Reading in March

This month I’™ll be reading a selection of Robert Frost’™s poems. I don’™t read a lot of poetry but Frost is one of my favourite poets. I think that poetry is really better if you listen, rather than read it, or recite it out loud. Most memorably, some years ago I went to a poetry reading by Seamus Heaney who not only read his own poems but also some of Frost’™s. I know some of the poems in this selection but would like to memorise some more as part of the Celebrate the Author Challenge, Frost’™s birthday was 26 March.

I’™m part way into Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie, set in Nigeria in the 1960s and have just started to read Dante’™s Divine Comedy. I would also like to read The Innocent Man by John Grisham. This is a move away from Grisham’™s usual fiction into non-fiction about the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson. I really should have started to read Daniel Isn’™t Talking by Marti Leimbach, as it’™s the next book up for discussion at my local reading group (next Wednesday). This is a novel about an autistic child based on the author’™s experiences with her son. I think it may be a bit challenging, I know very little about autism.

Ambitiously, I’™d also like to start reading these books – Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, D H Lawrence’s Selected Stories and Barbara Euphan Todd’s Miss Ranskill Comes Home. They’™re all library books. I just hope I’™ll be able to renew them! It would be good to have an extra brain and another pair of eyes, or only need to sleep every other night and then I’™d stand more chance of reading all the books I’™d love to read.

Red Pepper Soup

I enjoy making and eating (or is it drinking?) soup. This is one of my favourites. It’s very easy and quick to make and very tasty too.

My recipe is one I’ve adapted from The Soup Bible.The Soup Bible is a beautifully illustrated book, packed with over 200 recipes from all around the world. I’d never have thought of making soup from red peppers before.

For 2 servings

1 onion, chopped
2 red peppers, seeded and chopped. I use the long thin pointy ones that are mild and sweet – not at all hot.
Olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 ½ tablespoons tomato purée
1 pint vegetable stock
Juice of one lime
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a little olive oil in a saucepan and soften the onion and peppers.
Add the garlic, tomato purée salt & pepper and stock.
Bring to the boil and then simmer, covered for about 10 minutes.
Cool slightly and then purée ‘“ I use a hand blender
Add the lime juice. Reheat.

The original recipe includes 1 small red chilli, sliced, but I like it without. Together with some wholemeal bread (I make it in a breadmaker) this makes a filling lunch.

“It is impossible to read too much” – Virginia Woolf

Catching up with books I read in January and February

We’re already into March and I still haven’t got round to writing about all the books I’ve read so far. I’ve read 16 books in total. Looking back at 2007 I’d also read 16 books and that was when I was when I had a full-time job, so being retired hasn’t resulted in more time to read books!

These are the books I haven’t written about:

The Man in the Picture: a Ghost Story, Susan Hill
This was a Christmas present. It’s a small book – in size and in length and I read it very quickly at the beginning of January. It starts with great promise of a sinister ghost story, set partly in Cambridge and partly in Venice. The narrator is having a meal with his old college professor one bitterly cold January evening, listening to a strange tale of a Venetian painting, of death and damnation. It’s really a novella and I was a bit disappointed that it was so short and although there is a good build up of atmosphere – dark places, a mysterious isolated country house and panic and terror in Venice – it didn’t send shivers down my spine.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
I don’t think I can do justice to this beautiful book in just a few words. Cassandra Mortmain is the narrator. She lives in a tumbledown castle miles from anywhere, with her family. There is her beautiful older sister, Rose, her once glamorous stepmother Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric father, who once wrote a novel. I love the opening of the book: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

It’s written in such a seemingly simple style, but it captures so well the innocence and naivety of youth and hope for the future. It’s just, well, so English. I first read it as a teenager and it didn’t fail to live up to my memories of it. Definitely a book to re-read.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
This is a book that somehow I have never read until now. From the back cover I learnt that this is Mark Twain’s most popular book and I suppose the story is well known, although I knew nothing of it. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this book, from the episode of the whitewashed fence and the ordeal in the cave to the trial of Injun Joe. It’s an amusing tale with sombre undertones of the realities of adult life. A tale of superstitions, murder and revenge, starvation and slavery.

The Ropemaker, Peter Dickinson
I moved from one fantastic children’s book to another. This time by a modern author. This is truly a fantastic story of sorcerers, witches, magic and mystery. Put simplistically it’s a story about Tilja, Tahl and their respective grandmother and grandfather who are on a journey to save their homes from destruction. On a deeper level it’s about saving a way of life and relationships between people, about growing up, being rejected and feeling the responsibilities of power. If you like the tales of the power of magic and above all the mysteries of time – ‘the great rope of time‘ then you will like this book.

The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett – I shall write a separate post on this book.

