Monday, 29 February 2016

Bess - The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter by Anna Beer

An interesting biography of a little known lady, although wife to the legendary Sir Walter Ralegh
 (sometimes spelled Raleigh). Born Elizabeth Throckmorton, she was a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber to Elizabeth I, and Walter Ralegh was one of the Queens favourites. Most likely Bess and Ralegh met at court, she got pregnant and they secretly married in 1591. It so upset the Queen  when she discovered it, that she put them both under house arrest.

Walter Ralegh was an important person at the time, as a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (before he fell from grace) and was often away fighting wars or looking for gold in the new colonies in the Americas. That meant they were separated for most of their marriage life. Bess therefore had to learn how to care for their houses, family, children and just to survive on her own. Most time they spent together at the end of Ralegh’s life, when he was imprisoned in the Tower for many years. She stayed with him there, part of the time, and their last son Carew was born during the imprisonment. For many years Ralegh had the threat of being executed hanging over his head, and, in 1618, he finally was. I remember the rooms in the Tower that the Ralegh's occupied, from my visit there. It was later renamed 'The Bloody Tower' being the place where the 'Princes in the Tower' were staying.

Sir Walter Ralegh's quarters in the Tower
From this time onwards, Bess made a tremendous effort to reinstate the Ralegh inheritance for their only surviving son. She became a master of court cases and a very shrewd woman, building up her fortune from nil. She lived on into her eighties, although it is not known how and when she died.

Anna Beer manages to convey a very personal portrait of a remarkable woman. Just to survive in the intrigues of court in those days, seems to have been a full time occupation. Sometimes the story of the times that are woven into the story of Bess, is taking up a little bit too much of the space, but, at the same time it makes us understand the kind of society Bess had to survive in. It also gives us an idea how life was for women at the time, and what they could do if they set their mind to it.

Much more have been written on Sir Walter Ralegh, but here we get his story connected to his wife’s. Anna Beer implies that Bess' influence over her husband was much bigger than previously thought. She has made thorough research through archives, court papers and letters, and found new evidences of a life little documented, and weaves from these facts, a fascinating portrait of an unusual woman as well as the reality of life in those days.

Anna Beer is a British author, mainly writing biographies. As a biographer she is interested in "the relationship between literature, politics and history” (she has also written a biography of John Milton).

I downloaded this e-book for free from Endeavour Press.

Leap Year Book Challenge 2016

On Brona's Books I found this 'one day every fourth year' challenge.

Leap Year babies will tell you how special it is to be born on the 29th February.

To celebrate a once in 4 year event - go to page 29 of the book you're reading right now and copy the first sentence onto your blog or into my comments section. 

Here is the first sentence, on page 29, from The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel which I am now reading:

 His uncle beams, filled to the brim with pride and joy in his Gallic gewgaw.

Friday, 26 February 2016

The Classic Club; February Meme: Questions #38

The Classic Club: Tell us about the classic book(s) you’re reading this month.

For the February Brontë Reading Group’s meeting, I have read Trilby by George du Maurier. Our meeting will be on Monday 29th so we have not yet discussed the book. I am sure it will be a lively and interesting discussion. Here are a few of my thoughts.

Trilby was one of the most popular novels of its time. Like so many of the novels in those days it started as a serial in 1894 and was published in book form in 1895.  It starts out in a bohemian quarter of Paris in the 1850s, where we meet two English and one Scottish artist, Trilby, half-Irish, working as an artist’s model and laundress and Svengali, a Jewish rogue, masterful musician and hypnotist. They are all in love with the lovely Trilby. The novel, it seems, is mainly about ’milieu’, which is a description of the social context where people are dwelling. I can agree; that is really what this novel is all about, and unfortunately a story is lacking.

Nothing much happens. We follow the artists during their time in Paris and when they are back in England. There are a lot of descriptions of the surroundings, whether it is the bohemian quarters in Paris, their flats, bars and restaurants, the English country side, or a train ride. The story, or lack of story(!) evolves around Tilby. There is a thinly veiled story, but it does not really start until the end of the book.

I am very divided in my thoughts about this book. On the one hand it is written in a lovely style, very charming. Descriptions of people, their lives and surroundings are very poetic. Easy to read, text flowing like a beautiful river through the landscape! On the other hand I ask myself; should a novel not have a story to it?

I am still glad I read the book, since I have never really read anything similar before. Although, I think a novel needs a good story, I have a feeling that this novel might grow on me, the more I think about it.

These days,  popular books and films generates toys, clothes etc for fans. That is also the case for Trilby.

A Trilby hat was used in an early stage adaptation of Trilby. It is a narrow-brimmed type of hat, and was once considered to be a rich man's favoured hat.

A Trilby hat looks good on gorgeous Sean Connery!

