Finally outside

Since Christmas, we struggled with viral illness, my asthma got pretty out of control and most weekends and weeks were spent inside since one or all of us were in varying degrees of being under the weather.  This was – to put it mildly – not much fun.

Yesterday was the first day this year that all of us felt well and we finally went outside. Not a big adventure, but as my daughter put it: The wind was blowing around our heads. And sometimes that is all that you need.

We went to Croome, a National Trust place in Worcestershire, mainly because the husband wanted to look at the landscape painting exhibition they have on and also, I quite like visiting Croome at various times in the year. I followed the development of Croome since the house was purchased in 2007 and became part of the National Trust. It has become interlinked with all the memories of the kid growing up (she was born at the end of 2006) and we have visited that place countless times over the last 12 years.

It has been fun to see how the National Trust develops a place for access. Now, I do know that a lot of criticism is thrown at the Trust in how they do things, but personally, I appreciate that they maintain these places and not everything becomes luxury flats for rich people. And yes, a lot more should and can be done in exhibits to show where the money for these houses (mostly slave trade) came from, after all: for some people to be idle in luxury, loads of people have to suffer. Still, I enjoyed witnessing the changes at Croome, the re-establishing of parkland, more access and longer walks opening, the house opening and different exhibitions being held.

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A spring day many moons ago

As we walk through the grounds, my mind wanders back: Here at the Greenhouse, the kid and I had a picnic when she was three on a super blustery day when I just had to get out of the house (my motto for parenting has always been: if in doubt, go out) and it ended up with her not wanting to leave that greenhouse, we stayed ages in there and since it was an average autumn day, we were the only people pretty much on the entire estate, something that sadly never happens these days anymore. Croome has become super popular. I also think back to outings with friends that now live far away and how we shared chocolate cookies at the viewing bench and well, enjoyed the view. All those pinecones we collected and painted back home. How each year, there seem to be more snowdrops, multiplying like all the visitors that now flock to visit.

Still, there are still places where you can be almost alone, the longer walks are not done by the crowds, like most places, the car park and tea room are the busiest places here. In my mind, I split National Trust visitors into three categories. The ones who come for the tearoom (nothing wrong with that, we like cake, too). The ones who want to tick the house of a list and come in their Sunday best. And then those who make a day of it, bring a picnic and explore every inch.

We fall into the latter category. We no longer go as frequently as we did when the kid was younger, but we still like to go now and then and when we holiday somewhere in the UK (which we do a lot), we like to visit new to us places. But mostly, these days, the National Trust just makes me nostalgic. I can honestly say that the local to me National Trust places (Croome, Hanbury Hall, Clent Hills, Kinver Edge, Wightwick Manor etc. etc.) were brilliant for us when the kid was growing up. And I realise my privilege here, not everyone can afford membership or even have the means for getting to these places, which I acknowledge, but for me this was just brilliant. A day out to a National Trust place was always a good one for us, we came home mucky, tired, all picnicked out. Thanks to the fact that I can take additional children with us, many of the kid’s friends joined in the fun during school holidays over the years. Some of them had never been to a place like this. So many memories are linked to these places, memories of all seasons, in the rain, in the wind, in the glorious sunshine that we occasionally get. Making dens, exploring…

Now that the kid is 12, we explore differently for the most part, so going to a National Trust place is no longer the thing we think of first. She can hike longer distances and we like to find routes where we will encounter few people but lots of nature. Before you get jealous of the hiking kid though: She will complain, too. She is 12 and as much as she likes exploring, she also complains about the length, adverse weather, the wrong snacks, not enough breaks.

What a meandering ramble this post is. I think I shall leave it here, clearly our visit to Croome has got me thinking many thoughts. This is another reason why I like going outside: It gives my brain fodder and stops it from looping in the same spiral (which is usually only downward).IMG_3335 (1)

Reading Scotland – January 2019

One of my favourite things is to read books set in Scotland. I have been doing this every year for the past 7 years and this year is no exception. Living here in the English Midlands, I long to be in Scotland, but alas, I am not but books give me the opportunity to travel to Scotland without packing any boxes or suitcases.

