Friday, 30 January 2015

The return of captain John Emmett, Elizabeth Speller

Returning from a war is never easy for the men who fought in that war. They have to deal with their memories while they want to forget and the people who stayed home do not really understand what they went through.

After WWI it was very hard for the soldiers who came back. For captain John Emmett it all became too much and he was hospitalized. He managed to get out and shot himself.
His sister Mary wants to understand her brother’s death and why he committed suicide while he just survived the war. She asks John’s old friend from school to visit and talk to her about John, so she will perhaps get to know her brother a little better.

Laurence Bartram is also a bit lost now the war has ended. He had a relatively ‘good war’, but he did lose his wife and son. He tries to write a book about church architecture, but this does not go very well. Mary’s request is not welcome, but Laurence cannot find an excuse not visit her.

When Laurence talks to people who met John during the war, he gets involved almost despite himself and he wants to solve the mystery of John’s death.

Did John kill himself because he could not live with his memories anymore? This is plausible, especially when Laurence finds out John was involved in the execution of an officer who was sentenced for cowardice. An execution that did not go as planned. But slowly Laurence finds out there is more to this than he thought and all the people involved in this incident have to suffer the consequences.

Elizabeth Speller managed to get across how difficult it must have been for the soldiers who returned in a very beautiful way. She obviously did her research, but this never gets in the way of the story.

The book started out as an ordinary novel, but then went into a direction I did not expect, it became a sort of detective. But it is a very well written detective. The return of captain John Emmett has a tight plot, a good structure and a very nice leading character. I really liked Laurence Bartram and I was pleased to realize this is not the only book he appears in, Elizabeth Speller wrote another book with him as the protagonist.

Needless to say that book is also on my list.

Published in 2010
Pages 436

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The old and the new

Photograph made by me in Rome, 2013
Not many people are brave enough to cycle in Rome, but some do. It gives a very funny contrast, I think, seeing these modern bicycles along the Via dei Fiori Imperiali. I wonder what August is thinking...

Monday, 26 January 2015

The house of special purpose, John Boyne

In 1981 an old lady, Zoya, is in hospital. She is dying. Her husband Georgy looks back on his life and the life he shared with his Zoya.

Georgy grew up in a little village in Russia. One day it was visited by Nicolas Nicolaevich, cousin to the Tsar and commander of the army. Due to some coincidences Georgy saves his life and the boy is brought back to Saint Petersburg to join the special guards who are responsible for keeping the Imperial family safe. Georgy’s special task is to look after the tsarevich Alexei.

It takes some time for Georgy is used to his new life, but he has all the opportunities to witness important moments in Russian history. He met Rasputin, saw the changes in the way people thought about the Imperial Family, he was present when the Tsar abdicated and is there in Yekaterinburg.

After the revolution Georgy flew to Paris where he married Zoya. In the years that followed they lived in Paris first and then came to London, where Georgy managed to get a job at the British Library.

The house of special purpose is very romantic and sometimes a little bit too coincidental. It is not very plausible. Certainly not if you consider that is has many historical errors. There are details that are incorrect, for example we know Alexei was wounded in Yekaterinburg, his father had to carry him down to the cellar on that fatal night. And most importantly the main storyline is completely false.

But somehow, I do not mind. I usually do not like it when a book takes too many liberties with historical facts, but in this case I forgive John Boyne.

He is a very good writer and he knows how to tell a story. He know how to paint a scene, characterize a person or describe an event in just a few lines.

The story is told by jumping through history and this makes that the story is never boring. And slowly you understand what happened in 1918. The differences between the pomp and circumstance of the Imperial court, the poverty in Paris and the middleclass life Georgy and Zoya lead in London is well done.
The Imperial Family
The house of special purpose is a very beautiful story.
This is in fact the story that began my interest in Russian history and love for the Russian Imperial family. I was very glad I loved the book as much as I did the first time. Even though I already knew the twist in the ending, I absolutely loved it again.

Published in 2009

Friday, 23 January 2015

Non-fiction for 2015

I like to think up lists of books I want to read. Last year I came with 5 fiction and five non-fiction books I wanted to read. I did not do it, by the way, I only read a couple of them. I think this is because my mood and my interest at that moment often dictated if I want to read a book or not. And that changes very often. I also must admit I completely forgot I ever made a list!