A God Divided, Christopher Catherwood I only just finished reading this a few days ago and I need to think about it before putting down my thoughts. It’s sub-titled ‘Understanding the differences between Islam, Christianity and Judaism’.

Outmoded Authors Challenge final thoughts

I have really enjoyed the Outmoded Authors Challenge. The Challenge was to read however many books by however many authors you liked. I have read books that I wouldn’t have read otherwise and have learnt about others from the reviews by other people. Thanks to Imani, who hosted this challenge.

My initial list is here.

I read:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I’d never read anything by Scott before and had an idea that his books would be difficult to read. I didn’t find Ivanhoe difficult at all and enjoyed reading it. My thoughts on this book are here.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham, another author whose work I’d never read before. I wrote about this here.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. I know nothing about Manning’s books. I only managed to read two books in the trilogy – The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. Friends and Heroes, the third book was listed in the library catalogue but when I tried to borrow it I found that it was no longer available because the branch library which holds it had been closed due to the library cost-saving cuts. I’ve been listening on Radio 4 to the trilogy so I now know what happens in Friends and Heroes, but I will read the book as soon as I can get a copy.

Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence. I had previously read Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, but not Sons and Lovers. I loved it – see here. I also read The Man Who Died – see here.

The only book I started and didn’t finish was As a Man Grows Older by Italo Svevo. I knew nothing about this author. The library has a copy of this book which I borrowed. I don’t often abandon a book but soon after I started to read it I thought it was tedious and I took it back unread. I did read the Introduction after I’d decided not to read the book and was dismayed when I read that he had been encouraged by James Joyce in his writing. I think I’d like to read Ulysses sometime, but if it’s anything like Svevo’s book that will be another book I’ll abandon.

I’m looking forward to joining in again when the second challenge starts later this year.

Heroine – Booking Through Thursday

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

Thursday has come round very quickly – it’s Booking Through Thursday again.

My immediate response to this question was Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, for her quick wittedness, good sense and spirit, then Jo in Little Women because of her independence and intelligence and Cousin Helen in What Katy Did as she was such a good person. But these are all characters from books I read a long time ago; there must be some more modern female characters that I like.

Again, one that came to my mind quickly is Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, for her courage and determination. Then there is Grace in Margaret Atwood’s Amazing Grace, aptly named as I think she is amazing and enigmatic and like the other female characters I like she is full of courage in her desperate situation. Susan Ward in Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is another strong female character; and Astrid in Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson – she is reclusive and an introvert and also a strong, determined woman.

It seems I like strong, determined women with a mind of their own and able to cope with difficult situations. So why is Elizabeth Bennet such a favourite, after all she didn’t have to cope with serious illness, or live in poverty, or deal with manipulative, domineering, homicidal men, or make a home in the American west? I think maybe it’s because I see her through rose-coloured glasses and because she is the first female character that caught my imagination when I first read Pride and Prejudice, possibly the first adult book I read.

Dante’™s Florence – Week 3

During week 3 we looked at the expansion of Florence as more people came into the city. In Dante’™s day there were about 45 towers, or 90 or more, depending upon the source you check and today there are about 20 still standing, showing the progression from the early plain and simple tower into the grander palaces, with more and bigger windows, columns, loggias and decorated with the families’™ coats of arms.

We looked at slides of a number of towers showing the development from defensive, military type towers to house towers and palaces.

La Castagna – The Chestnut Tower (also known as Dante’™s tower), across from Dante’™s House is an example of a plain, simple military tower, used in Dante’™s time by an order of priors who voted on decisions by placing a chestnut in a box – hence the name. The holes are where there were planks joining the tower to neighbouring houses and the windows decrease in size higher up the tower.

An example of a tower that existed during Dante’™s day is the medieval Mannelli Tower, located at one end of Ponte Vecchio. This was built to defend the bridge and shows the development of the design from the simple cube, having more windows (in pairs) and decorated with lions’™ heads. It’™s interesting because when the Vasari Corridor was added to the bridge at the end of the 16th century to enable the Grand Duke to move freely from one side of the bridge to the other, the Mannelli family refused to demolish it to make way for the Corridor. So the Corridor had to be built around the Tower, thus bypassing it.

We also looked at the cylindrical Pagliazza Byzantine Tower that was a prison in Dante’™s day and is now part of the Hotel Brunelleschi, the Buondelmonte Tower, and the Alberti Tower.

As the city prospered new city walls were built bringing the churches outside the original walls within the city boundaries. By the end of the 13th century the population had grown to approximately 90,000 and was second only in size to Paris. Its wealth came from textiles and banking, with an emerging merchant class coming into the city for employment. This also brought social problems and the mendicant orders ‘“ travelling preachers from Umbria and Emilia who wanted to enrich the people’™s spiritual life. These were different from the monastic orders, reaching out to people. Dante’™s writing forms a parallel as he wrote in the vernacular making his work accessible to all.

