Monday 30 May 2011

Read in 2011 - 12: The World of Agatha Christie

When I went to England just before Easter to see the family, my mother-in-law gave me this book as a present. She is often the source of my reading material, and last year gave me some Agatha Christie books which I offered through this blog as a giveaway.
Now, I would not describe myself as a huge Agatha Christie fan, but I did enjoy those books and the DVDs (starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple) she also sent me last year.

"The World of Agatha Christie" by Martin Fido does not aim to be a complete biography of the "Queen of Crime", but wants to offer (and is successful at that) a colourful panorama of Agatha Christie's life, the times she lived in and the world she inhabited - both literally and in her mind, which are by no means always the same.

A lot of things I learnt from the book were new to me:
She was quite prejudiced regarding other nations and races (one of her books was originally entitled "Ten Little Niggers" and was changed to "And Then There Were Ten" only in a later edition) and carried an underlying streak of anti-semitism. She was francophobe and germanophile, not knowing much about the current politics of her days, and neither caring to find out more.
She was an accomplished pianist, probably playing at concert level, and would have loved to become an opera singer, but recognized she simply did not have the voice for it.
Also, she was very knowledgeable in Ancient history, namely that of Mesopotamia and Egypt, having actively taken part in several excavations, not fearing the discomfort over months of daily life at an archeological site as opposed to her home in England.
With her second marriage to a man 14 years her junior, she certainly was not quite the conventional lady at a time when divorces were not as common as nowadays, and her personal sexual ethics did not necessarily reflect public opinion.

The book is richly illustrated and well-written - although, sadly, rather poorly edited or proof-read. There are many typesetting errors, I found one on almost every page, and I'm afraid a lot more time and effort was put into the (admittedly well-done) layout than in making sure the text was correct when the book went into print.

If you like Agatha Christie's novels or simply want to find out more about one of the most published authors of all times, you will enjoy this book. It is of the kind you can read like a novel but still take to hand every now and then for just refreshing your memory about one particular aspect, such as "The Family", "Reduced Circumstances", "Cairo", "World War One", "Round the World with Major Belcher", "Adaptations", "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd", "Politics", "Religion" and so on.

For me, Martin Fido managed to put together an honest representation of a woman who was, like all of us, far from perfect both in her work and in her private life, conveying his admiration for said work at the same time.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Read in 2011 - 11: Daily Life in Ancient Rome

I can't believe how long it took me to finish this book! Already in this post two months ago I had started on it, and only today I turned the last page and, with a satisfied sigh, slid the book back into the deep burgundy-coloured cardboard box it came in.
Don't get me wrong - "Da
ily Life in Ancient Rome" by Jérôme Carcopino is by no means boring or lengthy. But it is non-fiction, and while sometimes I do indeed read non-fiction in the same way I read fiction, some other times I read them parallel to fiction and in much smaller portions. When it comes to fiction, I never parallel-read; I don't know how some people do it who say they tend to read four or five or even more novels at the same time.
But when I started on this book, not only was I reading some stories from Lindsey Davis' "Falco" series (whodunnits set in Imperial Rome, very well written, with lots of humour and thoroughly researched), but I had also only recently made the acquaintance of a new member to my pub quiz team. Gary is heavily into all things Rome, and his knowledge on the subject is vast, which is one reason why conversation with him is so interesting. History has always been a sort of minor hobby of mine, and so talking to him had inspired me to read up on the subject.

In perfect timing, earlier this year I had received several crates and boxes full of books from a friend who was getting rid of them (see here for another find in that treasure trove), and decided to keep this book at least until I'd read it.

Originally, it was published in 1939. The edition I have here is from 2004, edited by Henry T. Rowell and introduced as well as supplemented with a very good list for further reading by Keith Hopkins. And it is Mr. Hopkins' words that summarize this book so well that I am making an exception, citing directly from his introduction:

Most Roman history is about emperors and aristocrats, about wars and politics. Little attention is usually paid to ordinary folk, leading ordinary lives. Jérôme Carcopino's exciting book is both confirmation and refutation of this broad generalisation.
He had been for several years Director of the French School of Archaeology at Rome. He knew the city like the back of his hand. Add to this his intimate knowledge of a wide range of Roman writings. His book is a delicious blend of insights gathered from the letters of Pliny and the satires of Petronius, Juvenal and Martial (though with much of the latter's raunchy humour omitted - even the French in 1939 did not have a modern tolerance of Roman vulgarity).

