Monday, 30 June 2014

Disappointing books

The notebook, Nicolas Sparks
It is that we do not have trains at the moment here in The Netherlands where you can open the windows, or else I probably would have thrown this book out.
I never read a book by Nicolas Sparks, and the only reason I picked this one up is because I really enjoyed the movie. In the movie the story is done beautifully, both the elder couple and the young lovers who need to make the right choice.

Because I liked the movie, I thought I would enjoy the book as well. Usually I work the other way round, if I like the book I will try to see the movie, but in this case I started with the movie.

Well, I wish I stayed with the movie, because I utterly disliked the book. For me it was cliché after cliché, in sometimes cringeworthy prose (the love scene I had to skip, it was just too horrible).
To give you an example, here is a scene when they are in a rowing boat together and she faces him:
'It was him she came to see, not the creek. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top, and she could see his chest muscles flex with every stroke. His sleeves were rolled up, too, and she could see the muscles in his arms bulging slightly. His muscles were well developed there from paddling every morning.'
The only reason I finished it is because it is for the Book to movie challenge.

I do not think I will ever pick up another book by Mr. Sparks, I do not have the patience for this particular kind of twaddle.

Published in 1996
Pages: 189

Letters from Skye, Jessica Brockmole

It is 1912 and Elspeth, a poet who lives on the Scottish isle of Skye, receives a fan letter from Davey, an American student. They finally fall in love, only there are a few things making things difficult for the both of them; Elspeth is afraid of water and never leaves the island, the First World War breaks out and Elspeth is married to another man.

Letters from Skye is a novel told through letters. This is a set up that is not very common anymore, but a few years ago it was also done in the delightful The Guernsey literary and potato peel pie society by Mary Ann Schaffer.

And while I was reading, I saw more and more similarities between the two books.
In the book by Mary Ann Schaffer a writer in London receives a letter from a young man from the isle of Guernsey in which he asks her for literary advice. They exchange letters, their feelings and their love grow and all this against the backdrop of an island under German occupation during WWII. Even the names of the male protagonists are very much the same; Davey and Dawsey.

The story and the set up of Letters from Skye cannot be called original. And while I loved Guernsey as it was charming, funny and intelligent in story and writing style, for me Letters from Skye felt forced, like the author tried to imitate the style of Guernsey, without ever coming close.

The story of Elspeth and Davey also becomes very boring, especially since Elspeth does not know how to make up her mind. Does she love Davey or not, does she want to live with him or not, does she still love her husband or not, it never stopped.
Letters from Skye began promising, but for me Jessica Brockmole did not deliver. Perhaps next time she can try to write something a bit more original.

Published in 2013
Pages: 287

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Quote: Ernest Hemingway

World War I was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise, lied. So the writers either wrote propaganda, shut up or fought.
Ernest Hemingway (American author 1899-1961)

Friday, 27 June 2014

Poirot and me, David Suchet

In 1988 television history was made: David Suchet was asked to play Hercule Poirot in a new series from the books by Agatha Christie.

Many of the stories have been made into films and actors like Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov played the little Belgian detective (or, in Ustinov’s case, not so little Belgian detective)

Now the chance was given to actor David Suchet, known as a character and stage actor. In the twenty-five years that followed he would film all the short stories and books that were written about Poirot. Many people consider him to be the ultimate Poirot, just like Jeremy Brett is the ultimate Sherlock Holmes and Joan Hickson is the ultimate Miss Marple.

In Poirot and me David Suchet describes how he first met Poirot. He never read one of the books, but soon after the offer of the role he was determined to make Poirot as believable as possible. He studied Belgian French to get to right accent and made lists of all the characteristics Poirot has.

Before filming started Suchet had a lunchmeeting with Rosalind Hicks, Agatha Christie’s daughter. She gave him advice he followed all those twenty-five years.
The audience can and will smile with Poirot, but we must never, ever laugh at him’.

Poirot and me is the account of the years David Suchet spent as Poirot. He tells about the productions, the changes that were made in those years and the different actors that had guest roles. Of course David Suchet also played other roles during these years. In the late nineties I was fortunate enough to see him perform Salieri in the play Amadeus while I was in London with my family. He was superb, as he also is as Poirot.

In the later years the scriptwriters sometimes made changes in the stories, and this is not always for the better, but in general the series Poirot is one of the best series there is.

Poirot and me is a must-have for every Agatha Christie fan in general and every Poirot-fan in particular.

Published in 2013
Pages: 354

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

On my way to school

I work in Amsterdam and every morning I have to walk from the station to my school. I always enjoy myself when I see the many plants that grow everywhere, in gardens, little parks, or just against a wall.
Even in a city you can find nature, as long as you are looking for it, of course.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Agatha Christie's Poirot (1988-2013)

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Hercule Poirot is a creation by Agatha Christie. She created a Belgian detective, who came to England during WWI. Here he met good friend captain Hastings and together they would solve many crimes.

