Monday, May 29, 2023

Big Book Summer Challenge 2023

It's time once again for Sue's (Book by Book) annual Big Book Summer Challenge and I am all in. Just read 1 or more books of more than 400 pages between May 25 (beginning of Memorial Day weekend) and September 4 (Labor Day).

I just started John Irving's The Last Chairlift, which clocks in at over 800 pages, so that will probably take me all summer. I'm also super interested in reading Dickens's Great Expecations as Adam, the 1st person narrator in The Last Chairlift, mentions it quite a bit in the first part of the book and I've only listened to an abridged version (shameful, I know!).

I also want to read War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk's sequel to The Winds of War, which I read last year.

And then there's SPQR, Mary Beard's history of ancient Rome, that I received for Xmas in 2021 and still haven't read. Another non-fiction that I have been wanting to read for years is Black Diamonds, by Catherine Bailey, that my sister Frances and brother Mark, who share my taste in non-fiction, have raved about for years.

That's a lot on my plate, so I need to stop writing and start reading!

Hope you all have a wonderful reading summer (or winter if you are down under) in store, and thank goodness for big books and Sue's annual challenge!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Travelogue: Berlin

One of the many bears of Berlin--this guy guarded the entrance to our hotel.

Last stop on our spring Mother/Daughter trip was Berlin. The most surprising thing about Berlin was how clean it was for a big city--granted, we stayed in a really nice part of the city, but the streets were clean as was the air. The traffic was also pretty light for such a large metropolis. Germany has been going green for quite awhile now and biking to work or taking public transportation seems to be the norm. Anyway, the sun was shining, the air was fresh and clean, and the flowers were out in abundance.

I loved walking in the Tiergarten in central Berlin where little gardens like this just popped up.

To finish up our WWII historical theme for this trip, Emily and I visited the Topography of Terror, which is a documentation museum covering the Gestapo and the SS and SA during the Nazi regime. Outside of the museum we walked along a portion of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved as a monument. We also visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Euope and Checkpoint Charlie.

Afterwards we agreed we needed to lighten the mood and do a few things just for fun. We visited the Museum of Natural History--we're big fans of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as well as the Museum of Natural History in NYC, so it seemed like a good choice and it was a fun afternoon. Besides the requisite main hall being filled with dinosaur skeletons, this museum displayed animals differently from what I am used to--no dioramas but each stuffed animal in its own case. The weirdest exhibit by far was the huge room of jars filled with liquid and the remains of all sorts of creatures. 

The stuff that nightmares are made of!

For the final day of our trip, we walked across the street from our hotel and spent the day at the Berlin Zoo. It happened to be Father's Day in Germany (on a Thursday!), and so there were lots of families joining us. The zoo is absolutely beautiful, with interesting buildings/decor, large and natural-feeling enclosures for the animals, stunning gardens, and plentiful refreshment stands and cafes. And, they have pandas!!!!! I have never seen a panda other than pictures so that was pretty cool.

It was challenging to get a good photo as the pandas are behind glass and not getting me in the reflection was tricky.

Final image from Berlin is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It was bombed and almost completely destoryed in WWII. Instead of it being demolished, it was preserved and made structurally safe so that you can go inside and have a look around. Here's a bit more about it--I took tons of pictures of it and was fascinated by it.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Travelogue: Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest


Emily enjoying the scenery when the rain finally stopped and the sun came out.

From Munich we rented a car (Europcar) and drove two hours south to Berchtesgaden in the German Alps. It is right on the Austrian border, 30 minutes from Salzburg. 

Tip: at the rental car place, the clerk asked if we were leaving Germany and I said no. I didn’t realize that the highway would take us into and then out of Austria (maybe 10-15 minutes total). When we exited the highway (still in Austria), we and a few other cars were flagged to pull over and we were slapped with a 120 Euro fine for driving in Austria without a sticker in the windshield. I asked where to get a sticker and was told any gas station for 10 Euros I could get a 10-day sticker. We got one for the return drive!