But what makes the book so readable is the liveliness of his unaffected style, with its occasional heady flourishes of French rhetoric (skilfully caught in the beautiful translation by E. O. Lorimer).

The grandeur that was Imperial Rome disguises the violence and the dirt which lay underneath. It is that endemic violence and ubiquitous filth wich Carcopino so tellingly reveals. He strikingly depicts the juxtaposition of wealth and squalor, and their interplay. In a city of a million people, the rich minority lived in splendour, but not in isolation.
Modern museums' wonderful stock of statues, portraying muscled youths in polished marble, veils a more sordid and troubled reality.

The author describes the bustling streets, crowded slums, ceaseless flow of immigrants, endemic cruelty of slavery and much more. Carcopino was clearly convinced that Roman morality declined in a pool of self-indulgent luxury, vice and indolence. For him, Roman sexual morality (especially of women) degenerated into licence, and there was an epidemic of divorce (what would poor Carcopino have thought of divorce rates today?). But once we realize that the court poets and historians were describing and caricaturing high society, it becomes as unreasonable to generalise from them as it would be to take today's world of film-stars or fashion models as typical of broad sections of suburban society.
Reading this book accompanied my lunch breaks for two months now, and it has been good company indeed. I've learnt a lot from it, some facts I found quite surprising, others I had a vague knowledge about beforehand and was now able to replenish it with more detail. Yes, it definitely is worth keeping!

Friday 27 May 2011

Can't Get More May Than That!

In my parents' garden, 21.05.2011

May is a particularly good month for a lot of things, for a lot of people, in many parts of the world. In the Northern hemisphere, it usually means the definite end of frosty nights and snowy mornings (exceptions do occur, of course), but not yet the sometimes stifling, dusty heat of high summer. There are many traditions linked with May; maypole dancing, the 1st of May etc., and it is generally considered THE month for romance and weddings.

Where I live, we have several May traditions of the culinary kind, and last Saturday at my parents' garden, we indulged in two of them: Elderflower pancakes and strawberry punch.

Of course, you need elderflower for the pancakes, and thankfully, there is an abundance of those in the garden. They grow far from any industry or cars passing by, and no pesticides or any other chemical substances have been used on them, so that they are fit for consumption. Also, if you want to try this yourself, make sure you do not wait too long - as soon as the first tiny berries start to show, you can't make the flower pancakes anymore.

The weather plays a crucial part in it; a fine, dry day is best. As you can see in the picture, we were not entirely lucky that day. It had been raining right up to the moment we arrived in the garden (it is an allotment about half an hour by car from the town where we live), and so the flowers were wet - they shouldn't be, and you should not wash them if you happen to catch a sunny day for your elderflower pancake fest!

The following recipe is how my mum makes them; it serves four but can be easily adapted if there are more of you to enjoy the pancakes.

Cut at least 20 flowers.

Heat sufficient oil (my mum uses 1/4 litre of sunflower oil) in a deep frying pan.

(At the garden, we have a wooden shed, furnished like a tiny house*; this gas cooker is always there and has seen a lot of action in the 8 years we've been coming to this place!)

In the meantime, the flowers are left upside down on kitchen tissue; this way, my mum managed to get rid of some of the wetness from the rain.

Now you need the batter, which my mum had prepared at home and brought along.

It is a rather liquid pancake batter, consisting of

250 g flour
1 tea spoon baking powder
1/2 pack vanilla sugar
1 egg
0,13 litre milk
3 table spoons rum (in case you have children or recovering alcoholics among your guests, simply use a bit more milk or some fruit juice)
1 table spoon oil of neutral taste (not olive oil)
a pinch of salt

You'll see it for yourself when the batter has the right consistence.