But still, I have another list of non-fiction books I think I will read this year. (and we will see if I actually do it, let's hope I will not forget about it again)

  • Michael and Natasha by Rosemary and Donald Crawford.  A biografy about the younger brother of tsar Nicolas II.
  • A distant mirror by Barbara Tuchman. This ia a book I read many years ago. I want to finish it this time and see if I still like it as much. (that I did ot finish it the first time was because of other reasons)
  • Thomas Beckett by John Guy. Previously I read the excellent biography about Mary, Queen of Scots by John Guy, so I am curious to see how I like this book about the priest who got killed by Henry I. (who will rid me of this meddelsome priest)
  • Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning. I do not know very much about Leonard Woolf, only that he was married to Virginia and he had to take of her everytime she got ill. I want to get to know him better. 
  • Churchill by Geoffrey Best. The last biography on my pile (as you can see, I like biographies), about the amazing Winston Churchill who also loved cats very much as I read somehwere. Love it.

  • Wednesday, 21 January 2015

    Una via a Palermo (2013)

    Two women, Rosa (Emma Dante) and Clara (Alba Rohrwachter) are in Palermo for a wedding. Their relationship is having difficulties and there are irritations.
    They turn into a wrong road and end up in a very narrow street, with another car approaching them.
    In the other car is a family that lives close by and grandmother Samira (Elena Cotta) is driving.

    Both cars end up being stuck, as neither car can move forwards. Both women are determined not to be the one who reverses and both are prepared to sit in the car for hours, waiting for the other one to give up.
    The family and even the whole neighbourhood gets involved, but both women refuse to give up.
    The situation will be resolved the next morning, but the outcome is unexpected.

    The battle between Rosa and Samira is almost a spaghetti western, and it is filmed in such a manner. They do not have guns, but they do have a bowl of pasta they throw into the hedge to show they do not need food to endure.

    Everyone, Rosa and Samira, but also the family and the others has a part in the battle that is continuing and each person has a reason to make it last as long as possible. But who is really in charge, is it Samira’s rude and tyrannical son-in-law or it is the frail Samira herself?

    It is not just a battle between two women or two cars, it is also a clash between rich and poor, north and south. Clara and Rosa are a lesbian couple, artistic and from Rome, where Samira’s very large family is poor and not very well educated.

    Rosa (Emma Dante)
    Una via a Palermo (a street in Palermo) is filmed beautifully, with changing perspectives. Sometimes you see the scene from the viewpoint of Samira or Rosa, sometimes you watch through the blinds as if you are a neighbor peeking to see what is happening outside.

    The cars are stuck within fifteen minutes of the movie, and not much else happens after that, it is all about the small things. The endscène is beautiful, for ten minutes you see the whole village passing by, running after Samira’s car. We know what happened, but how they deal with it, we do not know.

    Elena Cotta impresses as Samira. She does not say a word during the whole movie, only in the last scenes. But I think that was also to show what happened in the end. At last, I suspected something at that moment.

    Samira (Elena Cotta)
    I loved the wink she gave Rosa, somewhere at the beginning. Is it a sign to tell the other woman they will work it out or perhaps a reference to what is to come? We do not know and it is not explained. I do not mind these things, I like it when not everything is explained and explicit. But other people might find something like that irritating.

    Una via a Palermo is not a long film, about 90 minutes. If you like fast scenes and a lot of action, this is not the film for you.
    If you like subtle and often black humor, stilled moments and long scenes without dialogue where everything is told by the way it is filmed, then this is a film you will enjoy.

    Final scene
    I absolutely loved it and I enjoyed myself with it. I am very glad that this movie was under the Christmas tree for me.

    Monday, 19 January 2015

    Between the acts, Virginia Woolf

    Sometimes you read a book you expect you will probably like. A book that is written beautifully and has parts you enjoy enormously, but a book that also has a problem. I had this strange experience with Between the acts by Virginia Woolf.

    It is a beautiful summer day in 1939. At the estate of Pointz Hall the villagers gather to rehearse and perform their annual play. The family who owns the estate is waiting until everything is ready and they can fulfill their part as the audience.

    The family consists of old Bartholomew Oliver, who once played a part in the colonial government of India. There is also his son Giles, who works in the city, but does not like that and his wife Isabella who is dissatisfied with her marriage. To compensate that she writes poems she hides and often thinks herself to be in love with one of the farmers in the village. Other people who visit the estate are Bartholomew’s sister who is religious and irritates her brother and the worldly Mrs. Manresa and William Dodge.

