Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Down Memory Lane

Back again. This time not with a book review. The reading is going slow. For the moment I am reading The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester. It is a historical novel set in the beginning of the 20th century. Trapeze artists disappearing and then there are the suffragettes. More about this later.

I am on my way to Sweden again, so planning my packing. Most things that will go from here have already been transported. Now we are starting looking at what we have in the attic! Yes, I guess you know what that means. Many things that has been hidden up there since we moved in 18 years ago. Since both me an my husband had reached a rather mature age by the time we decided that it might be a good idea to move in together, we had both collected a few personal stuff along the way. My husband is more of a squirrel than I am, so I am afraid he has a few more boxes to take care of,  but there are a few for me too.

One pile of memorabilia
To open these boxes was really a trip down Memory Lane. The boxes contained memorabilia from my working years abroad. A lot of invitations, brochures from various events and photos, opened up a forgotten world for me. All of a sudden I was transported back in time and people's name and faces appeared to me again. Some I must admit I could not place at all! There were letters I have forgotten I had. I did not read them, just looked through them quickly. They will be read on a cold, stormy night during the winter. The time covers more or less beginning of the 80s up until mid 90s. It was a time when we still wrote postcards and letters, and I am so happy to have saved them all.

Dolls on the way out!
I sorted out a few things, one just can't save everything. Now at least they have been put in order, and I will probably do some kind of journaling to preserve them, rather than just keep them in boxes. I had a couple of bags full of dolls I bought in Russia and other places. Unfortunately, they were of rather low quality, so I just saved some of the typical Russian dolls.

It has been a great exercise. I still have a few boxes of photos, not to talk about all the dia slides. They will also be sorted and turned into digital ones. Well, I will not lack things to do in the near future. The great thing is that many of my friends I have found again on FB. That, I think, is the great benefit with this app.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I have read many raving reviews about this book, so it was with a little bit of caution that I started reading. Well, I did not have to worry. This is just a wonderful book, a fascinating story and so many wise thoughts all through the book. It just shows that it is never to late to do something about your life, and when you least expect it, you grow to heights you could never have imagined.

Harold is retired and when we meet him, he and his wife do not seem to speak too much to each other. His wife Maureen, seems to spend her life cleaning the house and thinking of their grown-up son. One morning their life change forever when Harold receives a postcard from a former, female colleague, Queenie Hennessy. She has cancer and she is writing to say her farewells.

The letter starts a process in Harold. He writes a polite reply and sets of to post it right away. Circumstances takes him to the nearest letter box, but he is hesitant to post it. He continues to the next one, and next one. All of a sudden without him being aware of it, he has decided to walk all the way to Queenie and with his sheer will he will make her survive.

It is a revealing journey in many ways. His lone walks not only makes him aware of is aching feet, his clothes that are not fit for longer walks, the forgotten mobile phone, but makes him look back on his life, the decisions he made, or did not do, and asking himself the question where it all went wrong.

This is really a pilgrimage in the true sense of the word. When he stops to pause, he starts talking to people he meet, telling them of his journey and they in their turn, confide their problems in him. He has never been a social, outgoing man, and he looks at himself with wonder at this new person he detects in himself. After a while TV and radio make programs about him, people follow him like he was some kind of Jesus figure. For a time he loses focus on his trip, his mission and start questioning the whole idea. Can he really save Queenie. Is it not preposterous to think so?

The whole novel is full of thoughts worthy your time. It makes you reflect on the life we live, the meaning, the artificiality of it all. Have we lost focus on what is important in life? Harold realises he has passed through life without making any impression on anyone. This is the first time that he ever made a statement, that he stood up for something or someone he believed in. At the same time he is afraid that when he reaches his goal, all that is awaiting him is a big emptiness. Maybe one always have to have a goal? Always be on the way to somewhere?

A wonderful book, a must read. It is definitely one of the best books I have read this year. Not only the story, his pilgrimage, but all the thoughts behind that enters his head and that Rachel Joyce treats with such care. The end is quite surprising but all in line with the theme of the book.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen

My mother got this book as a birthday present from her sister and lent it to me. My mother is 82 years old, and although she still lives at home with my father, she can relate to a lot of things in the book, and she really loved it. 

As it says in the title, Hendrik Groen is 83¼ years old. He lives in an old people’s home in Amsterdam. He is a nice, caring, helpful and pleasant person who does not make a lot of noise in the world. He decides to change his attitude and become more tough and speak out about matters he thinks are wrong. Not to totally go outside himself, he decides to be obnoxious in secret and write a diary for one year. Here he can write whatever he likes. He can be as true as he likes, no one will read it but himself.

It is the story of being old in an old peoples’ home. About friendship and love at the end of life. Just because you are old does not mean you have to give up everything, right? You have the right to think what you like about politicians, life in general, the people running the home and whatever is happening in the world. You have the right to have a meaningful life.

To help fight boredom he and his friends, start a group to organise excursions. Each one of the group will organise a tour, a dinner, a golfing session, or whatever they like to try. Once a month they go out, rather secretive, which just make all the other people in the home wondering what is going on. The description of these outings are hilarious and it shows that only the sky is the limit!

In the diary he writes about big and small events. How difficult it can be to have a meaningful life when you are old. Worries about economy, your health, and the health of your friends. It is written with a lot of irony and humour, sometimes black humour, and that makes it such a thought worthy book.

It has been a great success in the Netherlands and is now conquering the world. The name Hendrik Groen is a pseudonym and it is not publicly known who the author is.

I read it in Swedish, and I made two small notes, that I especially liked (although there were many more). The translation is my own:

”Old people lose things all the time, just like children, but they do no longer have a mom who knows where everything is.”
So true!
”Only those who never do anything, can never do anything wrong." 

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

I read Kate Morton's The House at Riverton some years ago and really loved it. I am fascinated with old houses and the possible secrets they hold. I discovered I have two books of hers on my shelves, so started out with The Distant Hours. What a read, just what I love. The personal stories of the characters keep you enthralled all through the book. Little by little the story of their lives come alive before you, and mostly,  it is not what it seems.

The novel starts with a life changing event. Edie, is a young woman working as editor in small publishing firm. She has just broken up with her boyfriend, without telling anyone. She know her mother will be disappointed in her. When she goes for her regular visits to her parents to eat dinner, her estranged relationship with her mother will change forever. While there, her mother receives a letter sent 60 years ago. Her mother, always keeping her feelings in control, gets very emotional over the letter, without explaining further. However, she does tell her daughter that she was evacuated to Kent during the war, and lived with three sisters and their father in the grand, ancestral home of Milderhurst Castle. The letter was from the youngest sister, Juniper.

She also discovers that the castle was the home of the author of her favourite childhood book, "The True History of the Mud Man". It is also said that the youngest daughter, Juniper, was driven mad when she was abandoned by her fiancé. Destiny starts working and it is not long before, by chance, Edie ends up close to Milderhurst Castle, and decides to go and have a look at the place where her mother spent some happy years in her youth and the house that saw of her favourite book being born.

Edie takes a guided tour of the castle and meets the Blythe sisters, Persephone (Percy), Seraphina (Saffy) and Juniper. The sisters are now in their 80ies and still struggling on their own to keep the castle in order, without money and much help. As Edie is asked to write an introduction to a new edition of the "True History of the Mud Man" she is invited to the sisters to go through the archives for the historical background. It was always thought that the novel was based on real events, but the author did not reveal anything before his death. As Edie starts looking through the old papers of the author, hearing the story of her mother's time in the castle and starts investigating while the fiancé of Juniper never turned up, she finds out more than she would have liked.

As the story is revealed we have to revise our own thoughts about its characters and the events that lead up to present day. It is presented little by little, and you hardly realise that you get more and more knowledge of the lives of the sisters and all your presumptions are put up-side-down as you reach the end of the novel. It keeps you fascinating from page one and it is difficult to put it down. It is a wonderfully written novel, where the love of a house is at the centre. All characters are very well developed and you feel their joys and sorrows. The sisters are very sad characters and bound to a house where there is no way out. Or is there?

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Rare and the Beautiful. The Lives of the Garmans by Cressida Connolly

If you have followed this blog, you might have noticed that I am very fond of biographies. Especially, of people, or families, which stand out due to their personalities, and maybe, eccentricities. This book has it all. The Garmans were nine siblings, and this biography is mainly about four of them; Mary, Kathleen, Douglas and Lorna. They turned their world and surroundings upside down with their wild and bohemian life in the beginning of the 20th century.

They took lovers, and/or married them, created with their pure energy, the inspiration for many an artist. They were part of the Bloomsbury set between the wars, and knew them all; writer Vita Sackville-West who had a love affair with Mary, although she was married to poet Roy Campbell; sculpture Jacob Epstein, lover of Kathleen for many years until they married when his wife died; the poet Laurie Lee, painter Lucian Freud and many more.

They lived their lives as they wanted without thinking about conventions.
”The valued naturalness very highly, they barely disciplined their children, they spoke their minds. The sisters wore their hair straight and long when custom called for stiff permanent waves. They liked things to look effortless. Elaborate picnics appeared as if out of nowhere, and their houses were models of elegant simplicity in which important and valuable drawings and paintings would be propped casually against the walls. They accepted the most extraordinary coincidences as nothing less than their due.
People fell in love with them. They were lovely to be in love with - passionate, generous, beautiful.”
Cressida Connolly lets us meet the family and their quest for a different life in a passionate tale. However, she is balancing very well their story and does not let us be trapped by the sisters and their charms. We can see their success and failures, laugh with them and cry with them. It is a story of a family who inspired artists in various field, and they were very much part of the artistic community during the last century. A really fascinating story, where you realise once again that fact is more interesting and exciting than fiction.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Long time no see!

It was a while since I wrote something on this blog. Life has been very busy the last couple of weeks. I have spent them in Sweden, decorating our own and our son's new flats. A lot of driving here an there, looking for suitable furniture, carrying, unpacking, putting together etc etc. I feel quite exhausted. My son's flat is now in order so that feels good. Ours are slowly coming together. We are still waiting for the furniture we have ordered; a new luxurious bed, a sofa and a dining table. I think we still have to wait a few weeks. On Monday I head back to Brussels and have to take care of a house and garden  which need care as well. It never ends it seems. The worst part? It takes away my time for reading and blogging!

The beginning of my library. Although it will
not be enough, you have to start somewhere!

I have missed you all out there, although I have managed to follow your blog posts. I see you are up to a lot of things and I am happy for all of you. Hope I will be able to read a little bit more in the coming months, but am not so sure.

Since my last post I have read four books (not too much, I know). They are The Rare and the Beautiful, The Lives of the Garmans by Cressida Connolly, K is for Killer by Sue Grafton, The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig and The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. Reviews of the first and last will follow. Both fascinating books in their own way. I am presently reading the fantastic The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Much to reflect on in this story of a life wasted. The other one I have started is from a Dutch writer Hendrik Groen Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old.  It is a hilarious diary from an old people's home, the life their, their inhabitants and their thoughts. Very funny.

I had a few days by the pool which was
enjoyable. Here reading in the sun.
I have been accepted for an on-line course in Creative writing, so happy about that. I think! It will also take a lot of time, and I already feel a little bit stressed about it. But, I just have to take the day as it comes and do the best of it. But there are so many things out there that is so fun to do, and I want to make it all! As Friedrich Nietzsche said: "If you know the why, you can live any how."

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle) by Harry Martinson

This post is written also for the Read the Nobels hosted by Aloi (Guiltless Reading)

Harry Martinson is a Swedish Nobel Prize Laureate, receiving the prize in 1974 together with
another Swedish writer Eyvind Johnson ”for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos”. He also wrote poetry, and is one of the best known ’proletarian’ writers in Sweden. I have finally got around to read one of his most famous and auto-biographical books, Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle).

It is about the boy Martin (Martinson’s alter ego), 7-11 years old during the story, and whose mantra is ”my father is dead and my mother is in California”. Martinson lost his parents at a young age; his father died and his mother left him to move to Portland, USA. He spent his earlier years in foster care. It has certainly influenced his writing in general and is specifically present in this novel.

We follow Martin from when his father dies and his mother leaves the children behind to emigrate to California. Times were dire, especially for a widow, with several children. The children were placed in foster care through the municipality, according to the norm; the family who demanded least money could have the child. It is terrible to think of how these children must have suffered.

Although Martin in the novel does not physically suffer very badly, although there are some beatings occasionally, it is the mental part that is most difficult for him to handle. He is missing his mother, love, closeness to a family member. His beloved older sister died young and that was the last person he loved. He is taken from one foster home to the next and in the end (at least of the book but not his life) he arrives to a home for older people with mental deficiencies. He helps out with the inmates and feels that the lady in charge is a surrogat mother for him. Then something happens.

Harry Martinson’s novel lingers between reality and dreamlike story telling. It is written from a 10-year old boy’s view, but the wisdom of these views belong to a much older man. ”Martin is described as a selfish, stupid, childish, self pitying, obsequious, coward and false.” I don’t really agree to all of these characterisations. His situation is of a vulnerable kind. A child that, in principal, has lost his family at a young age. Living in five different homes during as many years, with people he does not know that well. When he gets attached to people, it is time for him to move to another family. In those harsh days, parents did not have time and energy to give love to their own children, less to an orphan child. Maybe the description above is only natural for a child in his situation.

The story is a good description of the situation for the poor in Sweden in the beginning of the 20th century. It is written in a wonderful, easily read prose with dreamlike sequences and beautiful descriptions of nature, woven into the sad story of Martin. Harry Martinson has managed to delicately balance his story, and make it trustworthy. And, being a Nobel Prize Laureate book, easily accessible. An enjoyable read.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

K is for Killer by Sue Grafton

Lornas sista flörtHas finished the "K" Sue Grafton alphabetical series about female detective Kinsey Millhone. This one is from 1994, and I remember having read one in the series many years ago. I like it although I can't remember which one.

