Sunday, April 23, 2017

24 Hours in Pisa


A couple of weeks ago it was spring break for the high school. My daughter is not as enamored of travel as I am, but I told her she could pick any place she wanted to go in Europe, and she wanted to go back to Italy.  You can find really cheap flights from Frankfurt to Pisa (the flight is just over an hour!) so we booked a round-trip and planned a trip: one night in Pisa, four nights in in Florence, and three nights in Siena.

We arrived in Pisa in the afternoon, and our first stop was lunch:


Even the bread baskets are classier in Italy. Note the nice little pitcher of house Vino Bianco. 


Crostini are on almost every menu in Tuscany. This assortment included pesto, black olive, chicken liver (I've forgotten exactly what the others were. Tomato and mushroom? Onion? I have no idea, but they were delicious.) We had crostini almost every day with lunch AND dinner. 


After a long nap, we walked around and had dinner and did a little sightseeing and shopping. Of course the most famous thing in Pisa is the leaning tower, which looks amazing at night.


 There are a lot of beautiful buildings around it that are beautifully lit, 
plus this statue of cherubs fighting over something. 


We both had risotto for dinner. I don't remember what was in mine, but my daughter is an adventurous eater and ordered the squid ink risotto which had seafood in it. 
It made her teeth look like she'd been eating in a coal mine. 


The next morning we went back to the tower and were able to buy tickets to climb to the top. It was closed for renovation a while back but now they allow a limited number of tourists up at any given time. They're very strict about how many people can go up at once and you're not even allowed to bring a purse or any sort of bag, which has to go in a free locker. I imagine it's to keep the weight down and keep it from leaning even further though it could be for security (which was more extensive here than any other site I visited on this trip to Italy). 

It's not a difficult climb because it's easy to stop and look outside at various levels, but it's really weird since you can definitely feel it leaning, depend on which side you're on. The stairs spiral upward and it's easy to stop and check out the views. 





There are columns all the way around and if you look closely, every one is different. 


The tower or campanile of Pisa is actually only part of the Piazza dei Miracoli, which includes a cathedral, a baptistry, and a walled cemetery with frescoes. The grounds are pretty big and there are some sculptures, including this fallen angel, which is modern. 


Our combined ticket included all the buildings and we went into the Baptistry which is acoustically perfect, though you're not allowed to shout and test it out. I did find this embedded in the floor:


Pretty sure this has nothing to do with pirates, it's some kind of tombstone.

Afterward we walked around Pisa for lunch and shopping. The window displays in Italy are pretty fabulous. 


There's no escaping the carbohydrates in Italy, not even when you're shoe shopping. 

We also found a good-sized bookstore and as always, asked if they had any books in English. We were directed to the back of the store which actually kind of a terrace. 


The photo is a little dark, but you can see the wisteria vines growing over the top and the smell was amazing. (No idea what they do with the books when it's raining.) They also had a pretty good selection; overall, I was really impressed with the number of bookshops in Italy. 

We also passed a covered market area where there were a lot of used books for sale. All of them were in Italian but I did spot these:


That's an Italian translation of Moorland Cottage by Elizabeth Gaskell


And here's an Italian copy of Rebecca. Based on the artwork, I'm guessing it's from the 1970s -- so dramatic! I'm sorry now that I didn't buy it, and it reminds me it might be time for another blog post about Awful Book Covers -- but only after I get caught up with my travel posts! I'll post more photos of Florence and Siena in the next couple of weeks. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Victorian Children Clearly Need Supervision


Also known as The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit. Inspired by Better Book Titles, I've decided to title my book reviews to better reflect what I really think about a book. (Also I feel like I need to liven up my reviews a little bit, as they've been feeling a bit stale lately. I may actually go back and retitle some of my previous posts). 