Berchtesgaden was a mixed bag—my daughter really wanted to visit Hilter’s mountaintop house and so I rearranged the trip and took out a visit to Heidelberg so we could go here. The house is one of the only remaining structures that was a personal possession of the Nazi high command, and it was called Kehlsteinhaus at the time. It is located at the top of the mountain, Obersalzberg. In the picture below, you can see it perched on top of the mountain. It basically has a cafe and a hall with about a dozen images with descriptions. So, I booked a tour that was highly recommended as providing more info than we would get just visiting on our own.

Sunday, just before we left Munich, I got an email saying that there was going to be a train/bus strike starting Sunday night that would impact tours on Monday (our day) and Tuesday because the only way to visit is to take a bus to the elevator that you then ride to the top. Since we had reservations in Berlin on Wednesday, we said we couldn’t rebook and decided to visit as soon as we arrived in Berchtesgaden on Sunday while the buses were still running. We did just that and visited the site in the cold rain and couldn’t see any of the views from the top because we were in a cloud.

A map of Obersalzburg showing the Eagle’s Nest perched at the top.

What it looks like not covered in clouds.

The cafe in the former dining hall.

The following day we visited the Berchtesgaden National Park, including Konigsee (Kings Lake), which is like an inland fjord, and in the afternoon the sun finally came out and we enjoyed some wonderful mountain scenery. 


Requisite photo of flowers near the Berchtesgaden parking lot. 

We are glad we visited and saw the historical site and especially glad we got to enjoy some refreshing mountain air after all our time spent in cities.

Speaking of cities…next stop is Berlin.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Travelogue: Munich

We were hoping to leave the rain behind in Paris, but it followed us to Munich and made the first two days fairly soggy. It’s tough to learn a new city from under an umbrella and just about impossible to take pictures, but we made the best of it.  Despite the rain, I loved seeing the spring flowers and the fruit/veg stands loaded with delicious goodies. I bought two packets of strawberries that were so good!

I’m not a big fan of German food in general, but I fell in love with their chunky, white asparagus (spargel). This salmon with asparagus was out of this world!

We stayed near the train station and just a block from the old town area where most of what we wanted to do was within walking distance so both ended up getting 15-20k steps per day.

Yes, we did. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe in Berlin. It was definitely fun!

We started by visiting the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, which is a museum that documents the rise of the Nazi party in Munich. The museum was excellent, free, and again full of high school age kids.

Next we visited the Dachau concentration camp, which was incredibly moving. It’s one thing to read about these places, but visiting them enables you to get a deeper understanding and respect for what people endured and how they suffered. I ended up not feeling like taking any photos but just walked around, listened to the audio guide, and read the placards.

We also took a walking tour entitled Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party—again, excellent. The tour guide was terrific, and it was great to see the sites of events like Hitler’s first major speech, the route of the Beer Hall Putsch March and where it was crushed, the house where Hitler learned how to rub elbows properly with the upper crust who were crucial in his early fundraising years, and the various monuments that the German people have erected to commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime.

This is where some of the participants in the Beer Hall Putsch were killed. The Nazis made it sacred ground and required everyone who passed to give the Nazi salute.

The golden cobblestones mark the path that people who wanted to avoid giving the Nazi salute would take —it marks a detour around the “sacred ground.” Like any form of resistance during the Nazi control of Germany, taking this detour required courage.

Apart from the WWII excursions, we enjoyed shopping in Marienplatz, walking through the Englisher garden, watching the foolhardy surfing on the river rapids, and getting lost even with GPS on our phones. 

Now it’s time to leave the urban bustle for awhile and head for the hills. Next stop — Berchtesgaden in the German Alps near the Austrian border.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Dead or Alive — Patrica Wentworth

Believe it or not, while traveling I find I have more reading time than at home where work, gardening, cooking, shopping, and TV steal away valuable reading time. But on vacation, there are planes, “down time” between excursions, and lazy mornings that mean more reading time!

This trip I finally dug into Patricia Wentworth, starting with Dead and Alive, the first of two in her Frank Garrett series. I chose it mainly because it was one of two PW’s available as ebooks from my library, and it did not disappoint. I gave it a solid 4 stars on Goodreads, which makes it a very good mystery.