Poirot has a certain way of behaving, he loves symmetry, is a bit vain and using ‘his little grey cells’ is more important that running after clues. He also has strong moral values and a strict sense of justice, although he also has a deep compassion for people and an understanding of why they do certain things.

Poirot has been played by many actors, but the best is David Suchet, who played the little Belgian detective in 13 series over 25 years. All the short stories and the books about Poirot were covered.

In the first series Poirot is joined by captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) and Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), but in later series Poirot receives help from others.

Hugh Fraser and David Suchet as Hastings and Poirot
As always the attention to details in the costumes and the sets is perfect. I also enjoy very much the different English actors who play minor roles, these are either actors who stood at the beginning of their careers and became very famous later, or these are famous actors already who just loved to play a part in Poirot. I especially love Zoe Wanamaker as detective writer Ariadne Oliver.

In later series the script writers sometimes changed things and this has not always been for the best. Simplifying a storyline or write out some characters are things that are understandable, but you do not change plot or even the identity of the murderer. There is no need to improve on Agatha Christie in this respect.
Cards on the table, The mystery of the blue train and Appointment with death are not very good or even quite bad because of this.
On the other hand often the result is amazing, like in The ABC-murders, Cat among the pigeons or Mrs. McGinthy’s death and of course Poirot’s last case, Curtain.

David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker as Poirot and Ariadne Oliver
Agatha Christie’s Poirot is a great series, with often the ingenious plots by Agatha Christie, played with a subtle humor and respect for the original. In short, I love spending an afternoon with Poirot, often with a cup of tea.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Quote: Dorothy Parker


Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp.
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren't lawful,
Nooses give.
Gas smells awful,
You might as well live.

Dorothy Parker (American author 1893-1967)

Friday, 20 June 2014

An evening with Claire, Gaito Gazdanov

Melancholy and a longing for the country and the life they left behind are integral parts of the life of refugees. That becomes very clear in the book An evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov. This is the second book by this author I read, since I absolutely loved The spectre of Alexander Wolf (here). 

This is the story of Kolja, who was in love with Claire but he lost her. After the Russian Revolution Kolja fled to Paris, hoping to meet Claire there again and he did.
Claire is married, but her husband is away most evenings and then Kolja is with her. Only when he is with her in the evening, his memories of Russia, his youth and experiences during the Russian civil war when he fought on the side of the White army, come back to him.

An evening with Claire is not a long story, my Dutch translation had 176 pages. The writing style is beautiful, just like in Alexander Wolf, although less precise. This is logical, An evening with Claire was written almost twenty years earlier.

Very prominent in this is the longing for Russia and the world that has gone. You cannot escape the idea that Gazdanov described his own feelings here. After all, his situation and Kolja’s are very similar. They both fought for the White army, both fled to Paris after the war.

Kolja’s childhood and his parents are described in a very beautiful way. You can see his father who loved science and hunting so much and his intelligent and reserved mother before you when you read about them. Kolja is an observer and often cannot make sense of what he experienced or saw until later. He is not very interested in politics, but the Bolsheviks have no appeal for him. When the Civil war broke out, he choose the side of the White Army, also because he thought they would lose so they needed his help more. Thankfully there is the conversation Kolja has with his uncle Vasili, a retired army officer, who has a talk with Kolja just before he is off to the army, filled with wise life-lessons.

A beautiful story.

Original Russian title: Vetsjer oe Kler
Published in 1929

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Lovely Leiden

Leiden is a town in the west of the Netherlands, south of Amsterdam. It has a lovely medieval centre, and a lively atmosphere, due to the many students in the city. (Leiden has the eldest university of The Netherlands) Leiden also has many museums, great little streets and a pitoresque harbour.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Longbourn, Jo Baker

Sarah is an orphan and she works as a servant at Longbourn, the estate of the Bennet family.
She works there with Polly, the other maid, Mrs. Hill the cook and housekeeper and Mr. Hill, the butler. Because there is always a lot of work, a footman is added to the servants, but Sarah soon realizes there is more to this James Smith and he will show. And when a certain Mr. Bingley comes to the village there is also his servant Ptolmey who likes Sarah very much.
In the meantime there are also other things to worry about, like what will happen to the servants when Mr. Collins inherits the estate?

Does this story seem familiair? Of course it does, we all know the story of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Most of us will have thought how wonderful it must have been to live in such elegant times, with balls and beautiful dresses when we read her books or see the movie adaptations.

But who were the ones who lit the fires, cooked the meals, delivered the many letters to the post office and washed the mud from the skirts?
Those were the people Jane Austen never writes about, the servants.
For a servant in those days life was anything but elegant or wonderful. You had to work hard from early in the morning to late in the evening, no-one ever paid any attention to your needs and you could be sacked at any time.

