Wednesday 26 June 2013

Read in 2013 - 20: Fast genial

It happens rarely, but it does happen: me reading in German. "Fast genial" by Benedict Wells was recommended to me by my Mum, and as we often have a similar taste in books, I wasn't surprised to find that this one really was a good read.

The author is not yet thirty and wrote his first novel at 19. He was born in Munich and moved to Berlin after finishing school; nowadays, he divides his time between Barcelona and Munich, the back of the book informs me.

"Fast genial" means "almost ingenious" (our "genial" and the English "genial" are not the same). And the title fits:
18-year-old Francis has never known his father. He and his mother, a single mum with problems of depression you can't help feeling sorry for, share a shabby trailer somewhere in New Jersey and the little money they are able to scrape together from various small jobs whenever they are able to work (his Mum because of her problems and Francis because working hours have to fit around school).

When he's had to take his Mum (once again) to a psychiatric clinic, during his many visits there he meets and falls in love with Anne-May, a girl who is there because she has attempted suicide. When his Mum tries to kill herself, Francis finds her just in time - and he also finds her good-bye-letter to him. In that letter, she tells him about his father for the first time: He was a genius, and Francis was born as part of a genetic experiment.

Now Francis wants to find his father; he is convinced that everything, his entire life, will take a turn for the better if he manages to see him and speak to him. Together with his best friend, nerdy Grover, and Anne-May, he sets out on a trip across the U.S. from New Jersey to the West Coast.

Will he find his father? This question and what will happen then are central to the story, but by no means the only important part. The trip itself is equally important, and how the relationships between the three friends develop. 

As the reader, you really want to know what is going to happen next, and you do care about Francis, although not so much about his friends (at least that was how I felt about them). The writing style is modern but not ridiculously so; the characters and the way they talk are credible.

As far as I could find out, none of Benedict Wells' books have yet been published in other languages, which is a shame, because I think that not only readers of German would enjoy this.

What I don't quite get about the book is the choice of cover illustration: it is a painting by David Hockney, "Rainy Night on Bridlington". Now, Bridlington is on the coast up in Yorkshire, a place that does not feature at all in the book, w hich is set entirely in the U.S. But I guess they just wanted to show the melancholy mood or something. I wonder whether the author had any say in it.

Sunday 23 June 2013

A Saturday in the Sun

A bit more than a year ago, I wrote my Post # 300 on this blog, and (quite by coincidence) the first picture of that post was of the same view as this one:

Looking back at the road we have just walked up between the vineyards, the start of "our" walk (= my Mum and I walking from the nearest small town with a train station to the place where my parents have their allotment).

The walk itself takes between 1 1/2 and 2 hours, depending on how hot it is, how fast we walk and how many little breaks we take. You've seen it already in previous posts, and therefore I'll only show you a few pictures of the walk this time:

The plan had been to arrive at the allotment in the early afternoon, and we were there at 2.00 pm. My Dad had already arrived in the morning (by car), and he had freshly brewed coffee ready for us and the table was set. 

This was the first time I saw his greenhouse. Most of what's inside is tomatoes, but he also has peppers and some basil.

My Mum had arranged for friends to join us later in the afternoon, and we prepared the table for five. As soon as our friend (only one of them could make it) arrived, she made the lovely old-fashioned elderflower pancakes I've showed you here.

It was also the first time I saw the new rose arch; my sister and I bought it as a Christmas present for my Mum, and my Dad put it up for her recently to replace the old one that was crumbling to bits. To bring the old one down and set the new one up, a lot of the climbing rose had to be cut, but it'll grow back nicely, I'm sure!

After the feast of elderflower pancakes, I went for another walk - much shorter this time, I was away for less than an hour. I had not been to this beautiful lookout in years, even though it is not far from the allotment:

The vantage point marks the spot where the ancient castle of Steinheim (literally "stone home") once stood. A plaque on one of the stones informs visitors that the castle was first built around the year 800 and destroyed in 1250; at the same time, the line of aristocrats ruling this part of the kingdom of Wuerttemberg died out. Only in 1973, during the reallocation and consolidation of agricultural land holdings, were the remnants of stone walls rediscovered, and it was decided to turn the place into this mini park above what today is the village of Steinheim. (I'm sure they'd like me to call it town, but it is a village, and there's nothing wrong with calling it that.)
A steep path with stone steps leads from the top down into the valley, but it is so overgrown you can only find it if you know that it is there.
On my way back to the allotment, I took this picture showing the deep ravine that is called Otterbachtal ("otter's creek valley"). Down in the ravine, it is always quiet, shady and green and rather cool, even on the hottest summer days. High above it, a bussard was circling.

