All Things Bright & Beautiful – James Herriot

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“Those were the days when I was most grateful I was in country practice; the shirt sleeve days when the bleak menace of the bald heights melted into friendliness, when I felt at one with all the airy life and growth about me and was glad that I had become what I never thought I would be, a doctor of farm animals.” James Herriot

Read more about All Things Bright and Beautiful at Goodreads.

Author: James Herriot

This book could make the most hardened city dweller want to give up their cosmopolitan lifestyle and buy a farm in the countryside with a couple of pigs, sheep and a working dog called Jock. Of course, only if James Herriot is the local vet and the surrounding countryside are the heather-covered fells of North Yorkshire. Otherwise, his stories will do nicely.

All Things Bright and Beautiful is the second in a trilogy of memoirs about James Herriot’s life as a Scottish country vet in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s a book with a sunny disposition full of short chapter stories, some happy, some sad but with laugh out loud moments never far away. If you ever need to know how to return a cow’s uterus to its rightful place, this is the book for you. You don’t need to love animals to enjoy this book, but it certainly helps.moor-661424_1920

Happy to say, it’s not all “soapy arm up the rear end”. Herriot introduces us to farmers and townsfolk, his crusty partner and fun-loving brother, and his good-humoured, long-suffering wife. (Herriot, sent on a shopping mission to furnish their new bedsit, returns home instead with a weighty, smelly and ancient set of The Geography of the World in Twenty Four Volumes.)

We traipse the fields, eat freshly baked cake in tiny farmhouse kitchens, chase ghosts through woodland and drink to excess in village pubs.

It was a tough life but Herriot was a patient, gentle and kind man with as much an understanding of the people he met as with the biology of the animals he treated. He sees farmers as “the salt of the earth” – hardworking, honest, pragmatic, frustrating but ever hopeful.

It’s slightly unfair that a talented and bright vet, full of empathy for man and beast, could also write so beautifully. His writing seems effortless, almost like he’s there sitting on the sofa next to you telling you his stories. I can see why they translated so well to the small screen. (I haven’t seen any of these yet. Have you? What did you think?)

I’ve put All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Wise and Wonderful on my birthday wish list. But I’ll read them differently. These are ‘dipping’ books. One or two chapters a night, just before sleep. And I’ll add James Herriot to my Agatha Christie’s….the perfect way to while away those pesky night time hours when sleep is elusive.

Charming, Fun and Heartwarming. 4.5 stars

The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams

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The Velveteen Rabbit, illustrated by William Nicholson, 1922

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I read myself a little bedtime story the night I turned the last page of Burial Rites. I needed a simple, sweet story with pretty pictures to soothe my soul so I picked up The Velveteen Rabbit.

I have a lovely 1991 hardback edition, complete with William Nicholson’s beautiful, sketchy Illustrations. It has sat, unread, on my bookshelf, for nearly 15 years. It was a ‘one day’ book, a bit like my recent first read of Alice in Wonderland.

The Velveteen Rabbit is more than just a story, it’s a fable with a timeless message that reaches the heart and reminds us of our need to belong. The story follows a young boy who is given a stuffed rabbit for Christmas. Unable to compete with the mechanical toys “full of modern ideas”, he felt quite out-of-date and looked down upon.

He learns that it is possible to become Real when a child loves you “for a long, long time” and upon asking if it hurts to be Real, his wise old friend answers, sometimes, but “when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” (Cue the silent sob.)

The little boy comes to love the rabbit so much that he does become Real. However, tragedy strikes when the boy contracts scarlet fever and all his toys and bedclothes must be burned. Lying in the cold outdoors, discarded and waiting for the fire, the rabbit sheds a tear which manifests into “the nursery magic Fairy” who takes him away and turns him into ‘Real’…not just real to the boy, but to everybody. He leaps for joy to find he has hind legs and brown fur, soft and shiny, twitching ears and whiskers so long that they brush the grass.

The Velveteen Rabbit took me about ten minutes to read. As for reading this to little ones, I would assure them that if they get sick there will be no need to burn their toys! That bit would have terrified me as a child. I have been thinking of my favourite childhood toy…a bald doll who went with me on many adventures, mostly up the faraway tree. It’s easy to forget how Real some of our toys were to us. The Velveteen Rabbit was a poignant reminder.

