Rumer Godden/Dutch

This must be the most books I have ever read in any year, according to Goodreads I’ve read 109 so far and I still have some updating to do there. There are also some books which I don’t bother to put on Goodreads, I’m sure you’re the same, I tend not to bother with cookery books or craft/lifestyle/design books, even though I’ve read them cover to cover.

During the awful weather we had over the last three weeks or so I did almost nothing but read. Burying my head in books seemed like the best way to avoid the inevitable depression of days and days of endless rain. I just took myself off into different and more interesting worlds, even although the sky outside was so dark I needed a lamp on during the day to be able to read anything at all.

Every other activity came to a standstill, I must admit that it’s often sheer laziness which leads to me reaching for a book, instead of doing something a bit more active and productive, such as sewing machine wrangling. My fabric stash keeps multiplying but it’s not being converted into anything, it’s just piling up, in much the same way as my unread book piles do I suppose.

One of the things which I swore to myself that I would do this year was attempt to learn Dutch. Some of my extended family members are Dutch – or half Dutch and when we went to the Netherlands to visit them last year it felt shameful that I couldn’t say anything to anyone in shops – not even please and thank you. Mind you everyone there seems to speak English. The next visit I was going to be better prepared, but my Futurelearn Dutch course came at a time when I was madly busy doing other crucial stuff. It was only a three week course but I only managed the first week, and although I did well with it I just never got around to the other two weeks. Obviously it was just a wee bit of a taster course, but I had bitten off more than I could chew.

The other thing I thought I would do to help me learn Dutch was to read a book, one page in English then the same page in Dutch. I thought it would be good for learning lots of vocabulary. Well it would have been if I could have got further than page one! Whilst in the Netherlands I spotted a Rumer Godden book in a charity shop, I do love charity/thrift shops, you never know what you might find. I knew that I had a copy of the same book in English back home, The Greengage Summer, I bought it to read them in tandem.

Rumer Godden Books

So I’m starting again on page one, with my Dutch/English dictionary at hand – and yes that was another charity shop purchase, and a jotter to note down the vocabulary. I’m determined to get past page one this time.

I’m also going to be reading another charity shop purchase – Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden. It’s an account of the siblings’ experiences being brought up in India. The preface begins: This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone, a few years that will always be timeless for us; an evocation that is as truthful as memory can ever be. It should be interesting I think and I bet I know which book I’ll finish first!

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley was published in 2015, it’s the seventh book in the Flavia de Luce series which I have really been enjoying catching up with over the past couple of years.

Having said that – I didn’t love this one as much as the others, mainly because the setting is Canada where Flavia has been sent to attend her mother’s old boarding school. It’s a weird place with strange rules, run more along convent lines really as the rules don’t encourage friendships and worst of all there’s no privacy in the place with people just walking into other people’s rooms without so much as a by your leave.

It’s not long before Flavia finds herself on familiar ground though as a partially mummified body comes thudding down her bedroom chimney, also three of the girls have gone missing over the last few years. Obviously there’s investigative work for Flavia to get stuck into.

This one missed out on all the family banter and ructions because of the setting, which adds quite a bit of background atmosphere to the books usually. Away from Flavia’s home life, her sisters, father and of course her best friend and mentor Dogger, Flavia realised that she even missed her ghastly sisters, and so did I. The teachers and pupils of Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy didn’t make up for their absence. It was still a good read though.

The Road Dance by John MacKay

The Road Dance cover

The Road Dance by John MacKay was published in 2002. The setting is the Scottish Hebrides, some call it The Edge of the World, it feels like that to young Kirsty MacLeod. Between her island and North America there’s two thousand miles of emptiness. Kirsty is a twin and her sister Annie is quiet and content with island life but Kirsty dreams of a different world.

Kirsty can have her pick of the island men, Iain Ban in particular has made it quite clear that he wants to marry her and is building a house in the hope that she’ll accept his offer. He’s well off by island standards but Kirsty just isn’t interested as Iain can see no future beyond the island, a place she wants to escape from.

Unexpectedly Kirsty falls for one unlikely island lad when she realises that he has big plans to move to America, but it’s 1914 and world politics have got in the way of his plans.

This was a great read with twists and turns right the way to the end, it’s well written with a real feel of life on a Hebridean island and its atmosphere, scenery and inhabitants. MacKay has written two more books with the same setting – Heartland and The Last of the Line and I’ll definitely be looking for those ones.

John MacKay is of course well known within Scotland, he started his career as a journalist on The Sunday Post but went on to work as a news reporter for STV, where he is now the main news presenter.

