Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Best Fiction Reads of 2017

Of the 28 books of fiction that I read this past year, in alphabetical order by author, here are 18 that I especially enjoyed ... including 3 trilogies.  (Non-fiction was listed last time.)

1.  Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree.  The title comes from the stage directions for Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot. This book is a fictional but seemingly accurate account of Beckett's life in France during World War II when he joined the Resistance movement.  He was an introvert, appreciated silence but liked people, too.  He and his future wife were nearly caught in Paris but left very quickly after discovering they'd been outed to the Gestapo by a priest, subsequently making their way to what was then the Free Zone in the south of France but which was soon taken over as well.  Beckett preferred staying in France during the war where he had friends and could be of help rather than staying home in Ireland, a neutral country, where he had culture shock upon finding there was such a thing as cream and real coffee.

2.  Bruce Chatwin, On the Black Hill.  Identical Welsh twins live on their parents' farm all their lives, on the boundary of England and Wales.  The story covers 80-plus years.  It's likely among the last of this sort of descriptive late 19th and 20th century prose in the style of Hardy and Lawrence--the hard family life with few amenities.  The book ends around 1980 when video games are now part of the culture and cell phones are about to make an entrance.  A lot of real characters here.  Lots of angst and self-appraisal.  It was published in 1988 just months before Chatwin died.

3.  Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career.  Her full name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, and she lived from 1879 to 1954.  This book, her own fictionalized treatment of a memoir, was made into a movie of the same name starring a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill.  It is autobiographical fiction of a teen in 1890's Australia who longs for a brilliant career that taps her imagination, intellect, and ability to work hard.

4.  Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.  Or, what about The Old Man and the Marlin?  A rather amazing story of how old Santiago, in only a skiff, caught an 18-foot marlin far out to sea from Cuba.  A novella, it received a Pulitzer in 1953.

5.  Penelope Lively, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.  Fresh topics, good irony and wit, intelligent, her newest book.  One of my favorite contemporary authors.

6. - 11.  Olivia Manning.  The following 2 trilogies comprise Manning's work called Fortunes of War which was made into a TV mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.  (They met while filming it.)  It begins with the start of World War II and though fictionalized follows the author and her husband's route from Europe to the Middle East as the Germans kept advancing.  Lots of local color.  An abundance of well-defined characters.  I found all six books totally engrossing.
          The Balkan Trilogy:
                    Book #1.  The Great Fortune.  Set in Rumania from September
                         1939 to June 1940.
                    Book #2.  The Spoilt City.  Set as the characters are forced out of
                         Rumania and leave for Athens.
                    Book #3.  Friends and Heroes.  Set in Athens, then as they are
                          forced out of Greece to Cairo.
          The Levant Trilogy:
                    Book #4.  The Danger Tree.  Set in Cairo and Alexandria as the
                         Germans are advancing.
                    Book #5.  The Battle Lost and Won.  Describes the battle of
                          Alamein.  Otherwise, set mostly in Cairo.
                    Book #6.  The Sum of Things.  Set in Cairo and the Levant as the
                           war then ends.

12.  Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country.  Excellent, South Africa 1946, a black family and a white family ... and their shared tragedy.  Beautifully written.

13.  Kenneth Roberts, Oliver Wiswell.  A splendid historical novel published in 1940 about the Revolutionary War from the viewpoint of the Loyalists, taking the reader from 1775-1783.  A lot of material that I didn't know.  Quite enthralling.  Highly recommended.  (A gift from a college friend who called it one of the best books she'd ever read.)

14.  John Steinbeck, Cannery Row.  Amusing, precise, poetic.  The Chinese grocer, the bordello's madam, the flophouse guys, the marine biologist, all in a sardine canning section of Monterey, California in the 1930's.

15. - 17.  Katherine Towler, Snow Island Trilogy.  Chronicles the lives of those in a small, tight community on a fictitious island in Narragansett Bay. The time frame is World War II to the Gulf War.  Though each book can be taken separately, they are better as a unit. 
                    Book #1.  Snow Island.
                    Book #2.  Evening Ferry.
                    Book #3.  Island Light.

