Friday Fun: Just Sitting and Watching the World Go By

I admitted in my Inside and Out book tag that I don’t actually read all that much outdoors. However, if I had a beautiful porch, deck, terrace, balcony or whatever you choose to call it, that would be my favourite indoor/outdoor compromise for reading. (In fact, that’s exactly what I did back in the days when I visited family in Greece. Saved me having to listen to hours of gossip about people I didn’t know!) If you also add in a fabulous view… well, my inspiration might know no bounds.

A little read, a little chat, drinks at sunset. American mountain cabin, from weheartit.com
Modest balcony overlooking the St Croix river, Keller Architecture, George Heinrich photo.
Mountain lakes are my favourites to look at, not necessarily to swim in. From Georgiana Design on Tumblr.
A less basic seating experience, from Annahepfer.com
Coming back to Greece and my favourite island, Santorini. I really need to go back there soon, although probably not in such luxury, from Insider.com

Friday Fun: Romantic Bedrooms

I’ll be honest: what is being flogged as romantic in most magazines or travel brochures makes my skin crawl: tacky decorations, lots of pink and red, a bathtub at the foot of your bed (all the better to hear the gurgle of water draining, see a spider crawling out of the plughole and have to choose between romance of scum residue or scrubbing the bathtub immediately after use). So I’ve had to create my own definitions of romance.

It might get too hot in summer, but a bed in a greenhouse is the perfect place for reading. From soyvirgo.com
A treehouse is also a great option, although you might have to fight the bugs for bed occupancy. From Airbnb.com
Great views and lots of soothing greenery with this day bed. Plus, who can resist a feline friend? From merchantdesign.blogspot.fr
OK, mood lighting can enhance romance, they’re right about one thing, but I think the view and the sound of waves might also be helpful. From bocadolobo.com
It’s all about the view in this one as well. From bocadolobo.com
However, the most romantic bedrooms, to my mind, are the ones where you also have a comfortable reading chair and plenty of books to hand. From homedesignlover.com

Inside and Out Book Tag

If Annabel, Kaggsy59 and Calmgrove are all doing a bookish meme, then surely it must be a good one? It certainly looks like fun! All about bookish habits – the more visible ones… and a few hidden ones.

My deckchair is not visible in this picture, but isn’t this just the most magical place? My little piece of paradise.

1. Inside flap/back of the book summaries: Too much info? Or not enough?

I quite like reading the flaps, although a lot of the blurbs seem to sound quite samey nowadays. Or else they can be misleading – trying to sell the book as the next [insert current popular XXX]. I’m not hugely upset by spoilers, so I might even read a few reviews of a book I am thinking of buying. If my trusted book bloggers think it’s an intriguing/interesting/unusual book, then that’s good enough for me (they don’t have to like it).

2. New book: What form do you want it in? Be honest: Audiobook, eBook, Paperback or Hardcover?

I really can’t get into audiobooks for some reason – which is ironic, because I used to love reading books out loud to my mother and then to my children. Not terribly keen on ebooks either unless I really have no other choice. I wish I could afford glorious hardbacks, but they are too expensive and take up too much space on my shelves. So paperbacks it is…

3. Scribble while you read? Do you like to write in your books; take notes, make comments, or do you keep your books clean, clean, clean?

Confession time: in secondary school and university, I used to underline or write some key words in my books (not just textbooks, but philosophy and fiction as well). My father has done that all his life, so I just assumed that was something that grownups did! I now much prefer to have colourful little post-it flags on any particularly striking passages.

4. Does it matter to you whether the author is male or female when you’re deciding on a book? What if you’re unsure of the author’s gender?

Not really. Although if I go through a phase of reading mostly male authors, I really feel the need to compensate with a long phase of female authors. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read books by authors with ambiguous names, certain they were women and then discovering they were men (Evelyn Waugh?) or vice versa (it took me over a decade to discover Ayn Rand was a woman – possibly because I didn’t think a woman could be the the mouthpiece for such radical egoism (and so much lauded by certain men I know). So there you go: you really can’t tell if it’s a male or female writer most of the time.

5. Ever read ahead? Or have you ever read the last page way before you got there?

Something that I used to do in my youth. As I said, I don’t mind spoilers and I really, really wanted to make sure that my favourite character doesn’t come to a bad end. But I soon discovered that authors are too clever to say ‘and then Gatsby was shot by the pool’ in the very last paragraph, so I stopped.

6. Organized bookshelves or outrageous bookshelves?

Super-organised in principle, but now that I’m seriously running out of space (this month alone, I discovered to my dismay, I ordered 50 books, so lockdown has been ruinous for my purse), there is a lot of double-stacking going on. Also, piles on every available flat surface in the house.