The other item is a shoe, The Trilby. Trilby, in the novel, has the most beautiful feet and they are famous. Many are those artists who have drawn or painted her foot. One smart producer used 'Trilby' as the name for his elegant shoe.

The Trilby shoe does not really look that comfortable!

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth

The Content ReaderThis book was a gift from my husband! First of all the title is very appealing, and it is also interesting to read books about your own country, analysed by foreigners living there.

Michael Booth is mainly a travel and cook-book writer, married to a Danish and have lived in Denmark for some years. This is a very witty and funny book to read, as well as interesting in finding out the characteristics of the Nordic people. Although one think that we are almost the same, there are actually huge differences in our approach to life. Having read this book, I am starting to believe that the differences are even bigger than I realised! Hmm…

He starts in Denmark, continues with Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. I must say that I did learn a few things I did not know about each of the countries and peoples, including Sweden. It might be that I have not lived in Sweden for over 30 years, so I am not anymore a typical Swede (although my husband still think I am! Which is probably why he bought the book for me!).

All surveys done internationally on how we live, what we appreciate in life, education, working life etc etc show that the Scandinavian, or Nordic countries (Scandinavia is only Sweden, Norway and Denmark), are on top of all lists for a wonderful life. This is the starting point for Michael Booth’s interest and search for Utopia in this northern part of Europe.

Travelling around the five countries, talking to politicians, journalist, businessmen and people in general he guides us through the ups and downs of these countries. It is done with a good sense of humour and I laughed out load on his descriptions of the heathen traditions and the way the Scandinavians approach and enjoy life. Or do they enjoy life? Maybe not to everyones liking or understanding…but that’s life.

An enjoyable and easily read account of a modern utopia! I might have to try one of his travel books. I like his kind of humour in describing daily life.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Yann Martel in person

The Content Reader
Yann Mantel
Yesterday evening I had the pleasure to 'meet' Yann Martel. He is touring Europe to promote his new The High Mountains of Portugal. It was a hilarious two hours of a philosophical and witty performance by Yann Martel. He told us about his most famous book The Life of Pi, how it came to be and how he was inspired. The discussion lingered mostly on his new book, which I of course had to buy and got it signed as well!

Yann Martel has studied philosophy and opened up a lot of new ideas how to approach life. He seemed to have a very relaxed attitude to life in general and his writing especially. He considered himself very lucky to be a writer. Having grown up mostly abroad, his father was a diplomat, he considers travelling a way of grasping the sense of living.

The Content Reader

Looking forward to read his latest book, and will read this instead of The Knights Templar in Britain in the challenge "What's in a Name", hosted by Wormhole. Mostly suitable for  a country in the name!

From the publisher about the book.

Three journey. Three broken hearts. One question...
What is a life without stories?

In Lisbon in 1904 a man named Tom´sa discovers and old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artefact that - if he can find it - would redefine history. Travelling in one of Europe's earliest automobiles, Tomás sets out in search of this strange treasure.

Thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery of his own, and is drawn into the consequences of Tomás's quest.

Fifty years on, a Canadian senator seeks refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he arrives with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. And there the century-old adventure will come to its stirring conclusion.

A quest through the twentieth century, The High Mountains of Portugal tells a tale of great love and great loss. Written with all the warmth, wit and colour one would expect from the author of Life of Pi, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century - and through the human heart.

The Content Reader
Yann Martel being interviewed at Passaporta, Brussels

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

The Content ReaderDusklands contains two separate stories, seen from a male point of view. In both stories there is a person called Coetzee; one tyrannic boss (at least seen from Eugene Dawns perspective) in the first story and a tyrannic land owner in South Africa in the 1760s in the latter part. The method to use the name of the writer in the stories, makes us believe that what is told has actually happened. One could say that it gives a sort of authenticity to the stories.  The prologue, in both stories, indicates that what we are about to read, has already happened. Both stories are told from first-person singular, presens. Both stories highlights and indicates, via descriptions and figuration, the times they are portraying.

The Vietnam Project

In the first story we meet Eugene Dawn, who works for a man named Coetzee on a project that aims to find a way to win the war via mythological ideas about the enemy. The story indicates that we are at the end of the Vietnam war. The US is desperat and seeking all possibilities to turn the luck of war. The more Dawn goes into what is happening in Vietnam, the more he tries to put himself under the skin of the traditions, cultures and way of thinking of the enemy, the more he goes into his own psychological downfall. The suspicion against a mentally, strong enemy, existing in a world quite foreign, also influences his way of seeing his own life. The terrible situation for the civilians in Vietnam, makes him reflect on his wife and son. Suspicion turns to paranoia as regards his wife, which makes him take his son on a trip, more giving the idea of a kidnapping. In the end, when the police finds him,  he stabs his son. Even his own world has become unworldly.