The Church of San Miniato on the opposite side of the Arno was in a wild and woody setting when Dante knew it. In the Divine Comedy he likens the entrance to Purgatory to the ascent to the church. It is an ancient church from the 11th century with a 13th century Tuscan Romanesque style façade similar to that of the Baptistery ‘“ green and white marble. Inside there is a beautiful 13th century gold and black mosaic in the apse in the Byzantine style, with the palm symbolising the Resurrection accompanied by the symbols for the four Evangelists.

Illustrations (except for the Chestnut Tower) are from Wikipedia.

To follow: Banking, Guilds and Art of the Period.

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton

I really like books that grab my attention from the start, have believable characters, a good story and are thought provoking. Hearts and Minds meets all these criteria. From the first page I became involved in the world of St Radegund’™s College, Cambridge as Dr Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor working against deadlines, wrestles with writing an article, has difficulty refocusing her eyes from the computer screen to look at her watch and is not relishing the prospect of confronting a delegation of students angry at the proposed rent increases. As I read further it was obvious that this is a book to be read slowly and relished.

For one thing it is full of details about how the university college functions, how the staff and students inter-relate, and the idiosyncrasies and bureaucracy of academia. For another I didn’™t want it to end, so I didn’™t read through at breakneck speed in my usual way, but rationed myself and took it slowly. It may look from the book jacket that it is a light and fluffy love story (well there is a love story in there), but it is much more than that, posing moral dilemmas that are not limited to the academic world. I’™m not sure I would have picked up this book just from its cover, so I’™m really pleased that Rosy Thornton, who is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, sent me a copy to read.

St Radegund’s College, an all-female college has just broken with 160 years of tradition by appointing former BBC executive James Rycarte as its new Head of House as successor to the former Mistress, the much-loved Dame Emily. The problems facing James seem to mount as, in addition to the rent strike by the students, he has to contend with opposition from some of the Fellows to his headship. There is the thorny question of his title ‘“ should he be called ‘˜Master’™ which has ‘œunfortunate resonances’ in a women’™s’™ college or some other title such as ‘˜President’™ or ‘˜Provost’™ or ‘˜Warden’™; for a while he goes by the title ‘˜Mistress’™ before settling for ‘˜Master’™. The library is sinking into the Cambridge fen mud and there isn’™t enough money in the building contingency fund to pay for the remedial work; and Martha’™s post of Senior Tutor is coming to the end of its period of office, the only suitable candidate being Dr Ros Clarke, who is leading the opposition to James as Head of House.

The perfect solution appears when Luigi Alvau, an old friend offers James a large donation. This would cover the costs of repairing the library and enable the college to set up scholarships for students who would otherwise not be able to afford a place. The sting in the tail is that Alvau’™s daughter is applying for a place at the college. James with Martha’™s support gradually wins over some of the Fellows. Martha meanwhile has her own problems. Not only is she faced with the problem of continuing her career, she has a depressed teenage daughter who refuses to go to school and spends her days in bed and a husband who seemingly exists on writing one or two poems in Italian every now and then, spending much of his time ‘œthinking’. The only comfort she gets at home is from her ginger tomcat Maynard. Through Martha’™s situation we are presented with the classic situation of how to balance work and home, with the added complications of difficult mother/daughter relationships between Martha and her daughter and Martha and her own mother.

Relationships are a key theme in the book, as James works to establish his relationships with the staff, the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship with his son and his increasing reliance on Martha. Then there are the students and their relationships with each other and the Dean. How James survives in a ‘œwoman’™s world’ provides much scope for gently poking fun – for example I loved the tale of the SCR curtains, agreed upon by the Pictures, Plate and Furniture Sub-Committee and James’s amazement that this is discussed by the entire academic staff at the annual meeting of the Governing Body. Opinion is divided between a traditional William Morris print and a more geometric Mondrian-style pattern.

More seriously the book raises questions, such as should the college compromise its integrity and take a donation when it cannot be sure of its origins? When its origins could be ill-gotton gains from bribery and corruption? Should the library be left to sink? And what about the question of donations from parents ‘“ are they evidence of bribery for a place or a genuine means of raising funds? Should students be penalised if they can’™t afford their education? Or indeed should students be denied a place if their parents make donations? I was intrigued to read on and see how or if these questions were resolved?

There are echoes of C P Snow’s novels, that I read and enjoyed many years ago, particularly The Masters in the Strangers and Brothers series and I noticed in the acknowledgements that the book developed from a joke about Snow. This is an intelligent and witty novel which kept me greatly entertained and gave me food for thought. I do hope there will be more books from Dr Thornton.

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton, published by Headline Review, 2007, hardback, 341 pages.