    During the preparations for the play and the pauses between the acts the different members of the family ponder about the changes in the world, and Giles for example thinks he is the only one who knows that is going on in Europe and how serious the situation is.
    People talk about the view and how little it has changed over the years, they talk about the king who has abdicated and what is happening in the country.

    You read parts of the conversations and pieces of contemplations while the preparations for the play are in full blaze. It is a bit like you are walking around hearing bit and pieces everywhere. You can see this is a technique Virginia Woolf used before, it is done so very well here.

    Beautiful descriptions of the surrounding gardens take you away and let you float in the atmosphere of a very English afternoon.

    If the whole book was filled with these kind of descriptions, I would have been a very happy woman. But unfortunately there was also a part I did not like at all, and that was the play itself. Virginia Woolf put the entire script of the play in the book and I was completely bored by it. I even admit I skipped some pages here.

    In short, beautiful descriptions and fragments done like nobody can do so well as Virginia Woolf, but I personally thought the parts between the acts were better than the acts. J

    Published in 1941

    Thursday, 15 January 2015

    Blogs I like, part 2

    This is one of the photographs made by
    Siobhan from Bless the weather,
    who kindly gave me permission to use it. Source
    Here is a list of a few blogs I recently discovered and that I like very much.
    These four blogs are all very different I think, and from all corners of the earth. I like how each blog brings something interesting and unique, and how each blog has its own style and voice.

    Bless the weather
    A great blog by Siobhan Watts, with absolutely beautiful photographs. Siobhan is an inspiration for me in this respect, I want to make more and better photographs so perhaps one day I will come a little bit closer to hers.
    Siobhan lives in South London and blogs about her life, photography, recipes and knitting.

    A piece of toast
    Dalles-based sisters Sally and Molly share this blog with great posts about fashion, jewelry, places they went to, their lives etc. At a certain time I thought the posts were becomming too commercial, but since then it has been explained and the blog has stirred away again from things that did not really belong there. I especially love Toast talks, often with some wisdom and insights.

    Harper and Harley
    This is a blog by Sara Donaldson from Australia. She has a beautiful style and tends to wear black, white and grey. Very minimalistic, but certainly not boring.
    I like how Sara can make something simple look beautiful and elegant, and also effortless. Quite an inspiration.

    Into mind
    This is also a lifestyle blog that is focused on the basics and minimalistic side of things. It is from Anuschka who lives in Berlin. She does not post often, but what she posts is always interesting and well thought-out.

    Monday, 12 January 2015

    The secret rooms, Catherine Bailey

    Belvoir castle is a building in gothic style in Leicestershire in Engeland. It has over 300 rooms and it is the home of the Manners family, who have held the title duke of Rutland for more than 500 years.

    In 1940 John, the 9th duke of Rutland, died in the rooms where he locked himself in the months before his death. Five rooms on the servants floor, where nobody was admitted only the most trusted servants. Five rooms where all the family papers were kept and where the duke was doing important and secret work, or so it was said. When the duke died, the rooms were locked for more than sixty years.

    In 2008 historian and writer Catherine Bailey, who wrote Black diamonds before, arrived at Belvoir castle. She had permission to search the family papers because she wanted to write a book about the consequences of WWI for the estate, since Henry, who was then the Duke and who was the father of John, persuaded so many men of his estate to join the army. John was also at the front as an officer.

    Catherine was especially pleased when she found John’s diary, only to find out he did not write anything in the period between July 6 and December 15 1915. This was very strange since John did write about the war and his experiences in the weeks and months before that date. Even stranger was the fact that all the letters by members of the family from that period were taken from the archives.
    When she investigated further it seemed that 1915 was not the only blank period in the life of John, 9th duke of Rutland, papers and letters from 1894 and 1909 were also removed.

    Catherine Bailey could not get the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of John and the blank periods in his life out of her head. Letters in code and tales of a strange break-in added to the mystery. Secrets enough and Catherine decided to let her original idea for a book go and concentrate on the 9th duke instead.