Back with my parents, we stayed on for a light evening meal. When we felt the first slight touch of evening chill, we packed up and left, but not before my Mum cut one of the beautiful roses for each of us to take home; mine now floats in a wide glass and looks so perfect, a beautiful reminder of a wonderful day:

This hot air balloon was floating just above us while we were getting ready to leave:

And have a look at the cherries outside my kitchen window - how much they have grown since you last saw them!
They'll soon be ready for picking, and you bet I'll be picking as many as I can :-)

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Read in 2013 - 19: Darkness Falls Over Joppy Hill

There is no nicer way to put it: This was the worst book I've read in quite a long time, in terms of writing style, ortography, grammar, and with a rather foreseeable plot, too.

Why did I read it, then? For one thing, it was short enough (56 pages, according to the product info on Amazon) not to waste too much of my time. Also, I really did want to give the story and its characters a chance to grow on me, and thought that maybe at some point the author would surprise me with a good idea, with an unexpected turn of events. It was not to be.

To outline the plot: Orphaned girl grows up with hard-working aunt who sends her to stay with old friend in the country for summer holiday. Girl meets local boy and hears rumours about old friend's house. Old friend and her family are behaving strangely, and big old house harbours a dark secret.

It could have been a gripping story, but didn't quite get there. From Amazon's author page about Latasha Rose, we learn that it is called "young adult horror" - something I normally do not read. It is entirely my fault, of course, because I simply downloaded it while it was for free, without checking the product information first. 

To give you an example of what I mean, here is a quote from early on in the book:
My mother and I were inseparable; I could talk to her about anything, she anything she could for me anything.
Or this:
She hesitated but then responded, "I told Mia it wasn't a good ideal for you to come hear, but she never listen me."
The author does not see such errors as a problem; in fact, on her Amazon page, she says "I don't care about misspelled words and other grammatical errors, those things can be fixed". 
Well, sadly, they weren't fixed before the book was published, and although she doesn't care, this reader certainly does. I know I am a bit finnicky when it comes to correct spelling etc., but if the story itself is good and the characters are credible enough, some errors do not take away too much from the overall reading experience. In this case, though, they were dominant, and that on top of it not being a very original story in the first place made this hardly worth reading. 
I am sorry for Latasha Rose having put as much effort into this as she states on her page. Just a little more effort to get words and grammar right would have helped.

Monday 17 June 2013

Read in 2013 - 18: Craving

This is a double première on my blog: not only is it the first time that I was invited to review a work of non-fiction, but my review will also include the author's own comments.
So, without further ado, here is my review of "Craving":

Some time ago, I was approached via my blog by the author of this book, Omar Manejwala, M.D., asking whether I'd like to review it. Now, this post wouldn't be here if I had said no, would it! Please note that I am merely stating my personal opinion of the book here. Yours may differ from it – that's fine, and no matter whether you agree with me or not, I'd like to hear from you. Therefore, please feel free to comment, whether you've read it or not.

„Craving“ is a good, informative read which taught me quite a few things about addiction that I had not known until then.
Most importantly for me, I now understand a lot better how much of addictive behaviour is actually the addict's „fault“, i.e. their conscious, deliberate decision, and how much of it is due to addiction mechanisms and behavioral patterns they can't help at that moment. This was something I have been struggling with for many years, having gained more experience with alcoholism in my immediate proximity than I ever asked for. So, this book helped to reconcile me with some of the things I witnessed in the past, and to view these situations from a different perspective in hindsight. Thank you, Omar! 

Everyone who'll read „Craving“ will, I hope, learn something from it – either for themselves, if they suffer an addiction, or in order to be better able to understand and help an addict in their family or among their friends.

