Thursday, 17 April 2014

Read in 2014 - 13: Miss Ludington's Sister

"Miss Ludington's Sister" by Edward Bellamy was published in 1884 and is a love story with a twist - actually, more than one twist. It is of just the right length, with enough words used on the description of places and people to portray them vividly, but not with so much detail as to become boring.


A young, beautiful woman with a shiny future ahead of her falls seriously ill. It takes her a long time to recover, and when she does, the illness has taken such a toll on her physically and mentally that she is hardly the same person any more. Her beauty is gone, her colours are faded, and all she wants now is to remember her past self with the happiness of her former life.

The world around her has changed, too; when she timidly starts venturing outside again, she finds her friends from school days are mostly married, have babies, moved away or simply have found other pastimes without her who used to be at the centre of their circle. The village itself is constantly growing and being modernized, so that slowly but surely, everything she knew and loved in her youth is gone.

When she is already in her middle age, she is left a vast fortune, and uses it to act out her dream of restoring the past: On an empty stretch of land, she has the high street of "her" village rebuilt according to her instructions, with every stone, every shrub and tree and every corner just the way they were when she was young and healthy and full of life. She moves into this ghostlike, empty village which becomes the scenery to her reclusive life.

A relative of hers dies, leaving behind a little boy, and the duty to raise the orphan falls on her. Much as she loves the child and treats him like a son, he does not make a difference to her outlook on life, turned backwards instead of towards the future. On the contrary, the little boy loves the life-sized portrait of Miss Ludington's former self from the first moment he sets eyes on it (not knowing who she is), and his love only grows fonder and stronger as he gets older.

Eventually, the boy is grown up, and Miss Ludington in her sixties. He returns from school, reluctant to start any profession or do anything else that will take him away from the empty village and the portrait. Instead, he develops a theory that, if proven true, could mean his abstract love for the girl in the painting can be turned into something real.

How Miss Ludington and her nephew set about to bring the past to real life, and what happens when they do, I will not tell you here. Let me just say that the story managed to surprise me more than once, although some bits were foreseeable.

This free ebook from the kindle shop was one I really enjoyed, and was almost sad to finish. Some information about the author can be found here.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Read in 2014 - 12: Vanishing England

This work of non-fiction accompanied me on my train trips to and from work for many weeks, and it is one of the few instances when I wished I had it as a physical book instead of an ebook, or at least its "full" version - mine came without illustrations. There are so many of them mentioned in the text, and they would so nicely complement the words, that I now went through the online HTML version at Project Gutenberg and browsed it for them.

Photo found on the internet; my kindle copy has a very simple cover.

"Vanishing England" was written by Peter H. Ditchfield (1854 - 1930) and published in 1910. The author bemoans how the change of times, needs of an ever-growing population and ever more industrialized society are wreaking havoc with what he loves most about England.

The book is neatly divided into chapters about walled towns, castles, churches, mansions, cottages, prehistoric remains, inns and pubs, bridges and crosses. But it is not limited to buildings and structures. It also talks about vanishing customs, fairs, documents and scenery. 

A lot of the time, what the author complains about as ugly (because too modern), is now, more than a 100 years later, considered quaint and oldfashioned. Sometimes, he seems to be a bit unrealistic about his dreams of a "better" past, wishing for the country people to remain forever in their traditional dwellings without any modern comfort, and preferably, in the mental state of their forefathers, too, when they had not yet developed a taste for pleasures such as train trips to the Seaside.