18.  Anne Tyler, Digging to America.  Two Baltimore families, one Iranian and one American, each adopt a Korean child on the same day and become friends as a result.  Good descriptions of their lives as family members and as representatives of their cultures ... with a nice mixture of the two told in an appealing way.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Best Non-Fiction Reads of 2017

My book reading for this past year pretty well matched other years in terms of the number read.  48 in all.  20 non-fiction, 28 fiction.

In alphabetical order by author, here are the non-fiction titles I liked best.  (Fiction will be listed next time.)

1.  Bill Bryson, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years.  A chuckle-out-loud book describing his life back in the U.S. after living in Britain.  Though at the end, he and his family return to England.

2.  Annie Dillard, An American Childhood.  Dillard-quality writing about her rather privileged life growing up in Pittsburgh.

3.  Vicki Constantine Croke, Elephant Company, An Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II.  The setting is Burma 1920-1946.  The "unlikely hero" is James Howard Williams who worked for a British teak company and was in charge of their working elephants throughout a wide area, finding them courageous, loyal, and truly wonderful beings.  Then after the Japanese invaded and the British left, Williams and the elephants led two amazing evacuations over treacherous trails to India--one for refugees, the other for the elephants themselves so that they wouldn't fall to the Japanese.  Some amazing tales here.

4.  Eric Larson, Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  In May 1915, a single torpedo destroyed the Lusitania, Britain's fastest, most beautiful passenger liner, sinking it in only 18 minutes and killing more than a thousand people some dozen miles from the Irish coast.  There were plenty of life boats, but because the ship could not be stopped and because of its tilt and the fact that it sank immediately, only 6 were used.  In addition, after daily drills to familiarize themselves with how to release the life boats, those crew members were instantly killed when the torpedo struck when they were below-decks taking out passengers' luggage for arrival next morning in Liverpool.  It wasn't until another two years when the Germans said that any ship was fair game to submarine attack (including those of neutral nations and passenger ships) that the U.S. entered the war.  Grim and gripping.

5.  Lois Pryce, Lois on the Loose, One Woman, One Motorbike, 20,000 miles across the Americas.  A well-written tale describing the gutsy adventures of an English woman who traveled solo on her motorbike.  This relates her first attempt at such a venture, here from Anchorage to the tip of Argentina during which she encountered terrible winds, terrible roads, sudden snows, hours in customs, totally bare landscape, a prima donna riding companion part way, and oil leaks.  But great chutzpah.

6.  Lois Pryce, Revolutionary Ride, On the Road in Search of the Real Iran. Here in 2013 is our heroine again, riding her motorbike alone through Iran, wearing required hijab and proper Islamic Republic dress.  She had already traveled solo through the Americas (see #5) as well as from London to Cape Town, South Africa.  This book details her experience through Iran plus a good overview of contemporary Iranian history.  She liked the place well enough to return the following year only to find that the rules had changed and those from the U.K. and U.S. could not travel the country alone, only in a group.

7.  Katherine Towler, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth, A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship.  A fellow-writer and resident of Portsmouth, the author finds herself filling the niche of "family member" and unwitting caretaker for Robert Dunn, once New Hampshire's poet laureate and a man who valued his independence but who found himself needing support as he followed the unwritten road to death.  An honest, well-written account.

8.  Harriet Welty-Rochefort, French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French.  Funny, concise, enlightening.  We want to be nice; they want to be logical, witty, no matter whether it tramples on someone or not.  We want to have fun; they aren't so concerned with fun.  We spread ourselves wide, new friends, etc; they look to their family.  We smile thinking we'll be liked; they don't take anyone who smiles seriously.  When writing this she'd been married to a Frenchman and living in Paris for 20 years.

9.  Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Hygge, Danish Secrets to Happy Living.  A sweet rendering of the way Danes attain a happy life, especially since their winters are rather dour.  By being cozy with candles, hot drinks, friends, board games, and things that are simple, natural, and homey.