Omar Manejwala writes in a manner that makes you imagine you sit in comfortable surroundings with him, listen to him talking and answering your questions, in a clear manner that makes you really understand what he is on about, without you having studied neurology and psychology – or studied anything at all. Don't get me wrong, he is never condescending, but manages very well to get even rather complex matters across. Sometimes, it is maybe this very wish to make everyone understand that leads him to repeat things. In some chapters (but not throughout the book), I kept reading and thought „he's already said that“ and „yeah, I get the idea“. That does not take away from how useful and fascinating the book is.

Its ten chapters are outlined in the introduction (which, in itself, is a little on the long side). They cover the basic facts of brain science in terms of craving and decision making, the role of bias in preventing us from always making rational choices, what all sorts of different addictions (gambling, food, sex, alcohol, drugs, internet, to name but a few) have in common, how thoughts, actions and experiences can change one's way of thinking (and actually, one's brain itself), why groups can be so helpful in addiction treatment; joy, hope and recovery, and much more. 

There are several pages at the back with useful practical advice for addicts (where to find help) and tips on how to deal with specific cravings, and many exact source notes that facilitate further reading.
To make it easier to use this book as some sort of reference work (although it is not intended as such, I think), a register would have been helpful. 

Something I find a bit confusing is the very frequent mentioning of Twelve Step Programs; the first time this term is used is as early as page 4, but either I have simply overlooked it or there really isn't an explanation/definition of what a Twelve Step Program is anywhere in the book.
Also, I don't really know what a halfway house is; do you? (I guessed the meaning from the context.) 

Again, let me emphasize my opinion that „Craving“ is a book that should not be missed if you are an addict yourself or in close contact with addicts. Very clearly, it says that it is not intended as a substitute for the advice of health care professionals. But it can point you or someone you care about into the right direction and change their (and your) life for the better.

To end with a quote from the book: "Recovery is about 5 percent what you stop doing and 95 percent what you start doing."

Here is Omar's reply:

Hi Meike,

Thanks for your kind words about Craving. I’m delighted you enjoyed it so much, and I hope your readers will appreciate the book as well.  Since everyone craves, I think it’s a very relevant topic.  Over the last 30 years, obesity rates have doubled in the U.S., and although Germany is doing better than we are, over half of Germans are obese or overweight.  Since cravings are at the heart of overeating, I think nearly everyone (not just addicts) can benefit by increasing their understanding of this complicated, pervasive phenomenon and what we know about how to manage it.

I’ve never been invited to respond to a review before, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to share a few thoughts on your take on the book.  I agree with you that a key insight is the understanding that addictive behavior is not the addicts “fault” but certainly is their responsibility.  The parts of the brain involved in decision-making, planning, habits, thoughts, memories, feelings are all affected by cravings. 

You can imagine that writing a book that explains something as complex as cravings is very difficult, because cravings are psychological, genetic, biological, social, and are affected by environment, trauma, cues, stress, upbringing…all of this needs to be covered if readers are to have an accurate, practical understanding of cravings and how to manage them effectively.  I’m glad you appreciated the manner in which Craving clarifies and simplifies these ideas without dumbing them down.  There are enough oversimplified books based on junk science, and I couldn’t in good conscience add another.

I really appreciate that you consider Craving to be a book that “that should not be missed if you are an addict yourself or in close contact with addicts.”  I hope that the affected and afflicted among your readers will check it out and participate in the conversation here on your blog as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

Omar Manejwala, M.D.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Read in 2013 - 17: Murder by Nightmare

A slightly misleading title, since no-one is really murdered "by nightmare" in this novelette. The nightmare element in the story is, instead, just what it is: nightmares the heroine is suffering from (and they don't really have much to do with the entire story).

I found this short murder mystery by Jennette Green for free on the Kindle shop, and I'm afraid I have to say that it would have been a bad idea to actually pay for it. Neither the writing style nor the plot are particularly good; I did not learn enough about the main character to really care about what was happening to her, or to her neighbours (one of them gets murdered, another one attacked). 

