Thursday 28 February 2013

Something I'll Do Tomorrow

Last year, I read and reviewed two books by Tamara Heiner. When I found out from her author's page on Amazon that she, too, has a blog on here, I went to visit and started following her blog.
Thanks to that, I have learned about her latest book, "Inevitable", and an occasion I am certainly not going to miss: it is going to be available as a free ebook from March 1-8!
The launch of her book is also connected to a giveaway of one of her books as hard copy (and there's more); here is where you can find out more.

Although the topic of "Inevitable" is usually not quite my cup of tea, I truly enjoyed Tamara's first two books and will probably find enough to like in her latest work, too.

So, something I'll definitely be doing tomorrow is go to Amazon and download "Inevitable" to my kindle. It may be a while before I get round to reading it, but if I will, there will of course be a review on here.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Enough Already!

As is my habit, today I am once again linking to one of my own older posts about the subject of colours and how they influence our mood.

Like millions of other people, I have really had enough of winter and want to see sunshine, butterflies and flowers!
And this year, it is not just the general being sick and tired of darkness and cold: The other day it was said on the news on German telly that we're having the least sunny February in 50 years.

Another monochrome morning on Monday.
Only very few splashes of colour out there, such as the orange hardhat on the man cutting the tree in my neighbour's garden.

No wonder, then, that people get listless and feel like sleeping all the time.
Of course, there are ways of counter-balancing this lack of light. One recommendation is to make use of the little light there is; even by being outside on an overcast day for a mere 15 minutes exposes your body to more lux than an entire day under the artificial lights at the office. Some people have special lamps installed that emit light with the same wavelength as the sun. And of course, you can give yourself (and others) a little boost by wearing bright, cheerful colours:

The little yellow notebook I found when helping my sister move her books and book cases last Saturday (she has her floors done, and everything needs shifting). The notebook has never been used; yellow is my favourite colour, and so my sister let me keep it. 
Thank you, sis!

Oh, and my orchid is finally blossoming again:

Saturday 23 February 2013

Read in 2013 - 7: Brenda's Bargain

Only when I did my habitual research for this review did I realize that I had already read another book by the same author not that long ago.

Helen Leah Reed was, as I found out back then, a rather prolific writer who strangely enough does not have her own entry on wikipedia. "Brenda's Bargain" was originally published in 1903, but of course I got it as a free ebook from the kindle store.

While I quite enjoyed "Miss Theodora" (my first read by this author), more than once I was tempted to stop reading "Brenda's Bargain" and start on something else. The reason was boredom - a lot of the book is taken up by the rather dull and not very life-like description of the various characters and their daily goings-on. But every time I thought "I'll finish this chapter and then put it aside", something came up that managed to hold my interest long enough to keep going.

My mistake - which I realized way too late - with this book was that it is actually the last one of a series of four books, all about Brenda, a girl from a wealthy Boston family. Brenda's adventures span, as far as I can tell, the years from her childhood to the time she gets married (which happens at the end of this story). All throughout the book, events and people are referred to that are impossible for the reader to know without having read the first three books as well. There are other series of books (such as the Agatha Raisin books by M.C. Beaton, some of which I have reviewed on my blog) that manage to be very well readable without necessarily sticking to any particular order, or without knowing each and every previous instalment. Not so with "Brenda's Bargain".

The story starts with Brenda going shopping for a birthday present. She chooses a very fragile glass vase, and when the girl at the shop breaks it and is unconsolable about the little accident, Brenda takes an interest in the 15-year-old orphan and manages to convince her strict aunt to have Maggie attend a special school for girls from disadvantaged families, started by a friend of hers in the mansion she inherited.

The school teaches a dozen or so girls from different countries (Syria, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and some U.S. citizens as well), and a lot of the girls' looks and characters are portrayed in a rather stereotype manner, lacking originality. 

The school itself is certainly interesting; in those days (most of the story takes place in 1898) it was not at all common for girls to get a good education, especially not if their families were of working class background. The young ladies who take part in the school work are all friends of the owner; she - as far as I could gather without having read the first three books in the series - was their teacher at some stage, and most of the young women were classmates at Radcliffe college. If it was unusual for girls to get a good education at all, it was even more so for them to go to college. College girls were looked upon as something exotic, not very feminine, bad housekeepers and worse wives. Therefore, the work of the young ladies to keep the school going was certainly courageous and only possible thanks to the wealth of their families in combination with a pioneer spirit.