Monday, December 18, 2017

12 Movies That I Saw in 2017 That I Can Recommend

Once again, it's movies-of-the-year time.  (My source for all the movies I see these days is Netflix.)

1.  A Five Star Life.  2013, Italy.  A woman has the job of checking out the ratings of luxury hotels.  Nice job, fabulous hotels.  Amusing.

2.  Cairo Time.  2009, Canada.  Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. Hypnotic, as the atmosphere of Cairo gradually enters both the heroine and the viewer.  Fabulous Arabic music.  It's called "a delicate love story."

3.  The Light Between the Oceans.  2016, UK, US, Australia, New Zealand. With Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander (who became a couple after making this film).  From the original book by M. L. Stedman.  Setting:  a lighthouse in far southwestern Australia where it is said the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet.  The story line (set post World War I)  is centered around the moral dilemma of wanting a specific dream to come true.  Alicia Vikander overplays her part, to my mind.  Beautiful photography, wonderful setting.

4.  Sing Street.  2016, Ireland, UK, US.  Set in 1980's Dublin, a young teen, infatuated with an older teen-age girl, starts a band so that she'll have a place to sing and, he hopes, find that she's fallen in love with him.  He and his fellow band members then put their energies into being creative rather than destructive as some of their classmates are.  This is a rather sweet rendering of one boy's life and the initiative he takes in creating a new life for himself (and his friends).

5.  Snowden.  2016, US.  Oliver Stone's "biographical political thriller."  I found it well done.

6.  Strangers in Good Company.  1990, Canadian Film Board.  A busload of 8 older women become isolated in the back reaches of Canada when their bus breaks down and they are left with the need to hone their practical skills.  All they have is a lonely possibly abandoned house by a lake.  No road (they reached the house on foot), no vehicle, phone, or furniture except a few things stuffed in a barn.  And no food other than what they can come up with.  Apparently, much of the script was made up by them as they went along.  But each woman manages to tell her life.  The theme then is that no matter who, each woman has led an interesting life.  And the setting provides a good vehicle for listening to others without distraction or other obligations as well as for ingenuity and for letting time, not activities, dictate.  Very low key, very real, there's nothing phony or contrived.

7.  The Eagle Huntress.  2016, UK, Mongolia, US.  Documentary.  An apple-cheeked girl of 13 wants to be the first female in 12 generations of her Kazakh Mongolian family to become an eagle huntress.  So with the aid of her father, she sets out to compete in the annual eagle festival.  Stark gorgeous photography of the Altai Mountains in the far west of Mongolia.  A fine film.

8. The Kind Words.  2016, Israel.  3 Israeli siblings look for their father when they discover on the death of their mother that the man who raised them was not their biological father.  An important surprise greets them toward the end of their search.

9.  The Man Who Knew Infinity.  2016, UK.  Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons.  A biopic about an Indian mathematical genius and autodidact who was admitted to Cambridge from India during World War I. 

10.  Their Finest.  2016, UK.  This is a war comedy/drama set in 1940 London when propaganda films were being made to boost morale after Dunkirk.  It's taken from the book, Their Finest Hour and a Half.  An amusing film.  There is also a lovely rendering of the song "Wild Mountain Thyme" ("Will ye go, lassie, go") sung by actor Bill Nighy.

11.  They Were Expendable.  1945, US.  Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed.  John Ford started out directing this but broke his leg three weeks into the film, so Robert Montgomery took over.  Montgomery also acted in it as a PT boat commander.  It portrays the true story of the fall of the Philippines and the exit of MacArthur, and the PT boat squadron's early defense of the Philippines.  It's beautifully photographed in black-and-white with understated acting, and a good story line.  I had seen it as a child when it was first released and remembered it as being well done but had forgotten everything else about it.  One of those "best of" old-time black-and-white films.