On the author's home page, the summary for "Murder by Nightmare" reads:
May has never liked to be alone at night, because that's when nightmares haunt her.
However, when her husband leaves for the weekend, she's certain she'll be safe home alone in their suburban neighborhood. But when the man next door is attacked, and the woman across the street is murdered, her life begins to take on a nightmarish quality. Who is behind the attacks? Will the nightmares ever end? 
All that sounds like it could make for a suspense-filled evening, tucked up cosily in bed with my Kindle and some chocolate. Instead, what I found was some very illogical behaviour from both the heroine and her neighbours, descriptions that did not lend any credibility to neither characters nor story, and me ending up only caring for Marmalade, May's ginger cat (nothing happens to him, I can tell you that without spoiling the story for you).

I can almost hear my sister's reasonable voice, telling me that I shouldn't expect any better with all the free downloads from the Kindle shop. Well, I've had some really good reads come my way through this method. This novelette wasn't one of them.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Read in 2013 - 16: Mister Teacher

Yes, I know; I said in my previous review that my next read was going to be non-fiction. And it was - I have finished reading it and already written my review, but because I am corresponding with the author and have invited him to add his own thoughts and comments to my review, that post will have to wait until I have his reply.

In the meantime, I've read the continuation of "Teacher, Teacher!", the review for which you can find here.

Again, Jack Sheffield has managed to recreate a world that does not exist any longer, even though it is not in a very distant past, but actually still quite fresh in my - and probably many other people's - memory: the years 1978 and 1979.

In "Mister Teacher", we accompany Jack Sheffield (and many of the characters we already met in the first book of the series) through his second year as headmaster of a small school in a Yorkshire village. There are new children at the school, and we get to know some of the people from the village a bit better.
Jack's relationship with Beth evolves and undergoes several changes; he now meets her sister for the first time, and she provides some interesting scenes in the book.

Just as before, the story is sprinkled with bits and bobs typical for the time in which it is set, making no doubt for some nostalgic moments for British readers, and giving some formerly unknown information to anyone who did not grow up in England.
One such example is about money:
"I can't get used to these new smaller pound notes, Mr. Sheffield; they're like Monopoly money," said Vera. "The way things are going, they'll have pound coins next." She chuckled to herself at the absurdity of the idea.
A newspaper headline "Bearded Bobbies" is mentioned; in the article, which the staff of the village school share during a break in the staff room, a Police Superintendent complains about 8 per cent of all policemen now wearing beards:
"What was his name again, Vera?" asked Anne.
"Harry Potter", said Vera.
"Well, that's a name we won't hear again, said Sally defiantly.
Here is one last quote for this review, to show you how well the author manages - in my opinion, that is - to convey the general atmosphere of the place without being lengthy:
The journey along the narrow lanes to Ragley was always a joy in summer. The cow parsley stood tall over the wild grasses, while the magenta bells of foxgloves competed for attention in the midst of unfurling bracken. Red Admiral butterflies danced among the nettles and the young tendrils of ivy invaded the dense quickthorn hedges.
Throughout this series, the author shows a remarkable eye for detail; he has obviously done thorough research to get the facts right even about things that do not promote the story line as such. For instance, he mentions that a girl brings her Tressy doll to school and shows it to the other girls at play time. Of course I went and had a look at what Tressy dolls were like, and found this page. Other things I did not have to look up, because I remember them well enough from 1978 and 1979, when I was 10 and 11 years old.

The third instalment of the "Teacher"-series is waiting on my shelf. After that, I will have read them all; I know the 7th book has just come out (you can read about it here), and maybe I'll get it from my mother-in-law when I'll be in Yorkshire in July.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Some New Things

For Christmas 2010, my sister gave me a toaster you can see here. It has been much appreciated and much used, but, sadly, it stopped functioning a few weeks ago.
Especially for our extended breakfasts when RJ is here on weekends, I do need a toaster, but also for myself every now and then, and so there was but one thing: get a new one now, not wait half a year until Christmas comes round again.

I found this one - it was the last of its kind at the shop, and as it had been the display item, I got it at a slightly reduced price:

Doesn't it go very well with my other breakfast things, such as the cereal bowls (another present from my sis)?