I am part of a Goodreads Group each year that encourages you to pick up books set in Scotland or written by Scottish authors and a few weeks ago I made a video about my Scottish TBR for 2019:

So, what have I read so far this year with a Scottish connection.

I do like a dual timeline story and this month I read two of them:

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

This is part 2 in her loose duology centered around Slains Castle and the Jacobites fighting to get their King back on the throne. There is a present day love story/narrative and then the story in the 18th century. I adore her books, if I want to escape my head (which at the moment I want to all the time), then a Kearsley will always, always do the trick. Sadly, I only have one book left by her, her most recent Belleweather, which I shall procure at some point this year.

 

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Down to the Sea by Sue Lawrence

When I saw this book listed on the Bookseller, I knew I had to read it. We all have those keywords that make us pick up books, for me they include “Scotland”, “dual timeline” and “mystery”. The book’s “present” day timeline is actually in the 198oies and the past timeline is in the 1890ies. A couple buys an old house in Newhaven, outside Edinburgh to renovate and open as a luxury care home for the elderly, while in the 1890ies, the building was used as a poorhouse. It was a bit spooky in places (I am easily scared), very atmospheric, and a fantastic cosy read by the fire while it was freezing cold outside. Saraband kindly sent me a copy and the book is published on the 21st Feb on the Kindle and 14th March as a paperback. I was delighted to find out that the author is the same Sue Lawrence of the Scottish Baking book, which I would highly recommend, I adore this book. If you like Scotland and baking, it’s a must really.

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

I have been obsessed with Arthurian myths since I was single digits in age. Oh, how badly, have I wanted it to be true and for magic to be real and I dreamt that it would be me one day, rediscovering magic and bringing it back to the world. I still read most books about Arthur and Merlin and any character surrounding the myths, both fiction and non-fiction. Pike has taken inspiration from Adam Ardray’s books Finding Merlin/Finding Arthur, which make the case that Arthur/Merlin was Scottish. I had read those books myself and they are a great travel itinerary if you want to explore some of those sights yourself. Here, we follow Langueroth, a high-born noblewoman whose twin brother is set to become Merlin, although, he is not quite there yet at the end of book 1. I enjoyed it, although I did not quite love it as much as I had hoped, the downside of going into a book with too much expectation. I believe book 2 is set to be released Summer 2020. A long wait, but I know that books need to be written and I am painfully aware how lengthy this process can be (hello second draft edits).

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The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Set in Edinburgh in the 1840ies within the medical profession, in particular that of women’s health and childbearing. It’s part mystery, part historical fiction centred on medical advances, part role and place of women in society and the world as a whole during that time period and it was certainly an interesting read. I liked the book a lot, but did not quite manage to love it because for my taste it was rather grim. I am glad my childbearing years are over.

Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight by Alyssa Cole

This was a very short novella about a black woman at court of King James IV and her Highland Lord. I don’t read much romance of the saucy variety, but I thought this was entertaining enough and I shall definitely pick up another one by her.

 

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Lanark by Alasdair Gray

A Scottish modern classic and one I have been meaning to read for years. I was put off by the description of it as being difficult, hard to access and strange and offputting. You see, don’t let words like that put you off from a book because personally, I thought this was one of the best books I have read in a long time. It’s a like the Bildungsroman meets Weird Fiction, so yes, it is strange, but it is also wonderful. I likened it to my husband as “Mann, Grass and Kafka went on holiday together to Scotland, drank too much whiksy, had a love child, which was reared by China Mievielle in a Glasgow tenement and the child was read daily Lovecraft stories. And the child became the book.” And quite frankly, I have no better explanation for it.

The Art of Coorie by Gabriella Bennett

January is grey and dull and my asthma was bad and then this book arrived kindly sent to me by Black & White Publishing and it was just such a wonderful little thing taking me to Scotland. Coorie may just well be Scotland’s answer to Hygge and Lagom, combining the wonderful feeling of being outside in Scotland’s nature and then returning inside to cosy up by a fire with nice food and drink. If you are planning a trip to Scotland, I highly recommend this to get you into the mood. The images are beautiful and the writing is informative and interesting. I have a Coorie video coming up on my channel later this week. So check back there.