I am sure that the idea of Toy Story had its origins in this book. The theme is the same, the transforming power of love. Very sweet and worth a read.

Did you have a toy that was Real to you?

Book Review – Burial Rites

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From the cover, Burial Rites

Read more about Burial Rites at Goodreads.

Author: Hannah Kent

“They will not see me. I will not be there.”

I struggled to read and review Burial Rites. It is an excellent book and there is no doubt about Hannah Kent’s writing ability and talent at story telling. The premise is compelling, the story is haunting and Kent’s ability to place us in the bleak, unforgiving landscape is faultless.

Burial Rites is not the sort of book I would normally pick up. I think it’s good every now and then to take a risk and read outside my comfort zone. I knew what I was getting into (waist deep in Icelandic mud and despair), and I won’t mark it down because of that.

From some of the reviews I had previously read, I was expecting page after page of unrelenting despair. It was certainly there, but the anguish was punctuated with the seasons, farm work, slaughtering sheep, knitting, history, superstition and by deep, unexpected compassion.

Kent did an amazing job at fictionalising a historic story. Combining her years of research with beautiful prose is what drew me into Agnes’s world. She was criticised by some for using first voice for Agnes, but it worked for me. It pulled me further into her dark, hopeless life as I looked through her eyes to the people and circumstances that brought her to her current situation.

I did lose some focus from the halfway mark. I was fascinated by the character of Steina and was looking forward to seeing how her story developed within the context of Agnes’s. Unfortunately, she all but disappeared in the second half of the book. I really missed her. She brought much-needed colour to the story and I think she could have been used more thoroughly to develop our understanding of Agnes. But perhaps that would have defeated the purpose. There was no bright side to this story.

No one knows the truth of what happened that night, but Hannah Kent has offered some potential redemption to a woman shrouded in ambiguity. I hope, wherever Agnes is, she is saying “you’ve got it just about right, Hannah Kent.” She is to be commended on an exceptional debut. I’m glad I read Burial Rites, but I now need to lighten my heavy heart by reading something to make me smile.

Here’s an interesting four minute clip of Hannah Kent discussing Burial Rites for Waterstones, UK.

I read Burial Rites as part of the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Burial Rites – 3.9 stars

Keep calm and listen to Ravel (inc. book review of Sylvia Kahan’s Music’s Modern Muse)

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Another piece…just seven minutes…to help you get through Wednesday, ‘hump’ day!

Maurice Ravel’s ‘Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte’

I’m as middlebrow a listener of music as I am of reading. All I know about classical music is what sounds pleasing to my ears, and just like books, I like music to uplift and entertain me. There are seven or eight pieces that are my go-to, so I’m using this series of posts to discover new ones and to learn a little bit about classical music in the process.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, Maurice Ravel was considered the greatest French impressionist composer of his time. The piece I’ve chosen is ‘Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte’ which translates to Pavane (a courtly Renaissance dance) for a Dead Princess. Sounds macabre right? Don’t worry, it’s not. It’s beautiful, subtle and atmospheric. In fact, the only reason Ravel called it that, is that he liked the sound of the alliteration of the words infante and defunte.

He declared the piece was actually a wistful daydream of something a 16th century Spanish princess might have danced to, not mourning a dead princess!

I loved it the first time I heard it on the car radio. In fact, I pulled the car over so I could note down the name and composer (I don’t remember these things!) as I had to find out more. What I didn’t expect was to be reading the biography of the heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune!

Ravel dedicated Pavane Pour une Infant Defunte to the Princesse de Polignac. I’d never heard of her. Fortunately Sylvia Kahan has written a vivid and fascinating biography, Music’s Modern Muse about Winnaretta Singer who became the French Princesse who socialised with the glittery echelons of the who’s who of Paris in the 1920’s and 30’s.

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Self Portrait, Winnaretta Singer, c.1885

American-born Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was the 20th child of 24, born to sewing-machine magnate Isaac Singer and Parisian mother, Isabella Boyer, who was thought to be the model for the Statue of Liberty. At the age of eighteen, Winnaretta was a millionaire after inheriting a substantial part of her father’s sewing machine fortune.

On the wedding night of her first marriage, it’s said that her new husband found her atop the wardrobe, umbrella in hand, shouting “if you touch me, I’ll kill you”. Openly homosexual, she had the marriage annulled and then went on to marry, far more conveniently, the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac.