But mostly, what he says rings true, and with a bit of an effort, many old buildings could have been saved from destruction. I especially liked what he says about the old English village:
I have said in another place that no country in the world can boast of possessing rural homes and villages which have half the charm and picturesqueness of our English cottages and hamlets. They have to be known in order that they may be loved. The hasty visitor may pass them by and miss half their attractiveness. They have to be wooed in varying moods in order that they may display their charms—when the blossoms are bright in the village orchards, when the sun shines on the streams and pools and gleams on the glories of old thatch, when autumn has tinged the trees with golden tints, or when the hoar frost makes their bare branches beautiful again with new and glistening foliage. Not even in their summer garb do they look more beautiful. There is a sense of stability and a wondrous variety caused by the different nature of the materials used, the peculiar stone indigenous in various districts and the individuality stamped upon them by traditional modes of building.
In other chapters, he is very realistic about how dangerous and cruel life really was for most people; not just when they were engaged in battles and wars, but daily life with its horrible treatment of even the pettiest of crimes (or mere suspicion).

In the chapter about inns, of course there is also talk of inn signs, which made me think of John's (Scriptor Senex) posts about the subject.This illustration from the book is for you, John:

I also learned some ethymology in this book. Did you know where the word "tawdry" comes from? I do now:
Fairs have enriched our language with at least one word. There is a fair at Ely founded in connexion with the abbey built by St. Etheldreda, and at this fair a famous "fairing" was "St. Audrey's laces." St. Audrey, or Etheldreda, in the days of her youthful vanity was very fond of wearing necklaces and jewels. "St. Audrey's laces" became corrupted into "Tawdry laces"; hence the adjective has come to be applied to all cheap and showy pieces of female ornament.
When it was written, the National Trust had started its work only 15 years ago, and is often referred to in the book as having saved this or that building from being pulled down, with the amount of money spent mentioned as well, which makes for quite interesting reading.

This is one of the books that will remain on my kindle for future reference.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

10.000 Easter Eggs


My hometown's beautiful palace and its grounds have been featuring on my blog many times already, and I'll keep talking about it and showing you pictures from the park and buildings because they never look exactly the same and have their own beauty in different seasons and weather.
If by now you are tired of seeing spring pictures appear on my blog, I advise you to skip this post and wait for the next one, which will be another book review.

On the Monday after my week in Ulm, I had the day off so that it would be a complete weekend for me in spite of still having been at the course on Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm enough to be going out without a heavy coat, and my Mum and I decided it was just perfect for the park.



I don't know the name of this plant, but it looked so unusual close-up:


Some views can only be enjoyed now - you won't be able to see the statue (above, right) from the path once the foliage has grown and the plants on the ground reach their full height.





The Pumpkin Festival is a big event which was created, I think, ten or 15 years ago to attract more visitors to the park (and it works - although it is quite beyond me why people travel all across the country and pay a lot of money to see piles of pumpkins). I have posted about the festival a few times already, such as here.
Some clever people from our tourist marketing office have come up with a new idea: a Straw Sculpture Festival, to be held in spring, as opposed to the Pumpkin one which of course can take place only in autumn. 
I would never pay admission to the park just to look at the straw sculptures, but with our season's tickets, we have access to the entire park, and so walked through the straw sculpture exhibition as well. The most interesting one was this small church made of straw. Even the pews and the altar are made of straw, but I could not take pictures inside because there were people in there.

Maybe you have been wondering what this post's title has to do with it. We're getting at that now:





Again, some clever people have thought of a special attraction for the park. A tree is hung with Easter eggs donated to the park from people (individuals, school classes, knitting groups, church communities, companies...) all over the area. The condition is that the eggs have to be real ones. The aim is to collect 10.000 Easter eggs and display them on the tree until the 27th of April. At 10.000, this would make it Germany's largest Easter tree. For each egg donated, the organizers will give 50 Cent for charity. 
The last I read, there are a little over 7.500 eggs by now. I couldn't believe it when I heard the number - to me, the tree looks nowhere big enough to hold that many! Not for their weight, because of course they are all empty, and eggshells don't weigh much, but for space along the tree's branches. Well, I trust they know what they're doing. At least it was interesting to look at, and some eggs are so beautifully done; can you see the ones adorned with crocheted lace?