Anyway, The Wouldbegoods is essentially a turn-of-the-century version of Junie B. Jones with better writing -- children who do all the things that real children would like to do, but really know better (one hopes). Published in 1901, this book is full of what I would call Teachable Moments which are hilariously funny. The Bastable children from the delightful book The Story of the Treasure-Seekers have returned in another installment, this time in the country over the summer holidays. Since they can't stay out of trouble in London, the six children been sent to stay in the country with two other children Dennis and Daisy, supervised (in theory) by Albert-Next-Door's-Uncle, the writer, who seems to be so engrossed in his writing he pays little attention to eight children. The children have all vowed to be Good and create a Secret Society called The Wouldbegoods, for which they will do Good Deeds and Help People. Naturally, hilarity ensues because nothing ever goes as planned.

As always, Nesbit's writing as the voice of a child is spot-on:

You read in books about the pleasures of London, and about how people who live in the country long for the gay whirl of fashion in town because the country is so dull. I do not agree with this at all. In London, or at any rate Lewisham, nothing happens unless you make it happen; or if it happens it doesn’t happen to you, and you don’t know the people it does happen to. But in the country the most interesting events occur quite freely, and they seem to happen to you as much as to anyone else. Very often quite without your doing anything to help.

Clearly, Victorian children ran amuk with little or no supervision, and the adults are shocked -- shocked, I say! when they get into all kinds of trouble, much of it requiring vast expenditure to make right. (I suspect family's newfound fortunes from previous book are squandered to pay these bills). The results are often laugh-out-loud funny but also shocking to a modern adult -- there are chapters including stranger danger, a kidnapping, and a loaded firearm! After the first couple of episodes, you'd think that either the adults or the children would start to learn from their mistakes, but this is a book meant for children so nobody does (otherwise, it would make for a very dull story). But I enjoyed the heck out of it and found myself alternately snorting with laughter or yelling "Noooooo!" while reading. 



The Wouldbegoods is sadly out of print, but used copies are available and it's also in the public domain. I've now read six of Nesbit's books for children, and I've decided I really prefer those with little or no fantasy elements. I find the antics of children in our world much more amusing than those in fantasy lands. I also own a copy of Nesbit's book for adults, The Lark, which has been newly reprinted by the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press (readily available via Amazon and The Book Depository).  It's making quite a stir in the blogosphere, thanks to the Furrowed Middlebrowhttp://furrowedmiddlebrow.blogspot.de/2014/03/edith-nesbit-lark-1922.html blog and also by Simon at Stuck in a Book. I hope it will be equally delightful. 

I'm counting this as my Children's Classic for the Victorian Reading Challenge. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Top Ten Things That Will Instantly Make Me Want to Read a Book


It's been a long time since I participated in a Top Ten Tuesday! I can't think why I've waited so long, since I adore making lists (I sometimes make lists just so I can cross things off. Does anyone else do this?)

Anyway, this week's Top Ten topic is a good one: top ten things that will instantly make me want to read a book. Here are a ten of the literary keywords and topics that will normally pique my interest:

1. The Victorian time period. I love the Victorian period -- books written in the Victorian period, nonfiction about the Victorian period, and often, recent fiction set in the period. I'm incredibly glad I didn't live in that time -- I like modern medicine, sanitation, and women's rights, thanks very much! But I do love reading about it.

2.  The war at home. I love the WWII era, though not so much the actual battles -- I'm far more interested in how the war affected people and their everyday lives. I've mostly read books set in Great Britain but other countries are fascinating as well.

3.  Between the wars. I love reading about the 1920s and 1930s, again, mostly British, but American books are fun too. There are so many great stories set in great country houses, kind of the last gasp before that lifestyle began to fade. 

4.  Country houses.  British or American, mysteries or dramas, I love when groups of people are together in the country. Stories tend to be about the upper classes but I love reading about the whole upstairs/downstairs dynamic.

5. Books set on trains. I love, love, love train travel, and I love the idea of disparate people thrown together. Books set on long sea voyages and hotels also fit this category.

6. Books set on boats. I haven't done much sailing or cruising but I love the romance of boats and the sea. I'd love to go on a long sailing voyage someday, though I have no idea whether I'd be seasick or not! 