Jo Baker used this to write her story, she wanted to tell the story behind Pride and Prejudice. The story of the Bennet sisters is played in the background, but in Longbourn we are shown the other side, the servant’s side who made all of it possible.
Jo Baker certainly managed to do that, through Sarah’s eyes you see how hard the life of a servant girl must have been in those days.

That Sarah has very modern ideas about equality or that the story of the servants itself is a bit like a soapseries are downsides to the book.
Because of those downsides, Longbourn is not the new Pride and Prejudice, but I did enjoy the book very much. It was good for a relaxing and entertaining couple of hours and that was just what I needed.

Published in 2013

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Quote: Saint Augustine

Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430, Churchfather)

Friday, 13 June 2014

The spectre of Alexander Wolf, Gaito Gazdanov

During the Russian civil war a young man fought on the side of the Whites. When he is on the steppe he meets a man on a horse who fires a shot at him and the young man kills the other man. After the war he ends up in Paris where he does odd jobs to earn his living.
He never forgot the incident on the steppe and when he reads about the incident in a book by the English writer Alexander Wolf, he is shocked.

He tries to find out more about this Alexander Wolf, but he is not that easy to track down. The English publisher says Wolf is an Englishman who never left England and the letters he sends are not answered. In Paris he meets a fellow Russian who happens to know Alexander Wolf and when the young man finally meets him, fate catches up with him.

Gaito Gazdanov is a Russian author who fought against the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war. He ended up in Paris where he did odd jobs and tried to write. This book was published in 1947 and a first English translation was published in 1950. After that this writer and his books were forgotten. Only a few years back a German publisher discovered him again and after that more publishers all over Europe made translations and published Gazdanov’s work. Here in The Netherlands there were even two publishers who both loved this book so much they decided to publish it together.

Gaito Gazdanov
The spectre of Alexander Wolf is not a long story, it has under 200 pages (my Dutch translation has 172). The story is interesting, a man shoots another man and later he reads about it in a book, while he was the only one who knew what happened. The story is told in a very precise way, there is not a word too much in it. Sometimes you wonder why a certain events is described in detail, but later you realize why this was necessary.
Some things that happen are not unexpected, but the ending is. I read that Gazdanov wrote three endings, but finally decided this is the only right one. And I agree, it could not have ended in another way. I cannot say more, because then I would give away too much of the story. The only thing I can say is everyone should read this beautiful small, but also grand story for themselves, and be surprised.

I love how sometimes a writer is rediscovered and his books are republished. Another book by Gazdanov was published a few years ago, An evening with Claire and of course I bought that one immediately. A review of it will follow next week.

Original Russian title: Prizrak Aleksandra Wolfa
Published in 1947

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Warm weather and results on my balcony

Due to the (usually) warm weather we had in the past weeks, the plants on my balcony I planted only this May are already growing fast.

These are the beans when they just came up, this was a couple of weeks ago.

These were the beans a week and a half ago, see how much they have grown? I like how nature works and what a little miracle it is that from one tiny seed a new plant can grow. Amazing.

This is the vegetable garden a week and a half ago.  As you can see all the plants have grown, especially the tomatoes. The aubergine and the paprika are also doing well.

This is a photograph I made this weekend, you can see how rapid the beans grow, they are almost all the way up. The tomatoes have yellow flowers and there is also something interesting going on in the paprika. I did not manage to make a photograph of that.

This Tayberry is also doing great, you can see the little berries, they only need to grow and to gain some colour. I am very curious to see how they taste.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The shooting party, Anton Chekhov

An editor gets a visitor who gives him a manuscript. The editor does not read it immediately, but when he reads it, he decides to publish it with his own corrections and remarks.

It is the story of a count who arrives at his estate again and asks a friend to visit him. This friend is Ivan Petrovitsj Kamysjev, the police inspector of the district. Kamysjev loathes the count but he visits him anyway and together with some other friends they engage in drinking and other things.

On the estate there is also a girl in red, Olga. Her father is the forrester who is mad. She marries Oerbenin, the count’s steward, but this is not a happy marriage. Olga falls in love with Kamysjev and has an affair with the count.

When everybody comes together on the estate for a shooting party, there is a terrible accident and Olga dies. She has been murdered, but by whom?

Anton Chekhov wrote this story when he was just 24. It is longer than most of his stories, it can be called a novella. It is sometimes described as a whodunit or a detective story, but that is perhaps not the best description. You know who did it almost from the moment Olga is dead.

Even at such a young age Chekhov was great at describing people, especially horrible ones like the count and Kamysjev. Kamysjev is not a nice or a good man, he drinks, he insults his friends and he is rude.