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Who is the boss of reading?

Have you ever that thing that when you think about a certain topic, it will pop up everywhere? I get that all the time and in the past few weeks, I have been thinking about who decides that a book is worthy to be read. Are the high-powered readers gatekeepers and only willing to let those in that read the books that are high-brow?

It will come as a surprise that I don’t just wreck my brain about Brexit, but that I actually think about a lot of other stuff too. Mainly reading. Luckily thanks to youtube and starting my own Any Book Bookclub, I am now surrounded by readers both virtual and actual and that has been mighty fine, but the thing that got me pondering started a few weeks ago.

At the local slimming club (yep, I know, yet, trust me in this, it is the most culturally diverse group I belong to), a friend and I were talking about books and a lady chimed in and said that she tried to join a bookclub once and she was made to feel that she was stupid because she did not read literary fiction (or as she referred to them “high and mighty books”) and then she never went again. We were obviously sad about this, but at first I thought, that she would be an isolated case. So I asked some friends, who are readers as to why they don’t attend a bookclub, every single one stated the same reason. Now, I am not saying this is the perfect sample size or anything, but it certainly got me thinking.

Then someone on twitter mused if literary snobbism is something that puts people of reading full stop. And then Dr. Sami Schalk posted this which opened this even wider for me.

“Can I instead write an article about how the concept of guilty pleasures in based in classism, racism, & sexism instead? Because “low brow” often means poor/working class, racialized or feminized things? How bout that article?”

And suddenly all started to make sense to me. If you want to be part of an educated elite you cannot read for entertainment, you must read for advancement and by the sheer act of choosing to read a romance novel, you somehow out yourself as someone who is a bit silly and cannot be taken serious. Nonsense naturally, but still deeply ingrained in society.

My grandmother read voraciously, she and her friends in our village exchanged reading material and had an elaborate system of initials to mark the reading so the bags full of stuff went around the village in the right order. Trust some middle-aged/older ladies to organise the shit out of reading, they loved it and the exchange of reading material always meant chats and random meet ups for a cup of coffee.

Does it matter that the reading material was what we call in Germany “Groschenromane”.

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I don’t think so. My grandmother and her friends had all survived the war, most of them were displaced from various Eastern territories, now, we would talk about Post-Traumatic shock but back then we did not. I know now that my grandmother suffered from depression, as a middle aged woman I have the language to describe what was the matter while I was growing up and I firmly believe that those little novelettes gave her respite from whatever was going on in her head. (She also had arthritis in her hands, so hardbacks were never an option, but the ableism in the reading community is a completely different topic.)

My daughter started secondary school last autumn and so far, I really like how the school handles the whole “reading challenge” thing. They got a challenge book which they can fill out and the expectation is to read 12 books throughout the year in various categories with one set book for all of them to read since the author will visit the school in the summer term. But as for what those books are it does not matter. If you want to read Bone as a classic, you can as long as you can make a case why you fit it into the category. Zero judgement. My daughter read a manga for historical fiction. The school librarian told her that that was an inspired choice. I felt like sending flowers to the librarian.

 

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Bone is surely a classic now.

I think it is no accident that women’s fiction is a “genre” and every time I see someone use it in a way that makes it feel like the put down of a whole sex and women pointing out that they don’t read women’s fiction because they don’t have time for that, I feel like getting my soapbox out and lecturing everyone on how this is a form of oppression and how clever that is because most of us buy into it, shamefully at times picking a title up that is deemed to be light and just right for those silly little women. I have turned it around. I am proud to read fiction written by women – which is all what women’s fiction really is – about women’s lives. Barbary Pym wrote women’s fiction, Jane Austen did, too. There is nothing wrong about reading whatever type of author as long as you enjoy the book.

