Wednesday 26 February 2014

Read in 2014 - 5: Henrietta's Wish

Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823 - 1901) was an immensely prolific author, producing around 90 novels, plus writing or editing 150 biographies, textbooks, (natural) history books and translations. Many of her books were bestsellers in their day, and apparently she "is cited more times than Jane Austen in the Oxford English Dictionary’s most quoted female sources (sixth overall, with George Eliot top of the list)." (I found this information, as well as pictures of Miss Yonge, her house and the room where most of her writing took place, here. She is said to have been held in high esteem by Anthony Trollope and Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf and Barbara Pym, among others.

"Henrietta's Wish; or, Domineering" was published in 1853 and is very much a typical example of Victorian girls' literature. If you can't stand constant reference to Christian morals, you better not read this book. But if you like family stories about friendship, and how different members of a family deal with changes in their lives, and don't mind the (to our ears) rather silly-sounding dialogues that sometimes go on a bit, you'll probably enjoy this book. (Mine was of course a free kindle-edition.)

In short, Henrietta and her twin brother Frederick grow up fatherless, but with no financial worries. Their mother was widowed one week after their birth, and saw only one way of coping with the untimely loss of her beloved husband: moving away from the village where everyone and everything reminded her of their happy years together.

The book starts when the twins are sixteen, and Henrietta makes it her goal to have the three of them move back to the heart of the family, much against her mother's wish at first. Eventually, she succeeds, and involuntarily sets in motion a chain of events that lead to much unhappiness, some danger and even death.

Until the more dramatic events begin to unfold (more than halfway through the book), all seems bright and beautiful: the twins get along greatly with their cousins, like their aunts and uncles and are very fond of their grandparents. Their mother seems to settle in well, and takes interest in buying a house in the village and having it renovated for them. The plan is to stay at the big house with her parents-in-law until their own place is ready.
In the meantime, there are walks, visits, ice-skating, charades, church-decorating, singing and all sorts of innocent entertainment deemed appropriate for young people from wealthy families. The boys have school matters to discuss, and the girls are forever rushing upstairs to fetch their bonnets before going out.

I must confess I was getting a bit bored with all the merry-making (of course sprinkled with moralistic hints all the time), but then an accident happens that changes things for everyone involved.
From then on, I began to care a bit about the characters. Sometimes, I would have liked to shake them and scream at them for being so set in their Victorian narrow-mindedness. 

Altogether, the story left me with mixed feelings. I do agree with many of the values Miss Yonge outlines, but I can not abide the moralizing.

By the way: you are still very welcome to contribute to our blovel!

Monday 24 February 2014

A SUNday living up to its name

That is exactly what we had yesterday: A Sunday of sunny blue skies and the typical early-spring mixture of warmth once you were in the sun and chilliness as soon as you were in the shadow of a building or behind trees.
My original plan had been to go for the same walk described here, but then my sister convinced me that it was a much better idea to have a look at the first flowers in the palace grounds than to walk on the still rather bleak and featureless fields.

We arrived to much beauty, and thankfully, not too many people in the park, since it was lunch time.

The carp living in the fountain of the palace's inner courtyard are very old, and very big - some of them have about the length and width of one of my thighs! Sometimes in the summer, I put my arm in and give them a little stroke. They come up and look at you and you wonder what goes on behind those eyes.

This building (which never really was anything but a ruin, put there on purpose back in the days when it was fashionable for members of the aristrocacy to have a few "ancient ruins" in their landscaped parks) is where my Mum will have her 70th birthday celebration in August. Weather permitting, we'll have champagne out on the lawn in front (not visible here) and a posh dinner inside.

One of my recent posts showed the trailer of an exhibition about the connection between the Royal House of Württemberg and the Russian Tsars. In that post, I said that we did not get to see the exhibition because we would have had to queue about an hour for the tickets alone, and nobody in our group of friends was willing to do that. But my sister went to see the exhibition last week, and told me about it. We talked about some of the people from that time and were not quite sure who was the one who had a monument to his closes friend erected on the old cemetery, so we decided to walk over there and have a look.

I wrote about this monument here in 2010; it was Friedrich, the first king of Württemberg.

We also paid a visit to the tomb of the last king of Württemberg (Wilhelm - not Friedrich; thanks to my sister who pointed out my error) and were amazed at how neglected it looks. Couldn't the state of Württemberg afford to pay a gardener to take care of its last king's last resting place? Not a single flower in sight!

