Tuesday 26 November 2013

Sure Signs

...of it being that time of the year again: Christmas is fast approaching. Dreaded, I guess, by just as many as welcomed. For me, Christmas has not lost its magic; I still am as excited about it all as when I was a little girl.

Tonight, the Christmas market starts in my hometown. It is famous for being very beautifully laid out, and busloads of tourists come visiting every year. Just look at the picture on the official website and tell me you don't agree!

Sunday will be the first of the four Advent Sundays. It will also be the day when I'll put the few bits of Christmas decoration up that I want to see for the next six weeks or so. 

Other sure signs are:

My new boots! I finally found exactly what I wanted, after having looked around in two or three different shops, and then I couldn't decide on which pair - so I bought them both, something that would have been unthinkable only a year ago. But things have changed (for the better) since then, and so I walked out of the shop with two large boxes in bags, feeling like the proverbial shopaholic. My Mum was my good advisor, as usual.

The one pair is for every day wear, with a robust sole, and I chose them half a size larger than necessary, to be able to wear an extra pair of warm socks in them.

The other pair is obviously not made for snowy and very cold weather; it is very lightweight and feels as if you're not wearing any shoes at all. Inside their box, they came with an elegant satin bag to store them in, stating the manufacturer's name - a traditional company of over 175 years.

Last week, my Christmas parcel from England arrived! I was not going to open it until Christmas Day, but when I rang Mary to thank her, she asked me to open the parcel (just not the presents) beforehand, because she'd put Christmas cards inside for me, my parents and my sister. For now, it sits in the Third Room (which used to be Steve's bedroom).

I have almost all the presents ready that I want to give, except for a few things I hope to get maybe on Thursday at the Christmas market, and then I can wrap them all nicely and put those together that are going to be sent to England.

When I left work yesterday, it started to snow. I don't like winter and snow very much, but the first snow is always special, isn't it? Very fittingly, on the train I ended up standing next to an old man with a large white beard :-)
This morning, I woke up to these views which I will use to end today's post, wishing you all a happy, peaceful and stress-free (remember: that kind of stress is home-made!) three and a half weeks until Christmas!

PS: If you're looking for a small, individual present that is lightweight and unbreakable (and therefore easy to ship), have a look at my Mum's Etsy shop; the link is on the left side of my blog. There's still time enough for whatever you choose to arrive before Christmas.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Read in 2013 - 47: Life of Benjamin Franklin

The full title of this work by William M. (Makepeace) Thayer reads "From Boyhood to Manhood: Life of Benjamin Franklin", and - you guessed it - it was yet another free ebook I found on Amazon's Kindle shop.

The author lived from 1820 to 1898 and wrote the book long after its hero died. There is, of course, a lot about Franklin to be found on the internet; wikipedia is maybe the first stop if you want to know the basic facts about the man - or brush up on what you remember about him.
He lived from 1706 to 1790 and was - quoting wikipedia - "one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, a carriage odometer, and the glass 'armonica'. He facilitated many civic organizations, including a fire department and a university."

Thayer's book makes mention of almost all of this, but its focus is on Franklin's childhood and youth, which was spent mainly in Boston and Philadelphia.
According to the book, he was a highly intelligent child, an eager learner, and although he had the chance of only two years of proper schooling due to his parents' precarious financial situation, he took to reading and writing like a fish to water. A lot of his time was spent studying a variety of subjects; he must have used every waking minute (and sacrificed many an hour of sleep) on that. In a rather glorifying manner (and maybe a bit unrealistically), the author claims that young Benjamin excelled at anything he undertook, be it swimming, or printing, or learning a foreign language.
After a short stint at learning the trade of candle-making, which he hated, Benjamin became a printer, being apprenticed with his older brother at the age of 12. Circumstances put him in charge of the entire business of printing and editing a weekly paper as well as writing articles for it at the age of 15 or 16.

As lucky (and industrious) he was in terms of career and business, as unlucky was his choice of friends. Twice he was severely disappointed by close friends, causing him to lose a considerable amount of money.
He fell in love with and finally was allowed to get engaged and later married to Deborah Read.

