Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Read in 2018 - 16: The Moonstone

The Moonstone

by Wilkie Collins

This mystery novel, originally published in 1869, was my train travel reading for several weeks - it is a lengthy book, but I captured my attention enough for me to want to find out what was going to happen.

The plot is simple enough: A big diamond, very important to a Hindu cult and its followers in India, is stolen by an English army officer when his regiment attacks the cult's temple during the time the British brought India under their control.

Many years later, the diamond (called "Moonstone" because it has an opaque core that shines like the moon) is given to family member for her 18th birthday. The young lady does not know of the violent history of the jewel, but soon realises nothing in her and her family's life will ever be the same again.

The moonstone is taken from her room, and the police are called. Strangely enough, the young lady, although very upset about the missing stone, refuses to cooperate with the police. Does she know who took it, or is she in some other way involved in the theft?

The number of suspects is small enough; the servants are quickly ruled out, but still there is no progress in the investigation, and the moonstone is not found.

A year or so later, the young lady's mother has died, a young servant has committed suicide, the lady is about to marry a man she does not really love, and the stone as well as its thief are still at large.

The young man who love s her returns from a trip to Europe and reopens the investigation with the help of a retired detective. Together with the oldest, most faithful and most trusted servant of the family, they solve the puzzle - not after many more dramatic events.

All this is presented as if written by the various persons involved, each from their own perspective. I most enjoyed the servant's account; he was my favourite character in the book. The others vary from humorous to dramatic, and some are really unnecessarily lengthy, but everything is within character, and leads to a rather surprising solution of the whole case.

Needless to say, the book ends well; the young lady and the man she loves are together, and the stone is restored to its rightful place.

The wikipedia entry says that the story " generally considered to be the first detective novel, and it established many of the ground rules of the modern detective novel." I had not heard of the author before, but his own entry on wikipedia is rather interesting. The picture is not mine - my free kindle version from Amazon has a very plain cover.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Read in 2018 - 15: Mark Twain

Mark Twain
by Thomas Ayck

From time to time, people ask – themselves or others – questions such as „If you could choose one person, past or present, to spend an evening with, who would it be?“

For many years now, I have two favourites, male and female. My female favourite is Queen Nefertiti, and my male favourite Mark Twain.

What did I know about Mark Twain? Not all that much, admittedly. I knew his real name (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and that he began his writing career as a journalist. Of course I came across him first when I was a little girl – who has not read and enjoyed Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Much later, I learned that he had written loads more, and had a rather quirky and intelligent sense of humour not appreciated by everybody.

When I was given my kindle about 5 years ago, I went on a downloading spree of free ebooks from Amazon, many of them classical works or by long-forgotten authors. There were several books by Mark Twain among them, and I have read and reviewed some of them on my blog; here, here and here.

This year, a friend gave me not one, not two, but THREE Mark Twain biographies for my birthday! One of them is his autobiography, I am saving that for last. The first one I finished weeks ago but got round to writing and posting my review only now.

It is a slim paperpack, but crammed full of information about Mr. Clemens, his life and his work. The choice of photos and illustrations is good company for the words. The author does not put a halo above his subject’s head, but paints the picture of a man who had his strengths and weaknesses like everybody else.

I learned a lot of this book. For instance, I did not know that he was such a loving and faithful husband and devoted father, or that he was as good as bankrupt because he enthusiastically put all his money into dubious inventions. He worked hard and left quite a lot of his writing unpublished. Friendships were maintained for decades, but he could also be completely unforgiving when offended (real or imagined).

His family life was happy and close, even though his wife was sickly all her life. Their first child died at the age of 2. Three of four children and his wife died within a few years of each other; only one daughter survived him; Clara lived until 1962. He met these heavy blows with increasing sarcasm and irony, but wrote about them in his autobiography (which I have yet to read) in a very dignified manner.

For the last few years of his life, he hardly left his bed anymore, but worked on various writing projects until his death at the age of 74.

Wikipedia says: “Twain was born shortly after an appearance of Halley's Comet, and he predicted that he would "go out with it" as well; he died the day after the comet returned. He was lauded as the "greatest humorist this country has produced", and William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature".