MY US shelf is looking decidedly crowded nowadays. I will probably need to flow over somewhere else…

7. Have you ever bought a book based on the cover (alone)?

Not unless I’m pretty sure I’d like the content too. Does buying several copies of the same book because of beautiful covers count? I have several copies of To the Lighthouse, but I do try to restrain myself. Which is why I have some really quite awful Pan Classics covers from the 1970s that my parents bought way back when. They are still in good condition and I can’t justify to myself buying a more aesthetically pleasing edition of Villette, Pride and Prejudice or Moll Flanders (and have to donate the old editions to charity shops). Of course, if someone were to give them to me as a present…

8. Take it outside to read, or stay in?

The best place to read is in the conservatory (see picture above). When I raise the blinds, I can see the garden but am not bothered by creepy crawlies. I have a comfortable deckchair, I don’t get sunstroke, I have my cold drink to hand, and the cats often jump on my lap and purr. It’s just a shame that at times it gets either too hot or too cold in there. Reading in bed is always an attractive option – as long as I don’t doze off too soon.

Friday Fun: Amazing Courtyards and Patios

Still here, still pretty much housebound, and no plans to travel too far afield. But who needs to, if they’ve got such wonderful courtyards in their own home? I hope they come complete with a gardener who knows what they are doing, because they can’t count on me to keep anything alive and pretty.

I’ve always craved a place to gather with friends outside on balmy summer evenings and tell stories. From simplybestwoman.com
Courtyard in Mexico from Contemporist.com. Photo credit: Lorena Darquea.
Water features are so soothing, and I like the idea of having a swing as well. From arielbrazil.ga
Another inside outside room from Arch Daily. Photo credit Denilson Machado.
Tunisian feel in this simple to replicate courtyard, from simplybestwoman.com

 

#20BooksofSummer: Crime Fiction for Nos. 12 and 13

You know I enjoy my crime fiction books, and in these plague-ridden, uncertain times they provide me with more comfort than ever before. Especially the two authors who feature for No. 12 and No. 13 within my #20BooksofSummer. I’m also sneaking in a third book by a new-to-me author, which I read (and greatly enjoyed) for the Virtual Crime Book Club this month. So, I could entitle this post:

A Longterm Love, a Newer Love and a Brand-New Love (let’s see if you can figure out which is which?!)

Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible

I discovered Barbara Nadel’s crime series set in Istanbul about 12 years ago, when a friend who knows me well said that I might enjoy it, given my own passion for intercultural issues. I’ve always kept an eye out for them since, but in the past few years, as my reviewing duties went into overdrive and I started reading fewer books for pleasure, I had missed the last couple of books that came out in the Ikmen and Suleyman series (I am slightly less keen on the London-set crime series by the same author). So I ordered the latest one but started with an older one that I had on my bookshelf, which came out in 2018.

A young woman torn between her Catholic and Muslim mixed background is found brutally murdered, eviscerated. Before her death, she had been tearing apart public opinion with her claim of being miraculously cured of cancer and her visions of the Virgin Mary. Does her murder have a religious motive in a country that is increasingly separated into hostile camps based on faith? Or could the reason be closer to home, with a family equally torn apart by conflicting ideologies?

It was good to catch up with Ikmen as he nears retirement, but is wiser and more empathetic than ever, while I’ve always had a soft spot for the charismatic womaniser that is Mehmet Suleyman (who once again faces women trouble in this book). Meanwhile, their female boss is struggling to keep her police unit independent, free of government interference – and it was this description of descent into nationalism and dictatorship which I found particularly unsettling. The series has become darker and more thoughtful as time goes on, perhaps reflecting what is going on in Turkey currently. I know the author has been having trouble returning there for her research (she used to spend a great deal of the year in Turkey).

Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils

It has been far too long since the last Zigic and Ferreira novel set in Peterborough (although Dolan has written a standalone crime novel in the meantime). The Hate Crime Unit has been disbanded and they are now working with their colleagues in the general murder squad. The action is set in 2018 and both investigators (and the people they are investigating) are starting to feel the hostile post-Brexit environment.

A young doctor who works at the local female detention centre for illegal immigrants is found dead. Is this because he was a whistleblower or because he was one of the participants in the abuse of inmates in the centre (which is more or less like a prison and usually ends up with the inmates being deported).

As the title indicates, this book too shows a clash between two opposing forces and points of view. There is no sugarcoating, no representation of either side as being completely blameless – the protesters against the detention centre come off quite badly, despite their ‘progressive’ views. I like this subtletly in Dolan’s work, this refusal to over-simplify when the situation is so complex and messy. Another great entry in the series and I’m hopeful there will be more.