How he became a statesman and arrived at all the other achievements mentioned above is described well in the book, but I hesitate to really recommend it. To me, it made a welcome change after several novels (more or less shallow ones, as you know from my previous posts). But I felt my patience tested quite a lot with this book: Thayer has a way of telling his readers about some event or other that occurs in his subject's lives, and a few pages on, a detailed account of the event or development is repeated in conversation between the main character and another person.
That can get quite annoying, and I must confess that I did go very quickly over some pages.

Still, it was interesting to learn a lot more about Franklin, his life and times than what I had known up to then. Also, I learned a lot about what business - especially the printing business - was like back then.
So, not a waste of time, just... quite a bit longer than necessary.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Read in 2013 - 46: Cocktails for Three

You guessed it - "Cocktails for Three" by Sophie Kinsella (writing as Madeleine Wickham, her real name) came to me in a parcel from my mother-in-law. I would not buy any of her books for myself, but I do like some light reading in the evenings, as you know from my previous post.

Also, I do like cocktails very much (as you know from several posts already, such as this one or the ones about my own cocktail parties, such as this year's party post). Therefore, seeing the title of this book, I thought, yes, that one sounds like fun.

Well, it is not quite full of light-hearted fun as you'd think. Quite the contrary. The story deals with postnatal depression, bullying at the work place, cheating, a fatal disease and grief.
There is friendship in the book and love, but also hate and people deliberately hurting others by their actions. There is trust, but also deceit. There are secrets, which shall all be revealed in the end, but not everything turns out well for everyone in the end.

Three friends meet once a month for cocktails, always at the same bar. They think of each other as being close, but they all harbour secrets - BIG secrets, with big consequences - from the others, which makes them question their closeness.

Most of what goes on in the book is rather credible, but as is so often the case when I read this kind of "chick lit", I can't but wonder at the amount of alcohol consumed by young, professional women. At least, this time, there is none of the "waking up next morning besides a stranger and not remembering how they got there", which is something I have always found rather unrealistic. Does that kind of thing really happen in the lives of young, professional woman as often as books and films want us to believe? I doubt it.

So, what I had expected to be very light reading turned out to give me quite a few things to think about, and left me somewhat sad several times. I did not have any preferred character, and did not care deeply for any of them, but the overall "message" (if I perceived it right) is something to be mulled over when my mind is not occupied otherwise.

By the way, the quip printed on the back of the book, taken from a review in "Marie Claire", is total rubbish: "These three women fairly sashay - or should that be stagger - off the page." No, they don't sashay at all, and while one of the women staggers a bit in one scene, that certainly does not characterize the whole story.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Read in 2013 - 45: Village Fortunes [and asking my fellow bloggers for help]

For some strange reason, I can not see the search option for my own blog; it used to be visible in the top left corner, but has disappeared. Of course I have checked my blog settings and layout, and it should be there; I haven't yet figured out how to fix this. Also, I can not see search boxes on other people's blogs, which has lead me to contact some of you about a book review I have read on one of your blogs but can't remember which one.

Does anyone else have or had this problem, and has any idea for me how to remedy it? I am using Mozilla's Firefox as a browser.


Now to the book review: "Village Fortunes" is the 17th installment of the Turnham Malpas series by Rebecca Shaw. Some years ago, my mother-in-law sent me the first three, and then kept sending them in small doses, until I was hooked and wanted to know what was happening in the village and to its inhabitants. 
(You can find my review for book # 16 here.) 

Some of you will probably shake your heads at my sometimes very simple literary taste, because not even the author's best friend could attribute a really good writing style to her. Usually, I appreciate books when the language is elegant without being too "artsy" in a forced manner. Well, the Turnham Malpas series is certainly neither elegant nor artsy - just cosy village stories that make you unwind when your brain has been very busy all day long with matters as dry as writing a manual for an insurance company's automatic document archivation system (one of my current projects).
An example of the sometimes "wooden" style (which, in my opinion, could have been edited to improve):
They spent a stormy Saturday, kind of speaking but not speaking all day, and Marie was glad when it was half past nine and she heard Barry tap softly on the back door. That was significant in itself coming to the back door as everyone used the front door because that was the easiest, seeing the way round the house was built.
That second sentence is, in my opinion, a misconstruction. It sounds like something a 6th-former would write. Or am I too picky?

In this book, Turnham Malpas' "big house" is inhabited by the young heir, his wife and their two babies. The heir's brother, who leads a hotel business in Brazil, comes visiting, and that visit is the cause for most of the drama in the story.