Wikipedia says about Radcliffe college that it was started in 1879 in order to allow women to receive a college education while it was still impossible for them to go to Harvard. Among the very few snippets of information about the author of "Brenda's Bargain" I found that she herself had been to Radcliffe, which makes me believe that she knew what she was talking about. 

You see, this was the sort of thing that kept me reading: the glimpses of what life was like back then, the views people had, how society treated the less fortunate, and so on.

One bit I found particularly interesting: The description of the kitchen at the mansion. It was considered ultra-modern and designed to allow the girls to have cooking lessons which would come in very useful for them later in life, when seeking employment and making their own homes.

Here goes:
The walls, painted a soft yellow, reflected the sunshine, without making a glare. The oiled hardwood floor had its centre covered with a large square of a substance resembling oilcloth, yet softer. A large space around the range was of brick tiles. The iron sink stood on four iron legs with a clear, open space beneath it; there were no wooden closets under it to harbor musty cloths and half-cleaned kettles, and serve as a breeding place for all kinds of microbes. A shelf beside the sink was so sloped that dishes placed there would quickly drain off before drying. The wall above the sink was of blue and white Dutch tiles, and between the sink and the range a zinc-covered table offered a suitable resting-place for hot kettles and pans. Below the clock shelf was another, with a row of books that closer inspection showed to be cook-books. All these details could not, of course, be taken in at once, although the pleasant impression was immediate.
"Plants in the window, and what a curious wire netting!" cried Brenda.
"Yes, it is neater than curtains, keeps out flies, and though it is so made that outsiders cannot look into the room it does not obscure the light. The shades at the top can be pulled down when we really need to darken the room."
Nora stood enraptured before the tall dresser with its store of dishes and jelly moulds, then she gazed into the long, light pantry, the shelves of which were laden with materials for cooking in jars and tins and little boxes, all neatly labelled and within easy reach. On the wall were several charts—one showing the different cuts of beef and lamb, another by figures and diagrams giving the different nutritive values of different articles of food.
The frame for the story line is provided by the school year. The book ends with the school breaking up for summer, and the reader is told of the progress of the girls as well as of the developments in the lives of the young ladies running the school.
Brenda, the heroine, is not much in the foreground for a lot of the time; she has a difficult time when it seems like her engagement to a certain Arthur will come to nothing.

Maybe this was one more of the things that had me slightly bored with the book; the chapters never focused on one character for long, so that I found it difficult to get attached to anyone in particular. 

Not a total waste of time, but I certainly won't go back to find the other three "Brenda"-books. 

Friday 22 February 2013

Parsnip Pan

Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa; in fact, the German word for it is Pastinake) has been part of man's diet for millennia; in Roman times, it was one of the most popular vegetables throughout the Eurasian part of the empire (remember: potatoes were not known in this part of the globe yet). It kept being top of the list until the mid 1800s, when in Germany and Austria, it was largely replaced by potatoes, while it never lost its popularity in the UK, France, Ireland and the US. Speaking of the US: the parsnip was cultivated there by the first settlers in Virginia as early as 1609.

As I said, it went out of fashion in Germany and only had its revival a few decades ago, when people became more interested in a more ecological approach to agriculture, and in bringing back some of the older sorts of cereal, fruit and vegetable as well as cow and pig races.

And if it had not been for my sister serving a very delicious vegetable stew on her birthday, parsnips included, I would have probably kept walking past them in the vegetable section of my favourite supermarket (Aldi). 

Since then, though, I have cooked parsnips a few times and was always happy with the outcome. It can be eaten raw, like carrots, but is tastier when boiled or fried or cooked in the oven. I sometimes combine it with carrots and potatoes, all roasted together in the oven, to accompany a nice piece of meat for Sunday dinner when RJ is here. And last week, I had these leftovers and decided to cook them for myself when I had a home office day:

It is a very easy and quick meal, ready in 20 minutes (given you dice the potatoes small enough) and very nutrituous. All I did was peeling and dicing the vegetables, putting a tiny bit of olive oil in a pan, then the diced spuds, carrots and parsnips and added some water, just so that the pieces of veg were barely covered, then closed the lid and let the water boil and do its work.

When it looked more or less ready, I added salt, pepper, some ginger and dried herbs, and left it on the stove for a few more minutes.

The result was this - the blur in the picture has nothing to do with my camera, it was the steam rising from the plate.