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man

This is the additional title, which was not on my 20 Books of Summer list, but which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by crime writer (and reader) Rebecca Bradley. I’d been meaning to get started on this series, since I know next to nothing about India during that period (1920 onwards), other than that it was a troubled time, so I was delighted that it was the book club choice for July. This book too shows two opposing factions – the behemoth of the British Empire versus the Indian rebels, and once again the author manages to pull off the tricky feat of not resorting to stereotypes or presenting them as unified block.

Sam Wyndham is new to India: he survived the trenches of WW1 only to have his wife dies of the Spanish flu, so he has become world-weary, cynical and slightly addicted to opium. He also feels like an outsider in India – he is not really integrated yet into the colonial community, has a strong sense of fairness and feels uncomfortable with British imperialist attitude. But he is realistically of his time: more progressive than most, but nevertheless not overly modern (what one might call ‘woke’ nowadays). Two other outsiders join him (and will likely play key roles in the next books in the series): the Anglo-Indian secretary Annie Grant and his well-educated, wealthy ‘native’ sergeant nicknamed Surrender-not (which sounds offensive to me, but is accepted by the man in question with weary resignation).

The setting was one of the high points of the book for me, educating me while never becoming too didactic. As with all first books in a series, there is quite a bit of set-up and throat-clearing in this book, but there are sufficient hints of character development to keep me intrigued. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author.

 

#20BooksofSummer: No. 11 – Shirley Hazzard

Once I read Shirley Hazzard’s mischievous portrayal of the United Nations in People in Glass HousesI knew she would be the kind of writer that I’d like. I quickly ordered two more of her books (which are not easy to find, she seems to be somewhat out of print) but have only just read one of them now, five years later. I can relate so well to this ‘citizen of everywhere and nowhere’.

Born in Australia, she nevertheless felt somewhat ambiguous about it, a backwater that she was all too eager to escape from. Although she made America her home for many years, she did not feel she fitted into the sassy, young, casual style of writing there. She felt closer to the more formal English style and has been compared to her contemporaries Anita Brookner, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. In fact, she reminds me more of  earlier writers such as Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green or Barbara Pym – an excellent ear for dialogue, especially for what remains unspoken, much more tightly controlled and tight-lipped – but without their obsession with class.

This is the best cover, the Virago Modern Classics edition. I’ve seen some awful US covers.

The Bay of Noon is one of her early novels, published in 1970. Already, the author demonstrates her ability to write satire, cast her withering cold stare on absurd people and behaviours, yet still show some vulnerability. Her remarkably clear and precise, yet poetic prose style is already fully formed in this book. It is perhaps a style that has become unfashionable in recent years – maybe even in her own lifetime (which might explain a long gap in her writing.) This is not about sparkling linguistic gems and fireworks; instead, it rewards the patient and attentive reader (above all, the rereader) – because nothing is wasted, everything is packed in tightly.  Blink and you might miss an important point.

As in most of her novels and short stories, the story seems to be comfortably domestic at first: about expats trying to make a home for themselves in a different culture and caught up in a sort of love triangle. But there are bigger issues at stake – the effects of war (in this case in Italy, in other novels we have Occupied Japan or post-war England) and personal trauma.

Jenny is an expat working for a section of NATO headquartered in Naples in the 1950s. She befriends the glamorous writer Gioconda and her loud macho boyfriend Gianni, and also has occasional forays into a relationship with taciturn Scotsman Justin. Feeling supplanted in her brother’s affections by his wife, not quite at home in any part of the world, she has had to learn to cauterise her heart and wounds. Yet she finds herself once again cast as the spare wheel in a tangle of relationships where no one is entirely happy or satisfied, and everyone is lying to themselves and to others.

Jenny is ferociously bright and observant, but lonely – you can’t help feeling that Hazzard has put a lot of herself in that character, but there is something in the elegance and more resigned sadness of Gioconda which is perhaps the portrait of the more mature author.

But that’s a way to go on loving – a place or a person. To miss it. In fact, to go away, to put yourself in the state of missing, is sometimes the simplest way to preserve love.

Naples is the main character in this novel – and Hazzard clearly loved the place (she eventually settled in Capri with her husband after a peripetatic career all over the world). But she does not romanticise it or avoid its poverty and social problems:

Ordinariness, the affliction and backbone of other cities, was here non-existent. Phrases I had always thought universal – the common people, the average family, the typical reaction, ordinary life – had no meaning where people were all uncommon and life extraordinary; where untraceable convulsions of human experience had yielded up such extremes of destitution, of civilization.