Also, a couple of former residents return to the village after a stint in prison, and opinions vary in the village as to whether that was a good idea or not. While generally, the couple are welcomed with open arms, there are still some who think that the prison sentence was deserved, and are quick to come to conclusions when the lead from the church roof is stolen.

The village shop owner's youngest daughter is torn between wanting to stay in the village and work at the shop and following her older siblings to university. Also, a secret love interest complicates matters, and eventually nearly puts her life in danger.

Another village character wants to find his now grown-up sons that were taken away by his ex-wife when they were little; after a life dedicated to business, he now feels he wants a proper family.

All these tales are intertwined because the characters know each other and live in the same village. There are many familiar faces, and a few new ones. It is a bit embarrassing, but I have to admit I can not remember the returning couple from previous books; I know I have read them all, but probably was not terribly interested in them the first time they appeared on the scene.

I must also admit that I enjoyed this book more than I remember having enjoyed the previous one. Be it that I was in the right mood, or that the writing was slightly better this time, I don't know. One thing I do know for sure, though: I will also make sure to get # 18.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Read in 2013 - 44: Falling for Christmas

I know, I know. It's a bit early yet to start on reading Christmas books, but this was in a parcel Mary sent me from England a week or so ago, and somehow it held the most appeal of the five or six books in there.

I have written about Debbie Macomber before on my blog; unfortunately, the "search" box on my blog seems to have disappeared, and I have unsuccessfully tried to get it back. Blogger keeps giving me server error messages this morning, so I can not link to my previous Debbie Macomber book reviews. 
EDIT: By using the "search" option on my own "posts" page, I found my previous review of a book by the same author here

"Falling for Christmas" contains two novels: "A Cedar Cove Christmas" and "Call Me Mrs. Miracle". Both are nice, cosy reads, just as you would expect from this author. I liked "Call Me Mrs. Miracle" more, maybe because "A Cedar Cove Christmas" was limited to only two days (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) and one place (mainly one house in Cedar Cove), whereas the second story is set in New York and spans a slightly longer period.

Also, by starting "A Cedar Cove Christmas" with the main character looking back from a year's distance to the events of those two days spoils the fun a little, since you as the reader are told from the very first page who the main character, Mary Jo, is going to end up with.
Mary Jo is a young woman about to become a single mother. The father is an irresponsible man who has no interest whatsoever in settling down, and Mary Jo knows that when she sets out on Christmas Eve to find him and his family in Cedar Cove.
Her three brothers, worried about her, follow on the next day on what they think is going to be a rescue mission. But by the time they locate their little sister, she is in very good hands.

For me, it is a bit too loaden with Christmas clichées, but then again, I wasn't to expect anything else, and I did enjoy it in that it was very cosy and relaxing to read this tucked up in bed at night after a demanding day at the office.

The second story is also rather foreseeable, but not quite so much. Also, I can relate a bit more to its main character. Holly is a hard-working woman who has recently taken in her 8-year-old nephew to live with her while his father, her widowed brother, is in Afghanistan with the army. She has to adjust to living with a little boy, and troubles at work as well as a just finished relationship to a man.
All ends well, of course, and for Holly as well as for all the other characters in the book, this Christmas turns out to be "the best ever", and one none of those involved will forget.
I have never been to New York, but for me, the author has managed to convey the atmosphere of New York at Christmas time really well.

Read this if you want some light, unupsetting and cosy entertainment in theme with the upcoming season. Do not read this if you dislike happy endings and cheesy clichées.

Sunday 10 November 2013

The Bluest Dress I Ever Had

In this post I told you about my shopping afternoon and showed you one of the spoils I brought home. I also mentioned that I was going to show you my other finds, and here they are:
This blue dress simply HAD to come home with me! It said "Meike" all over when I saw it at the shop, and although it does not look much on the hanger, I think it looks really good when worn. I have already worn it to work, but it is good enough for an evening out, too.
What you can't see properly in the picture are the earrings I am wearing. My Mum gave me these during our shopping trip, because they so perfectly match the dress: just one single glittery "stone" of exactly the same blue.

Here is how my dress is presented on the Hallhuber (the dresses' fashion label) website:
Even if I say so myself, I like it much better on me than on her! (She may be less than half my age, very pretty and with beautiful hair, but she is too skinny.)