Did you know that parsnip contains 4 times as much vitamin C, calium and proteins as carrots? I truly am grateful for my sister to have inspired me to use this lovely vegetable in my kitchen.

Thursday 21 February 2013

The Things We Notice

Perception (especially the difference between self-perception and how others see us) is a topic I find fascinating and could go on and on about; in fact, I have done so several times on my blog: here, here and here.

Recently, I was once again strongly reminded of the subject by two situations that occurred with RJ at work. The week before last, I left the office on Friday, looking like this:

Saturday morning, I went to the hairdresser's, and when RJ next saw me on the following Tuesday at the office, I looked like this:

You guessed it - he never even noticed I'd had my hair cut. One of the ladies working there remarked upon my much shorter hair when we bumped into her at the coffee machine (which is traditionally the place in all offices where the really important information is exchanged), and only then did RJ notice he hadn't noticed :-)

Never mind - he just looks at me in a different way. If he had to report me missing, he wouldn't be able to describe my outfit of the day; he'd be very well able to describe my body, though, and how he perceives my personality.

Then last week, we had a meeting with two of the people at our customer's office; we needed their input for a specific project we are working on at the moment. One of them was a lady I had not met yet, and while she was listening to RJ's explanations and answering his questions (I was there mainly to protocol what was being said), I had plenty of time to study her looks, her gesturing and facial expression. When RJ and I summed up the meeting afterwards, I mentioned a few details about her (grey stretch trousers, huge belt buckle and a necklace with an equally huge pendant, among other things), and was not amazed that he had not noticed a single one of them. Of course, he had been focusing more on what she said than on what she wore, but as I said, this incident made me realize once more how different we are in which and how many things we notice about our environment and the people around us.

Do you have an eye for detail, or do you rather go by a more general impression of your surroundings?

Friday 15 February 2013

Read in 2013 - 6: My Lord Duke

A book written in 1897, "My Lord Duke" by E. W. Hornung plays with the old idea of "What if...": What if you take someone from the life they have been used to and transplant them into an entirely new life, totally different from everything they have known so far?

That is exactly what happens to Jack, a shearer living in the Australian outback, when the lawyer of a wealthy English family finds him to be the true heir of a duke who died estranged from his family.

Jack and the lawyer travel to England, where the "rough diamond" gets into all sorts of funny situations because of his naive, uncultured approach to people and places.
After a short stint in London, he is taken to the huge and impressive family home - so huge and impressive, in fact, that he can't bear sleeping in the place but has the replica of his old wooden hut in the bush built among the pines in the vast parkland he now owns, and spends the nights there. All the way from Australia, Jack has brought his three cats, who he loves dearly as they used to be his only company for months on end. The cats play a small but not unimportant role in the story.

Jack is an animal-lover and, although physically strong enough to fight the most aggressive of his tenants (who at the time does not know it's the duke he is fighting), so kind-hearted he only sees the good in others. The English family members surrounding him on the estate, most importantly his cousin Claude (who would have been the heir if the lawyer had not found Jack), soon come to like him a lot. Jack himself considers Claude his best friend, and inevitably falls in love with the beautiful and intelligent daughter of his late father's relative, Olivia.

All is set for a "happily ever after" scenario, when suddenly another claimant turns up, stating that the late duke was secretly married to a servant girl and fathered her son some years before Jack's birth.

For Olivia's mother, all that counts is not that her daughter marries the man she loves, but the man who owns the title and the land, and so this news makes her forbid her daughter to have any more to do with Jack.
Now, is he or is he not the real heir?

Claude and the lawyer try to find out; the situation becomes very confusing, putting poor Jack and everyone else on a veritable roller coaster of emotions. Jack is torn between relief of maybe being able to go back to his former life and the fear of losing Olivia, and who behaves most nobly throughout the entire affair is cousin Claude, who unselfishly only wants to get to the truth of the story.
Unexpectedly, Jack's old boss from the Australian sheep farm turns up, and it is finally through him that the family gathered at the manor learn what really happened all those years ago.

I really enjoyed this book; after a while, one can not help but care for Jack and what happens to him, and the people and places are described well without going into unneccessarily lengthy detail.