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Pumpkins, Pumpkins, Pumpkins!

Today (3rd of October) is a National Holiday in Germany, to remember the reunion of East and West Germany. For most people (including myself), it means a welcome day off. I shall use it to blog, swap my wardrobe from summer to winter clothes, go for a walk in the afternoon with a friend (weather permitting - it is raining right now, finally!) and generally just have a relaxing day.
It being mid-week, OK and I decided not to put one of us through the hassle of travelling to the other's place; there is always next weekend :-)

Before we left Ludwigsburg for our hiking holiday (see previous posts), we went to the palace grounds. It was Monday, the 3rd of September - exactly one month ago.
The pumpkin exhibition was in full swing, and OK took many pictures which he has allowed me to show on my blog.

Maybe you remember from previous years that the pumpkin exhibition has always a theme. For instance, in 2014 it was Royalty, last year it was Rome, and in 2016, it was the circus.

This year, it was Woodland - how fitting, since we were travelling to the Bavarian Forest the next day.

Do you remember the sand sculptures I showed you? That exhibition has officially ended some time ago, but the sand is still there. Some of it has been turned into houses and landscapes inhabited by pumpkin people (who I find a bit scary, to be honest). In other cases, the existing sculptures have simply been surrounded by pumpkins.

These sculptures have been left as they were. "Caro" is an instant drink that used to be very popular in Germany. It is a bit like coffee, but made of malt and chicory, and has been produced in Ludwigsburg for decades. Every citizen of Ludwigsburg knows the characteristic smell when the roasting is going on; it is part of my childhood memories. I was surprised to find the drink has its own wikipedia entry-

As you can see, it was a beautiful late summer day, with the pumpkins lending it an autumnal atmosphere. I am always in two minds about this exhibition: It is, after all, mostly edible food that goes to waste. Also, growing so many pumpkins destined not for consumption costs a lot of water, which is even worse considering the extremely dry summer we have had this year. Therefore, I would not be sad if it were decided not to continue it in the future. On the other hand, my home town generates a lof of money from tourism, and many tourists come specifically for the exhibition. Just another one of the many questions we are faced these days.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The End of the Hiking Holiday - and of Summer

On Thursday, the 13th of September, we had our last breakfast at the hotel. 

Just before 8:00 on our balcony
After packing our bags and loading the car, we checked out and then decided to visit the Museum of Forest History across the road - highly recommended to us by other guests.

They were right, the museum is very well made. It looks at the forest from all sides: Geologically, biologically, from the point of history, sociology, culture, industry, right down to the modern-day efforts necessary to keep the National Park this gem of rare natural environment.

I was impressed with the stories of emigrants and their descendants, who now, around 100 years or more since their ancestors left Bavaria for the USA, are visiting the places that used to be poor settlements or even just single farms or the homes of woodcutters, glassmakers and so on.

The drive home to Ludwigsburg took around four hours; the motorway was busy but we were never really stuck. At home, we had enough time to start the first of four loads of washing and rest a little before we were expected for dinner at my parents'.

OK stayed with me for the rest of the week. I must admit I shed a few tears when he had to leave on Sunday. Being together for two weeks had been wonderful, and I missed him as soon as he was through the door.

Ah well, such is life - this is (for now) the way we live, with 150 km between us. One day I hope we find a solution that will be fair and suitable for both of us.

- - -

With the second half of September, autumn has set in. We still have warm, sunny days, but the nights are really cold already at 3 or 4 Celsius (37 F). This week Wednesday, for the first time in many months I turned the heating on in my bathroom while getting ready for work. Also for the first time this season, I wore a padded coat and a scarf to work. Neither was necessary by the time I left the office, but I was glad about them while waiting for the train in the morning.

It is still way too dry; we had a storm last Friday and some rain, but nowhere near enough to make up for the months of draught.

Next week Wednesday is a public holiday in Germany, to remember the reunion of East and West Germany. I will make use of my free time that day to sort out my wardrobe, put the summer things away and get the knit dresses out.