The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee

The other story indicates that we have moved back in time. All the way back to the Dutch colonisation of South Africa. Here we follow a land owner as he goes for a trip into the wilderness to hunt. The description of the owner and his men/slaves gives a clear indication that we are transported to an earlier, more barbaric time in the history of the country. We find words to describe the local population, that we would never use today. Also the humanitarian values are from a lost world.  The story is told in a way that highlights the time by the description of the horses, spears, villages, negotiations with the population, clothes and customs. Above all, land owner's colonial values of their own greatness and dominion over a more primitive population.


The two stories are quite different and I have a little bit of a problem to see how ”they belong”. Maybe they don’t belong at all? The story about the hunting trip is terrible in all its truthfulness, describing how the colonialists saw their environment and the local population. The story is very well written, exciting and gives an indication of the development in the country. The story highlights a historical, colonial perspective and mirrors, in an excellent manor, the time it describes.

The Vietnam project seems to be totally separate from the other story. Maybe Coetzee wants to tell us, that even 200 years later we have not learned anything from history. The colonialism is continuing with a new face. Dawns path into a psychosis  can be seen a the bad conscience of a people for a war that can not be won. It can also be interpreted as a way of depicting contemporary events where a population starts questioning the reason for the war. Also as an interpretation of  all the soldiers that fought in Vietnam and came back with psychological problems. When an old colonial tradition is mixing with modern times and modern values.

This is the second book I read from Coetzee, the other one being Disgrace. I must admit, that although I am not entirely fond of Coetzee’s writing, he is an excellent writer and manages very well to put a message through his books. I must also admit, that he is probably one of the more easier Nobel Prize winners to read, if we except the Swedish winners through the years, which I find more accessible than most other winners.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

New challenges coming my way!

I know I said I will not accept any more challenges this year. Especially, since as soon as I promise to read certain books they seem to shy away from me! Yes, it is true. They become the last books I want to read. However, having entered into a cleaning up procedure at home with the help of Marie Kondo and her The life-changing magic of tidying I seem to see my TBR book cases in a new light. The books are standing there and shouting: Read me! Read me! when I look at them. Yes, it is really some kind of magic.

So, today I had a very nice, relaxed day and had time to catch up with a few other blogs. And what do I find? Yes, you are right, a lot of interesting reading challenges. However, being firm in my promise (yes, I can be firm sometimes!) I entered only challenges that for the most part will reduce my TBR shelves.

For an update, go to my TBR shelves.

Kondo-Marie Method continuing, podcasts and reading!

I have just recovered from the worst stomach flu I ever had. Was totally knocked out for two days. Recovering is just like coming back to life! The good thing is that I could not do much, hardly read, so I finally started to listen to the podcasts by Simon at "Stuck in a Book" and Rachel at "Book Snob" called "Tea or Books". It is wonderful to listen to, and a lot of views on various books and writers. Very interesting indeed. I am now on podcast no 7. They can be downloaded from iTunes or podcast app of your choice. A real treat!

I have finished a couple of books since last time and there will be a review next on "The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth. I have also started a book for the challenge "What's in a Name" hosted by 'Wormhole', namely the first on the list; a title with a country in it. I will choose all the books for this challenge from my TBR shelves (my biggest challenge this year is to reduce a lot from there!) and the first is "The Knights Templar in Britain" by Evelyn Lord. Review will come. Being me, I also started on Tracy Chevallier's "The Lady and the Unicorn". I don't know yet if it fits into any challenge except reducing my TBR shelves.

Before - mix of read and non-read
 (sorry for the sunshine, must have been the
only time it was shining lately!)
After. Fiction three left columns and
non-fiction right column.
I just wanted to share with you my continuation of practising the Kondo-Marie Method, this time on my books (see earlier post). I have four bookcases in our study/guest room/library, two was partly overfilled with TBR books and the other two had files and other things in them. After putting everything out of the book shelves, I re-organised things a bit, and back into the book cases came; two with books I have read, where I separated fiction and non-fiction, and the other two with books to read. I might not have to tell you that the latter two book cases are now filled out, but there is space in the book cases of books read! Partly because I have given away around 100 books! Yes, it is difficult, but I must say I felt a certain relief afterwords. Counting books from the TV-room, which were more art books and other thematic, big books with pictures and text, I probably sorted out another 100! As Marie says; take the book in your hand and be honest to yourself. Will you read this book again? I even gave away some books that I have not read, but realised I never will read! That is a huge confession from my side!