The author, Ernest William Hornung, lived from 1866 to 1921 and was most famous for his "Raffles"-series, stories about an English gentleman thief. He spent several years in Australia, and his experiences there feature prominently in his work after his return. It is worth reading the short biography about him on this page; interestingly, he married Constance, the sister of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

More of the Same

As I suspected and mentioned here, it wasn't the last snow for this season. After a short respite of a few milder days (which I enjoyed very much!), we have had more snow and ice.

Last Friday night, I was invited to a friend's housewarming party and had about half an hour between coming home from work and being picked up by another friend.
While I changed out of my business clothes into something a bit more adapt for the party, I had the blinds down and it was dark outside.

Just got ready for the evening with my friends. Nothing fancy except for the glittery hairband (if you can spot it).

Half an hour later, when my friend rang the bell and I opened the door, I couldn't believe my eyes: it had snowed enough in those 30 minutes for the ground to be entirely white again, and it kept snowing and snowing!
The drive to the party was quite an adventure; it wasn't particularly far, but we saw several accidents on our way there, and I am glad my friend is a careful and responsible driver.

Anyway, the party was nice and by the time we left, the roads were mostly cleared.

View from my kitchen window on Saturday morning. It's not much, but it all fell in a very short time.

It has not snowed again since the weekend, but it is still cold enough for me to long for spring, and I'll celebrate the day when I'll be able to leave the house not dressed as if for a polar expedition.

In the meantime, I am happy for the daylight lasting considerably longer than only a few weeks ago - I have even left the office some days when the street lights were not turned on yet!

Sunday 10 February 2013

An Unsolved Mystery

About 2 1/2 years ago, I wrote about a mystery in my own family. That mystery has - partly - been solved. When our relatives came visiting after Christmas (as mentioned here), we learned that their part-time vanished sister is sporadically in touch, sending more or less cryptic text messages that can be interpreted as her still planning to come to Germany as soon as she has either the money or the necessary documents, or both.

But there are others who have had to deal with mysteries in their families or circles of friends never solved. One of these was brought to my attention in one single sentence in the book about my hometown I read recently: Monika Gwinner.

Reading that name in the book triggered off memories from my own childhood and youth, and made me want to find out more and blog about the matter.

On the 6th of June 1950, seven-year old Monika was out playing in the overgrown palace grounds of Ludwigsburg with a group of children and disappeared from there, never to be seen again.
Her disappearance is mentioned in passing in the book; the author was a child in those days, too, and of course knew of the case, as did my Mum, who was six years old at the time. She told me of the girl that was never seen again most likely during one of our many lovely walks in said castle grounds. Also, I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my uncle (Mum's brother, five years her senior) in my early teens. He knew the missing girl's brother, and together with his friends, the group of boys were determined to get behind the mystery and find Monika.

Many underground passages existed (and most likely still exist) in the area, some leading to and from the castle, some much further afield; most of them were originally built as service passages so that the unsightly servants did not have to be seen by the ladies and gentlemen at the duke's court when they were in the park or looking out from one of the many palace windows. In 1950, when my uncle was 11, the palace grounds had not yet been restored to their modern glory; WWII had ended only five years before, and it would take another four years until the opening of the park to the public, with ornamental flowerbeds, fountains and statues at every corner. The boys explored as many of the passages as they could, but never found anything but rats and rags.

What is such a beautiful park today was an overgrown area of dense shrubbery and thicket - an ideal playground for children. And Monika was one of them. If my memory serves me right and the reports I have collected on the internet are correct, I must have stood more or less at the very spot where Monika was last seen when I took this picture last summer:

Neither my uncle and his friends nor the police were successful in finding Monika, or any trace of her, in spite of the search for her being the largest police campaign up to that point in the history of the country (25.000 men looking for a total of nine missing children who had all dissapeared around the same time). 

Two girls who had been part of the group playing with Monika told the police of a stranger having talked to them, promising them cherries if they came with him.
The area was searched with dogs; even the sewage ducts, but all that surfaced were disused weapons from the war. For months, the police collected all sorts of clues, dug up a large area of the park for her body and even resorted to listening to what some clairvoyants said - with no success.

A newspaper report dated 18.7.1950 tells of several witnesses claiming to have seen Monika accompanied by a tall, blond man. Two boys said they'd seen her in a crop of woods, standing with her arms crossed. When they wanted to get closer and talk to the girl, a man darted from the thicket, threatening them and chasing them away. They thought Monika's arms may have been tied.