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Naturally, some readers read for personal advancement, they are keen to learn something from the books, they love structure and wordplay but surely, they can enjoy that and discuss that without having to look down on readers who may not get the same kick out of that.

I always like to cite my daughter’s hate of aubergine and courgette, it’s just not her thing as much as that saddens me, I have come around to just appreciate that she eats sooo many vegetables with gusto. I wish the same would be said for readers and reading, which is mainly why I started the Any Book Bookclub. I hope that people will keep coming talking about whatever book they enjoy, whether that is a footballer’s biography, the latest Mills&Boon or a ManBooker winner, because instead of lamenting of what people don’t read, we should celebrate that they do in fact read.

Friday musings

It is hard to not be fully absorbed by the whole Brexit thing especially when as a European citizen in the UK, it could potentially have such a dreadful impact on your life. Yet, I don’t want to write again about Brexit and the idiocy of it all, the useless politicians (Caroline Lucas being an exception here), that if any of us did our work like they do, we would be fired, blah, blah, blah. I bore myself with it.

As always when things happen around me that I cannot change, I resort to books. Reading is and has always been the only form of escaping my head that truly works. In particular, historical mysteries, but as you know, I read all sorts. So, all things that must be done are done with speed and efficiency so I can retreat to the sofa or my bed with the book. At this point, it feels like it’s the only thing I can do.

I also had a lovely reply about some nature writing by writers of colour in form of a crowdfunded online magazine, called the Willow Herb Review and it is wonderful and has cheered me so much today and reminded me how wonderful the internet can be, you seek, you ask and then someone will say, oh yes, that thing you are seeking it’s here, come and have a look. Small things that make all the difference.

I made marmalade this week, which is a January tradition to banish my January blues and then promptly dreamed that when the government is banning me from the UK, I was not allowed to take my (English) family and not even a single jar of marmalade, because I was not British enough. But I did not really want to write about this kind of stuff, today, but it just creeps in everywhere like sand from the beach which will be found in shoes and bags for years to come.

As most weeks, I envy my cats who are so not touched by what is going on, but I like to kid myself that they can feel that I am overwhelmed and worried and like to hang out with me more. That the paw reaching for my thigh is a reassuring gesture rather than a “human please feed me” move. Like most pet servants, I am convinced that my cats truly love me and understand me. I guess this illustrates perfectly how mad I am, but since I am not the only person to do this, I would consider this a socially acceptable form of madness.

The asthma is still bad which meant that I opted against a walk today. Birmingham does its best to reassure us that air quality is good, but trust the asthmatic: it’s not. The last couple of winters in particular, I really felt it. I know that us with poor lungs are naturally not seen as a measure of things, that it has to become so bad that those with super healthy lungs complain too before anyone even listens. Not going outside though is hard, but my lungs do need a break. Looking forward to being back in the Angus Glens, after a few days up in Scotland my lungs always improve.

But then, will we be able to go at Easter what with Brexit. Argh, there it rears its head again. It’s freaking everywhere, I cannot think any thought for more than three seconds before Brexit flashes in big neonlights.

I shall leave at this juncture and drink some coffee and read a book.

Nature Writing and writers of colour

As someone who loves nature, the advent in recent years in nature writing has been very exciting. When I cannot be out there myself, I do quite like to enjoy the hearing the experiences of some accomplished writers in the field.

I have followed publishing long enough to know that these kind of fields (pun?) are normally mostly dominated by male writers and some serious effort has to be put in to find more female authors once you ticked off the well known ones like Helen Macdonald and Kathleen Jamie. There is a list on Goodreads for Irish and British Nature Writing and of the 175 books, only about 20 are by women and some of these books are over 100 years old (Hello old friend, “Diary of an Edwardian Lady”). So things are not that great, but I guess that’s a pretty normal picture across publishing, after all more men get published than women.

But then, I thought: Hm, I really would like to find some writers of colour who write nature non-fiction. And so my search began. And I came up with not much. Found a couple of essays, some US based books but personally, I prefer my nature writing to be set in places I know or are about to visit. And that made me wonder why that is? Are there writers of colour with manuscripts waiting to be published, but because there has been no precedence no one is publishing them?