    John at his wedding in 1916
    What happened in 1894 was a horrible family tragedy, when John’s older brother died because of an accident. John was only eight years old at the time and his brother was one year older. Broken by the loss of their heir and precious son, John’s parents did not want John around. Directly after the funeral he went home with his uncle and was send to school. His parents hardly ever visited him and their letters were cold and distant. John grew up to be a lonely young man, who could never please his parents.

    These horrible events are the key to what happened in the years after. The loss they suffered was held over John’s head every time to manipulate him into the direction his parents wanted him to go. His career, his marriage and every major decision was influenced by his parents and their power over him. In 1909 he was forced to agree to the sale of part of his inheritance and in 1915 the lies and the manipulation ended up in something so shameful, John would suffer under it for the rest of his life.

    Catherine Bailey has to rely on the sources she can find for her investigations and she is in luck. Despite John’s efforts to remove all traces, he missed some letters and other documents. It was possible to reconstruct most of what happened.
    Some events remain unsolved, like the mysterious break-in right after John’s passing or the reason why John was so determined to have Belvoir castle used as the hiding place for the National Archives in 1940.

    Belvoir castle
    The secret rooms is written like a thriller, where a little pieces of the puzzle are shown. This does not only give you an insight into historical investigations, but also in the lives of one of the richest and most powerful families of England in the first half of the twentieth century.

    The secret rooms is very well written, it is interesting and at times moving. You feel for John, the boy who lost his brother, but also his parents on the same day and who had to pay the prize for that loss for the rest of his life. What happened during WWI is sad and it is understandable this proved to be too much. Although he was born in a world of money and privileges, I do not think any of us would want to trade places with John.

    Published in 2013
    Pages 425

    Friday, 9 January 2015

    Southern cross the dog, Bill Cheng

    Mississippi, 1927. A flood threatens to break through the levees and the home of Robert Chatham and his parents is washed away. Father Elis already lost much of his pride because of the humiliations he has to endure as a black man in the south and mother Etta lost herself completely when their eldest son was brought home after he was lynched because he had been looking at a white girl.

    The second part is set in 1932. Here we find Eli, a black musician who is taken out of prison by a white man who wants Eli to perform for him. Eli is a charismatic man and many believe he has special powers. He meets Robert, who is now twelve and works as an odd job boy in a hotel (brothel really). He tells the boy he is cursed and the black dog of the devil follows him.

    In the later parts of the story we find Robert in 1941, when he works for the
    Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the major projects of the New Deal. He still feels like he is cursed and he does nothing to stop fate from happening. And fate has little good for him in store.

    The title, Southern cross the dog, references the name of two railways, the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo Delta (YD, also known as the Yellow Dog). These railways cross in Mississippi, just like the same people always seem to cross Robert’s path. The dog is also the dog that follows Robert (or the dog Robert thinks is following him).

    Bill Cheng, the writer, lives in New York and never visited Mississippi before he finished the book. He was inspired by old Blues songs, and the railways are also featured in these songs.

    The story is told in different parts and different people are the main characters in each part. Only later it becomes clear which part these people played or will play in Robert’s life. I thought this was well done and fascinating, all the different lines coming together like that. Realizing how one remark can help shape a life is quite breathtaking, and not in a good way.

    The only problem I had with Southern cross the dog was the amount of horrible things that happened to Robert. He had to endure poverty, hunger, humiliation and pain for years, and everybody dies, leaving Robert alone and miserable. It became a bit too much and perhaps this could have been dosed a little better. In the end he finally has a place to stay, but somehow I do not think this will last very long.

    Despite that little thing I thought Southern cross the dog was a beautiful and engaging story.

    Published in 2014
    Pages 322

    Wednesday, 7 January 2015

    Similar jugs

    When I read The Bloomsbury cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, something on page 49 immediately caught my eye. It was a painting by Roger Fry made in 1918, called Still-life with a buscuittin and some pots.
    The jug in that painting looked very much like one my grandmother always had on her bookcase. Now this jug is on the cabinet in my parent's hall.
    The blue motive is a little bit different, but for the rest it looks like the same kind of jug.
    So funny.
    The painting, photographed from the book

    The same (similar) jug in my parent's hall.

    Monday, 5 January 2015

    The edge of the world, Michael Pye

    This is the Dutch cover
    beautiful, isn't it?
    Catholic spies in protestant England, a kidnapped beguine, a monk who invented a system to calculate the date of Easter, a Saxon gospel where Jesus has a group of vassals and a dove that sits on his shoulder, painters, scientists, pirates, merchants and Vikings in America all come to the stage in this amazing book.