Set in the 1930s (published in 1936), it is a thriller in which Meg O’Hara’s ne’er-do-well husband has been missing and presumed dead for almost a year. She is slowly starving as he left no money, she can’t find a job, and her eccentric well-off uncle and former guardian has taken a turn for the even more eccentric and can’t be bothered to advance her some money on which to live.

Enter Bill Cloverdale (aka lovesick childhood friend on a white horse) who sets out to help Meg survive, prove her husband is dead so she can be officially declared a widow, and (hopefully) agree to marry him.

But true love never did run smoothly. Before Meg can share her life with her one true love (was that too big a spoiler?), she must first battle a ruthless criminal gang, swim for her life, dodge multiple attempts on that same life, rescue her dotty uncle, and put some meat on her bones. Meg is plucky but polite and can dredge up nerves of steel when they are most needed. I absolutely loved spending time with her.

Not entirely sure why the author decided this was a Frank Garrett mystery as he barely figured in the story. Perhaps she had high hopes that he would rise to the occasion of being a first-rate Golden Age detective as she sort of eased him into the picture, but Meg and Bill were the stars of this story for sure. Kept me on edge and guessing til the end. Definitely a good book to travel with.

Now, time for me to get a few chapters into my next PW mystery, Fool Errant, before lights out.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Our Excellent Adventure: Part the First - Paris

My daughter Emily and I have been planning her college graduation trip to Germany for a few years. With her graduation from CU Boulder last week, we are officially on tour. First stop was Paris—yes, it’s not in Germany but so close that we decided to get over jet lag with croissants, onion soup, and plenty of walks.

We stayed three nights at a lovely boutique hotel, Hotel Rose Bourbon, near the Eiffel Tower and had a great time. The trees are blooming, the umbrellas are getting a workout, and the air was fresh and clean.

The only museum we visited was Le Musee de la Liberation de Paris, which focused on Jean Moulet and General Leclerc, two key figures in the French resistance and liberation of Paris during WWII. It so happens that Monday was May 8, which is VE (Victory in Europe) Day, and it so happens that our walk to the Arc de Triomphe was cut short by police barricades in place because Macron was scheduled to speak. This was a happy coincidence because the theme of our trip is really WWII—both Emily and I are interested in the history of this time period and most of our plans for Germany are to visit sites and museums related to the war and its aftermath.

Here are some photos from our Paris walkabout.

Our time in Paris is over—jet lag is conquered—and Munich is next.

Monday, May 01, 2023

May Day Reading Roundup

While the rest of the world is celebrating May Day, International Workers Day, and Beltane, I thought I would use this opportunity to do another catchup roundup of what I've been reading lately.

The Gulfside Musing Book Club Selections

When I read a review of a book that sounds great, I add it to my GoodReads TBR list. Then, when I want to fill up my hold list at my library, I scan the list and see what I can get. As it turns out, JoAnn at Gulfside Musing reads a lot of books that appeal to me. It just so happens that I got a rash of library books that originated with a JoAnn review, so with no further ado, here are my recent reads recommended by JoAnn.

Dinosaurs, by Lydia Millet - the premise is pretty low-key, but the writing was excellent as was the character development/arc. Essentially a wealthy New Yorker (Gil) is dumped by his atrocious girlfriend and so he relocates to Arizona and makes friends with the family who lives next door. 

There are a couple of quirks that make this a bit more than run of the mill. Gil doesn't just relocate to AZ, he walks there! Yes, all 2500 miles or so. I like to walk and have walked the width of England, but walking from NY to AZ is beyond my ability to comprehend. And the family next door? They live in a glass house.

The quirks are interesting but they are not what make this a good book--they're probably just there to get the attention of someone looking for a fresh angle. Anyway I came to love and respect Gil just as the family next door does. He is a good guy with a good heart and a hardluck story despite his wealth. He strives to do the right thing and learns how to rebuild a life from the ground up, finding connections with the people in his orbit and doing the work to make those connections solid.

I cannot quote the ending because the book has been returned to the library, but it was a lovely, lyrical ending that wrapped the story very nicely.