7. Books set in Scandinavia. I've developed a fascination with Scandinavian TV dramas and it's made me really intrigued with Scandinavian books as well. I read the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter earlier this year and just loved it. I've read some crime fiction but I'm interested in literary fiction as well, either in translation or just set there. 

8.  Books with food. I have a culinary background and worked in some professional kitchens, mostly baking, so I always love when books have a lot of food descriptions in them. 

9.  Middlebrow women's fiction. Not highbrow but not trashy enough to be lowbrow, middlebrow are the often forgotten books that fall in the middle. Frequently the authors' works are out of print, but some are being rediscovered -- if you've ever read Persephone and Virago books, that's middlebrow. Now there's even new imprint from Dean Street press called Furrowed Middlebrow, curated by the blogger of the same name. For a great list of 100 great Middlebrow Books, see here. 

10. Small town life. I grew up in a pretty boring suburb, then spent years in a large city, so I've never really experienced life in a small town. I love stories about communities where everyone knows everyone -- I'd probably hate it in real life, but it's fun to read about.

Bloggers, what keywords immediately pique your interest in a book? And do you have any suggestions for me from this list? 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope


Also known as "Be careful what you wish for, because you might actually get it."

The fifth novel in the Pallisers series by Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister is actually two overlapping stories: the first, about the Duke of Omnium, Plantagenet Palliser and his wife Lady Glencora, and his rise to power as the eponymous Prime Minister; the second, the romance between Emily Wharton, a sweet young thing from a Good Family (with a possible inheritance of about 20,000 pounds) and an up-and-coming financier named Ferdinand Lopez. Lopez is a friend of Emily's brother, the somewhat ne'er-do-well Everett, and nobody seems to trust him because although he was born and raised in England and was educated in English schools, nothing is known about his background. Is he an adventurer trying to get his hands on her money? Or is everyone else just racist and assuming the worst because -- wait for it -- he father was Portugese? Oh, the horror!

Ferdinand is wooing Emily pretty hard, despite the adoration of her childhood playmate Arthur Fletcher, whom everyone (including Arthur) assumed she would someday marry. Meanwhile, Planty Pall is named Prime Minister of a coalition government. It should be the pinnacle of his career, but he's not really good schmoozing and creating political alliances. He's a little thin-skinned and really just wants to do what's Best and what's Right, which (sadly) isn't necessarily what makes a good politician. His wife Glencora embraces her role as the PM's wife and spends masses of money to entertain, in London and at Gatherum Castle, their country estate (there are some pretty hilarious bits about the preparations at Gatherum that reminded me very much of Downton Abbey). 

Emily and Ferdinand's romance does not turn out how she expected; and Lady Glen has some disappointments -- she was so hoping to become a Great Lady, a Queen Bee of society with salons and parties. She even tries her hand at political influence, which backfires spectacularly. It all ends for the best but is definitely bittersweet.

I think Trollope did a great job intertwining the political and the domestic stories in this novel. Some of my favorite characters make appearances, including Phineas Finn, his wife Marie Goesler, Lizzie Eustace and even the Greshams from Doctor Thorne show up (though it's been so long since I read that novel, I didn't even connect them at first). Some of the politics did get a bit tedious for me but Lady Glen is one of my favorites. 

However, I did have a couple of issues with this book. Once again, Trollope has created an ingenue (Emily) that is just unrealistically self-sacrificing. It must be some kind of Victorian trope, because I really wanted her to grow a backbone and stand up for herself. She's one of these characters that doesn't believe she deserves happiness. I did want to jump into the book and give her a good talking-to.


Also, there are a lot of anti-Semitic slurs about Ferdinand Lopez. I don't even actually remember if there's any basis and he's actually Jewish or not, but either way, it was disturbing. I feel like Trollope was sending a message that Outsiders Are Bad -- given the current political climate, it made me particularly uncomfortable (though the idea of a coalition government was also mind-blowing -- I can't imagine that ever happening in the U.S.!)

