Thursday 31 October 2013

Read in 2013 - 42: The Incomplete Amorist

"The Incomplete Amorist" is the first adult novel by Edith Nesbit I have ever read, and I must say it did nothing to make me want to read more. I love her children's books - they are, along with Astrid Lindgren's works and the Narnia books, my all-time favourites. And when, not that long ago, Monica wrote about some of Nesbit's books on her blog, I went straight to the kindle shop and downloaded all the free ones I could find. "The Incomplete Amorist" was among them.

While researching for this review, I came across this review, which sums up very well what I would have told you about the book myself. 

For those of you who do not wish to follow links leading elsewhere, here is my brief summary of this (relatively short) novel:

Young Betty grows up an orphan with her strict stepfather, a vicar in rural England in Edwardian times. She dreams of being an artist, and one day, while she is out sketching, happens to come across a man who really is an artist. Predictably, the two of them embark on something we today would certainly not call an affair (they never even kiss or hug), but what was deemed improper from society's point of view back then.

Her stepfather finds out, and to make Betty forget the man (Vernon), he sends her to Paris, where she is to study art. In Paris, very predictably, she runs into the man again. And when the lady who is supposed to chaperon her dies, Betty grabs the chance to take her life into her own hands without anyone back home knowing about it. 

She has enough money (originally intended for the chaperone) to rent her own rooms and does indeed study art, making friends among her fellow students, and meeting Vernon regularly for meals. The two of them think they are in love with each other, but neither tells the other what they believe to be feeling. There are another woman and another man to complicate matters, leading to Vernon leaving Paris, and Betty going away, too.

Still, nobody at home knows about any of this, but finally, Betty's aunt and her stepfather decide to go visiting the girl in Paris, where they find out that she never lived with the chaperone and spent the past months all on her own.

They follow Betty, who finally learns the truth about her stepfather, and returns to England with him. She does get married to the man who loves her in the end, but I must admit that the "happy ending" left me quite flat; I never cared for Betty throughout the book, or for any of the men. The character I felt most for was her stepfather, and you just have to like the aunt.

My free ebook version came without illustrations, but I found the illustrated one at Project Gutenberg, and am nicking two of the pictures for this review.

Do not read it if you expect a typical Edith Nesbit book; the Edith I love shows herself in only very few instances in this story. Still, it makes an interesting picture of life for a young woman in Edwardian times, and how that life (and that of those around her) was restricted in so many ways by society's conventions.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Read in 2013 - 41: The Uninhabited House

Yet another author I'd not heard about previously, and yet another one who, according to wikipedia, was very popular and well known in their time.
"The Uninhabited House" is a Victorian ghost story (published in 1875), but there is nothing scary about it. The narrator is a young man who works at an attorney's office. One of their clients owns a large, beautiful house, but is travelling across Europe most of the time and therefore seeking tenants for the place.
The attorney keeps finding tenants, and these in turn keep leaving the house within months or even just weeks of moving in, claiming that the house is uninhabitable, without ever giving a proper reason.

Finally (one wonders why this has not happened before), the young man is sent to interview the latest of the unhappy tenants, and is told that there have been strange goings-on and supernatural apparitions in the house.

Our young man does not believe in ghosts, and is determined to solve the mystery of the uninhabited house by moving in for a while himself. He is also interested in finding out who or what is behind it all because the promised reward would enable him to propose marriage to the young lady he has fallen in love with.

What he learns, and whether he and his sweetheart get married, I won't tell you here; the free kindle book is short and readable enough for you to find out for yourselves, if you like. I enjoyed it, although it held no surprises.

A few words about the author: Charlotte Riddell lived from 1832 to 1906, and wikipedia calls her "one of the most popular and influential writers of the Victorian period. The author of 56 books, novels and short stories, she was also part owner and editor of the St. James's Magazine, one of the most prestigious literary magazines of the 1860s."

With this review, I have cut down my current backlog from five books to three. There is now one non-fiction, one Edith Nesbit and one modern novel waiting to be reviewed.

Monday 28 October 2013

Read in 2013 - 40: Mary Marston

A lesson in patience: this is what this book was for me. More than once, I was very much tempted to stop reading, delete it from my kindle and start on something else, but in the end, I decided to take that lesson, let the story and the author's arguments unfold in slow motion, and finish it.

"Mary Marston" was written in 1881 by George MacDonald, an author I had never heard of previously. According to wikipedia, he wrote quite a few works of fantasy (Mary Marston isn't one of them) and was a considerable influence on the works of more famous authors of fantasy stories after him, such as C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle and my beloved Edith Nesbit. Wikipedia also states that "even Mark Twain, who initially disliked [him], became friends with him". 