It was, as we had expected, a perfect day for a visit to the park. Next time I'll be there, most of the flowers will be gone from the trees and shrubs, it will all look a lot greener, and different flowers will have taken the place of the spring ones.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

That Time of the Year

Whenever asked which is my favourite time of the year, so far I used to reply "summer". But maybe I should change that to spring. It is such a wonderful time, flowering trees and shrubs in nearly every garden, birdsong from the early hours of the morning until sunset, butterflies and bees!
Of course, every season has something I love about it, but right now, nothing can beat spring for me.

It looks like we're in for another sunny day today. I will spend most of that at the office, but it will still be daylight until about 8.00 pm, so that there is a good chance of me getting off the train on my way home in the small town next to mine and walk the rest across the fields.

I took these pictures on the last day of March. There is no year I can remember when they were ever in full bloom so early in the year. By now, the blossoms have all gone, and the trees are a tender green.
(It's not two pictures of the same tree. There are two identical blocks of flats in that street, with two magnolia trees in front of them.)

Lucky, my downstairs neighbours' cat, is as happy about the sunshine as I am.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Read in 2014 - 11: Recalled To Life

"Recalled to Life" is the second book by Grant Allen I have read; the first was non-fiction (you can find the review and something about the author here, if you are interested).


"Recalled to Life" was first published in 1891, eight years before Allen's death. It is, I think, a rather unusual book for its times. First of all, it is written from a woman's perspective, by a male author - and he has done a rather good job, in my opinion (with the occasional annoying "after all, I am only a woman" coming from the heroine - but maybe in those days women really felt like that and relied more on the men in their lives to solve problems, conduct businesses and so on). Secondly, the heroine is determined to go against what society in general and her relatives in particular expect and advise her to do; she follows her own lead. Thirdly, the language appears much more modern than what you'd think you would find in a book from 1891. Comparing it to This Freedom, which was written in 1922, I would not instantly be able to tell which is younger. 

Now to the story: At the age of 18, Una Callingham suffers complete amnesia when she witnesses the murder of her father. Like a baby, she has to re-learn how to speak, think, read and write. Four years later, she is in possession of all her mental faculties again, but still can not remember anything from her life before the murder. People she knew back then are strangers to her, and no matter how often the police have spoken to her, trying to trigger her memory into finding anything that could be a clue to the murderer's identity, she is only left very distressed and frustrated every time.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a story if things were not about to change. A new inspector turns up to talk to Una, handing her a bundle of paper clippings about the event, with photographs and all. Until now, her aunt had been so protective of her that she was never allowed to read what the papers wrote about her and the murder of her father. Now that she comes face to face with some of the facts that had been kept from her, she is determined to take things into her own hands and solve the mystery, knowing that she will never be able to lead a happy, self-determined life if she does not get rid of the mystery overshadowing her entire past.

By now, Una is 22 and can legally do as she pleases. There is enough money for her to travel and stay comfortably, and she sets out on her quest all optimistic and hopeful. The clues she keeps finding - both in her own memory and by talking to people who knew her and her father before - lead her as far away from England as Canada.
It is there that the circumstances of the murder and the true identity of the murderer are revealed. Some of it ranges from the surprising to the improbable, but it is all well written and kept me in suspense until (nearly) the end.

If you look for a good old-fashioned mystery (that is actually not so old-fashioned in some respects) and like free ebooks, I can recommend this one from the kindle shop.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Spring in the Woods

Is there a better place to be on a sunny Sunday afternoon in spring than in the woods? There might be (Kay, for instance, would probably say the monadnocks), but as far as I was concerned last Sunday, when I set out for a walk from my parents' allotment, there was no place I'd rather have been than in the nearby woods.

I walked for about two hours, and although I met other people every now and then, I was on my own most of the time. The only sounds were the birds and bumblebees. It was warm enough to go short-sleeved, and I enjoyed my walk immensely. It was just what I needed after six days of lessons, and I am glad I had (and took!) this opportunity.

Such different shades of green and white! You only get to see this for a short time every year.


I'm afraid this picture doesn't do the woods justice; there was a true carpet of anemona.