It was just sheer coincidence which saw me reading and reviewing two books set in Scottish islands within such a short time – both written by well known Scottish TV journalists. I have to say that this one stands head and shoulders above Kirsty Wark’s book, and I never thought I would have been writing that.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

The Oxford Bar, Edinburgh

We were wandering along a very quiet backstreet of Edinburgh a few weeks ago, searching for a small independent art gallery which had been advertising an exhibition, when we came across The Oxford Bar.

The Oxford Bar

I had always wondered where The Oxford Bar was, it is of course the favourite drinking spot of Rebus, Ian Rankin’s rough but somehow mainly likeable detective. In fact I believe that it’s Ian Rankin’s watering hole too, but we didn’t bother to have a look in to see if he was there. Everyone deserves their pint in peace I think. Or maybe he’s a hauf and a hauf man – a half a pint of beer chased down with a measure of whisky.

You can see some images of inside The Oxford Bar here. It’s a typical old Scottish pub.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons was first published in 1938 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic. This is a really enjoyable read, four stars on Goodreads I’d say. Inevitably though I find myself saying that you shouldn’t expect it to be as funny as Cold Comfort Farm, which truly did have me laughing out loud a lot, wayback when I was a teenager, I don’t know what effect it would have on me now though.

Anyway, in Nightingale Wood Viola has been widowed after just one year of marriage. Her husband Teddy had come from a wealthy family, his parents were appalled that their son had lowered himself to marry a girl who just worked in a shop. Viola ends up moving in with her parents-in-law, Mr amd Mrs Withers and their two almost middle-aged daughters Tina and Madge. Everyone seems to have given up hope of them ever getting married and moving out, so it’s a very strange household which Viola finds herself living in.

Mr Withers is miserably mean with money and he’s amazed to discover that his son died leaving his widow just about penniless, although as Teddy worked for his father and he was paid pennies in wages it’s a mystery how he was supposed to leave money to Viola. She would leave their home, The Eagles, if she could but she has no family of her own to help her.

That makes it all sound pretty depressing but really it isn’t. One of the sisters-in-law is in love with the chauffeur, the other one adores dogs, and the very well off Spring family are always entertaining the rest of the local nobs.

Viola falls for Victor Spring, the very handsome son, but he has been going out with a girl forever. Is there any hope for Viola?

You’ll have noticed that this bears more than a passing resemblence to a fairy tale. But is has a fair share of humour in it too, mostly from Viola, a very likeable character.

As I said, it was published in 1938 and it has the snobbishness and even anti-semitism which you sometimes come across in books from that era. It also mentions the possibility of a coming war, and that scoundrel who would have been crowned King Edward VIII, if we hadn’t got lucky.

The book has an introduction by Sophie Dahl.

The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield

The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield was first published in 1934 but my copy wasn’t published until 1939. It was published in paperback in 2005.

I read and really enjoyed Delafield’s other Provincial Lady books and liked this one too, although it might not have been quite as amusing as the others.

The Provincial Lady is invited to America to do a book tour, giving lectures in various American and Canadian cities. This comes as a great surprise to her because when her publishers suggested a tour she gave them a list of stipulations as to financial requirements and substantial advances. She’s quite shocked that they have agreed to all of her wishes.

After lots of preparations and a week long voyage on the S.S. Statendam she sails into New York and so begins a busy schedule where she meets plenty of odd characters, almost as odd as the ones she comes across in England!

It’s 1933 and if you know your America you’ll realise that that means The Chicago World Fair, a must visit obviously. Empire Exhibitions and World Fairs are a couple of Jack’s interests so even he liked the bits about the exhibits she had visited. She described the postcards that she bought there and Jack has most of them in his collection. Another place she’s determined to visit is Alcott House in Concord (have any of you been there?). Everyone tells her that Boston is exactly like England but she has never felt cold like it.

She’s swaddled in American hospitality and has a wonderful time shopping for gifts for everyone back home. The result is of course that she has a terrible problem with her luggage. She has piles of books to take back home, and everyone advises her to get a strap for them. I think that’s something particularly American. Anyway, her luggage problems are as nothing compared with being over-booked and over-bagged when you turn up at an airport nowadays. I wonder if there are any liners ploughing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic now? It’s tempting to travel that way if only so that there would be no strict baggage allowance.

Her Provincial Lady books are very autobiographical, and at one point she mentions that it’s very strange to be in a country where there isn’t a huge imbalance of women (or words to that effect). It must have been weird to live in a society with far fewer men around than there should have been, due to World War 1.