Friday Fun: Homesick for Romania

I was supposed to go to Romania this summer to celebrate my parents’ 80th birthdays (they are on different days, but both in the same year). I was hoping to take the boys for a hike in my beloved mountains, but instead will have to make do with these pictures instead. The first few pictures are from places that were within easy travel distance from Bucharest, so I used to go hiking and skiing there at least once a month when I was a pupil and a student. The last batch show the four seasons in different parts of the country.

N.B. I left Romania in the mid 1990s because it had a corrupt government, merciless exploitative capitalism combined with nostalgia for communist strong men, and because young people seemed to have no future there to fully develop their talents. There are still plenty of things wrong there, but I’m seriously thinking of moving back there in retirement at the latest.

One of my favourite places: the Sphinx on the summit of the Bucegi mountains. From Turist de Romania website.
Not far from there, Cabana Stana Tarla above Sinaia. From Booking.com
A little bit further away, sunset over the Caltun Lake in the Fagaras Mountain range, from muntii-fagaras.ro
The Seven Staircase Gorge near Brasov, photo credit Ionut Stoica. Not recommended if you suffer from vertigo!
Spring in the Apuseni mountains, from events.in
Summertime in the Retezat nature reserve, from Icar Tours.
Autumn is always spectacular in the mountains, from travelminit.ro
Last but not least, winter in Bucovina, with its traditional wooden churches. From The Romania Journal

Friday Fun: If I had those home offices…

Working from home has not been as peaceful and productive as many of us imagined it would be while we were cursing our commute, but nevertheless many of us are now hoping that organisations are more open to a hybrid model of working. A couple of days at home every week would really make all the difference – and would certainly be a pleasure in any of the home offices below.

You can’t go wrong with ladders or spiral staircases, as we’ve established. From Wall Street Journal.
Even if you have long, awkwardly shaped rooms… But where do people get all these high ceilings from? From weheartit.com
For those who like it darker, more traditional, this comfy office with reading armchair and window seat has it all. From Pinterest.
But many of you might prefer an office (again, with ceiling height) with a view. It would require a LOT more bookcases, from my point of view, though. From Decoist.
This one has the shelves, but does it have the view? From home-designing.com
This one ticks both boxes: lots of shelves and lots of views! From Decoist.

Friday Fun: And Breathe… in New Zealand

This Friday Fun post is pure escapism, nothing political about it at all… but for some reason all of today’s houses seem to be located in New Zealand. A country I very much hope to visit some day. Most if not all of these pictures are taken from the wonderful website ArchitectureNow.co.nz

Villa in Wairarapa, photo: Simon Devitt.
House designed by Strachan Architects, photo Patrick Reynolds.
House on Lake Wakatipu, photo Paul McCredie.
Kawau Island bach, photo Alex Wallace.
This house is not about the view, but about the rather lovely inner courtyard. Photo: Samuel Hartnett
The perfect beach house? Sorry, not sure of photo credit, but I couldn’t resist sharing it.

 

Friday Fun: Josephine Baker and Her Rainbow Tribe

Something a little bit different for this Friday Fun post. Josephine Baker achieved her greatest success outside her country of birth, the United States. She moved to Paris when she was still very young, and it was there that she became idolised as the Black Venus of cabaret performance in the 1920s and 30s. She was also active in the French Resistance during the war and in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 60s. Part of her activism was her well-intentioned but rather misguided ambition to raise a Rainbow Tribe. Unable to have any children of her own, she adopted a total of 12 children of different ethnicities to prove they could grow up together in harmony. She also deliberately raised them with different religions. At her magnificent estate in the Dordogne Chateau de Milandes she created something of a theme park, including a hotel, a farm, rides, and the children singing and dancing for visitors, included in the price of admission.  That sounds to me horrendously like a zoo, and she certainly was not beyond typecasting the children to ‘represent’ their ethnic group, but she no doubt meant well. She later had to sell the chateau as she got into massive debt, and was taken in by her friend Grace Kelly, by then Princess of Monaco. The chateau is now open once more to visitors.

The rainbow tribe in the mid 1950s.
Chateau de Milandes in the present-day, from its own website.
Josephine Baker with her fourth husband and her children. From YouTube.
The front aspect of Chateau de Milandes, a genuine 15th century French chateau in the Dordogne.
Josephine at the chateau with the children in the 1960s.
The dining room at Chateau des Milandes. From TripAdvisor
Finally, another of Josephine Baker’s houses, in Le Vesinet, Paris, bought when she first achieved fame in the 1920s. The house is privately owned and not available for visiting, but this is where Josephine walked her pet cheetah.