Oh, and dinosaurs are really just extinct birds. Anyway, the bird theme runs through the novel in a gentle, not overbearing, not in a hit-em-over-the-head-with-a-metaphor way. I love birds and so I enjoyed how the themes of connectedness and metamorphisis made the novel work. 

Signal Fires, by Dani Shapiro - I read this immediately after Dinosaurs, and I confess that the storylines kind of merged in my mind. Another family/neighborhood-based novel about living with the consequences of our actions, finding the connections between each other, and trying to do the right thing, even when it is harder than you think possible to do. Essentially, this is the story of two families and how their lives intersect in ways that are not always obvious. I particularly loved the little boy genius whose Dad simply doesn't know how to deal with him and the good doctor across the street who will gaze up at the stars with him and find solace in knowing exactly where they are in the universe.

Now is Not the Time to Panic, by Kevin Wilson - the other two were solid 4-star books, but for me, this was a 5-star winner. I absolutely loved this coming of age story--such a fresh, interesting approach. And actually, I labeled it a coming-of-age story, but I think it's way more than that. It's about the courage it takes to be an artist, to create something and share it with the world and then watch the world take it and exploit it and turn it into something else that you didn't intend. While I was reading it, I was thinking about literary criticism, fan fiction, TV and movie adaptations, derivative art, and a host of other things all while being immensely caught up in the story of Frankie and Zeke and the poster they created and how that poster took on a life of its own. Loved this book.

Other Stuff

The Black Echo, by Michael Connelly - this is the first in the Harry Bosch universe, LA cop series. I liked this author's later Mickey Haller books so much that I decided to travel back in time to the 1990s and learn more about Mickey's half brother Harry. Definitely a great mystery with Vietnam vets, a bank heist or two, and plenty of action.

White Nights, by Ann Cleeves - I am working my way through both her Vera Stanhope and Shetland series, and this is the second in the Shetland series, featuring island boy Jimmy Perez. It was a good solid mystery in a fantastic setting (up near the Artic circle the nights never actually get dark in the summer) with a great cast of quirky characters and deceptive red herrings.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer - I just finished this yesterday. It was okay--somewhere between 3 and 4 stars, so I rounded up. I read it mostly for the travel bits, which were great as the protagonist, Arthur Less, travels around the world all to escape going to the wedding of his former boyfriend. Arthur's whining about turning 50 got on my nerves a bit, and I can't say I found his story arc particularly compelling, but I do like travel novels.

Off to Europe

I am headed to Europe on Saturday for a 2-week vacation with my daughter, who just graduated from college. We are starting in Paris, and moving on to Munich, with a short trip to Berchtesgarden, then ending up in Berlin. We are both interested in WWII, and so most of our sightseeing will be visiting museums and sites that figured in the war, although Paris is all about relaxing and getting over jet lag before Germany.

I just got a new keyboard for my laptop, so I may find the time to do some travelogues while on the road. If not, I will share pictures when we get back.

Happy May Day! Hope you have a wonderful reading month ahead of you.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

#1940Club - An Old Captivity, Nevil Shute

I've been intrigued by the book by year challenge hosted by Simon at Stuck In A Book and since the current year is 1940, I decided to give it a whirl. 

I chose Nevil Shute's My Old Capitivity for a couple of reasons. First, I absolutely love his A Town Like Alice and have read it twice, so I've been wanting to read something else by him for awhile. Second, the premise of My Old Capitivity includes archeology, Nordic and Celtic settlements in Greenland and Iceland, and flying. My dad was a WWII RAF pilot, and I've been wanting to learn more about what it was like to be a pilot circa 1940.

I confess that I have mixed feelings about the book. It was good, but it is no Alice. For starters, three-quarters of the book reads like an adventure memoir. It describes in detail what is involved in planning and executing an expedition to Greenland by a Scottish pilot for hire, an Oxford don who wants to get aerial photographs of the sites of long-gone settlements in Iceland, and his rigid, self-righteous daughter. We learn what is involved in procuring the seaplane, assembling all the equipment, packing it, transporting it by both air and sea, finding lodging enroute, refueling the plane, listening to weather reports, eating seal, hiring indigineous help, and finally overdosing on sleeping pills. 