What do you feel about podcasts? I have never listened to any before, but after this first try I think I will become a fan. Especially if you are out walking and want to listen to something. Or even cleaning at home, it seems a perfect thing for multi tasking! I will certainly look for other interesting podcasts, and if you have something to recommend, please drop a line in the comment box or send me an e-mail.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The German Woman by Paul Griner

The Content ReaderI found this book on a book fair, and I remember that one of you also gave a favourable review of the book on your blog. I finished it last week, but it takes a little bit of time before you have properly digested it.

The story is about Kate, an English nurse, who marries a German doctor just before World War I. The climate not being very good for Germans in England at the time, they leave and take up duty with the German army in a field hospital in Poland and Ukraine. Here is where the book starts and we follow the two of them during their travels back to Germany and the terrible times after the war. Inflation was high and every day was a fight just to find something to eat. We are in 1919.

Here the story switches to London in 1944 and we meet Claus, or Charles, a German/Irish/American living in London, working as a warden and patrolling the streets at night. During the day he has a government job in a cultural unit. What he really wants to do, is to make films. He seems also to have another job, as a spy. But for whom? The British? The Germans? Both?

One day he meets Kate, who is now back in England. They fall in love but it is complicated. She has been married to a German, speaks German fluently, and with whom is her loyalty? Do you have to have a loyalty somewhere? Can't you be loyal to two sides?
He let the comment about Americans go; his lineage was too complicated to explain. BUt he wanted to sting her too. ”You seem to have escaped the suffering.” he said.
Her face changed. ”You’re quite wrong there. I survived, but I never escaped.”
This is a very good novel in many aspects. Well written and well told. Sometimes maybe a little bit too many and long parts on the thoughts of Claus, but, at the same time, they give structure to the book and the overall message: There are no winners in a war, only losers.

The sufferings come out very well. Connected with our main protagonists it makes it so more real and we can feel with them, whether they are happy or sad.
”I can’t go back to what I was,” she’d said. ”That’s always been the case. After Horst died, I couldn’t inhabit my old life in Germany of my previous one in England, so I tried to make a new one in France. That didn’t work, so history washed me up here once again. I won’t go forward pretending that the past hasn’t happened, but I don’t want to dwell on it either.”
They are two lost persons who meet each other, fall in love and realise, with their different backgrounds, that life is not always easy to either live or describe.
”All of this had come out in bits and pieces on a long walk, and even now he wasn’t sure he had it properly ordered, as he never felt he could ask too much, nor did it help that she described some of it in German as her German was a dialect he had trouble understanding at times. Still, switching to German made sense. Putting it in another language was a way to put it in another life.”
As J.P. Hartley says at the start of his novel ”The Go-Between”: The past is another country, they do things differently there. Some things can only be told and understood in your own language. A translation looses some things on the way. Kate and Claus could communicate both in English and German and switched as seemed appropriate at the time and depending on the subject.

What I really liked about this book is that it does not take sides. For all sides in a war it is terrible, and Griner keeps his story focused on the people, and I think that is why it comes out as a very personal story, as story that we all can understand and be compassionate about. We don’t take sides. The love affaire is the centre of things and we just have to live with all the complications around.

The end is very surprising. However, thinking about it for some time, maybe this was the only possible ending. A highly recommended read, which lingers with you and make you think about the higher values in life, and how small our possibility is to influence the world around us.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

The Content ReaderAnother low key spy thriller by Graham Greene. This time we meet Mr Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, living in Havanna with his 17 year old daughter Milly. The wife/mother left several years ago with a lover and has not been heard of since. Mr Wormold is a very lonely man and does not let anyone into his life. He has his long time friend Dr Hasselbacher, but they only meet in bars or restaurants, and after all these years they still call each other by the surname. The other person in his life is a notorious police chief Captain Segura.

One day he is contacted by an MI6 agent who wants to recruit him to work for the agency. He is supposed, in his turn, to recruit other agents to help them getting more information on what is happening in Cuba. He is out of money and considering the cost of the horse that his daughter has bought, and the fee for the riding club, he is, against his better judgement, accepting the task. He has no idea how to get about the whole business, but is happy when the money is coming in, and his expenses are paid. To show that he is doing something, he is inventing his collaborators and is sending in fake reports.

Needless to say, these ’agents’ and his ’reports’ turns out to have a life of their own, and things are going terribly wrong. MI6 is sending more staff to help him cope with the intelligence he is collecting. They are  impressed by the information they receive from him.

An interesting read on an ordinary man, stumbling into events which he can no longer control. Graham Greene’s talent of telling stories of how ordinary men, and women, manage to cope in a world which is shadowed by deceits, lies and the question: ”Who can you trust?” makes an interesting read.

I recently read The Human Factor and I still have Travels With my Aunt on my TBR shelves. Other books by him that I would like to read are classics like; The Third Man, The Quiet American and Brighton Rock. However, he has written lots of other, I am sure, interesting novels.