    The edge of the World is about the history of North-West Europe 700-1700, the history of all the countries around the Northsea.

    The Northsea may not be the most important sea nowadays, it is perhaps just a cold and grey sea, but it once was the axe of the northern world.

    After the Western Roman Empire fell, there was no central authority anymore and many things had to be rebuilt. Trade was one of those things.

    The Frisians were the first traders who came everywhere and were well known for their cunning ways. Sometime later it were the Irish and the Vikings who travelled everywhere and did everything. The Vikings were warriors who traded, plundered, dealt in the slavetrade and who built towns.

    During the 14th and 15th century the loose partnership between merchant towns called The Hanze was able to bring kings to their knees if it wanted to. Their rough ways become outdated when in the Netherlands merchants used more modern ways like using credit. Dutch companies like the VOC and the WIC left all other countries far behind in the 17the century.

    Ships with trade sailed across the Northsea and not only things were sold and distributed, ideas and techniques also. Trade and money were important, but not only because of their economic value.

    The way people looked at the world changed. By using coins the worth of things became something abstract and when there came universities in Paris and Oxford, there was even a value placed on knowledge.
    Books were distributed along the trading routes, at first the books copied in the monasteries, in later times the books of the Reformation.

    Changes arrived over the water, like new fashions, new ideas about marriage and new techniques about windmills.
    Sometimes even death came from the sea, like the Vikings or later the rats who carried the plague and who created chaos in society. To manage this chaos the kings and towns came with new and strict regulations and the basis for a bureaucratic government was born.

    Michael Pye
    Michael Pye writes about a Buddhastatue that was found in Sweden, the rise and fall of ordeals, why lawyers became the first professionals and the similarities between the hazing of new merchants in the Hanze and rituals at English boarding schools in the 19th century, or the similarities between the laws against the plague in the 14th century and the fear of terrorism now.

    Too often people still think nothing worthwhile happened in the Middle Ages. But they forget that everything we have now, has its roots in the Middle Ages.
    Michael Pye shows this in a excellent manner, he shows how everything is connected and how events follow another event. History is not a loose collection of facts, everything is intertwined. The outcome is not always logical or the only possibility, but everything that happened before made the outcome possible.

    Sometimes there is a silly thing in the book, in my Dutch version Henry VII Tudor is called Henry Windsor. This may have been a mistake by Michael Pye, the printer or the translator, I do not know, but it is a mistake.

    Apart from that The edge of the world is written beautifully, full of anecdotes and amazing little facts and an absolute must have for everyone who is interested in the history of Europe.

    Published in 2014

    Friday, 2 January 2015

    Behind the scenes at Downton Abbey

    Downton Abbey has been a huge success from the first episode and now it has millions of fans all over the world. Of course there are also books that are tied in with this popular series.
    Behind de scenes at Downton Abbey written by Emma Rowley is such a background book, full of information and beautiful photographs.

    The amazing Highclere castle models as Dowton, but by now only the outside-scenes are shot there and the scenes in large rooms like the hall or the library.
    During the first series they also filmed in the real bedrooms, but this proved to be a little inconvenient, it was too cramped. Now these rooms are carefully rebuilt in the studio’s in Ealing. 

    The series has a food specialist who cooks all the meals that are seen in the series. She must make sure the colours will look right on film and the dishes will hold. She will also have to cook a dish multiple times because a scene where Mrs. Patmore cooks a dish may be shot many weeks before the scene where the family eats it.

    I love the attention to details, they take care of the labels on the tins in the kitchen and there is somebody who makes sure the letters the earl reads are all written in different handwritings. Thomas Barrow uses a different accent when he talks to the family than when he is down in the kitchen and Anna sometimes wears an altered dress Lady Mary wore in a previous episode, just like real lady’s maids would sometimes receive a dress from their mistress.

    I could give many more details, about the wardrobe, the newspapers, the cars, the locations etc, but I really just recommend you buy the book. Behind the scenes at Downton Abbey is a treat and every fan will enjoy this book immensely.

    Published in 2013
    Pages 278 

    Thursday, 1 January 2015

    Happy 2015

    For all of you a very good 2015,
    and may all your hopes come true.
    Happy newyear!
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