The larger part of MacDonald's work consists of realistic (non-fantasy) fiction and non-fiction, almost all of them of a religious character; hardly surprising if you know that the author was a Christian minister. He did get into trouble with his superiors for his refusal to accept certain theological views that he felt were wrong, and so his ministerial career was not very successful.

He had a large family and was a loving and devoted father and husband. Several of his books are classified as children's books, but "I write, not for children," he wrote, "but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."

Now to Mary Marston: This is, essentially, the story of a young woman who takes her life into her own hands, never placing any importance on what others think of her, but doing what she feels is right. Sadly, Mary's character does not evolve at all - she is already perfect when the book starts, and remains perfect throughout. But all the characters around her undergo changes; they make mistakes, seek atonement for them, or persist in them; they age and learn, both by their own and Mary's actions.

At the start of the book, Mary works alongside her father in their clothes shop in a small English town. Their partners in business are very different from the two Marstons, in that they only seek to make as much profit from the shop as possible, whereas Mary and her father are shining examples of good morals and business practice.
Eventually, the elderly father dies, and although Mary is now a fully fledged partner in  the business, she decides to leave and goes to live with a rich, unhappy lady as her personal maid. Nobody understands this seemingly stupid move of hers, but of course, Mary's motives are only the most noble at all times.

Later on, she learns of an old friend who has fallen upon hard times, and when the rich unhappy lady does not want her to go and help that friend, Mary packs her bags and leaves the place, putting her friend's welfare above all else. She does indeed manage to help her friend, but not without much more trouble first, some sort of detective story being part of that as well.

By the end of the book, Mary is back in her home town, happily married (to someone else than whom I thought at the beginning of the story) and running her own clothes shop. What becomes of the other characters is told in not so many words; some have changed for the better, others never will.

Yes, there were a few surprises in the story, not just Mary's love interest. There were also some small gems hidden among the lengthy explanations of Mary's and the other people's characters, values, morals, thoughts and dreams, and I want to show you some of them, since they kept me persevering with the book:
He was a common man, with good cold manners, which he offered you like a handle. [This describes one of the principal characters when the reader is first introduced to him.]

Sweet earthy odors rose about Mary from the wet ground; the rain-drops glittered on the grass and corn-blades and hedgerows; a soft damp wind breathed rather than blew about the gaps and gates; with an upward springing, like that of a fountain momently gathering strength, the larks kept shooting aloft, there, like music-rockets, to explode in showers of glowing and sparkling song. [Mary walking across the fields to visit a friend on a sunny Sunday.]

No man's dignity is affected by what another does to him, but only by what he does, or would like to do, himself.

She was not unhappy, she was only not happy. [A description of Mary's friend before she hits really hard times and Mary comes to her rescue.]

When one is quiescent, submissive, opens the ears of the mind, and demands of them nothing more than the hearing—when the rising waters of question retire to their bed, and individuality is still, then the dews and rains of music, finding the way clear for them, soak and sink through the sands of the mind, down, far down, below the thinking-place, down to the region of music, which is the hidden workshop of the soul.

Very few of us are awake, very few even alive in true, availing sense.

It is not where one is, but in what direction he is going.

The two bonds of friendship are the right of silence and the duty of speech.
Maybe I would have enjoyed one of George MacDonald's fantasy/children's novels more, but I certainly drew some food for thought from this one - plus I proved to myself that I can, if I want to, be a patient reader.

Thursday 24 October 2013

500 - 100 - 10

What's this about, a post with just numbers for a headline?
The explanation is very easy: This is my blog post # 500; I have 100 readers (I know, it says "102", but I am one of them [I still think it should not be possible for members of this platform to follow their own blogs], and the most recent one was not there yet when I first decided to write this post), and I have been living in this flat for 10 years now. A triple jubilee, if you like! 

It does not seem that long ago since I wrote post # 400, but if you look at its date, that was ten months ago.

Looking back at how my blog developed from its first post in March 2009, it has come a long way.
Back then, I used my blog as a means of sorting out a lot of what was going on in my head just then. It was, if you like, a creative vent, much needed after a particularly troubled time in my life. Little did I know at the beginning of that year that, by the end of it, I would find my circumstances completely changed, and an entirely new chapter of my life was to begin, that of being a widow.