Three months later, according to a report from 17.10.1950, the police decided to go international with their search for Monika. A woman from Engen, 150 km from Ludwigsburg, claimed to have seen a girl answering to Monika's description at the "Hegnaublick", a place with a panoramic view popular for family outings. She even spoke to the girl who said that she was Monika Gwinner from Ludwigsburg.
This new lead proved to be just as fruitless as all the ones before, though.

In February 1952, 1 1/2 years since that "sighting" (if it ever happened), another report states that the Ludwigsburg police were still following leads, while the throngs of clairvoyants, diviners, fortune-tellers, spiritists and astrologers had given up looking for "Germany's most-searched for child", as Monika is dubbed in the article.
The same article mentions that, as a result from the huge police search, 11 missing children were reunited with their parents - none of their cases in any way related with Monika's. The Ludwigsburg officer in charge even had a ship searched on its way to the U.S.; it carried 630 emigrants from Ludwigsburg, and someone had reported there being a woman with a girl looking like Monika who did not have any papers. The girl turned out to be the woman's own daughter.

The claims of several dowsers had been followed: One told the police to go looking for Monika in a specific house near a lake in Switzerland - and indeed a blond German girl of seven was found there, but she was part of a family on holiday there, and not Monika.
In Hamburg, yet again a specific house was pointed to as the current location of the missing girl, and yet again, the police did indeed find a blond child of seven who was not Monika. After many more similar false clues, the police finally gave up listening to them.

We next read about Monika three years after her disappearance: The girl, now ten years old, was supposed to be with a group of gypsies stopping near Lüneburg, more than 600 km from home. Less than three weeks later, the paper picks up again on the search for the gypsies; at least two eyewitnesses were "certain" to have recognized Monika, and police were trying to find the group - without success, it seems.

At least according to what I was able to find in the online archives, this was the last reported sighting connected to Monika Gwinner.

One year older than my Mum and one year younger than my Dad, she would be 70 this year.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Read in 2013 - 5: The Dead Saint

A true page-turner which I was lucky enough to find on Amazon's Kindle store for free (at the moment, it is listed at $ 10,80).

Marilyn Brown Oden starts the book with a quotatin from Charles Péguy:
"Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics."
Since I had never come across his name before, I had a quick look at Wikipedia to find out who he was: a French poet, essayist and editor who lived from 1873 to 1914, socialism and nationalism being his two main philosophies. When he turned Catholic, his new-found faith strongly influenced his works.

Back to the story: The heroine, Bishop Lynn Peterson from New Orleans, witnesses the assasination of a friend, New Orleans Saints kicker Elie Darwish. She is sure that she can link the sniper to the mime who stood on the pavement right up until the shooting, and is equally sure she sees the same man again on a streetcar the next day.
Around the same time, the bishop and her husand, Galen, are invited to a dinner with the Vice President. Galen has to leave early after an emergency phone call, and Lynn is asked to ride to the airport in the Vice President's limousine. There, she learns that the President (in this book, a woman named Helena Benedict) wishes her to hand a confidential letter to a friend in Europe, where Lynn and Galen are scheduled to travel anyway.
Lynn doesn't know why the President needs to make use of her as an unofficial channel of communication but accepts the task, not even telling Galen about it.

And indeed she hands the letter over to the man it is addressed to - only to see him shot dead as soon as he gets off the plane. In the ensuing chaos, she manages to get hold of the President's message again, and this is where the real "fun" begins for Lynn: she is drawn into a whirlwind of political intrigue, not knowing whom she can trust; her and her husband's lives are in danger, a Secret Society's symbol crops up in the most unexpected places, hotel rooms are exchanged for safe houses, more men lose their lives soon after she last spoke to them, and all that is going on while Lynn and Galen are on a frantic itinerary of conferences and meetings throughout the Balkan countries.

The story quickly picks up speed, and while the amount of activities packed into one day of Lynn's tight schedule is amazing, it is not unbelievable. She as a character is likeable, and while the identity of her nemesis is soon revealed to the reader, it remains a mystery for her until almost the very end of the book. Lynn rises to the challenge of finding out what is actually going on and who has been pulling the strings behind the scenes. I was not surprised by the ending, but my attention was really captured right to the last page.

With the main character being a Bishop, religion and faith are of course frequently mentioned, but not to the point of getting in the way of the story. In fact, it takes until chapter 21 for Lynn to be shown praying. Having read on the author's home page that Marilyn Brown Oden has first-hand experience with the places and people described in the story made it all the more interesting.