Dip each flower upside down into the batter, so that it soaks well. Unfortunately, our flowers still being a bit wet from the rain, some of the tiny white blossoms came off. That's why you should not wash them beforehand!

Still, they held the batter well enough to be placed into the hot oil.

Leave them to fry for a while until you notice the rims taking colour.

Turn the cakes over and fry them from the other side until both sides are a nice golden brown.

They should look like this when they are ready:

Let me assure you - it smells, looks and tastes wonderful!

The elderflower pancakes can be served with vanilla sauce or you dust them with a bit of frosting sugar; you can also serve a mixture of cinnamon and sugar with them, and of course coffee.
What matters most is that they are eaten as they are made, very hot and straight out of the pan to the plate.

We enjoyed these very much, and there were no left-overs!

Later in the afternoon, we moved from coffee to home-made strawberry punch...
...but that's another story :-)

*You can see more of the inside of the shed here.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

An Update - a bit long

Months ago (back in February, actually), I planted two tiny pots of forgetmenots. They were mentioned again in this post (which also contains the link to the original post); scroll down to the bottom of the post to find the picture of the forgetmenots.
And finally, last Saturday, I replanted them into a terracotta pot my sister gave me. They looked a bit lost in the long narrow pot, so I gave them some basil as their neighbour, and now they sit together on one of my kitchen windowsills, facing the morning sun:

All they need to do now is grow :-)

At the beginning of this month, I started a new job. My work consists of talking to my customers on the phone and reply to their emails; I advise them on what point-of-sale hardware to use best for what application and in what kind of environment, issue quotations for them and take their orders. A lot of the talking is just to keep in touch; personal contact is very important in this small industry, where everybody knows everybody else and people buy from other people often based on how well they get along with someone rather than pricing or technical features (which are comparable anyway).
Of course, to make these phone calls, all I need is a phone and a computer - both I have at home. So, when I had the chance to change from one company to the other and improve my working conditions, I did not have to think very long and very hard!
Since the 2nd of May, this has been my office:

The big computer was my husband's and is actually sold to someone in my wider circle of acquaintances; they have not paid the full amount yet and therefore I am not handing the computer over to them until that's done.
The laptop is the company's, everything else you see is mine. Once or twice a month, I travel to the office which is a two-hour train ride away (that will undoubtedly be the source for some more blog posts).
My mother-in-law sent me this card:

In Germany, people rarely send each other cards to congratulate on a new job; mostly, cards are only sent for Christmas and birthdays. All the more I appreciate getting cards from the family in England, and I usually put them where I can look at them for a while before taking them away (as I dislike cluttered spaces).

The whole working-from-home thing suits me just fine. More about this should go into a different post, I guess; there is an interesting post about it here in one of the blogs I follow.

Another update concerns my cat; she has been mentioned and pictured in my blog many times before.
She has not been very well for a while, having both a heart condition and an over-working thyroid on top of being a rather old lady now, with the ailments typical to old age for humans and animals alike. The thyroid problem caused her fur to get all matted and knotty, and for a while, I managed to keep it under control by combing out the smaller knots and cutting off the worst bits. But she did not like me handling her with comb and scissors, and eventually wouldn't let me do it anymore; she would wiggle and move about in a way that made it dangerous to use scissors on her. At the same time, she suffered from having her coat in that condition, and unsuccessfully tried to get rid of the knots herself.
So I took her to the vet's and had her shorn...
She looked so painfully thin after that - I'd known she had lost a lot of weight in spite of eating six or more meals a day (that's all down to the thyroid problem, too), but seeing her bones sticking out like that made it even more evident that she needed different medication.

She already looks a lot better, three and a half weeks into the treatment; her fur is growing back nicely, and I make sure to brush it every day. Instead of 6 or 7 meals, she is now content with four or five, not constantly being ravenously hungry, and she has put on a little bit of weight. She rests and sleeps most of the day, which is partly due to the medication, designed to calm down her overworking heart.
This is her last week:

Last but not least, have a look again at the cherry tree branch pictured in the post I have linked to above, for the forgetmenots. The blossoms have long gone, and last week, the same branch looked like this:

That's enough updates for today, I think!