I would love to see some British and Irish nature writing by authors of colour. If you know of anything that has been published or is about to be published, please let me know.

Reading Through the Ages

Tomorrow, it will be two weeks since Victoria (Eve’s Alexandria) and I announced the Reading Through the Ages reading challenge for 2019.

I am slightly uncomfortable about the word “challenge” as challenge always sounds like something that is hard to do, even harder to achieve and just generally a pain in the neck. Homework.

We really want this to be anything but that. All it is, is to encourage people to read more historical fiction in 2019.

For me personally, that is not hard, historical fiction is the genre I read the most of, but naturally everyone is different. I see this challenge as a good way to first and foremost walk to our TBR piles and look at the books, we have already got and see what may fit the prompts. Then, you can join also our Goodreads Group to find inspiration on the bookshelves there and in the discussions for each prompt.

Victoria and myself will also do videos for the prompts over the year to talk about suggestions, new releases (if appropriate), what we will be reading etc.

I really hope you can join us. img_2563.png

January sucks, ok?!

Every year for as long as I have been living here in the UK, I struggled with January. Previous to 2003, January was just another month, but my first January in England was a shock to the system.

There were some contributing factors that are no longer that relevant, but for this first January back then it was the super-bowl of all things. I had been living in the UK for 7 months at that point and the first excitement and shine of all things new had worn off. I started to get annoyed at things, found things weird rather than exciting. I was frustrated with the work I was doing, which never helps. But the biggest thing was the weather. That first January, there was not a single day of sunshine. The sun did not break through the clouds even for a moment that entire long month. In fact, that year there was no visible sunshine from the 30th of December to the 3rd of February. It was grey, the sky was looming over me as if it wanted to swallow me up whole. At times, it did not feel as if we had any daylight at all. It rained most of the time in one form or another. It was dismal and I got very depressed. (And yes I journalled it all, so I just re-read those pages about that January).

Now admittedly, no January since has been as bad as that first one, but for someone who lived in Southern Germany for 30 years before moving here, it was a shock to the system. In nearly 10 years in Munich, I had gotten used to blisteringly cold January days with wonderful sunshine. You can go to a beergarden in January after a nice walk soaking up the midday sunshine.

Now, I am writing this and naturally, the sun is trying to break through. Still, I have absorbed the gloom into my soul and over the last 14 years, January has become this thing, well, not a thing really, almost a person that is out there to get me.

Most years, I just resign myself to this longest of months and wait for February, which is a bit better thanks to pancakes and shortness (I also make Fasnetskuechle, which improves EVERYTHING). Some years, I have tried to improve the month by making exciting plans. Making marmelade, meeting friends, going bookshopping (it is a fact that most of the books I buy in a year are bought in January) – yet still, I am low, cranky and moody.

January is also a notoriously a slow month for me as a freelancer. Work is coming in in drips and drabs, mostly due to my clients (mostly German) taking their winter holiday to go skiing, most likely enjoying blue, sunny skies as they venture down the slopes. So jealous. This used to depress me so much, that for years now, I have set google reminders each day for January saying: “Remember, January means hardly any work: Read, go for a walk, make marmelade, nap.” (actual text)

Most days in January, you will find me in bed with my book straight after dinner. By the time, 7pm rolls round, I am just done with the day. I am upping my dose of Vitamin D by doubling my intake, take zinc and magnesium. Drink my happy tea. Read light books. Or at least books that interest me. And still, it all just sucks.

I know that come February, it will go uphill. I have a holiday in April to look forward to. I know it will be fine, and that makes it a bit easier looking at the diary and seeing the 7th January date looking back at me. It feels like we are on day 345 of January already, but no, the diary says different. Still, for 11 years of the month, I prefer to live in a northern climate and would not change it for the world.

Oh well, I best go and make some marmelade while I stare forlornly at my work email account which is barren and quiet.

Happy Sucky January.

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A picture of January 2010. See that sky? That sky wanted to eat me. Also, this was taken at midday and brightened afterwards.