Their marriage, although not physical, was based on deep love, respect and passionate supporting of the arts, and especially music. Together they headed what has been considered the most significant avant-garde musical salon of the time and were absorbed into the most elite strata of French society.

She offered her salon as a gathering place for luminaries of French culture and were pals with Debussy, Ravel, Cole Porter, Monet, Claudette Colbert, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Nadia Boulanger, Virginia Woolf among many others.

After Edmond’s death, she used her fortune to benefit the arts. She contributed significantly to composers, the ballet, opera and symphony orchestras. She made a lifelong project of commissioning new musical works from composers, many of them unknown and struggling, to be performed in her Paris salon.

So, thank you Maurice Ravel, firstly for your music, then for introducing me to the fascinating Princesse de Polignac.

Classic Films – Dear Ruth (1947)

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In upstate New York, it’s an ordinary day for the middle-class Wilkins family: unassuming beauty Ruth, Judge father, good humoured and long suffering mother, and political activist teen Miriam who believes that “the game of a man and woman manoeuvring in pursuit of a mate I consider on the mental level of a game of checkers”.

Dear Ruth is a delightful, gentle, witty romantic comedy with sparkling dialogue, a young (and might I say, extremely dishy) William Holden and a supporting cast who lift it to gem status.

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Sixteen year old Miriam has taken it upon herself to keep up the morale of the boys gone off to war by sending off ‘Bundles for the Boys’. Lt. William Seacroft is the lucky recipient and upon request of a photo, Miriam sends one of her older, beautiful sister Ruth, believing it will give him “hope, faith and the will to go on”. Sixty ‘love’ letters and poems later…

Lt. Seacroft returns to the US and arrives out of the blue at the Wilkins’ door to see the girl he’s fallen in love with. What ensues is a wonderfully-written comedy of mis-communication as Ruth reluctantly agrees to go along with the charade, planning to let him down gently. The exasperated parents are left explaining the situation to Ruth’s befuddled and prissy fiancé, Albert, played by the brilliant comedic actor, Billy de Wolfe. He brings a whole extra layer of fun to the story.

Visually it is a very pleasing film. Originally a play – taglined “It had to be a movie…’cause they ran out of theatres to show the play!” – most of the action takes place in a very white picket fence, fresh-cut flowers in every room, lunch on the terrace, middle-class home. If you like reading mid-20th century domestic fiction, as I do, you’ll want to live there. Some of the best scenes however, are in the subway in New York City. The whole thing just makes you smile.

Miriam, played by the under-rated Mona Freeman, is a fascinating character and unlike most other teenagers written in this era. She is astute, pro-active, politically aware and you wonder if, in some alternate ‘Dear Ruth’ universe, she pips Nixon to the post as US President. She gets the best lines in the film, delivers them with deadpan charm and completely steals the show.

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The 1940’s are full of wonderful, well-written comedies. Just think Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. But there’s nothing like stumbling across these little-known gems.

It’s the perfect lazy Sunday morning movie!

Have you stumbled across any little-known gems?

Book Review – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

alice-in-wonderlandRead more about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Goodreads

Author: Lewis Carroll

Well, that was a trippy little jaunt!

I’m extremely relieved to say that I loved Alice. I know it wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t…each to their own, even with classics, but I would have been sad not to have enjoyed it.

Alice was never a book that showed up in my childhood. It was all Enid Blyton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, LM Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott and various other authors of children’s faith books. Perhaps my parents, who were teenagers in the 60’s, were concerned it would turn my creative bent into a psychedelic yearning!

But I think reading Alice as a child would be completely different to reading it as an adult. There are no boundaries to the imagination of a child. What a gift to read this to a creative child and then let them loose with a pen and notebook or Derwent’s and a sketchpad.

I had a favourite part. The puppy. I read somewhere that he was perhaps outside of Alice’s dream, in that lovely state of being half awake and half asleep.

I’m very pleased to finally be a part of the ‘I’ve Read Alice’ club.

This was read as part of the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – lots of stars!

Book Review – Capital

Read more about Capital at Goodreads

Author: Kristin Otto

Capital is a non-fiction book exploring Melbourne when it was the capital city of Australia (that’s right Sydney :)), from Federation in 1901 to 1927.