A post of mine that, for a long time, ranked highest in my blog's statistics for the most popular posts, is this one. Re-reading it now makes me realize how much has changed in my small portion of blogland since then; many of the blogs mentioned in that post do not exist anymore, while many others have been added to my reading list.

Here you can read a bit more about what makes me continue to blog, even though sometimes I post less frequently than I would like to, and am almost continuosly lagging behind with book reviews of about three books.

On my blog, you can find a lot of what really makes "me" and my life. If you do not know me personally, you can get a pretty good idea of me through my blog, although it will never convey the complete picture (which, maybe, nobody ever gets from another person anyway). If you do know me personally, I think you will recognize "me" quite well in my posts.

There are a few topics I hardly ever touch here, such as politics and religion, but that does not mean that I do not think about these or do not have a personal opinion.
To some, my blog may seem superficial to the point of shallowness (see the tab "Fashion for the shallow-minded"); I do not apologize for that or try to justify myself. Just like Frances said the other day, our blogs are our own personal platforms for our own personal rants (or, in my case, for our own personal shallowness). 

Enough about the first two numbers in today's headline; now to the ten-year-anniversary in my flat:
It was in early 2003 that Steve and I started looking for a place of our own. I'd had enough of living in rented flats, and I knew if I wanted to buy, I had to do it now - or else I would not be able to pay the mortgage in full until retirement. In March 2003, we found an advert in the paper and decided to look at the flat. It was the first one we ever looked at, and we both liked it instantly. For me, it was more the general look and feel of the house, plus of course the invaluably perfect geographic situation for us (neither of us ever learned how to drive); Steve, on the other hand, had done a lot of house renovations when he was younger, and could tell that the plumbing, electricity set-up etc. were all in very good order.
Still, I thought, you can't just go and get the first flat you look at, and so we went to look at a few others. None of those quite struck it with us the same way, though, and in the end, we rang the owner and made the contract. 
In October 2003, we moved in, and I have not looked back ever since. Ironically, I pay the same amount of money as a mortgage to my own place now than when I used to rent - with the difference that this is, one day, really going to be MY place (right now, it still largely belongs to the bank), and that I can do as I please and do not have to deal with landlords and landladies anymore.

Pictures of my flat can be found throughout my blog, and of course you are all familiar with the view from my kitchen window :-)

To celebrate the 10-year-anniversary here, I invited everyone who lives in this house and the next (two semi-detached houses with three flats each) on Saturday afternoon last week for a cup of coffee (or tea) and a brezel (a regional specialty). I expected somewhere around 10-12 people, and so I bought 15 brezeln, and set everything up in the kitchen.

To me, the main goal of this neighbourly gathering was that people would realize that there were others living in the same house - that they were not on their own, and that sometimes a bit of consideration towards the others (in terms of making or avoiding noise) would be a good idea. Also, in the house next door, tenants had recently changed, and I thought this a good chance to meet them.

Well... my invitation was for 3.00 pm, which usually is a convenient time on a Saturday for almost anyone. 3.00 came... and went. At 3.30, one of the neighbours rang the doorbell. He apologized for his wife not being there (she had to work) and his (grown-up) children being busy otherwise. I asked him about the tenants (they are his tenants), and he thought they didn't know of the invitation. He went back to fetch them, which took a while, because the young woman had to put on make-up first and do her hair.
The tenants downstairs of my flat were clearly not at home; all was quiet there, and the elderly couple living above me are still in Turkey, where they spend at least half of each year, it being their home country.
So... we ended up a tiny group of four adults and one 3-week-old baby, with 15 brezeln to share - and nobody wanted one!!!

We still had a nice chat and coffee together, and all know a bit more about each other now. The young couple with the baby asked whether I hear the baby when he cries; I said I do hear him, but it is never loud enough to wake me up, and he does not cry very long or very often. I did tell them that, when the husband smokes on their balcony, the smoke gets right into my bedroom when I have the window open (which is nearly always the case), and they were quite surprised to learn that. It was all very amiable, and they both said that, if they ever did anything that would bother me, I was to tell them instantly, for they certainly do not mean to be a nuisance. So, at least on this small scale, my goal was achieved.

It turned out that the wife of my next-door neighbour, the one who had to work on that Saturday, had taken off the invitation that I had sello-taped to the entrance door of the house next door, so that everyone living in that house could see it. She clearly did not think that it was meant for everyone - although, if I had meant to invite that one family only, I certainly would have put the inviation in their letter box and not stuck it to the door, wouldn't I!