12.  Unbranded.  2016, US.  Documentary.  4 Texas A&M friends "adopt" wild mustangs to train and ride from the Mexican border to the Canadian, all on public land.  They do this partly to help the horses from being penned up all day and partly to show that there is still enough public land that such a venture is possible.  The adoption program comes from having too many wild horses trying to graze land that will not accommodate that many (including other animals) so a good number of them are corralled until someone comes along who can use them.  Being wild, these were strong horses, used to 20-mile-a-day runs, and they did well on the trip.  Gorgeous photography.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Gallery of Photos: To France to Paint: A Bit of This and That

My sketch of a palm tree in Vaison-la-Romaine.  

This is the third and final posting about my October trip with a group of local artists who went to Provence to paint and sketch.  It was a perfect week--sunshine, congenial company, excellent meals, a sweet hotel, charming villages, golden vineyards, and just the right amount of tapenade from local olives and Côtes du Rhône from local grapes.  This last batch of photos includes more whimsey plus a wee look at some of the delightful meals that were set down before us.

At the outdoor Antique Market in Vaison-la-Romaine, the town where we stayed.

This looked like such a happy cypress tree, I had to take its photo.

A fountain in the lovely village of Séguret only a few miles down the road from Vaison-la-Romaine.

A puss in Séguret

The table where we 12 ate lunch at the impressive Côté Terrasse, a restaurant in Séguret.  I got duck. 

A table-mate got this salad--a round of cheese (camembert?) baked with strips of bacon and served with endive, prosciutto, potatoes, and tomatoes.

The plane tree, a sycamore, prevalent in this part of France.

Street musicians at Vaison-la-Romaine's weekly outdoor market.  I wished later I'd gotten one of their CD's, they were  that good!

Also at Vaison-la-Romaine's weekly market

Part of the town's Roman ruins.

One of those great Citroën deux chevaux cars, said to be "a motorized alternative to the horse."

A family restaurant in nearby Nyons served us a four-course dinner which included this wild boar and risotto decorated with flowers and fresh herbs.

That was followed by this amusing dessert of hazelnut foam and piped meringues.  

Au revoir.  From Geneva we connected with our flight home, skipping Paris.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Gallery of Photos: To France to Paint: Neighboring Villages

Our Vermont art teacher giving assistance

In my last posting, I wrote about Vaison-la-Romaine, a lovely small town in Provence where a group of us from Southern Vermont went for a week of painting and sketching just a month ago now.  Vaison is an old settlement with a splendid array of Roman ruins, an engaging medieval quarter, plus a handsome contemporary section.  For those Provence aficionados, it's fairly close to Orange and not far from Avignon.   

We stayed in Vaison but ventured out into neighboring towns and villages--the subject of this posting.  If you've been following this blog, you'll know that I have a sketch book that I take with me on trips.  So, yes, I most definitely took it this time.  I also took watercolors and colored pencils so that I could produce studies from which to later make larger (and better) works.

The vineyards were all turning golden.

A street in the village of Séguret, called "one of the most beautiful villages in France."

Window in Séguret

Doorway in Séguret

Looking out over the neighboring countryside from Séguret

Vineyards of the Mourchant Wineries

A watercolor study of the above scene

The hilltop village of Roussillon (in the Luberon) which sheltered  the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, during World War 2 when he worked with the French Resistance.  The town is known for its red, orange, and yellow clay quarries.

From my travel sketch book.  The top was done in Séguret, "looking up from the village street to the rocks behind."  The lower was done in the village of Roussillon.  

More vineyards  turning golden.

Pont Julien, a Roman stone bridge over the Coulon River.  The sunlight makes the arch look as if it's been layered with gold leaf.

Ancient castle in the town of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.  The 14th century Italian poet, Petrarch, had a house in town and wrote of the beautiful Laura, his muse, whom he'd only seen from a distance and who soon died of the plague.

Another view of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

Bell tower and vineyards in Piégon near Mirabel-aux-Baronnies.