Hallhuber is, by the way, a label where I almost always find something, and usually, those finds become firm favourites that stay with me for years, for instance the yellow dress.

My third new acquisition is the one I actually went shopping for: I wanted a simple, classic, no-nonsense grey pair of trousers fit for business, and I found this one at comma:
Comma is yet another one of those labels with a high potential for favourite pieces, such as the knit dress and this suit, or the silk skirt I wore to the Golden Wedding recently. With both comma and Hallhuber, I often browse their clothes racks at the shop and don't see anything I like - or if I do, it is too expensive -, but when I do find something, it seems as if it was made for me. And that is the only reason why I continue to look at their range of clothes; I don't mind at all what brand names I wear, but I simply know that some labels have just what I like (and I wear clothes found at the supermarket, too; that tells you something about how "label conscious" I am!).

Winter is my least favourite time of the year, but it is made a little easier and nicer if I know I have nice things to wear.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Read in 2013 - 43: Frances

This book was a surprise in that I had not checked any product information before downloading it as one of the many free ebooks (it is not free now) on my Kindle.
"Frances" by Mary Carmen is the fictional autobiography of Frances Myllar, written from her hospital bed in the year 2040.

By and by, the reader learns some of the things that have happened in the decades between now and 2040: there has been another world war, with all its political and economial consequences, and climatic changes mean that people dress different from the way we do now.

Let me give you the story's synopsis directly from Amazon's product page:
"Frances Myllar is a beautiful, intelligent, and rich prisoner of her family. She and her three siblings are guarded around the clock. In 2040 Frances is crippled by a terrible accident and uses her convalescence to write her life's story. Frances's story includes romance, honors for her work, a loveless marriage, and two children. It also includes her close relationships with her happy-go-lucky brother and her brilliant mother. The events of 2040 turn Frances's life around. From her hospital bed she makes decisions and sets in motion events that will free her from her family and her cold husband. Frances cannot know these decisions will also give her the opportunity for worldwide fame and executive responsibility."
While the story unfolds, one can not help wondering how come Frances allowed her life to be completely ruled by others and not once decides anything for herself. Instead, she goes about all her manifold duties and tasks with not a word of complaint. Everything she does is a success, and there is not one single thing that could be considered a failure.
Even her "romance" does not sound romantic at all; the (few) "steamy" scenes are extremely clinical, like describing sex between Barbie and Ken. Her feelings are as good as non-existent, or at least they never become apparent to me.  There is no humour, everything sounds technical and perfect.
Frances and everyone else in the book appear therefore rather flat, not like people of flesh and blood. I can not relate to her at all, and wonder if it's just me, or others who have read the book feel the same.

Now that I am putting my impression into words, I begin to think that maybe this technical perfection is exactly what the author meant to convey. If this was her intention, she has succeeded very well.

You can learn more about Mary Carmen and her books on her website.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Good Days, Sad Times

My life isn't different from anyone else's in that there are always Good Things as well as stuff that makes me sad or angry, although I often get the impression that I get a lot more of the Good Things than many people I know.

The last two weeks or so are a good example of such ups and downs, with definitely more ups than downs, so here is a brief (at least I'll try to keep it that way) summary:

The week before last, I only worked on Monday and Tuesday, and had the rest of the week off. I spent those days off doing such nice things as going shopping, having cocktails and resting.

My Mum went shopping with me, and showed a lot of patience in moving with me from one shop to the next, finding the items I was trying on in a different size and so on. I came home with a pair of shoes, a pair of grey trousers (for the office) and a dress - and in need of a nice mug of coffee on my settee!
The shoes. I am going to show you the dress in another post, and maybe the grey trousers, too.

On the following day, I went for lunch at my Mum's. Before climbing the stairs to my parents' place, I stopped at the ground floor flat of a friend of my Mum's who had asked us for a glass of sparkling wine. We shared that with her and one of her cats (don't worry, of course the cat did not have any of the sparkling wine - but she threw down and smashed one of the glasses shortly after this picture was taken).
She's a Maine Coon, her name is Velvet, and she's just beautiful - and of a very pleasant, easy-going disposition.