Saturday 14 May 2011

Read in 2011 - 10: Grave Sight

My next read was meant to be non-fiction, I wrote in my previous post, but it turned out to be fiction again, and of a kind I would not choose for myself normally:
"Grave Sight" by Charlaine Harris, a "paranormal" mystery.

It is not only an unexpected genre for me, but I also finished it unexpectedly quick after my previous read; yesterday's trip to my new boss' office is to blame for that - I had plenty of time on the train, which took a bit more than two hours to get there and another two to get back. When I got home last night, I was tired and not up to going out or doing much except for going to bed and finish the book, which is why I am now able to sit here and tell you about it.

The heroine was struck by lightning as a teenager and has a paranormal ability ever since: she can find dead people.
She goes about the whole thing in a pragmatic and business-like manner, and it is how she makes her living. When parents of a missing teenager don't know what to do anymore or when a crime is suspected but a body to prove it can not be found, she is called in as a last resort; sometimes by grieving relatives or their attorneys, sometimes by the police themselves. Since she can also tell the cause of death by "tuning in" to the deceased person once she's found them, she is asked sometimes to help clear a mysterious cause of death or when someone has apparently committed suicide but their nearest and dearest are not convinced.

Thankfully, the whole paranormal bit is very subdued; there is no strange lights flickering or weird noises to be heard, but the everyday life descriptions of Harper Connelly and everyone else in the book has actually a very normal and real feel to it.

In this story, Harper is called in to find a missing teenage girl, whose boyfriend apparently committed suicide at the same time of her disappearing. She finds the body of the girl, finds out that the boy was shot, and sets in motion a chain of events and more killings that have her and her brother (who accompanies her everywhere, assisting with both the business and the practical parts of her job) entangled deeper in the small town's intrigues and family feuds than they ever wished for.

They can not leave the town; Tolliver (the brother) is arrested under false pretense, and Harper's own life is threatened more than once before the pair finally manage to solve the case in one big show-down (incidentally while a thunderstorm is going on).

Although a lot of what happens is rather foreseeable, the book has its gripping moments and is not without tension - it is just not my cup of tea and I don't think I would have stuck to reading it, had the paranormal bit been more pronounced.
But it wasn't, and I wanted to know the outcome of this whodunnit, and will read the other two books from the same series my mother-in-law sent as part of my birthday parcel; although I am not going to look to obtain any more.

What I generally dislike is a job done half-heartedly, and you can tell the editor was a bit slack; without actively looking for them, I found at least four mistakes in the book that are not down to typesetting or printing errors and should have been spotted & corrected by a good editor:
One of the characters is introduced to us as having blue eyes, and two pages further on, they are suddenly brown; the dead teenager who has apparently commited suicide is named Dell and is suddenly Dale before having his proper name given back to him; Harper's and Tolliver's aunt and uncle are Iona and Hank until later in the book where Hank turns into Will without any explanation, and the sister of the dead boy (who is very much alive herself) is first 16, then 17, and then 16 again without the story actually jumping back and forth in time.
On the back of the book, the heroine's surname is spelled Connolly, while in the book, she is Ms. Connelly - now, that's a typesetting error, but all the others aren't.

I think that's enough complaining done for today - if you are into paranormal mysteries, you will possibly be a bit disappointed that there isn't more of a spook factor to the book; if you're not (like myself), the book makes good company for travelling without demanding too much attention, so that you won't miss your stop :-)

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Read in 2011 - 9: The Reading Group

Now, doesn't this title almost sound like the perfect book for any book lover?

Well, I'm afraid it is not - although it is a nice enough read, and has both its entertaining and touching moments.

The subtitle reads "Where the books end, the stories begin", and so this book is about the lives of a group of women who meet once a month to discuss a book one of them has chosen for all of them to read until next time.