Overall, I really did enjoy it. Trollope creates such vivid characters that I really got invested in them, despite their flaws (or lack of them). I've just bought the recently restored version of The Duke's Children that is finally available at an affordable price, and I'm looking forward to reading the final volume of the Pallisers.  I'll be a bit sad when I've finished the whole thing. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The 1951 Club: School For Love by Olivia Manning



I purchased School For Love a couple of years ago after reading and loving Olivia Manning's Balkan trilogy. I also purchased the omnibus of her Levant Trilogy, but I hadn't gotten around to cracking either of them until I realized that School For Love was published in 1951 and I could use it for the 1951 Club hosted by Simon and Kaggsy!


Set in 1945, just after the war, it's a coming-of-age story about young Felix Lattimer. The story begins as Felix, aged about 14 or 15, is traveling alone from Baghdad to Jerusalem. Recently orphaned, he's been staying with family friends until a sort of relative named Miss Bohun has offered to take him. Miss Bohun is a spinster, probably in her late fifties or early sixties, and was the adopted older sister of Felix's late father, who was killed in Baghdad during the war. Felix's mother, who was loving but rather flighty has recently died of typhoid because she hadn't bothered to get her annual vaccination. Felix does have an uncle living in England, but due to heavy demand for soldiers demobilizing, he's low priority to get transport back to England and is therefore sent to live with Miss Bohun, who rents out rooms to refugees.

Felix has a bit of odd life with Miss Bohun. She's rather eccentric and heavily involved with some sort of evangelical church group called the Ever-Readies. She seems to charge Felix rather an awful lot of money for his expenses, yet she doesn't want him to turn on the heat in his room and they seem to exist on mashed beans. The other residents are a Polish widow and her son, who claims to be a count, and an aging artist living in the attic. Felix's favorite companion is a beautiful Siamese cat named Faro, his only source of love and affection.

Felix's days seem rather dreary until a new boarder, a young, beautiful widow named Mrs. Ellis moves in. She's rather glamorous and Miss Bohun had expected her to be a new companion until it becomes quite obvious that their personalities will never mesh and the whole dynamic is shaken. Felix becomes more and more attached to Mrs. Ellis and finally things come to a head between all the characters.

It's a short book, just under 200 pages, but Manning really creates vivid and realistic characters and I found myself really invested in them -- I wanted to throttle Miss Bohun and cook Felix a good meal, among other things. And the ending left me gobsmacked. I finished it and just sat there thinking about it. It was just brilliant.

I'm also counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau



Deerbrook has been described as bridging the gap between Jane Austen and George Eliot. Published in 1839, I can see shades of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Middlemarch. At 600 pages long, it definitely tends a bit closer to Middlemarch.

Set about the 1830s, Deerbrook is the story of two sisters, Hester and Margaret Ibbotson, who are in their early twenties. Recently orphaned, they've left Birmingham to stay with cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Grey, in the village of Deerbrook. Mr. Grey runs a banking business with his partner, Mr. Rowland, whose property is directly adjacent. The Rowland and Grey children share a school room and a tutor, Miss Young, and Mrs. Rowland's mother, Mrs. Enderby also lives on the property in her own house. 


Hester Ibbotson is considered a great beauty and her younger sister Margaret is clever and charming. Everyone in the village suspects one of them will be the bride of the unattached Mr. Hope, the apothecary. The sisters quickly become the center of village society, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Rowland, who is basically the Queen Bee -- she wants to be the center of attention at all times, and is miffed if someone else has a better party or picnic. She begins to harbor ill feelings for the two sisters, simply because they are drawing attention away from her and her family. 


Meanwhile, there's a love triangle between the two sisters and Mr. Hope -- everyone expects him to fall for the beautiful Hester, who is in love with him, but he's actually fallen for Margaret. Unfortunately Margaret is actually falling for Mr. Enderby, Mrs. Rowland's sister, who will stop at nothing to separate them, including lies and deceit. 