I found it interesting to see how different my opinion was on this story than on Madame Bovary. I read both books at the same time, but what bothered me in Madame Bovary, did not bother me in The shooting party. In Madame Bovary I was put of by the nasty people who did nasty things, without any moment of self-reflection.

Anton Chekhov when he was 29
I think the difference is, for me, that Kamysjev knows he is a bad person. He loathes the count because the count is even more debauched than he is, but on the other hand he cannot distance himself. Kamysjev recognizes the goodness in his friend the doctor or in Oerbenin and he is ashamed of himself and the way he treats them, although pride and weakness prevent him from chancing his behavior. He fell in love with Olga and idealized her, until he realized she was not the angel he thought her to be. He then resents her, even though he knows this is not fair of him, he is certainly no angel himself.

In short, Chekhov managed to make Kamysjev a man full of contradictions and a man you can feel sorry for, even though he has a bad character.

The shooting party is not just the story of a shooting party gone wrong, it is so much more. It is a tale about love, and goodness and badness and bad choices.
I really recommend it, it is worth reading, like all Chekhov’s stories are.

Originally published in Russia in 1885

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Quote: Anton Chekhov

A good upbringing does not mean you won't spill sauce on the tablecloth, but that you won't notice it when someone else does.
Anton Chekhov (Russian writer 1860-1904)

Friday, 6 June 2014

Cobra, Deon Meyer

Police inspector Bennie Griessel is called to a murder. Three men, obviously bodyguards, are shot and a fourth man is kidnapped. Who the kidnapped man is, is unclear, he gave a false name and hired the extra security without giving further information.

When his team is investigating the murder, they find out the bullets that were used, have also been used in cases that are being investigated by Interpol.

When they find out more, the Secret Service takes an interest and takes over the investigation. Griessel’s team continue their investigation on their own accord, although that could have terrible consequences. 

In the meantime pick pocket Tyrone stole something he should not have and he needs al his wit to stay out of the hands of the murderers that are after him.

Deon Meyer did it again, he wrote a thriller that grabs you by the throat from page 2 and does not let go. I was afraid I would not understand the financial aspect of the case (I never understand finances), but this was no problem. It is mentioned, but it is not crucial for the case.

Cobra is not just a well-written thriller, but the difficulties of life and the different groups in South Africa are also described. We get to know Bennie Griessel a little bit better again in this book. His life is finally looking up, but because he is still ashamed of his alcoholism and the years he was a policeman during the Apartheid it makes him believe that his luck will not last and any moment the situation can go wrong again.

Deon Meyer also always knows how to make the different people come alive in his books and you feel for them. A very good example is the pickpocket Tyrone, I really liked him and I was cheering at the end when his luck is finally changing.
I am already looking forward to the next book in the series about Bennie Griessel.

Original title: Kobra (Afrikaans)
Published in 2013
An English translation will be available on 31 July 2014

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Early medieval jewelry

In Leiden I saw some amazig jewelry from the early Middle Ages in the museum. There was an exhibition about the Netherlands in the Merovingian times (400-700 AD).
As you can see, gold and different kinds of stones were used to create colourful necklaces and other jewelry. These stones were sometimes from the Netherlands, but also from places as far away as India.
All these pieces can bee seen in The Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden in Leiden.

A fibula

Golden bracelets and coins

Different fibulae


Two necklaces

Small necklace and a coin that fell of the necklace

Gorgeous purple stones (and you see the camera in the glass)

Necklace of purple stones and golden coins,
and again a visible photocamera and my hands.

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Golden Middle Ages

Glass from the Merovingian times
Last week I went to an exhibition about the early Middle Ages in Leiden.

Most people think the Middle Ages were a period in time when nothing happened and all civilization was gone. After all, the Roman empire had fallen and Charlemagne and his Carolingian renaissance had not yet arrived. So live must have been miserable then.

In truth, the early Middle Ages was a time of peace. The south of The Netherlands was part of the Merovingian empire that had its base in France and in the north lived Frisians and Saxons.

Most people lived on farms, but there was also (long distance) trade. Beautiful jewelry was found, made in England, or from stones that originated from India or Pakistan.

Golden helmet
Medical knowledge was quite advanced, complicated bone fractures could be healed and even cataract operations were performed, with success!
Of course, more children died than nowadays, but most people lived longer and were healthier than they were in Roman times or in the centuries to come.
So, no Dark Ages, but Golden Ages.

Wooden bucket with bronze handle
I loved seeing the different objects in this exhibition. In the first room they had everything to do with everyday life, and in the second room of the exhibition you could see the role The Netherlands played in the Merovingian empire.

It was great to see the jewelry, the glass vases, the swords, the tools for spinning or the wooden buckets. It all reminded me why I studied Medieval History at University, it is simply the most fascinating period in history!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Quote: Virginia Woolf

If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.
Virginia Woolf (English author 1882-1941)
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