Generally, the Old Cemetery (as opposed to the New Cemetery next door, which is still in use) is a park today. There are the tombs of some locally famous people there, plus monuments to the dead from the two World Wars and the 1870/71 war between France and Germany.

The oldest tomb still identifiable (there must have been some older ones, but their stones and exact locations are lost) is this one from 1768, for a man who was born in 1688. The town itself is not much older, the foundation for the palace having been laid in 1704 (and it took a few decades because anything resembling a town formed around it).

We met this little fellow on the way out and back to the park. He was not in the least bothered by us, and we were really close.

All in all, we walked for about 3 hours. It felt so good being out in the sun!

Friday 21 February 2014

A Film, a "Book" and a Walk

This is a three-in-one post, plus an appeal for more contributions to our blovel; so far, there are only 2 contributions, which is not very exciting and makes me want to think about ending the experiment.

Back to business: A film, a "book" and a walk. What first? The "book", I suppose. Why do I keep putting the word in speech marks? Because "1980 - 1982 Memories of an '80s Kid" by Louise Gilpin hardly qualifies as a book. It is very short (Amazon gives an estimated 31 pages on the kindle shop product page), and, as the title says, not a novel but a succession of memories of the author herself. 
Louise Gilpin was 8 years old in 1980 and loved pop music. She remembers the entire decade mainly for its songs, or rather, any event she can think of is somehow tied to a particular song. I suppose we all have such memory-triggers that work like tiny time-machines, instantly taking us back to certain places and events from our past when we hear a certain song. It was interesting to read what a lot of those well-known songs from the early 1980s mean to the author. She writes about her home life, about school and her first time at a youth disco, how she longed for a particular type of haircut, the roller-skating with her best friend, and most fondly of all, about her grandparents. We see what Christmas was like with this family, how the relationship with her older brother worked, and can relate to how upset the little girl was when the family dog had to be put to sleep. 
It is, all in all, not an unpleasant read, but more often than not, the author digresses a lot, not having much of a chronological order. If I were to advise Louise Gilpin (who, by her own words, means to publish her memories of the rest of the '80s), I'd say:
Dear Louise, why don't you start blogging? You could write a seperate post about each of the events or people you remember so well. You could easily incorporate your favourite '80s songs by embedding youtube videos in each post. And you could digress as much as you like - nobody would expect any order to your posts. I am sure you'd soon have many followers, who'd love to reminisce with you. 

Now for the film: I was in the mood for the telly last night instead of playing my Sims, reading or writing, and found that "Night at the Museum" was on. Now, I knew about this film but had never watched it; plus I have to admit I am neither particularly keen on Ben Stiller nor on Robin Williams. But the mere idea caught my attention: Who has not, at some stage or other in their childhood, imagined being on their own at night in a place where usually you were supposed to be only during the day and under constant supervision? Who has not wondered what it would be like, what discoveries were waiting in the nightly place, so different in the dark and without people? Well, I know I have often imagined this about the palace here in Ludwigsburg, which has featured several times on my blog (for instance here.) When I was little, I used to imagine how I would get up at night, taking the exact amount of the bus fare from my pocket money, and walk to the bus stop not far from our house. I knew which bus to take and where to get off. I never thought about how I'd actually get inside the palace; somehow I simply assumed some door would be open. I imagined myself walking along the silent corridors, entering the beautifully furnished and decorated rooms I'd seen so many times on guided tours. I would look at everything but touch very little; I knew everything was old and rather fragile. Ghosts? That idea did not scare me; I didn't really think there were any ghosts at the palace, but I would not have been surprised if a few statues came alive and roamed the moonlit place.

Now, that is exactly what happens in "Night at the Museum": The exhibits come alive! At first, the new night guard (Stiller) does not want to spend another night there and quits his job. But circumstances make it necessary for him to go back, and this time, he rises to the challenge and prepares himself. He gets help from Theodore Roosevelt (Williams), but after initial success in dealing with the exhibits and their tendency to create havoc, things take a turn for the worse, and the guard is fired the next morning. Of course, the movie would end there if the guard had not pleaded with the museum's director for one last chance, and he finds himself back on the job for a third night.
The classic story-telling loves "threes", and so of course the third night is the night that decides it all, and where mysteries are solved.
The film is fast-paced, the living exhibits are well done in my opinion, and there is not too much cheesiness. It is a fun, feel-good film which I enjoyed watching, but I will certainly not buy the DVD (or the computer game).