Incredibly, I didn't find this at all boring--it was super interesting, and the pilot, Donald Ross, is a hardworking, capable, mechanically gifted pilot whose biggest job initially is convincing, Mr Lockwood, the archeologist who employed him, and his daughter, Alix, just how complicated and fraught with danger this expedition really is.

And then the story took a pretty bizarre turn. Ross dreams that he is a Scottish slave, captured by the Vikings on one of their many raids on Scotland, and is working for Leif Erikson in Greenland. I kid you not! In fact, Ross (aka Haki) ends up discovering Cape his dream, or is it a dream?

To sound like a total curmudgeon, the older I get, the less patience I have for magical realism, fantasy, hocus-pocus, and all that. I would have liked the book better if it had gone deeper into the archeology and stayed grounded (so to speak) in reality while speculating about what might have happened 1500 years ago or thereabouts. 

The title seems to have a triple meaning--my old captivity could be referring to Ross's former life when he was an enslaved Scot, or to his dependence/addiction on sleeping pills, or to his falling in love (again) with Alix who, coincidentally, was his girlfriend back in the way back.

The other weird thing about this book is that it is a framed story--the narrator (I don't even know if we ever learn his name) is on a train trip and Ross is in the same coach and neither can sleep so Ross tells him this story. But, at the end of the book, we don't end up on the train. I have no idea where Ross is going, what happened with him and Alix. There is absolutely no reason this is a framed story, as far as I can tell.

Finally, this was published in 1940 and there is zero reference to the war or the state of the world. Ross, Lockwood, and Alix fly from England to Iceland and then on to Novia Scotia and down to New York with nary a mention of a world crisis that might cause them trouble. Maybe the idea was to provide the reading public with a story in a world without WWII, but it struck me as so weird.

Sorry, Nevil, but this was just a three-star book for me.

Friday, March 31, 2023

On the Cusp of April: Another Reading Roundup

Spring has been slow in coming to Colorado. Cold temps and more snow kept me inside reading instead of cleaning up the garden and getting ready to plant. But a long weekend trip to NYC brightened things up--it rained on Saturday, but Sunday was gorgeous, with trees in flower. The photo above is the boat house in Central Park--I really thought the blue hulls of the boats made for a nice picture--and the one below is just a beautiful scene on one of our many walks around the city.

Here is what I've been reading.

Foster, by Claire Keegan - JoAnn at Gulfside Musing recommended this novella set in Ireland, and I loved it. Here's the GoodReads synopsis that I cannot improve upon:

A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers’ house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is.

The writing is lovely and poignant and the characterization is rich and deep. We never learn the girl's name, nor that of the woman who cares for her while her mother is having yet another baby. You also never learn the relationship of the girl to the couple, although both the husband and wife know her mother well and don't have much respect for her father. I got the feeling that the husband might have had a relationship with the girl's mother at some point, maybe even be her real father, and that the woman knew and was okay with it, but that was never spelled out. I thought of Fanny Price, heroine of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, often while reading this. 

The Devil's Cave, by Martin Walker - I enjoyed my previous sojourn with Bruno in the Dordogne in France so much that I indulged in #5 in the mystery series. It was great--a bit of black magic, a bit of cave exploring, and a lot of wining and dining. 

The Crow Trap, by Ann Cleeves - this is the first in the author's Vera Stanhope mystery series and was terrific. Interesting mystery in a great setting. Vera didn't come on the scene until about halfway through the book, but I know I am going to get along fine with her. I checked the TV series and learned that this particular story features in season 1, but not until episode 3, so not sure when I will be able to start watching as I am a read the book first kind of person.

March Violets, by Philip Kerr - book 1 in his Berlin Noir trilogy featuring detective Bernard Gunther, the story is set in 1936 Berlin during the Olympics. It is a pretty rough story in which the Nazi villains are truly monsters, but I wanted to get a feel for Berlin on the eve of WWII. I am wondering how a British author came to know so much about life in Berlin at the time. Will have to read up on his credentials. It was a good book but chilling.

Hopefully it will be warm enough this weekend to go birding and work in the garden. Happy April everyone! And, as always, happy reading.