Each chapter is named according to the month, starting with January (obviously), and comes with a short introduction to the book chosen for that month. There are relatively recent books ("Atonement", Ian McEwan, 2001) and one going back as far as 1918 ("My Antonia", Willa Cather). I have read three out of the 12 books listed, but none of the descriptions make me want to read any of the others.

The women meet at each other's houses in turn, and you learn a little more about each book by what they say about it, but as I said, it does not make me want to read the whole lot.
It is a nice touch that not every woman likes every book the others have suggested; sometimes they almost ridicule the monthly read for it being "too intellectual" or too cheesy.

So, mainly, the book is about the lives of the women (and their men) who form the group, and what makes it interesting is that all of them seem to have a good, average, unexciting life from the outside but - of course - with lots of drama going on inside. They are of different age groups and in different situations; some are single mothers, some married happily, some less so, some work, some don't have to, some were friends before the reading group started while others hardly knew any of the others.

And this is what I miss: How did the whole group start? Who started it, and what were the criteria for inviting those who became part of it?
After I'd finished the book last night, I went back to the first chapter to see whether I'd simply missed it, but all I could find was that, apparently, Susan was the founder of the group, and one participant was chosen on request of her mother because she thought it might help to distract her daughter from her problems.
Other than that, there is no clue as to how the women have come to know each other initially, apart from those who already were best friends before, like Harriet and Nicole, and Susan, who made the curtains for one of the women (or was it for their mother?).

Still, it is an eventful year in the lives of those British (upper) middle-class ladies, and not a boring book; I just think the Reading Group theme is neglected and was not really necessary to tell the stories.

A lot - well, actually, the whole book - revolves around love, motherly love mainly, but not exclusively. Family values are held up high, and I imagine it has mothers young and less young nod in agreement and recognition with a lot of what is going on with the kids.

While I definitely do not think of this book as a "must", I can still recommend it to who likes stories about strong and less strong women, their friendships with each other and their lives at home.

Time for some non-fiction now, I think.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Why is that so?

There is something about planes and trains that keeps puzzling me, and almost every time I am on one or the other, I think of writing about it.

Today, I finally sit down to do so, and I can not help but wonder if other people have noticed and wondered about the same thing:
the distance at which the seats on trains and planes are placed in correspondence - or, rather not corresponding - to the windows.

How many times have I booked a window seat on a train, only to find myself sat right next to a stretch of plain wall, having to crane my neck or sit rather uncomfortably, leaning forward, if I wanted to see something else than the pages of my book or magazine?
The same happens often enough when I am on a plane; I ask for a window seat (or book one when I use self-check-in) and end up not knowing whether to lean way back or forward in order to have a view of the outside.

And it happened just the other day, when, a week before Easter, I travelled to England to see the family:

I took this picture from my seat on the plane, determined to finally write this blog entry, and you can clearly see that my normal field of vision would have been with the wall right there in the middle of my seat space instead of a window.

Now, why is that so?
Who plans these things in a way that they do NOT correspond?

Of course I know that many different companies deliver the various parts of a machine as complex as a train or a plane, and I am quite sure that whoever designs the hull and determins where the windows are going to be is higher up in the production line than the companies who deliver and mount the seats.

But why can't those people who design the interior not do their layout according to the blueprints of the hull, which I am certain they can get hold of if they need to?
Why can't they say, for instance, "Right, these windows are spaced at an interval of xx.xx cm (or inches) from each other, so let's place the seats at a corresponding interval, making it one seat per window" ?

It should be simple enough, a naive person like me thinks.
When I have a dining room or a study to furnish, I will make sure that the dining table or desk is placed at just the right distance to the window, and when someone decides to hang curtains, they usually take a tape measure to have the right length and width of each curtain fitting each window, don't they?

So why does a similar principle not apply to trains and planes?

Right now, I don't know the answer, and I have no idea whether I will ever find out.
But most of the time, in the end I do get to see something from where I am sat on that train or that plane - as I did last time, when we left the airport in Stuttgart and I was able to take this picture: