Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Toe-Rags - Daphne Anderson

I have read every one of Diana Athill's Memoirs.

So why would I mention her at the beginning of a post about a book by a different author?  I would, because she mentions the book I am going to tell you about in one of her memoirs, as a book that stuck in her mind for a very long time (one of two books actually).  If  Diana Athill liked it and I liked the reason she gave for liking it, then I feel I should also tell you about it because I liked it very much, not least for the insights into colonial Africa it gave me.

The Toe-Rags* were three small children - Daphne in the middle, Stella her older sister and Tom the youngest. With a ne'r do well father and and an exhausted and dirt poor mother they were brought up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1920s.  He was always off to seek work and promising to send money home, when it seems that all he ever did was visit his well-off sister for a month or so, and them come home with no money, telling his wife it was all her fault.  When the girls were tiny, they lived with their maternal grandparents but were returned to their mother (and occasional father) when the grandparents' own circumstances changed.  Despite the family's absolute poverty (Daphne and Stella wore dresses stitched from flour and sugar sacks) their young lives were happy, and they were overseen by the houseboy (even the poorest whites had "boys" who did the work) who did much of the caring for the children.    When their mother eventually left, taking a new baby with her and running off with the children's uncle, she supposed that her husband would "have to take care of the children now";  but of course he didn't.......

If you think you have been poor; if you think you are poor now;  don't even think that way.  The poverty and treatment endured by these children is a shocker.   And if you think these whites were poor then that is nothing to what the blacks suffered during times of draught, or loss of employment.   Daphne Anderson describes her life from age four up until her twenties, and everything she achieved, she achieved herself.  She also describes the white hierarchy prevalent at that time, and you know, nothing much has changed if you compare families in the UK (or any other country in the world) being paid benefits,  to the Nouveau Riche who look down upon those who cannot rise to their dizzy heights.  Plus la change?  Yes indeed.

This book is out of print, but there are copies available on places like Amazon at rather inflated prices..... perhaps your library can find you a copy?

* Toe Rag:  British slang, not much used now.  Contemptible or despicable person - originally a beggar or tramp:  from the peices of rag they wrapped around their feet.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

What a good day when this wonderful short novel passed my way.  John Steinbeck – Grapes of Wrath and all that?  On my mental list of authors that must be looked into, but somehow never are – until Cannery Row.

Monterey, California – the poor end of town next to the fish canning factories.  Here live, and struggle for survival, some wonderful colourful characters.  Doc, the star of the show, has a biological establishment.   He collects, and supplies to laboratories, animals and sea creatures and lives in his company building, all mixed in with the stock.  Then there’s Mack, leader and usually spokesman for a group of four or five down and outs who are living rent free in a building owned by Mr Lee, Chinese grocer and entrepreneur.  How he acquired the building, and how Max and his pals come to live in it forms the start of the tale of the inhabitants of Cannery Row, sad and funny by turns.  In fact, many of the short chapters in this book are that way – sad and funny by turns.  Some of them, in a few short sentences, brought tears to my eyes.  And some are so wonderfully clever and funny, they need to be read out loud.  What a great writing style Steinbeck uses for this book – his skill is in the way he can say so much when seeming to say so little.  It was a joy to meet all the inhabitants - from the brothel ‘madam’, with her dyed red hair; Mack and his friends who drink a lot but bother no-one; Doc, a soft heart for everyone, even when he loses his temper;  Mr Lee the shop keeper who always has an eye for the main chance but so often looses out to Mack, who can spin a tale so  tight he is the only one who knows where it’s going.  There are more colourful characters to be found here  and not too much of a story – this is more a tale of the way things are, rather than of how they are going to be.  If you have never read any Steinbeck – do, please, seek this one out.  I loved it, and you may feel the same as me – only one way to find out!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Master Butchers Singing Club - Louise Erdrich

 This is the story of several misfits, a couple of dreadful crimes, some unrequited love, and some death.  And why had it sat on my shelves for years? because I just devoured it once I started reading.

Starting at the end of WW1 when Fidelis, a German butcher and former soldier, takes the biggest chance of his life and takes a boat for the United States.  Armed only with his butchering knives, a suitcase full of smoked sausages ready to sell and the clothes he stands up in, he eventually arrives somewhere in middle America, settles down, takes a job, and brings his wife and son over from Germany.  Into the same  town come Delphine and her balancing act partner Cyprian, back to check on her father, who has drunk his way through most of his adult life and all of Delphine's. A crime is discovered and the sheriff wants answers he will never get.

Delphine becomes a close friend of Fidelis' wife, nursing her through her final terminal illness, and then stays on in town to look after her father.  In the meantime, she takes the place of her friend in the butcher's shop, watches over her friend's sons and wishes that she wasn't there......

To tell you more would give away too much.  I found myself loving Delphine.  I felt for her for so many reasons, I understood the butcher's feelings about her, I knew that she would be stuck in this little town for years, and I wanted to find out more and more about her.  The book has quite long chapters, but these are divided up into short sections, so it's easy to pick up and put down - not that I put it down much, reading 100 pages at a time when I could!

Louise Erdrich writes so beautifully that for me, every page was a joy.  There is laughter and tears, bitter pills to swallow, some awful deaths, some lovely events, some funny descriptions of happenings.   It's not a thriller but is a page turner.  It's not a love story but it has love at it's heart.  It's not about war, but because dreadful things happen in war we have to know about them.  And one crime is described so graphically it made me wince.  But the thing is that I just wanted to keep turning the pages.  Nothing in this 400 pager put me off,  the descriptions were such that I was there, in with the smells, the tastes, the sights.  I know she has written more, and I am going to have to look about for some of them.  Love her style and  would recommend to anyone who loves a well told tale.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Rude Girls in the Garden - late July

I love day lilies.  As the name suggests, each flower only lasts a day.  If your plant is healthy, you get several buds on each stem, and they have a season of 2-3 weeks and then it's over, so you really do have to plant them with other things so that when not in flower, something else is.

All the day lilies on this particular entry have no names.  Well - obviously they do, but they were all "bitsas" i.e. bits of plant given to me by others or bought at fetes or sales with no labels except Day Lilies.

Some of them are very new to me and so have only had one flower stem like this beautry on the right.  Also, some are not so happy in their current situation, so this Autumn I shall be moving them about a bit and giving them a bit of  a feed (need some research, unless a reader has a foolproof recipe and leaves me a comment!)

This one (left) is the oldest and biggest root, and has to be split this Autumn.  She's been glowing away each summer for about 10 years now, the clump is huge, but flowers are less.  I found out this year that day lilies should be divided every 3-4 years, so this huge clump will be split in September .... and I already have a good home with a neighbour up the road for one of the divisions.

This one right) is the newest in the garden.  A glorious dark, dark, nearly brown colour, but due to it's position, I could not get a straight on shot this time. I used to refer to my day lilies as my "Blousy Ladies" - but keeping up with modern jargon must be done, and so now they are my "Rude Girls"!

And yes, you are right, these three are NOT day lilies.  But they bloom at the same time, my red hot pokers.  This last hot spell boded well for these, as slugs love 'em, and some years I get none at all  as the slugs eat right through the stems as they start to shoot up.  I am a non-chemical gardener, it's something I have to grin and bear - but great result this year.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Mrs Mac suggests - what to read in August.....

I've been thinking.  Do you ever read a book and think "this would make a brilliant film"  or a great TV series? 

So for August, I am suggesting you

find a book you think should be made into a film or TV series

My own suggestion  is the Christopher Fowler stories of Bryant and May, two elderly detectives who really should have retired but who won't.  Their style of solving crimes does not please Scotland Yard, but always gets results. The first one is Full Dark House.

The author suggests you can read them in order or not, but I  started with the first one, was hooked and read them all in order. He says:  the novels are written chronologically, but can just as easily be read out of order (in fact, some volumes benefit from doing so, the exceptions being ‘On The Loose’ and ‘Off The Rails’, which should be read together). The cases take on the different styles of the classic detective stories.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Bed and Breakfast tales - 10

We are having a busy summer here at the cottage, and meeting lots of lovely travellers.  More tales stored  away for future reading!

But today, let me tell you about the couple who stayed one night on their way to look after some animals whilst their friends had a holiday.  They were both young, and in the first flush of a transatlantic romance!  It's always a joy to see people younger than me looking forward to a good life together, and I always cross my fingers and hope it works out that way.

This couple were good company and fun to talk to.  So why are I writing about them?  Well, in our bathroom we have a little metal basket.  It's full of the things you might have left behind or things you urgently need, like toothpaste, soap, miniatures of shower gel, body lotion, shampoo, toothpicks, cotton buds, women's requirements etc.  It has a little sign that says "help yourself" and sometimes guests do, and sometimes they don't.  After they had gone I went upstairs to strip the bed, take the washing downstairs, and clean through for the next guests...... in the bathroom, the little metal basket was totally empty! This has never happened before or since, and I have never been able to make up my mind whether I had entertained a kleptomaniac or a person who was down on their luck with no money!

Ah well, I didn't begrudge any of it, and the sign does say help yourself .... but so odd to see three toothpicks and a few cotton buds  as well as the toothpaste, a spare toothbrush and every single other thing - gone!  It's OK - I have spares - always.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Maggot Moon - Sally Gardner

  • Medium

Sally Gardner (The Red Necklace, I Coriander etc) is a wonderful writer for young adults.  This particular book strikes me as one that would make even a "I Hate Books" kind of kid would want to read on to the end!

Set in a alternative dystopian country, possibly England, but never stated;  now ruled (in 1956) by a  country similar to Nazi Germany, with a leader similar to Hitler;  tanks in the streets, men in long leather coats who may knock on your door at any time, fear making people behave in a way that surely we would not tolerate now? ..... In this world lives our hero, Standish Treadwell, who's parents have "disappeared", who shares his broken down home with his Grandfather, he's a boy who can hardly read or write but is a very clever indeed.  His friend Hector lives next door, and on an illegal television set, they watch programmes from another country - a country with Cadillacs to drive - and I Love Lucy comedy shows.  A country called Croca-Cola Land. 

For Standish, Hector, and anyone else who is not important enough to be "disappeared", or watched day and night, life just has to be endured, beauty and joy are out the window (even if you could remember what it used to feel like) and bullies of all kinds are the people that populate your life.  One particular bully is a toupe wearing cane wielding man who replaced their well-liked teacher and, having tasted a bit of power, takes it out on the kids in various cruel ways.  The day he beats up a small boy is the turning point for Standish.

It's easy to read word-wise, not so easy to read of the cruelty wreaked on others, but it just does make you want to keep reading, cheering Standish on and hoping for the best of luck to come along to help all those ordinary people.  250 pages, but shorter than you'd imagine because lots of the chapters are only one paragraph, it never left my hands till I had read the last page.  Recommended to all good readers from age 10 onwards, but of course that includes any kid of any age at all up to 99 years, young adult or not! 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Home - in the evening sun

How do you like the new header picture?  Same house, some 10 or so years on.  Similar, but garden looking much nicer these days!  Anyway, I was in the garden taking a picture of something or other ......... oh yes!  a furry something (moth or butterfly) hatching from it's chrysalis, and was disappointed as it steadfastly moved under a group of leaves every time I  got it into focus, so no pic.  It was quite a big something too, would have liked to capture it, but no luck.

Anyway, as I turned to walk down the garden, this is what I  saw.  That lovely evening sunshine, and of course I had the camera in my hands, so - New Picture!Home

The Dunmow Flitch - eccentric behaviour

Are the English really eccentric?

Well yes, they are!  but no more than the Irish, the Welsh, the Scottish, the French..... etc. etc. etc.
and here is a lovely little eccentricity that happens every four years in Great Dunmow, Essex.  The next one is 2020.  Here is a pic of two of this year's worthy winners, their bearers and the flitch, also with it's own bearers. and to find out more about the Dunmow Flitch, what it is, and how you go about trying for it, here is a link which will tell you much about the history.

And when Dunmow says The Dunmow Flitch Trials it means just that, with a judge, a jury, barristers and so on, and although I have never been, it just looks so much fun!

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Lulworth Cove, Dorset

Right on my doorstep and never been there before in my life!  We were out visiting a NGS garden open to the public for charity today and decided to come a different way home from Swanage.  The road we chose is often closed as it belongs to the MOD, but today, in glorious sunshine, the signs said ROAD OPEN! 

On this road you pass a turning for Kimmeridge and then you will pass a road with a gate saying No Entry.  That way lies the lost village of Tyneham sitting in a valley.  The entire village was requisitioned during WW2 and villagers were told they could come home when the war ended.  But of course they never did.  You can attend a church service there once a year, but otherwise it is gone but not forgotten.  A novel about the big house at Tyneham is The Novel In the Viola by Natasha Solomons - well worth a read, good on the facts, writing a delight, and just a slight tweek in the name of the village.

Anyway, on past that turning, a lovely drive if the road is open, all the way to East Lulworth where there is a castle, and then on down to the coast at Lulworth Cove.  And after parking the car and stopping for a cuppa, we walked down through the village and stood on the steps down to the little beach just watching people, the water, the birds and generally drinking it all in.

And what a glorious little bay it is - it looks like an almost perfect circle from ground level  - and as though a giant just took a bite out of the coastline!   This part of the coast is dark, as there are no towns to pollute the night sky - I think I must aim to go down one night and look at all the stars I never see.

Anyway, a fascinating detour for us, and a place to go back to again and  again.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Etta and Otto and Russell and James - Emma Hooper

Three of the characters of the title are humans, and one isn't.  I will leave it to you to find out a) what kind of "other" the character is, and b) whether or not he is real.  For Etta is eighty-two and is losing her memory.  Like many dementia sufferers, the long term memories are those that still stick, and this becomes obvious as the book progresses, with memories of Etta's early life; how she connects with Otto and then Russell, and what happens to this trio.

It describes how Canadians went off to WW1 and what they found and lived through when they got there.  Not in too much detail but enough to confirm that all wars are hellish but if you live through to the end, you have to live with it for the rest of your life.  It describes what love feels like for some people.  It describes how some  are braver than others in different ways, and of course, it describes the workings of a demented mind and all it's mixed up memories.  I only had one question mark whilst reading this - and you may ask the same question as you read it..... Etta leaves home to find the sea (which she has never seen) and I wondered, however fit she was, whether she could really have managed so many nights in the open and without too much food.  Nitpicking by me of course, as this is certainly a wonderful book, Etta's journey perhaps reminding readers of Harold Fry's journey, although this is not so much the story of her journey but a journey through her memories.

 It isn't a difficult read, but people either like this kind of book (which jumps around in time and also has different character's views) or they don't.  When I am going to review a book I go to Amazon to look at the 1 and 2 star scores.  It is there that I find that some low scores are from readers who don't like the style a book was written in and therefore don't really read that particular book at all.  I mean they read it, i.e. they devour the words on each page; but they don't feel it -like eating a slice of lovely cake but not tasting any sugar.

Friday, 1 July 2016

What to read in July

Well now - the start of the holiday season!  Or, if you have no children, or none at school, the start of that period of the year when you may be able to take the book into the garden, maybe with a jug of Pimms....

And for July, I suggest you find and read  

                                                  a book about families

Any kind of family, any size of family.... whatever.

If you can find it, a newish book from last year springs to mind -

The Truth According to Us - Annie Barrows 

*By the way, Annie Barrows is one half of the team that wrote the Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society and whilst it was a best seller, I must say that I feel this is the better book.  Look it up - I loved it, and maybe you will too.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

We know from the opening chapters of this book that St Malo in France is bombed by the allies in WW2 (August 1944) because it is believed that it is a German stronghold. We also know that a German soldier and a blind French girl are in St Malo at that time.  What we don't know yet is how they got there, and we don't know yet if they will ever meet.

And then we go backwards. To an orphanage in Germany before the war, and a small boy who finds out how to make a radio.  Werner will become the German Soldier, and his sister Jutta will remain in the orphanage until near the end of the war.  In Paris, Marie-Laurie has lost her sight, and her father has built her a model of the arondissement where they live, so that she has a map for her hands, to teach her to navigate her local streets.  The war comes, and each life is described, jumping backwards and forwards, so that we can see how these two arrived in St Malo, and how they both, in small ways, contributed to their country's war efforts. 

The cruelty of any dictator is shocking.  But it is the efficiency of Hitler and his ministers that shocks here.  How boy soldiers were trained and how the weakest were weeded out, the strongest pushed for greater glory.  Man's inhumanity to man is well described in the chapters concerning Werner at his training school, who has to get through training or there will be nothing for him.  I found every page worth reading, but every page had it's own heartbreak.  These two children.  Will they ever gain adulthood?  And after the war, what then?

Superb telling of a war we know a lot about but in a way that perhaps we never thought about.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The One-In-A-Million-Boy - Monica Wood

Monica Wood (author of We Were the Kennedys) dragged me straight in from the first page, and kept me reading until I put it down with a sigh of pleasure at the end. The premise of this book is that a father, estranged from his ex-wife and son, is going to finish up some odd jobs that his son couldn't. That's it. The characters are what make this a delight. The one in a million boy, a scout who on discovering how old Ona Vitkus is (104 and counting) realises that he may be able to get her into the Guinness Book of Records for something or other; Ona herself, who has a very interesting story to tell, and does so, on a tape recorder that the boy produces. Quinn, the boy's father, a session musician and "fill in" for groups, always dreaming of the bigtime; Belle, his twice ex-wife and father of the boy; and other, not quite so rounded but essential characters which pop up from time to time. This is really Quinn and Belle's story - although it is Ona that tells hers. I loved the chapters with Ona's voice on the tape, the recognition that old age does not come by itself (there is a passage at the beginning where Ona explains to the boy that the highest notes of bird songs are lost to her now, and a very moving couple of lines right at the end where the boy will ask his father to enable her to hear those songs). This was such a wonderful read, easy to say "just one more chapter" every time I stopped. Told in a quirky style which I loved, I hope that as many readers as possible will get to know and remember Ona and the others. I am certainly recommending it to the many readers I come across. Oh, and don't forget to read the last list at the end.