Friday, March 03, 2023

March Madness - finally another roundup

February is always a long month and this year's was no exception. But, we are just over 3 weeks away from the equinox and I can already feel my equilibrium being restored and my fingers have beeen itching to tell you about what I've been reading.


Black Diamond, by Martin Walker - #3 in this marvelous mystery series set in the Dordogne in France and featuring the lovely Bruno as police force of one in a little village in France where he cooks for his friends, hangs out with his dog, and tries his best to keep the peace. In this story, we get a glimpse of the rival Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants who compete for business, both the legal and the illegal kind. I love these books because they aren't just edge-of-your seat stories but provide historical, cultural, and regional sidestories that I like as much, if not more, than the actual mystery plot.

The Madness of Crowds, by Louise Penny - I enjoyed State of Terror (the co-authored thriller by Hillary Rodham and Louise Penny) so much that I just wanted more of Penny and Armand Gamache and Three Pines, so I read #17 in her wonderful series. It was excellent, of course, and delved with the aftermath of Covid and the ethics involved in medical decisions. This is the first novel I've read that references Covid, and I thought Penny handled the subject deftly.

Raven Black, by Ann Cleves - I've been enjoying this prolific author's Matthew Venn series so much that I thought I would read some of her other series. My library had this one handy, so now I am reading her Shetland series. It was absolutely excellent with many of my favorite elements: small, tight community with secrets, harsh but compelling environment (the Shetland islands are not for the feeble), and well-written plot that kept me guessing until the end.

The Lost Man, by Jane Harper - I've enjoyed Harper's Aaron Falk series, but this was head and shoulders above them. An absolutely outstanding thriller about life in the outback of Australia. Again, love those harsh environments with a closed, tight community carrying a load of baggage and secrets. Harper did an outstanding job painting a stiflingly hot, pressure-cooker story that had a glorious ending. 

Not Mysteries

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer - my JASNA bookclub is reading Heyer for our March meeting, and my friend Maxene recommended this Regency Romance as a bit atypical with a hero and heroine cut from different cloths than the usual Heyer fare. I loved it--absolutely loved it. Adam is a spare whose older brother manages to die, making him the heir, and then his father dies leaving him a mountain of debt. The solution? That's right--accept the civil contract offered by a parevenu who wants his plain daughter to marry a lord. I loved practical, sweet Jenny who tries hard to make Adam happy, and I especially loved her dad, Mr. Chawleigh, who is the definitive bull in a chinashop but with a heart as big as his bank account. The side characters were interesting and added zest to the story. All in all, a wonderful way to get through the doldrums of February.

The Maid, by Nita Prose - another out-of-the-park novel. Loved it so much. Molly Gray, the hotel maid cum detective, has a very literal approach to life, not unlike Elizabeth Zott in Lesssons in Chemistry and Elinor Oliphant. It's frustrating to watch her not "get it" but then marvelous when the penny finally drops and she sees her way clear. Her moral compass is finely polished and this was a fun, interesting read. I believe this is Prose's debut novel, so I am eager to see what she does next.

Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen's Masterpiece, by Susannah Fullerton - I gave this 3 stars on GoodReads mostly because I loved the first half and was bored to skimming in the second half. The first half retold the tale as old as time of how P&P came to be published and the impact its publication made on the oh-so-short life of Austen, and then she dived into commentary about all the major and minor characters, which was fun to read, insightful, and just like a JASNA meeting. The second half explored the various translations, adaptations, sequels, prequels, and Austenmania ad nauseum. I think the book would have garnered another star had it been shorter. Short books can still be good and sell...just saying.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith - I've heard of this book for years but wouldn't have picked it up and read it without it being the selection of  the GoodReads True Book Talk group. It is a story of life in London during the 1970s to the turn of the millenium, focusing on the lives of Archie and his Jamaican-born wife, Clare, and Samad (an immigrant from Bangladesh) and his wife Alsana, and their children. I just found out that there is a four-part mini-series available on Amazon, so I might watch it. The book was excellent and thought-provoking.

Hope you are all well, discovering great books to explore, and finding your own equilibrium as we approach the equinox. That's something we can all celebrate, worldwide.