I read this one in Swedish and maybe that is why I did not entirely like the writing, which could be due to the translation. It felt a little bit 'formal' at times and did not fit the overall tough, hard core writing and dialogue. Furthermore, there were some excessive 'milieu' descriptions which was a little bit repetitive and over the top. Having said that, I really like the murder mystery itself. It was rather slow, but you really get a feeling for the way a private detective have to work. Slowly, slowly finding small pieces of information leading forward, or not.

When the story starts our detective is hired by the mother of Lorna Kepler to try to find her murderer. Lorna died a year ago, and the police put it down to suicide. Her mother believes otherwise. Kinsey takes on the case and starts interviewing more or less the same people as the police did when investigating the case. It leads her in a slightly different way and she soon realises that Lorna is not the nice girl she pretended to be.

It took a long time until I could even start to suspect anyone of the murder. It is all very well hidden during the whole book. It is not until the very end, and more or less at the same time as Kinsey herself realises who the murder is, that the reader can guess. At least that was the case for me. Suspense until the end is never bad for a murder mystery.

The narration is from Kinsey's point of view and the style reminds me a little bit about Dashiell Hammett. Maybe that is why Kinsey slightly irritates me from time to time. She is not Sam Spade and the time is different. The style seems, to me, to belong more in the 1950s than the 1990s. But that might be only for me. All in all I like the story and would gladly read another of her 'letter' books. I like the idea of her using the alphabet to name her books.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Breaking routines

Summer is normally the time when routines are broken. You go on holiday, enjoy the sun, relax and have time to read more books. For me, this summer is something out of the extraordinary, and not exactly relaxed, even if it has been enjoyable in another way.

View from our flat, over the limestone quarry 
First of all my son is home from his studies. Always very nice, but it means that my office is gone! Yes, I have made his bedroom my office and now he has taken it back.  I have moved to the dining room table with my laptop, which means running around for things I normally have around my desk, taking all the more time to do simple things. But, I am not complaining, having him around is a bliss.

My new desk (with possibility to change the
height electronically), here as a
temporary eating table

Another thing that has broken my routines is that we have bought two flats in Sweden; one for us and one for our son. That generates a lot of administration and travels back and forth, not to talk about furnishing them. Great fun, but a lot of work and carrying furniture and boxes! My body is aching from head to toes! I have really enjoyed planning and decorating our flat and I think it will be very light, airy and comfortable once it is ready. Fantastic to move into something quite new, after living in an old house, although renovated, for many years. We are still to stay on here in Belgium for some years though.

Book shelves and new reading corner

As you can imagine there has been no time for either reading or blogging. I have managed to finish one book, The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly, a biography about the Garman sisters. Fascinating book and a review will come. Now I have started K is for Killer by Sue Grafton. It is one of her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series. I remember reading some when I was younger, and found this one in a second hand shop. Each book starts with a letter and title. Today she has reached as far as X.

Well, time for me to go back to packing some more boxes. Maybe I will also manage to continue reading about Kinsey's K murder mystery!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Knights Templar in Britain by Evelyn Lord

The Content ReaderEver since reading The Da Vinci Code, I have been interested in the Templars and what they were. I am obviously not alone in this interest, since the book generated a frequent stream of ’literary tourism’ to places in the book, and places connected to the Templars. The best thing to do, to find out what they really were is to read a non-fiction book about them. So, being me, I ordered two books; this one and ’The Rise and the Fall of the Knights Templar’ by Gordon Napier, still to be read.

The beginning

The book opens with a chapter called ’The Knights Templar: Knightly Monks or Monkish Knights? A very good question indeed. I think many of us forget the fact that the Templars were monks. We are used to think of monks, staying in their monastery, taking care of their gardens, doing their prayers and all in all live a very quiet, contemplating kind of life. However, the Templars we see as Knights and soldiers firstly (don’t we all have a notion of knights as a nobel class of soldiers under the banner of faith, loyalty, courage and honour. Fighting tournaments and saving maids in distress?).
”Was the original intent of the Templars to protect pilgrims or was their prime aim to lead a monastic life? William of Tyre writes that they dedicated themselves to God, taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and then the Patriarch and other bishops enjoined them for the remission of their sins ’that as far as their strength permitted, they should keep the roads and highways safe from the menace of robbers and highwaymen, with especial regard for the protection of pilgrims’”.
Although the Patriarch of Jerusalem was one of the most important founders of the Order, the overall commander of the knights was the Pope. The order was spread out in different countries, and their allegiance was with the Pope, not the king or queen of the country where they were living. It was an early international organisation, independent from many structures in the countries where they lived. The privileges included freedom from paying tithes to the Church, as well as not having to pay taxes to the king. The money they earned all went into fighting the infidels during the various crusades. Maybe it was these inequalities that made them unpopular locally.