I started reading this one after I had given up reading Hilary Mantell’s Beyond Black, as after the incidents in Paris I just didn’t feel up to reading something which wasn’t light hearted. Have any of you read Beyond Black? The Provincial Lady in America was just perfect light reading.

Below is an image of the ship which she supposedly sailed to America in.

S.S. Statendam

Avocado = food of the devil?

I’m old enough to remember when avocados were called avocado pears and were considered to be exotic. I remember a cousin told his father that eating avocados would be very good for his health. His father had serious heart problems so he manfully acquired a taste for avocados and proudly told his heart specialist of this feat. His heart specialist just about had a fit with his legs up! Nothing could have been worse for his heart.

So I’ve always been annoyed when people parrot how good avocados are for your health because they’re really not. When I’ve pointed out to people in the past that avocados aren’t all they’ve been cracked up to be I’ve had people looking at me like I must be mad. Apart from anything else they’re very calorific not to mention full of fat. Almost 200 calories in an average avocado. Coupled with the wine which often seems to be consumed at the same time (to make them palatable?) as anything containing avocados – it’s a bad day for the waistline, 200 calories also being in the average small glass of wine. They might have contributed hugely to the obesity epidemic which is engulfing the population.

While I’m in pontification mode, don’t overdo the banana eating either, unless you’re a long distance runner. Full of energy giving goodness they may be, but if you don’t use up that energy it will convert to fat fast. The UK apparently gets through more bananas than any other country in Europe, possibly the world, and those statistics have shadowed the obesity rates too.

I’ve always eaten loads of fruit and veg, long before ‘five a day’ became a mantra. My father did have a fruit shop when I was a youngster so I ate all sorts of fruit, well you can’t let it go to waste you know. But really nutrition and health wise you can’t do much better than eating apples, in fact to be on the safe side two a day would be even better at keeping that doctor away! It’s keeping the digestion moving that makes the difference.

This modern fashion for taking sips of water from water bottles is also not as good for you as drinking a good glass of water before and after a meal.

If you’ve ever made compost in a compost bin you’ll have noticed that if it is too dry then it doesn’t compost at all just sits there and I’m pretty sure that the same is true of the human digestive system. Those wee sips of water don’t do the trick and everything just lies in the stomach for ages, with plenty of time to convert to fat.

Well that got that off my chest, no matter how boring and uninteresting it might have been. I feel better for it.

If you want to read one of many avocado articles around at the moment have a look at this Guardian article

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes cover

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of a bunch of Virago books which have been languishing unread on a shelf for years, so when I saw that quite a few bloggers seemed to have read it recently I thought I should get around to it too.

I have to say that I didn’t love this book as much as I had expected to. It’s a book of two halves really. When her father dies Lolly Willowes has to move in with her brother and his wife and their family. She has been left money of her own but nobody expects her to strike out on her own and have an independent life. She’s one of those maiden aunts, handy for when the children need to be looked after, but otherwise unwanted.

After years of living her life to suit other people she eventually decides to move out to Great Mop, a rural village, where she’s able to learn more about nature and the plants and potions that have always attracted her. The book changes completely, just as Lolly did, and it seemed apt that I got to this point in the book on Halloween, as the village turns out to be full of witches.

You might be interested in reading this Guardian article about Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer.

Appointment with Venus by Jerrard Tickell

Appointment with Venus by Jerrard Tickell is the second book by him that I’ve read and I hope that I can manage to get a hold of some others as I really enjoyed both of them. I wrote about Villa Mimosa here.

Appointment with Venus is about the Channel Island of Armorel (fictional) being invaded by Nazis early on in World War 2. Some of the islanders managed to get over to England before the invasion, including the Suzerain, the hereditary leader, but those who are left, mainly older people and children are having to suffer life under Nazi rule.

Meanwhile back in England, someone realises that a very valuable heifer has been left behind on Armorel. Venus is in calf and a daring plan is hatched to rescue her and take her back to Blighty.

The German commander of the island was a farmer before joining the army and he recognises Venus as being in a class of her own. The Nazis intend to take Venus to Germany where she will be paraded before the cameras as a great prize.

This was made into a film in 1951 and it looks like you should be able to see the whole film on You Tube, if you feel like viewing it. I think I saw it donkey’s years ago, I’m not sure if I’ll watch it again. For some reason I can’t stand Kenneth More, on the other hand lovely David Niven is also in it, as the Scottish soldier hero of course!

If you enjoyed the book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society then you might enjoy Appointment with Venus too.