And the walk: Ever since the famous summer of 2003 (the hottest and driest in my memory, as well as statistically, I think), whenever possible, I have made my way home from work not only by train, but included an hour-long walk. To do that, I simply get off one stop before my hometown, and walk the rest. In winter, I can't do that, because it is dark by the time I leave work, and stumbling across pitch black fields (in my business clothes) is not my idea of after-work fun.
But the hours of daylight are already considerably longer than what they were a few weeks ago, and yesterday was a beautiful sunny day which promised even longer-lasting daylight.
So I spontaneiously got off at the small town bordering my hometown and walked, the setting sun to my left. It took me 50 minutes to get home, and a pleasant walk it was: blackbirds were singing their beautiful melancholy songs, a buzzard sat on a grassy field so close I was tempted to take a picture with my mobile phone but was afraid he'd fly away if I stopped; few people were walking or cycling along the same path, and the church bells rang in the evening at 6.00, twenty minutes into my walk.

I took this picture (with my mobile phone, which explains the bad quality) on the tree-lined avenue that connects the two towns. It is a road I very much like and have walked often. There are mistletoes in nearly every one of those trees, but this one has the most.

That was my three-in-one post for today.  And now, back to work (home office today).

Friday 14 February 2014

Read in 2014 - 4: Forget-Me-Not

A book that has deeply touched me, creating a lasting impression like no other that I have read recently, is "Forget-Me-Not" by Ruth S. Ozan.

As an autobiography, it is far from complete: apart from pro- and epilogue, it spans only a few years in the life of the author, from 1939 to 1946. But those were crucial years in more than one way. Not only did they shape the attitude and character of young Ruth, but many of the events that formed our entire world took place in those few years, extending their influence from the past to the present and future of so many.

Ruth’s parents are German immigrants living and working in the US when she is born. In 1939, the family decide to go back to Germany because of a job offer from his old work place (the Krupp steel factory) her father can’t resist. At seven years old, Ruth is happiest where her parents are, but finds some things in her family’s country of origin hard to understand. She soon learns not to ask too many questions; her parents are often unable, sometimes unwilling, to answer them. But she is not stupid and notices things happening around her that should not be happening, such as an elderly lady being served last at the butcher’s because she is Jewish and wears a yellow star sewn to her coat.
Unfortunately, the family have chosen the eve of WWII for their return to Germany, something they were not aware of at the time, but which had consequences on every family member in a different way.

For Ruth, the outbreak of the war means the start of a period of instability in her young life. Time and time again, she is put into the care of more or less distant relatives, and at one stage even left at an orphanage. While the pushing about of the little girl from one place to the other is not always understandable (her parents had more children after her, so why was she sent away? Why did they have so many children if they were not able to look after them all?), it was not unusual – and obviously the most reasonable thing to do – for children from cities to be sent out in the country during the war, where they were safer from the bombings, and more food and fresh air was available.

The little girl gets so used to being separated from her family that she does not even want to go back with her mother when she has the opportunity. Instead, she really takes to country life and spends the happiest time of her years in Germany in a village with one of her aunts, who loves her very much and treats her like her own daughter. It is during that time that Ruth has the experience of sowing a field of wheat, which leaves a lasting impression on her young mind and heart:
"I am sowing a field of wheat! It will grow and when it is tall and golden, the wind will make it wave back and forth, and it will be my field, my crop. I'm making something live."

As the war comes closer to home and her father is drawn into the army, her mother and siblings come to live in a small country town together with Ruth. For the first time in years, she lives with them again. During the last terrible months of the war, all public life falls into disorganization. Regular schooling stops, and everybody just tries to get by and survive somehow. When finally the war ends and the Americans reach the small town, it is a new beginning for Ruth and her mother: They are among the few people who speak English; her mother’s help is enlisted for translating between the townspeople and the American military, and Ruth, now 13 years old, has her first kiss.

Various events and especially the attitude of people around her convince Ruth that there is no future for her in Germany. She wants to go back to America – this time, she is separated from her family on her own initiative.

Throughout the book, it is obvious that the author really lived through all the events described. The thoughts and ideas a little girl may have about the goings-on around her, with no understanding of politics, are very much like I would imagine a child really thinking at that age. Nothing suggests bitterness or trying to find anyone to blame for what certainly was not an easy, care-free childhood. I really came to care about Ruth and her siblings, and liked the way the book‘s title „Forget-Me-Not“ is explained by and by.