The couple downstairs returned some time after 6.00. By then, I had put four brezeln in a bag which I hung at their door handle, with a note, saying that I was sorry they had not been there this afternoon and here are the brezeln that were meant for you.
When they found the bag, they briefly came upstairs to thank me. Somehow they had failed to check their letter box on Friday - I had put their invitation in on the Thursday. 

Another two hours later, the wife of my next-door neighbour came home from work; she rang to apologize for having had to work, congratulated me on the 10-year-anniversary and gave me a single red rose - I found that very sweet of her. I gave her another bag with brezeln for her and her family.

Still, I ate brezeln - toasted, of course, since they are not nice otherwise if they are more than half a day old - all weekend. I doubt I want another brezel anytime soon. And I shall organize my 20-year-anniversary a bit different, I think.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Read in 2013 - 39: Something Borrowed, Someone Dead

That I love M. C. Beaton's "Agatha Raisin" series is no secret to anyone who has been reading my blog for a while, and so I was looking forward to the latest book (# 24) in the series, "Something Borrowed, Someone Dead".

For some reason, which I can't really put my finger on, I seem to remember not having enjoyed "Hiss and Hers" (# 23 in the series) quite as much as most of the others, but re-reading my review from May of this year, I can't find any hint to that. Therefore, I guess my memory does not serve me right in this case.

And anyway - "Something Borrowed" is one I really enjoyed.

Agatha (who, more than 20 "years" after her first adventure, if you were to draw a timeline by the stories, is still described as being in her mid-fifties) seems to have learned a lesson or two from her previous adventures.
This time, she finds a love interest pretty soon into the story, but does not pursue the man as stubbornly as she has been famous for in the past. Also, she refrains from interfering with her youngest employee's private life, even though she thinks 19-year-old, pretty, blond, long-legged Toni is about to make a huge mistake.

Instead, she really does focus on the investigation of two murders that have taken place in a village much different from all the other Cotswolds villages she has come to be familiar with. This one, unlike the rest, has no newcomers and no tourists. Everyone's families have been living in the place for ages, everyone knows everyone else (which is, of course, not quite true, as Agatha soon finds out), and when there really is a newcomer, that lady gets poisoned with elderberry wine.
One of the parish councillors enlists Agatha's detective agency for help, because the close-knit community is shaken by the murder; everyone suspects everyone else, and it turns out that a lot of people had reason for disliking the newcomer - but not enough to warrant murder.

In her usual rather blunt manner, Agatha goes about investigating in the picturesque village. A second murder follows, and it is obvious that the intended victim was Agatha; sheer coincidence made her escape.

Her old friends rally round to help - ex-husband James, long-standing friend Sir Charles, the vicar's wife, Mrs. Bloxby, even Roy Silver puts in an appearance. 

There are a few surprises (at least there were for me), not just the solution of the murders. The pace is fast where it does no harm but detailed enough for the mental cinema to play along while you read.

When I go to lunch at my Mum's today, I'll pass the book to her. She ordered it and let me read it first - thank you, Mum!

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Read in 2013 - 38: The Mysterious Key

The full title of this novelette by Louisa May Alcott is "The Mysterious Key and What it Opened". It was published in 1867 and sold as a "dime novel". Dime novels were popular fiction in the 1860s, aimed at and made affordable to young working-class people. They were offered at newsstands and in dry-goods stores. The Library of Congress lists "The Mysterious Key" among the "books that shaped America" - you can read more about that here.

Of course, most of you will be familiar with Louisa May Alcott through her well-known "Little Women", but she wrote loads more. 
This novelette tells the story of the Trevlyn family and their dark secret that, when it comes to light, threatens their very existence.

There is romance, love, drama and (obviously) mystery in it, and it is both fast-paced and indulgent at the same time. Some of it (the romance bit) is rather obvious, but at some other aspects of the story I couldn't have guessed had not the author revealed it all at the end.

The language is typical for that time, with long sentences but words easy enough to understand (this was, after all, aimed at an audience with not that much formal education). To give you an example, let me quote one paragraph:
As she spoke to herself she rose, glided noiselessly through the hall, entered a small closet built in the thickness of the wall, and, bending to the keyhole of a narrow door, listened with a half-smile on her lips at the trespass she was committing. A murmur of voices met her ear. Her husband spoke oftenest, and suddenly some word of his dashed the smile from her face as if with a blow. She started, shrank, and shivered, bending lower with set teeth, white cheeks, and panic-stricken heart. Paler and paler grew her lips, wilder and wilder her eyes, fainter and fainter her breath, till, with a long sigh, a vain effort to save herself, she sank prone upon the threshold of the door, as if struck down by death. 
Mine was the free kindle edition and did not look like the original cover pictured here. It was a short read, one that I enjoyed on the train to and from work and one that did not engage my mind while I was not reading it. Recommended for a spot of light old-fashioned entertainment.