Sometimes it happens to me that I come across an item at the shops at a time when I am actually not looking for anything, but the item clearly has "Meike" written all over it. Could be a dress, a pair of shoes, or - as it was the case the other day - a bag:

Of course I don't go to bed with a bag, but it matches the colour of my bedroom wall so well that I decided to take its picture there, this kind of light blue being my second favourite colour after yellow. The bag has the right size for an A4 file to fit in perfectly, and so it is very useful for work. It goes very well with one of my suits shown here, and I hope it will last for a long time - it wasn't expensive (not real leather) but doesn't look as cheap as it was ;-) 

Oh, and just to show you how well the pair of trousers I got for my birthday goes with my new toaster, here's a "fashion shot" that makes it obvious to anyone that I am nuts about dots:

I wore this outfit last Sunday for the Horse Market parade. But - you guessed it - that will be the stuff for another (or several other!) post(s) :-)
Oh, and you can tell from my choice of outfit that Sunday really was a SUNday, true to its name!

Sunday 9 June 2013

More Park Pictures

I promise this is the last of my three posts about one single afternoon in and around the park(s)!

But as I said at the end of the previous post, after the Roman ruins, I walked through the deer park and came across some interesting creatures, and Kay can't wait to see them :-)

Here you are, Kay:

To be honest, the first two pictures are not from the deer park, but from the palace grounds. I took them from the top of the wall above one of the large courtyards, where some building and restoring material is stored. You can tell by the plants growing between the old stone urns and statues that nothing has been touched here in quite a while. I liked the combination of it looking so neat and tidy and yet forgotten and neglected at the same time.

Then, in the deer park, of course I saw - you guessed it - lots of deer. They do come close up to visitors, taking food (bits of old bread, chestnuts in autumn) out of your hand, but as long as there is plenty of fresh green grass to graze for them, they are not particularly interested in people.

On a narrow side path leading to the watering hole, where hardly ever anybody walks, I came across this adventurous sheep:
She was not at all bothered by me, just curious. Her coat still shows patches of the winter fur that has not come off yet. I think she is still relatively young and doesn't have little ones herself (otherwise she would have been with them).

Big boss was nearby, making sure his family was all well.
Kay, I won't have to tell you to look for the heart shape in this picture, do I? :-)

I also met a few red squirrels, but they were too quick for my camera, and of course there is a good variety of bird life in these big old trees.

This curious "creature" I spotted far in the meadow (no access for humans, because of the danger of branches falling off the old trees): 
I quite like the idea of some ancient creature quietly living its hidden life in the depths of the park, but of course it is only a large branch fallen off one of the trees (which goes to show that the warning signs, forbidding people to walk there, are there for a reason).

To give you a bit of historical background for the deer park: 
Eberhard Ludwig, Duke of Wuerttemberg (that was before it became a kingdom) and founder of Ludwigsburg, used this part of a forest as his own private hunting ground, for the pleasure of himself and his guests. He had it fenced in as early as 1707 (the foundation stone for the palace had been laid only three years earlier). His successors had some redesigning done on the park, until in 1806 King Friedrich reverted back to the more natural looks of today. In 1937, the deer park (its official name is Favoritepark, by the way) was listed as the first protected nature reserve of Wuerttemberg, and it still is one today. This means that people are not allowed to pick plants in there, start camp fires or do anything else potentially dangerous to animals and plants. It is fenced in with three revolving gates in order to keep the deer and sheep in, but admission is free, and it is a wonderful place to walk in or rest, no matter the season.

Friday 7 June 2013

Roman Remains

At the end of my previous post, I said that I walked on after my "rosy" visit to the park, visiting a place I had not been to in a long time, and that this would have to wait for another post. Well, that post is here now, and the place is a site of Roman remains very close to the deer park. Just to give you an idea of the general geography of the place: the palace grounds is the park where I took the pictures of the roses and poppies. It is separated from the deer park by a very busy road, but one can walk across a foot bridge without having to get too close to the traffic.

Both parks and how they are connected I have shown you before, but I have not taken my camera to the site of the Roman remains just outside the deer park until Wednesday afternoon, when sun, blue sky and birdsong beckoned me to leave my desk and go out for a nice long walk.

Any of my readers who are even remotely familiar with European history will know that the Romans were, at some time or other, almost everywhere - and my hometown is no exception.
While we do not have impressive ruins such as amphitheatres or baths and the like, we have our very own villa rustica - or at least we know where it once was.