Mrs. Ozan is, to my knowledge, still alive. I have not found an author’s homepage for her, but wish I could write to her, letting her know how much her book touched me. It is available in German and in English. My mother, who was born the year before the war ended, read it in German and recommended this wonderful book to me. I, in turn, recommend it to all of you.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Guest Post By My Mum: A Good Advice

or: How a Walk Can Lead To a Guest Post.

Last Friday, I had the day off. My original plan was to go for a nice long walk, something I'd not done in a while and was really looking forward to, especially when Thursday was a beautiful sunny day. Friday morning, though, was grey and wet. I resigned myself into simply enjoying a lazy day at home, but in the early afternoon, it cleared up a little and looked as if, although still grey, it would not be raining again in the next few hours. So I rang my Mum and we arranged to go for a walk together.

If you have been reading my blog for a while, maybe you'll know that I have a thing not only about doors and doorways, but also about wide open spaces. Every now and then, some of my most highly esteemed fellow bloggers provide me with wonderful pictures of such spaces (you know who you are!), something I am always happy to look at.

When we reached the fields, there was hardly anybody about, it being a Friday afternoon and not yet quite the weekend. Our area has a lot of industry and certainly not the best air quality, and the landscape is really as featureless as it looks in these pictures, but it is our home country, and we are quite attached to it.

The pictures give you a pretty good idea of how vast it is just a few hundred yards from town, and what kind of weather it was. As you can see, the sun was trying hard! There was even a narrow strip of blue sky showing! That blue strip widened quite nicely later on, but I did not take any more pictures by then.

At some stage, my Mum said she wanted to tell me something that I might find strange. But let her say it in her own words, in the shape of a guest post (her first since last July):

A Good Advice

The older I become, the more I look back at my past, my childhood, my youth, and the more I regret that there is no-one left of the generation before me. The reason is: I cannot ask about  things and events anymore, which happened long ago, or about facts from our town, for example, which former building or square was on a certain corner.

And I also regret very much that I didn't always listen properly when my mother told me old stories, because now it is too late, I can't ask her anymore. Though my memory reaches far, nearly until when I was three, there are some experiences rather vaguely in my mind ore quite lost. And sometimes when I am thinking about a specific matter,  I would be very glad to have one of my parents or relations to help me further.

My brother is only five years older than me, and he remembers some things better, but he is the same generation as well.

So I said to my daughters, ask all the questions you may have now, while our minds are still clear, before it will also be too late.

Perhaps that sounds a bit sentimental, but as I talked about this topic with friends my age, most of them told me that they have quite the same feelings. So I give all the young people my good advice: use the chance to learn about the past, otherwise it will be lost for all times.

- - - End of guest post - - -

Maybe you are not too surprised to hear that I never tire of hearing the "old stories". I may not always show as much patience as I should, patience never having been one of my strengths, but that does not mean I don't want to hear about the past (my own childhood as well as from long before I was born).

My Mum's advice has always proved to be good, and I will certainly heed this one!

By the way, my next book review will tie in nicely with this post. 

Sunday 9 February 2014

An Evening With Friends Revisited

The first "Evening with Friends" post was this one, and of course there have been many more such evenings in the meantime; at least one every month with this particular group of friends. It still is our regular get-together on the first Friday of the month, and the day before yesterday, it was that.

The reason why the headline of this post has the word "Revisited" is that we went back to the same place. Because I remembered how much some of you liked walking along with me to the castle, I took my camera with me once more.

This time, though, it was quite different from that summer's evening of 2011: It was not particularly cold, but pitch black dark by the time I set off from home, and instead of the pink summer dress I wore last time, now I was in my padded winter coat and a knit dress with woolly tights and boots, plus the usual equipment of scarf, gloves and handbag.

When I got off the train in Asperg and started to walk towards the footpath that is the shortest way up to the castle, I found out that the street lights end at the bottom of the hill. I wasn't afraid of anything (or anyone) lurking in the dark, but I was not keen on stumbling on the uneven, steep path and maybe hurting myself - I need both my legs in top condition in order to be able to do all the things I like doing.

So back to the road I went, walking along there with cars whizzing by, something I don't like at all. 

Halfway up the hill begins the fortification with the gate. Cars are allowed through there, and the road is rather narrow. But as you can see, there are niches in the walls (where once soldiers stood), so I knew I'd be safe. In the end, no car went through there while I was walking up.