More about Louisa May Alcott can be found here

Only two more posts and it will be post # 500 on this blog! I'm afraid it will nothing more exciting than just another book review, but I hope you'll bear with me nonetheless.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Read in 2013 - 37: Brought Home

In my previous post I mentioned a backlog of three book reviews; today I am going to make an effort to get started on the first one.

For a while, I thought I was not going to write a review on "Brought Home" by Hesba Stretton, because the book seemed too short and too moralisingly religious for my own taste; I did think of not finishing it at first, but in the end, I decided not only to finish reading it but also to write about it here.
At first glance, "Brought Home" seems to be just one more of the many novels meant to be spiritually edifying, aimed at (mostly) girls, and frequently given as Sunday school prizes; one more that tries to instill the importance of virtue and the dangers of sin into young minds. Nowadays, a lot of our ideas about sins and virtues are very different to what was generally understood back then - on the surface. If you look properly, though, you will find that we are not that different under many aspects from those who lived back then.

When was "back then"? The author, Hesba Stretton (her real name was Sarah Smith), lived from 1832 to 1911. She was from Shropshire, England, and the daughter of a bookseller. At her time, she was very popular; Wikipedia says that one of her books sold ten times more than "Alice in Wonderland".
And yet, her writing was different in that she had practical experience with the kind of people she wrote about, having worked with slum children in Manchester and having witnessed close-up all manners of cruelties and degradation. Let me quote Wikipedia again: [said experience] gave her books a greater sense of authenticity, for Stretton's books drive home the abject state of the poor with almost brutal force. She became one of the co-founders in 1894 of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which combined with similar societies in other cities such as Manchester to form the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children some five years later.

"Brought Home" is, in short, the story of a vicar and his wife. She becomes an alcoholic, and the book not only describes how this was possible for someone of her standing, but also how people treat her, how her husband and the village react to her illness, what is done (or not done!) to help her, and how she eventually recovers and is, in more than one sense, brought home.

The way Hesba Stretton deals with the subject is very interesting. Not only does she explain that, in fact, alcoholism is not limited to the lowest social stratum of society, but also that self-righteousness and claiming to be good Christians does nothing to help an addict. I imagine that, back then, this particular story may have been quite an eye-opener for some. Her understanding of alcoholism seems profound, and I guess she had spoken in depth to more than one sufferer in order to be able to write about it in the way she did. She never accuses, merely describes and explains, and that made me decide to write this review and not feel ashamed about having read something so "Sunday-schooly-ish".

Wednesday 2 October 2013

September Selection

Here is an assortment of pictures I took during the last month (where did it go, by the way? No month this year passed as quickly as September, I think!).

The view from my kitchen window on the first foggy morning of this season. It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, as is often the case when it looks like this at first.

An old school friend and I met last week after work for a walk in the park. It is beautiful no matter what time of the year, but you only see these fantastic colours now, in September and October:
That's my shadow there, and my friend's next to me.

Yes, it's that time of the year again; I've showed you the pumpkin exhibition last year already. This year, I did not find that much of it worth a picture, but I really liked this display in one corner of the hospitality area: 

Sorry for the blurred picture, but the lighting was rather difficult by then. It was almost 6.00 pm, the time when the kiosk and temporary restaurant closes down, and there were hardly any people left. We still got ourselves a tiny bottle of pumpkin sparkling wine each, though, and enjoyed it at this table.

This year's theme for the pumpkin exhibition is Sports, and as I said, there isn't much I thought worth taking a picture of. The alpine ski display was funny, though:

 And of course, the world's heaviest pumpkin is on display! It weighs, as you can see, more than 1.000 kg, and is so large I guess two people could comfortably fit inside if it were hollow:
 Some more beautiful flowers in the park, their colours matching the season so well:

On Sunday, RJ and I went for a long walk (almost 5 hours altogether). We rewarded ourselves for our efforts with a delicious Sunday lunch at a Chinese restaurant. It was served so prettily, with a bird made out of a carrot:

On our way back, we came across this tree which was quite ahead of all the other trees in terms of colours; everywhere else is still more green than yellow, orange, red and brown.
The heron in the field was totally unfazed by people walking by, but I suspect not many saw him, he stood almost perfectly still.

That was my little September Selection - now October has begun, and I already have a back log of three or four book reviews waiting to be written and posted.