shop. I was hoping to find my dress shown with a complete look, shoes and all, but that's all I could find. The price at the shop was still the original one, twice of what I paid.)


Actually, I bought two dresses on that same day. The other one will probably feature here sooner or later with its own post, and you can catch a tiny glimpse of it here.

This one I wore yesterday to a fashion show my Mum had been invited to, as a loyal customer of that particular clothes store. Kindly enough, she took me along, and we had a good time; the prosecco was flowing freely, there were snacks, good live music, and of course fashion presented by three relatively normal looking models (by normal looking I mean not of the stick-insect kind you see on catwalks and in fashion adverts).
My choice of outfit had two reasons: 1. It had to be fit for the office, because I went to the show directly from work with no time to change; 2. It is my only Marc Cain dress, and I knew they were going to show Marc Cain, so I wanted to fit in.
 
I must admit we didn't like many of the looks shown; there were only a few items we honestly applauded. Animal print featured a lot - we both heartily dislike animal print but fear it will never really be out of fashion -, and the "Boss Orange" collection was simply too "young" for the general audience (I was among the youngest in the audience, and I am 46 1/2!), and too "street"-looking, if you know what I mean. If I want to wear a pair of jeans and a sweater, there is no need to buy that from Hugo Boss; H&M do the job at a fraction of the price.

Anyway, it was a fun evening - I just love going to such events with my Mum! - and I didn't leave without making a purchase. But that... will be a post of its own.

(This was my first fashion post in a long time!)

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Read in 2014 - 30: The Lost Prince

„The Lost Prince“ was a book I very much enjoyed, and wonder why it isn’t as popular as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s more famous works, such as “The Secret Garden” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy”. While I am not overly fond of the “Little Lord”, I very much like the “Secret Garden” and would certainly make sure to have my own children read it (or read it to them), if I had any. “The Lost Prince” was first published in 1915, and if you have a chance to come across the version with illustrations by Maurice L. Bower, go for it. My free kindle version didn’t come illustrated, but I found the drawings on the internet while researching for this review.

The reader meets Marco Loristan when the boy is 12 years old and has just moved to shabby quarters in London with his father, Stefan Loristan, and their faithful soldier-servant Lazarus. Marco is young, but he has seen more of the world than many will ever do in a lifetime; the small family has always been on the move, and Marco is familiar not only with the big cities all across Europe, but speaks their languages like a native, and knows their museums and galleries like their most studied and best educated residents. For the Loristans, only one place is home, and that is a place they can not live at: Samavia (a fictitious country), a monarchy struggling between civil war, general unrest and bloody revolutions, poverty-stricken and politically unstable since that day 500 years ago when the last legitimate heir to the throne mysteriously disappeared. This “Lost Prince” of Samavia has become a legend over time; a legend many believe to be true, and many a passion-filled Samavian heart longs for the return of the Lost Prince and the restoration of their home country to its former peaceful glory.

Marco, his father and Lazarus are very close and usually do not speak of Samavia outside their four walls. But when Marco meets “The Rat”, a crippled street urchin who is fascinated with all things military and has a brilliant mind in his weak body, the two soon become friends, and together invent “The Game”. They make up schemes to form a Secret Party all across Europe, a party that works behind the scenes to find the Lost Prince and re-establish peace and prosperity for Samavia.
Up until that point, I had found the book a little tedious at times, because the way the Loristans are described is so unreal – they are just too good to be true. But once The Rat enters the picture, things become more realistic, and when The Rat’s circumstances change and he ends up living with them, the story quickly picks up pace and really found me in its grip.

Needless to say, The Game turns into reality, and the two boys embark on an adventurous trip throughout Europe, from big cities like Paris, Munich and Vienna to tiny mountain hamlets. Eventually, they even travel to Samavia, but throughout their adventures, the geographical distances are parallel to personal development. It is a “coming of age” novel in a way, although only The Rat really develops in character; Marco has been perfect from the start. The descriptions of places and people are good and not too lengthy, and while there aren’t many surprises, there is still enough suspense to have kept me going – while at the same time I did not want the story to come to its inevitable (and foreseeable) end.

During my research for this review, I learned a new term: Ruritanian. This book is, according to wikipedia, an example of Ruritanian literature. Ruritania is a fictitious country, created by Anthony Hope as the setting of his novel "The Prisoner of Zenda" (which I have never read). It gave its name to romantic novels set in similar countries, all fictitious, all set in central/southeastern Europe, all showing similar elements of adventures, romance, intrigue, the re-instating of peace in an unstable country, with honour, loyalty and love featuring prominently. Typically for me, I am sure I'll remember this curious little fact - an example of the kind of trivia I know, trivia that comes in useful only if it happens to be the answer to a pub quiz question. Instead, I never remember the really useful facts and figures other people seem to be able to rattle off whenever needed.
 
For more reviews of Frances Hodgson Burnett's books and some information about her, simply type "Burnett" into the search box at the top left corner of my blog, and you'll find five older posts.