 Next posting:  the last of three postings of an October week in Provence

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Gallery of Photos: To France to Paint: Vaison-la-Romaine

Ah, our local little art school put together a trip to Provence for anyone wanting to go for a week in October and paint.  I immediately signed up ... and have just now returned. Ten of us plus two organizers who live in our neighboring town.  The place they picked:  Vaison-la-Romaine (once Vasio Vocontiorum) in the Vaucluse department of Provence with a river running through it, the Ouvèze.  We turned out to be a happy lot:  everything was "so beautiful, so congenial, so delicious," as I wrote someone.  We enjoyed a good share of white (preferred over red) Cotes du Rhone.  And we spent good hours at our painting, sketching, or just sitting and taking in the sunlight in this particularly lovely part of France.  (Vaison is not a large town--only some six- or seven-thousand people.)

From the Roman site of "La Villasse"

Another view of "La Villasse"

View of the Upper Town (the medieval quarter) and the 12th century Count's Castle .

From the Puymin site (with ruins of Roman villas) looking across to the medieval castle.  Note the olive trees.

1st century Roman bridge over the Ouvèze River, dividing the ancient (as well as the modern) city from the medieval one.

Looking into the medieval quarter with its bell tower and castle ruins

A street in the medieval quarter

11th century cathedral Notre-Dame de Nazareth

The old (the cathedral) being held up by the even older.

House in the newer section of town


Vaison-la-Romaine's weekly outdoor market, held every Tuesday.

At the market

The lace stall

Next posting:  photos around neighboring villages

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Automotive Experience Then and Now

Anyone remember when gas station attendants used to put gas in our tanks, check the tire pressure and fluids, AND wash the windows?  Must have been some other life time.

And then, more recently, every three months, when I had an oil change, they automatically adjusted my tire pressure.  I never had to think about it.  That's when getting an oil change cost something in the low two figures.  But now, my 2015 model car, uses a synthetic oil that only needs changing every 6 months (and costs a bundle) so I now need to adjust the tire pressure myself since I can't expect it to maintain itself for that length of time.  But for some reason, I tend to make it more complicated than need be.  First, I have to be sure to screw off the pressure caps before even starting the process.  Then, I ask myself, does applying air produce a swishing noise ... or does that come when the desired pressure has been applied?  (Once I thought I was all finished when in fact, I'd let air OUT of my tires.  I know because I found a gas station with a real attendant and asked him to check my work.  If it had been a class room project, I would have gotten a failing mark.) Then, another time, I nearly drove off with the four caps still in my pocket.

Then my 2015 car has a little dashboard light that tells me that either my tire pressure is low or I have a flat tire.  (I wish it would distinguish between the two.)  So when that little light comes on, I have to pull over (if there even is a place to pull over), get out, and inspect all the tires to see if one is flat.  If it is, that's a whole different ball game.  Or if it isn't, I need to find a place to try and fill the tires.  It's not that I've gotten lazy.  It's just that I feel less competent about how to do things.

On the other hand, I can remember when radiators had to be filled ... or when they boiled over on a hot day climbing a mountain.  Then you had to wait for them to cool off to refill--that is, if you remembered to bring a container of extra water.  Then cars were standard shift, not automatic ... which made it very difficult to drive someplace like San Francisco.  You'd stop for the light at the top of a hill, only to slip back a bit (hoping you wouldn't bump the car behind you) in order to get started again.  I drove a standard shift for years but now wouldn't have anything but an automatic.

And then (I've mentioned this before), drivers used to have to open their windows and hold their arms out to signal left or right turns.  That seemed simple enough, I thought, but we lived in a warm dry climate so always had our windows open.  That meant, of course, that when we got to where we were going, we had really messy hair.  Then air conditioning came along and windows had to be closed.  And turn indicators took the place of putting your arm out.   It seemed a great innovation.

Here are some photos of a few of our old family cars.  Pre-war, they are.

This belonged to my parents.

Then they bought this Nash sometime in the very early '40s.  It had the "Bed in a Car" feature which converted the back into a sleeping compartment--handy when we took camping trips.

Our Nash.  I think it was a 1941 model, a good car, but it didn't appreciate pulling a 26-foot trailer when we bought one after the war to "take to the road."

This is what road signage could look like then.  We were near California's Anza Borrego State Park