Looking back the way I came.

The gatehouse/tower from below. The restaurant where I was to meet my friends is behind the lit windows. Compare this to the pictures of the post from August 2011.
It looks easy from there, doesn't it, as if you'd just have to get inside the building now. But... there is no direct access from there. Instead, you have to go through the gate and the tunnel, turn right and walk up another relatively steep road, only dimly lit:

But once you've made it to the top, a nighttime view of the surrounding small towns and villages is the reward. The four lights in a row at the bottom right of the picture are part of the road I walked up, from the first picture.

When we were little, for New Year's Eve sometimes our parents would make us go to bed as usual, and then wake us in time for getting us wrapped up in our warmest winter clothes, and take us to the top of the hill. From there, we'd watch the fireworks over our hometown, which is clearly visible from the castle walls.

No fireworks that night, though. But my friends were waiting for me, there was light, it was warm (and very noisy in the small restaurant with the thick old castle walls!), and we had an evening of good food, some drinks and plenty of laughter.

I did not take a picture of my main course, since it was a very standard mixed salad (and I was not even given a piece of baguette, which usually accompanies a salad ordered as a main course). But the dessert was nice. Mine was chocolate mousse with rhubarb:

For the way back, I did not need to take the train. One of my friends went the same direction and gave me a lift, something I was quite grateful for.

Next time, we'll try a new Chinese restaurant that has recently opened in our area.

Friday 7 February 2014

Read in 2014 - 3: Sir Humphrey of Batch Hall

[If you want to write your part for "The Hummus Hunters", you can do that here.]

First of all, my apologies to the author for having taken so uncharacteristically long to read the second novel he so kindly gave me as a free review copy. Sorry, Peter!

Earlier on this week, I finished „Sir Humphrey of Batch Hall“, and the actual reading did not take long at all – it was „getting round to it“ that took from the end of July until now.

The first novel in the Batch Magna series, „The Cuckoos of Batch Magna“, deals with the arrival of the American heir to an estate in an idyllic river valley on the border between England and Wales, and the changes this arrival brings to the land and its inhabitants, last but not least to the heir himself. I enjoyed „Cuckoos“ very much and was looking forward to reading the second novel. In short, my expectations were exceeded.
(You can find my review of the first book here.) 

Somehow I liked the second book even better than the first. The same characters the reader became acquainted with in the first book reappear, plus several new ones; some of them likable, some of them less so. The same poetically descriptive language fills the pages and the mind.

But the outcome of the first book was relatively predictable, because had things not turned out well in the end, there would not have been a series. „Sir Humphrey“ has more suspension in that unfolding events could lead to more than one possible result. While in „Cuckoos“ love stories develop between some of the characters, this time you're in for a proper mystery. The way it is solved is told in a manner that makes you alternatingly laugh and grip the book harder.

The chapters are of exactly the right length to read „just one more“ before putting the lights out, or to last me the short train ride to and from work. The language is, as I said, poetically descriptive, and that is maybe most obvious when the river is depicted, especially at night. So atmospheric you feel quite „there“. 

My favourite characters are the Commander and his wife. I also like Humphrey and Clem, but am not too fond of Jasmine or Phineas, although I can't really put my finger on the reasons. I guess it is like with real people; you take an instant liking to someone but never quite warm to someone else.

The editing could have been better; I found many typesetting erros that conscentious editing would have noticed. For instance, in Chapter 16, it is said about the reverend „...when he was in the pupil“ instead of the pulpit. But I also know that books are not produced the same way they used to be, and since such errors were not frequent enough to spoil the pleasant reading experience (plus I had been given the review copy for free), I am not complaining – just stating.

At the end of this book, there is a shorter story, a few chapters long, called „The Famous Cricket Match“. I must admit I quick-read good part of it, since the descriptions of the actual cricket match were a bit boring (i. e. hard to understand) for someone like me who does not know more about Cricket than that it is a firm favourite in England and played by very well-dressed men. The idea of the story is great, though, and the beginning and end are so much part of what makes Batch Magna Batch Magna that I am glad I did not skip it altogether.

Thank you once again, Peter, for having given me the possibility to read „Sir Humphrey“! I certainly recommend the Batch Magna novels.

Peter Maughan's website is here. His books can be found on Amazon:
The Cuckoos of Batch Magna
Sir Humphrey of Batch Hall