In the 2nd century, a villa rustica was built on top of a long sloping hill rising up from the fertile Neckar (river) valley in what today is the edge of Hoheneck (literally "High Corner"), a part of Ludwigsburg. Wikipedia defines a villa rustica as "a villa set in the open countryside, often as the hub of a large agricultural estate (latifundium). The adjective rusticum was used to distinguish it from an urban or resort villa. The villa rustica would thus serve both as a residence of the landowner and his family (and retainers) and also as a farm management centre. It would often comprise separate buildings to accommodate farm labourers and sheds and barns for animals and crops."

What today is known as the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg was inhabited by Celtic tribes. The Roman occupation started in earnest in the first half of the first century, gradually expanding north-eastwards from the river Danube. 200 years later, in the year 260, some of the Germanic tribes living north of the frontier wall broke through that frontier and put an end to the Roman era in Wuerttemberg.

For a long time, the remains of the villa were used as a very convenient self-service quarry by anyone who needed building materials. The place's history slipped into oblivion. It would take around 1.800 years until, early on in the 20th century, some digging took place and the villa was rediscovered. The digging was not completed, though, and for the sake of preservation of the few remaining walls, they were covered again. In 1986, a more thorough digging was done, and finally, in 1991/1992, it was decided to turn the site into an open-air museum, open 24/7 all year round.

Today, the "museum" is a bit neglected, I'm afraid; the original idea was to offer a glimpse into daily life on a Roman farm by showing in small sample fields what sort of crop was planted and harvested in those days, and in a small walled garden, what herbs were used for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Both the sample fields and the herbal garden are still there, complete with the signs telling anyone who is interested the name of each plant and what it was used for, but some fields are overgrown with weeds or plants from the neighbouring plots, while others are barren. The herbal garden shows the same kind of contrast: some beds are as good as empty (the basil has, I suspect, all been picked by people who - not unlike those who in centuries past used the old buildings as quarries - consider the garden their personal supermarket), while others have been completely taken over by a species different to the one originally intended to grow there.
Still, the site shows the original outline of the buildings, along with a few Roman artefacts, such as this altar stone:

The inscription reads: DEO MERCVRIO CVLTORI RIPANVS EX IVSS(u) E(ius) L(ibens) L(aetus) M(e)R(ito), which means more or less "To the God Mercurius, carer of the field, Ripanus has gladly had this altar erected and paid for it." It is assumed that Ripanus was a wealthy landowner (some sort of gentleman farmer) who donated this altar, hoping for more of Mercurius' blessings for his land.

Horses played an important role in working the land, not just in the military part of Roman life, as this stone relief of horse goddess Epona shows:

As I said, the field-and-garden part of the museum is somewhat neglected, but the entire site has such a quiet and peaceful atmosphere to it, in spite of the busy playground on one side of it and the residential area on the other. Is it the closeness to the deer park with its large old trees and leafy paths, or the fact that the site is so little known that hardly anyone finds their way there? I don't know; I just know that I am glad I went there on Wednesday, read all the information provided on the signs and took these pictures to take home with me.

From there, I walked through the deer park, taking a route home different to the one I had set out on.

I came across some interesting creatures - not just deer, mind you! - there, but, once again, that will have to wait for another post.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Roses are NOW!

And they come in (almost) all colours, as you can see from the pictures I took yesterday afternoon at the park:

Yesterday afternoon? Park? On a Wednesday? Yes - I decided to stop working at around 3.00 pm (I was working from home that day); all the tasks I had set myself for the day were finished, and it was simply gorgeous out there! So I grabbed my camera and went out.

I had difficulties finding any purely white roses; there were a few but they were hidden quite well behind green leaves, and I did not want to step into the flower beds (you simply don't do that at the park) to get close enough for a decent picture.
Of course I am aware that there is an almost infinite variety of colours for roses, but these were the ones I saw (and smelled!) yesterday. 

Is anyone else reminded of these paintings, or is it just me?

Oh, and of course there's not just roses there at the park - I could have taken hundreds of pictures of all sorts of beautiful flowers. These poppies I found particularly striking:
They were huge, and I can't remember having seen poppies in that particular part of the park before.

I walked on after that (altogether, I walked for almost 2 1/2 hours) and visited a place I had not been to in a long time, but that will have to wait for another post.