Mr. Hope is persuaded to marry Hester because he's somehow led her to believe he's interested and therefore made Hester fall in love with him, and he ends up marrying her out of a sense of duty. Things get further complicated when Margaret moves in with them, ostensibly because then she can contribute to their household income, which isn't much. Finances also become strained when Mr. Hope is asked by the local gentry to cast his vote for a local M.P. that he doesn't support. Mr. Hope believes it's better to stand up for his principles rather than abstain or toe the line, and this causes a lot of ill-feeling and begins to negatively affect his business. Things get worse when some nasty rumors about Mr. Hope's medical practice are revived, and Mrs. Rowland suddenly arrives with a new doctor to compete.


Martineau then ups the melodrama with nasty outbreak of fever sweeps through the village.  Will Mr. Hope save the day? Will any of them die a protracted death? And Mr. Enderby and Margaret ever find true love?


This book had some great moments, though some of the characters were over-the-top, and some storylines were unresolved. Also,  there are long passages where Martineau tends to get preachy and long-winded. (She was a sociologist and suffragette as well as novelist, and is actually distantly related to the Duchess of Cambridge.) However, I really did like it and sped through the last 200 pages because I had to find out what was going to happen. It's quite a good domestic novel and to me it's nearly as good as some of my favorite Trollope novels. It's quite a pity that this book isn't better known -- I don't think it's even still in print here in the U.S. 


I'm counting this as my Classic with an Animal for the Back to the Classics Challenge and towards the Victorian Reading Challenge

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman



I'm nearly always way behind reading the popular new books. I do like nonfiction and WWII is always interesting, so I thought The Zookeeper's Wife would be a good choice for a book about Poland for the European Reading Challenge. It's quite a popular title right now as there's a movie adaptation coming out soon (there is a huge waiting list for digital downloads at my library and I was lucky to get it but had to rush through the end before my download expired).

So, this is the story of Antonina Zabinski, the wife of Jan Zabinski, the head zookeeper at the Warsaw Zoo during the 1930s, who lived in a villa within the zoo with their young son Ryszard. After the siege of Warsaw in 1939, most of the animals that survived were split up and set off to zoos in Germany. Antonina and Jan managed to stay in their villa and secretly house Jews in empty cages, zoo buildings, secret passages, and even in their own home. Most of the Jews stayed only temporarily before moving on to safer housing, as the zoo was too close to the Nazis. Ackerman describes how the Zabinskis cleverly outwitted the Nazis on multiple occasions, and their bravery and dedication to protecting Jewish refugees that numbered in the hundreds over the course of the war.

Of course, as zookeepers, there are a lot of animals in the story. Before the war, Jan and Antonina hosted and nursed orphaned and wounded animals and had quite the menagerie living with them, and they kept as many animals with them as possible during the war, as pets and for food. They were able to stay on the zoo grounds, first converting the zoo to a pig farm, then a fur farm. Jan was active in the underground Polish resistance and their friends included artist Magdalena Gross and Irena Sendler, who herself smuggled more than 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto.

Antonina Zabinski and friend -- I think it's a badger.
I liked this book, but it wasn't quite what I expected. I'd read Ackerman's A History of the Senses years ago and liked it, but I just remembered it was rather new-agey and I was surprised that she would would write about zookeepers hiding Jews. The story of the Zabinskis is really interesting but Ackerman didn't really seem to write it as a straight narrative of their wartime experiences -- there are a lot of digressions about animals, nature, and art, mostly relating to the Zabinski's friends and guests.

I had tried reading this book around the time it was first published but I put it down because I wasn't in the mood for a serious book about the Holocaust -- there are so many books about the horrors of WWII and I find that I can only read so many. The Zookeeper's Wife does include sections about Nazi atrocities, especially in the Warsaw ghetto, but it's not the entire book. There's a lot in here that's really worth reading and I'm curious to know how it will compare to the movie adaptation. I looked online and it was actually filmed in Prague, not Warsaw.