I have walked most of these trails before, but I still find it intriguing to look along one of them and imagine what could be round the next bend.


The picture on the left is looking back the way I have just come. The one on the right shows a path leading down into a valley with a series of small lakes (or ponds, depending on how you define them). This time, I chose not to go there; I could hear what sounded like lots of people with lively children down there, and I wasn't in the mood for that.


Instead, I went the opposite way, up the steps, until I reached this trail.


Violets are so pretty, and there were lots between the anemona, but they don't easily show in a picture unless you take a close-up.

This grassy path is my favourite spot. Hardly anyone ever seems to be walking there; it is very quiet and gets very warm in the sun. I observed many butterflies but was always too slow for them with my camera, so you'll just have to believe me that they were there.


In summer, when all is green and leafy, you hardly notice how many different kinds of trees there really are in the woods.


Back towards my parents' allotment, along the rapeseed fields that are already flowering - it felt like June, not like the last days of March!

So far, I always said that summer is my favourite time of the year. Right now, I say it is spring.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Read in 2014 - 10: Mord im Herbst

In the 1990s, I discovered (probably by recommendation from my Mum) Henning Mankell's "Wallander"-novels, and made sure to read each and every one of them, plus one or two other books by the same author. A while ago, my Mum took out one from the library that we both had not read yet (it was published in German in 2012):


"Mord im Herbst" (this would translate "Murder in Autumn" in English, but the Swedish original is "Händelse om hösten") is a short novel of only 120 pages, and was originally written for a specific purpose: Some clever people in the Netherlands declared a particular month to be "Thriller Month" and had the idea that every customer who buys a work of crime fiction or mystery during that month gets an additional book for free. They approached Mr. Mankell with the idea, and he wrote this book because he thought it a good way to win people for reading.

Many years later, the book became the basis for a BBC film in which Kenneth Branagh plays Kurt Wallander. I did not see this film, and so I did not know more about the book than what it says on the back cover. But just knowing it was part of the Wallander series was enough for me to want to read it, and I was not disappointed!

Kurt Wallander has reached a point where he just doesn't feel like he wants to go on like this for much longer - both in his personal life (long divorced, with his adult daughter sharing a flat with him) and in his career. He is a good detective, but feels more and more listless about his work, and finds it hard to cope with some of the changes he observes in modern society in general, and Sweden in particular.

When a colleague tells him about an elderly relative of his wife's who has moved into a home and wants to sell his small house in the country, Wallander thinks this could be just what he needs. He drives out to look at the house and seriously considers buying it, until he (literally) stumbles across something half-buried under the leaves in the back garden: the bones of a human hand.

Of course, all thoughts of buying the place disappear - what matters to Wallander now is to find out who the person buried in the garden was, and how (and when) he or she died.

More than once, inquiries seem to have reached a dead end, and Wallander is almost ready to give up - only to come across something else to shed light on the events of many years back.

In the end, Wallander solves the mystery. But does he also find answers to the questions he is asking himself about his own life?

I very much enjoyed this. There was no overload of gruesome detail, and no improbable pseudo-psychological explanations, but a good mixture of facts and feelings. I can not read Swedish, so I have never read any of Mankell's works in their original language, but the German translation looks good to me, as far as I can tell. There were only two or three moments in the book when I could tell this was translated more or less directly from the original, because a native German writer would never express a particular idea like this, but none of it took away from the suspense and pleasure of reading.

Something I appreciated particularly about this book is what comes after the end of the story: in an epilogue of more than 10 pages, Mankell tells the story of how it all began with him and Wallander, his most popular creation. I always like to know some background of a story, which is inseparable from some information about the author. This is particularly interesting, because the author wrote it himself, and not some journalist or literary reviewer who collected quotes and blurbs and documents about the author (which is of course inevitable if the person one writes about has long been dead).

If you have never read a "Wallander" book, I very much recommend them. If you have, I would like to know what you think of them.