Friday, 17 June 2016

Death of Jo Cox MP

Not often that real life moves me to tears.  Yesterday and today, listening to people talking about this woman, mother and Member of Parliament, I just kept asking myself WHY?,  as I always do when something makes me question the power of the universe and your God. 

 I say yours, because I believe we are all entitled to live out our lives on this planet free of fear, and with love in our hearts. I believe we should be free to worship in any way we please too, whether the old Pagan way, or called to prayer by your Imam, or entering into your temple, your church, your synagogue.  I believe that different days of the week should be celebrated by people in the way that they choose, and I continue to believe that somewhere there is a good heart in most humans.  Not all, we know that, but most humans.

So sad that a bitter heart, full of spite for someone else's belief in their fellow man, can take away someone who cares about more than just themselves.  I am sending out karma here, looking for the good hearts.  There are more of them than the dark hearts;  we just have to gently make our views known.

Jo Cox knew that - this is the quote that is being used:  "“While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.

Just change the word constituency for world ............

Early June in the Garden - Part 2 of 2

So..... more of what's on offer at Pine Tree Cottage in early June.  This is Achillea millefolium or commonly, yarrow.   Lovely bright colour in my yellow and white border - one of the earlier things for early summer.  

 And can we talk about hardy geraniums?  Two years ago, I bought "Zoe", a prizewinning (Best Perennial of the 20th century or something) and supposedly a ground covering geranium. No picture of her because she's pouting.  Now I know I have an odd garden, different soils in different places and very odd in what likes it where.  I also know that roses have been in the garden before, as some I have planted don't thrive until I move them.  But Zoe?  She sits in a moody little pile, doesn't smother weeds and gives me around 4 blooms each year.  Whereas these little fellas just bloom and bloom and spread and spread.  I have loads in different sizes and colours, and even though I didn't start them
out for ground cover, that's what I got.
They will bloom all summer if I give them a haircut after the first flowering and they are all different.  The hues range from white to purple, although for some reason I seem to like the pinker shades best (or was that what was on offer when I did the shopping?).  The garden here has been divided up into different themes.  I have three beds which were planted first - and for a specific purpose, because they are the three I can see from the living room window, and I got what I wanted - a sort of living water colour, a
 sort of three beds full, if you like. There are all
 sorts of things in those beds, but they are choc-a-block and with no colour theme, just a lovely cottage garden kind of tumble.    There are roses in there too, but at least one of them is due a move at the end of the season as they are unhappy.  Graham Thomas (yellow) has been in the same place for 13 years, but never performs as I feel he should, so he will get moved up the garden.  Chapeau de Napoleon (pink) is lovely, but hit and miss.  Some years only one blossom some years 4 or 5 on this moss rose.  But not enough, so he will have to move too.  Then I have Nuit de Young, a small flowered dark dark red which is usually the earliest to bloom but this year is way behind, although full of bud.  And the smell!  Perfumiers must have used this one in the past - it is so tiny but so fragrant.  Only one flowering per season though, so it is in a bed with lots of other things.  Then comes a rose that shouldn't be where it is (she loves a wall), and this is Zepherine Drouhin.  Again, full of perfume.  I have given her a nice wigwam, and that seems to work.  Sorry, this shot is sideways, my pc has thrown a wobbly!

And another smelly lady here - Gertrude Jekyll which is such a perfect bloom - and sits in a border with day lilies each side and scabious underneath.  I love flowers in the house, and once in a while I will cut a rose and bring one in, but they are never so beautiful as they are on the bush.

And finally, sisyrinchium striatum which is a plant every garden should have.  The reason for this is that it self seeds, loves a dry patch, doesn't need watering, and gives some height to a border.  I just pull out the seeded plants when I spot one in the wrong place.  The bloom colour is cream/pale yellow, and it's about two feet tall.  I have to confess that this is not my picture, but I'm sure you won't mind!  Again, my PC won't let me turn pictures.  
At the top of the garden are several roses that I will take pics of later, all different, all grown for different reasons. And next month we are having hard standing laid for parking .... for 14 years we have fought against this but last winter was so wet the area around the car was just a mud bath.  So we have taken the plunge.  But plant-wise it requires some thought.  I don't want just a huge slab of something, and in any case, non-porous surfaces not only need planning permission, but would be silly knowing how much rain could sit in that area.  So it's got to do the job, and it's got to look good afterwards.  More on that at another time.