Speaking of knitted items: My Mum has restocked her Etsy shop of hand-knitted socks, beanies and hats. This season, she also offers shawls of various shapes, sizes, colours and patterns. If you click on the picture to the left of my blog, you'll be taken directly to the shop. I wonder whether you'll recognise the "model" in some of the pictures ;-)

Read in 2018 - 14: Pedro Páramo

Pedro Páramo
by Juan Rulfo

This was a birthday gift from a Mexican friend of mine. She wrote on the first page that it is one of her favourite books. Of course one person's favourite book can be entirely meaningless to another person, and the other way round - but still, I was very curious to find out what would make this particular book my friend's favourite.

One thing is for sure: It is unlike any other book I have read.
The story, published in 1955 but set at the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), starts ordinarily enough: A young man visits the home village of his late mother. On her deathbed, he had to promise her that he would travel there and meet his father.

The young man arrives at the village alright, and meets several villagers, but soon it becomes apparent that some of the people he talks to may be ghosts of the past. All through the first half of the book, it is unclear who of the characters is still alive and who is dead. Life and death seem to be intervowen in this village more closely than elsewhere.
Then, the young man dies (does he really? and why, and how?), and the second half of the book is mainly narrated through conversations he holds with other dead people in the grave. They remember the past of the village, when the man's mother was still young; how she met his father, what sort of person he was, and so on.

It is all very surreal and bizarre, and yet the topics of conversations are very mundane: who owns the land, who married, who was whose girlfriend, who worked for whom, and so on. There is violence among the rich and the poor, and the priest does not live up to the Christian ideals he should be promoting.

It is a ghost story, yes, but not really - or not only. As I said, it is a most unusual book that left me a little "flat"; I would have liked the story to be "neater", especially the ending.

Tuesday night, I met the friend who gave me the book (she is part of my pub quiz team). She said she so loves the book because the author has managed very well to convey the atmosphere in a typical Mexican village of those times. Admittedly, that atmosphere has only made me glad that I did not live there and then. Life seemed hopelessly "stuck" and foreseeable, especially for women.

The author wrote only two books: this one and a collection of short stories. And yet, he is regarded as one of the most influential Latin-American writers of our time. According to wikipedia, Gabriel García Márquez said that he felt blocked as a novelist after writing his first four books and that it was only his life-changing discovery of "Pedro Páramo" that opened the way to the composition of his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Hiking Holiday - Day 8

Day 8 and our last proper day was here; it was Wednesday, the 12th of September. We had decided on today's hike the evening before: The "Große Falkenstein" (Great Falcon's Stone) was our goal.

Another sunny and warm day (25C/77F) was in store:

At 8.34 in the morning on our balcony
 For the first time since our arrival more than a week ago, we took the car. Yes, we could have used several different buses and a train to get to the starting point of our hike, but it would have taken at least 1 1/2 hours, and at least the same amount of time back to the hotel. Therefore, we decided against public transport for once.

After parking the car, our first point of interest was this lake, the Höllschwelle ("Hell's Swelling", the swelling bit meaning that the lake was man-made, making the original small creek "swell" by building a wall through it). Such man-made lakes are to be found here and there in the Bavarian Woods; they are a remnant of the days when a lot of wood was harvested here for industrial use, mainly to fire the ovens of glass makers in the area. The trees were chopped down and the wood cut to manageable pieces, then to be floated on the creeks to the factories. It was hard and dangerous work, but the only way they knew how, and using the waterways for transport was certainly easier and faster than men and horses carrying everything along the difficult paths.

On the summit of the Falkenstein, 1,315 m (4,314 ft) . Note the glass sphere in the middle of the cross.

Small chapel near the summit
After a rest and a refreshing drink on a sunny bench, we continued our tour. The path now took us across a plain that suffered particularly from the big storm Kyrill in 2007. As everywhere else in the National Park, the trees were left as they fell, and now, 11 years after Kyrill, new plants have emerged. From the pictures, you can tell that even here, the summer has been unusually hot and dry.

Some 15 km  (9.3 miles) later, we were back at the car. It had been our longest tour so far, and at times the path was rather difficult - steep and very rocky, so that more than once, we scrambled up on all four. The shandy on top of the Falkenstein was very welcome!

Back at the hotel, we repeated our established pattern of time in the spa until going to dinner for one last time - we were leaving the next day.