While my Mum was getting lunch ready, I took this picture of her balcony. Today, when I went there for my lunch break again, the beautiful hibiskus had been moved to its winter place in the staircase, and the flowers were almost all gone. It is, after all, November.

Later, we met up with my sister and went to have cocktails together, something we had not done in a long time. It was a proper girls' night, with some giggling and several drinks for each of us. The one I am holding there is what I almost always have at that place. It is called Bounty and tastes just like the chocolate bar of the same name: of coconut and chocolate. Its colour is a creamy white with a light brown chocolaty tinge, not yellow at all - that's just due to the very low lights at the bar.

Friday was spent relaxing, cleaning and shopping for food, and on the Saturday, RJ and I finally went dancing again, for the first time since June or July! We had a great time on the dance floor.

I had one more day off on the Monday, but ended up with a headache bad enough to keep me from working on the following Tuesday. By Tuesday evening, I was right as rain again. And no, that headache had nothing to do with sparkling wine or cocktails!
The mulberry tree in front of my living room window
The quince tree next to it
On Wednesday and Thursday, I worked as usual. Thursday was Halloween, as you all know; it is not a German tradition and has been introduced here only about 10 or 15 years ago for the sake of business. I never got into the whole Halloween thing, and am always glad that nobody rings my doorbell then. My house is in the second row from the road, and not many people know that it is even there. When my doorbell was rung 10 minutes after I had come home from work, I expected it to be some trick-or-treating kids, and at first did not want to answer. But then I did answer, and a woman's voice, sounding rather agitated, asked whether I had a cat. I said that I didn't, not anymore, but the family downstairs had one, why? She then explained that she and her husband had just witnessed a cat being run over by a car on the street where I live, and when I asked her what the cat looked like and she said it was a tiger, of course I thought it was Lucky, my downstairs neighbours' cat (you've seen him several times on my blog). Nobody was home downstairs, so I put my shoes and my coat back on and followed the woman, her husband and their babies in the twin pram to the street corner where the poor cat had died a minute ago.

Another neighbour had by then wrapped the dead cat in a towel and removed it from the road. I asked to see it, so that I could identify it, and immediately recognized it as not being Lucky, but another cat I'd often met and sometimes stroked on my way to the supermarket. Once I said which cat it was, the neighbour with the towel had a closer look and said that I was right; it turned out the knew the name of the cat (Krümel, which means crumb, a German nickname for someone really small) and was on first-names terms with its owner. He now had the sad task of taking the dead cat to said owners and break the sad news to them. I went home, still a bit upset, but also glad that it had not been Lucky - and even more glad that poor little Krümel was already dead by the time I got there. It would have been unbearable to find him still alive, knowing there was nothing that we could do, the injuries were too serious.

Adding to my sadness was that I thought of Steve more than usual; it would have been his 45th birthday.

Friday, November the 1st, was a bank holiday in my part of Germany, and I was glad to have another day of rest.
RJ and I wore matching outfits.

On Saturday, my parents, RJ and I attended my Godmother's Golden Wedding. It was a nice day, starting off with a church service, during which the "Golden couple" renewed their marriage vows. The choir sang, the old church was warm and cosy, and I felt rather moved by some of the lines in the songs and in the prayers. For me, it was the first time after 43 years that I was back at the church where I had been baptized.
The reception after the service was good, too; there was plenty of delicious food, conversation with many people, some of which I had not seen in 20 years, and some games and performances by the couple's children and grandchildren.

Sunday was another Good Day. It was sunny and very, very windy, and RJ and I went for a long, wind-blown walk across the fields. At times the wind was so strong I could lean into it without falling over!

This week, I am back to my normal work schedule. Today is the 4th anniversary of Steve's death. It does not feel different from any other day, but of course that bizarre evening, the 5th of November 2009, is very much present in my mind. Nobody could have predicted the events of that day, or how my life changed after that. What I feel today, more than anything else, is immense gratitude towards all who were (and still are) there for me - not only during the first few hours, days and weeks, but also in the months that followed, and still bear with me when I keep mentioning Steve in (almost) everyday conversation. And of course I am thinking of Mary, my mother-in-law, a lot today. I have written about her a few times already; you can read one of those posts here.

Oh dear - this post has become much longer than I thought. If you are still here and have not fallen asleep from my rambling, congratulations - you've made it! Today's post ends