Let’s start with what Kristin Otto’s book isn’t. It isn’t a comprehensive look at how Melbourne fit into the nation as a whole. It doesn’t hypothesize as to how 26 years as the capital of a nation has impacted and influenced it to modern day.

What it is, is even better. It’s an interesting social history of a small city (around 500,000) its people, its culture, its achievements and its experience during the Great War. It is a fascinating look at some remarkable individuals who really put Melbourne on the map…Helena Rubenstein, Sir John Monash, Dame Nellie Melba, and many others.

If you are wondering if this is a book for you, I’d recommend reading Jennifer Cameron-Smith’s excellent review which goes into more depth than I do.

Kristin Otto’s other book, Yarra: A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River, is another great read for Melbournians, or murky river lovers.

It lost a star for me because its structure is a bit haphazard and lacking in cohesion. I did put it down a couple of times and then struggle to pick it up again. But each time I did, I was glad I did.

Capital regularly sent me googling for further information and for me, that’s a sign of a successful non-fiction book.

Capital – 4 stars

Keep calm and listen to Beethoven

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If you have a spare 42 minutes today, here’s Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, a beautiful pastoral piece to calm, uplift and inspire.

The symphony is made up of five wonderfully evocative annotated movements:

  1. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside.
  2. Scene by the brook.
  3. Merry gathering of country folk.
  4. Thunder. Storm.
  5. Shepherd’s song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.

Can’t you just see the country folk gathering merrily by the brook?

I bet, when Beethoven wasn’t composing or roaming the Viennese countryside, he was curled up with a good book. Here are some of the books that were published while he was composing his 6th symphony, 1802 to 1808.

What do you listen to when you want to relax, read or create?

Book Review – Britt-Marie was Here

Read more about Britt-Marie was Here at Goodreads

Author: Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie is aggravating, there’s no denying it. If I hadn’t read A Man Called Ove first I may have given up around page 50. But if I had, it would have been my great loss.

Backman peeled back Britt-Marie’s layers, one by one, delving deeper into the reasons for her prickly, OCD-driven, frustrating and almost intolerable nature until she had endeared herself completely to me. I felt an immense protectiveness towards her.

There are plenty of laugh out loud moments with punchy dialogue and a colourful cast of support characters.

I had wondered if Britt-Marie was going to be a female version of Ove. But she’s not. Where Ove seemed more about opening one’s self up to people and experiences, Britt-Marie reminds us of the travesty of judging others on first impressions. She is in her early 60’s and is the woman she is because of the tragedies and humiliations she has suffered. The moment she makes her first joke is a gem. Watching Britt-Marie’s transformation is like seeing a flower bloom. There is hope for us all!

Fredrick Backman’s books are a masterclass in writing character based fiction. I have read books nearly twice the size with half the depth of character. Here’s what Backman does well:

  • Perfectly paced character development. He peels away the layers, one at a time and each one deeper than the one before.
  • Showing, not telling.
  • Understanding and communicating human nature.
  • Dialogue that is real.
  • Quirkiness without falling into clichés.

Backman has sent me back to my own writing with a renewed enthusiasm and a critical eye.

I look forward to reading Beartown and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.

My review of A Man Called Ove.

Britt-Marie Was Here – 5 stars

 

2017 Challenge – Back to the Classics

img_20170121_151647531-2This is my second (and final) challenge for 2017. I wasn’t going to do two, but I love the categories for this one! I’ve also been able to add some of the children’s classics that have been on my bookshelf waiting for ‘one day’. One day is here!

If you’re interested in joining, the link is here. You have until March 1st to sign up. Join me!

I’ll be reviewing them on my blog and Goodreads as I go.

Here are the twelve categories and my choices:

  1. A 19th century classicAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  2. A 20th century classic (up to 1967)The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
  3. A classic by a womanRuth, Elizabeth Gaskell
  4. A Russian classic – War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  5. A classic originally published before 1800Macbeth, Shakespeare
  6. A romance classic – Pursuasion, Jane Austen
  7. A gothic or horror classic – The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  8. A classic with a number in the title – Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome
  9. A classic about an animal or with an animal in the titleThe Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams
  10. A classic set in a place you’d like to visit – A Room with a View, E M Forster
  11. An award winning classic – The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  12. A classic in translation – The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Join me! Let me know which classics you choose.