Relaxing in The Netherlands

Holland is a fascinating country. My family and I have been going there for years, usually spending a week or so there in the Spring. Whenever I tell people that I am off to the Netherlands they utter an interested “Oh!” but I am sure that what they are really thinking is “Why?”!

IMGP0012.JPGWe spend our Spring break in the south of the province of Zeeland, in an area that borders Belgium and which was until very recently separated from the rest of the country by the mighty Schelde river.  The opening of a 6km vehicle tunnel in 2003 beneath the Schelde at the town of Terneuzen, brought huge economic benefits to the area. On a map, Zeeland looks like a collection of islands jutting out into the North Sea, which appear to be joined to the rest of the country by the most tenuous of links. In truth, this part of the Netherlands does indeed have a tenuous grip on the land, much of it having been reclaimed from the water by sheer force of will and human ingenuity. These tracts of land are known as polders and maintaining the dikes and the drainage systems, the sea defences and the canals, is a national preoccupation.

From time to time, the sea reasserts itself (and we will no doubt see more of this across the world as low-lying lands will be the first to be hit by climate change and rising sea levels). The last major incident was in January 1953, when a storm surge in the North Sea led to the deaths of 2,551 people, including 1,836 in the Netherlands, and 326 in eastern England and Scotland. A total of 9% of Dutch farmland was under water. (See the images below of exhibits from the wonderful Watersnoodsmuseum in Ouwekerk.)

I have only known about the 1953 flood since 2002, when we first started going to this part of the Netherlands, and every year I have learned more and am increasingly fascinated not only by the history of this and similar events, but also by the relationship the country has with the sea and mor widely with nature. Much of the landscape of Zeeland is man-made, many of the beaches where we have spent some glorious sunny days have been created, but I find there is a greater harmony between human enterprise and nature and an immense respect for the natural world that I have seen in few other places.

 

From where we stay in the village of Hoofdplaat, in the area known as West-Zeeuws Vlanderen (nearest town is Breskens), we are within cycling distance of many pretty Dutch towns. We are also driving distance from the Belgian towns of  Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, even Brussels. Amsterdam and Rotterdam are even do-able on a day trip.

Our annual trip to the Netherlands is one of the most relaxing and energising weeks of my year. The biggest problem is returning to gridlocked England and making the snail’s-pace journey back up to the north via the M25 and M6. As for the potholes…! Something you seldom see on Dutch roads. I recommend Zeeland for a relaxing break…just don’t tell anybody. Please.

Which places do you find most relaxing? What quality is it that creates that feeling for you?

 

Book and theatre review: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

I had my fill of Frankenstein last week – I read the book, saw the play and listened to Derek Jacobi narrating the audio book! My book club selected it as we were looking to read a classic, and, as it happens to be the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, it was also showing at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a new adaptation by April de Angelis.

2018-04-19 11.30.32It is extraordinary to think that this remarkable novel, still as popular and as shocking today as ever, was written when Mary was just 19 years old. The fact that she was such a literary talent is not surprising given that she was the offspring of the two famous intellectuals, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher and author of the seminal feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the radical political philosopher. In her lifetime, she was highly regarded as a radical writer and intellectual, as well as being the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she met and fell passionately in love with at the age of 17. Her reputation since her death, however, has been overshadowed by that of her husband’s, with whom she bore four children (three died in infancy), whose affairs and financial troubles she endured, and whose poems she edited both before and after his death. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at sea in 1822, just six years into their marriage when she was 25. She died at the age of 53 in London from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary ShelleyBy any standards her life was remarkable and in the last few years her reputation has been revived and she has begun to be more widely considered as a formidable talent in her own right, rather than just a ‘one-book author’. Frankenstein has been a staple of English literature GCSE and A level syllabuses for years, but most of her other works have fallen out of print. A new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: The girl who wrote Frankenstein, by Fiona Sampson was published earlier this year, some of which I caught when it was serialised in Radio 4 recently. What I heard sounded fascinating. Sadly it is not available on the BBC iPlayer at the moment.

Frankenstein is a brilliant book. It’s not particularly long so if you are not accustomed to the classics it is not too daunting. It is extraordinarily sophisticated in the themes it explores, from ideas about religion and creation, the vanity of man (men) and moral relativism. Its structure is also interesting: it is narrated initially by Robert Walton in letters to his sister. Walton is the Captain of a ship which he is sailing to the Arctic in the hopes of making a great discovery about the North Pole. He describes his ambitions, but also his loneliness and need for companionship. He meets an unexpected friend in the form of Victor Frankenstein who is on an unlikely pursuit of a mysterious giant figure which Walton and his crew had previously spotted. Frankenstein takes over the narration and we learn about the terrible events that preceded this chase, from his early family life in Switzerland and tragic death of his mother, his relationship with his cousin Elizabeth, to his university life in Ingolstadt. It was in Ingolstadt that he first felt the pain of academic embarrassment, when his naïve ideas were exposed, and he set out on the extraordinary task of creating a human. Unfortunately for Frankenstein, he did not think it through, and once he realised the horror of what he had done, quite soon after he brought his creation to life, he disowns it and leaves to its own fate while he spends the next few years wringing his hands. Frankenstein’s procrastination is fatal.

For a time there is also narration from the ‘monster’ (relayed by Frankenstein) who manages initially to survive on vegetation whilst concealed in a hovel, from which he is able to spy on a once wealthy but now fallen French family in a small village. From them he learns language and the ways of humans, and hopes that he will be able to become friends with them, as he longs for company. Unfortunately, when he introduces himself to them, his hopes are shattered; they assume from his, presumably horrific appearance, that he means them harm and they beat him and drive him out of the cottage. Disappointed and infuriated, the monster goes in search of Frankenstein, with the intention of demanding that he make him a female companion, with the threat of death and destruction if he refuses.

I will say no more. Though the story is well known, I do not wish to give away any further spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with it. I wanted to finish the book before seeing the play, so I mixed reading it with listening to the audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi. This was read brilliantly, as you would expect, though I have to say it gives you the impression that both Walton and Frankenstein are older, wiser men when in fact it is their naivety and youthful impetuosity that is partly responsible for the grave decisions both make.

Frankenstein play
Copyright –  Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The play was also wonderful and provided a rewarding extra-curricular outing for the book club! It was visceral, shocking, truly gruesome in parts. I loved the way the complex narrative structure, and the jumping back and forth in time was handled. I also loved the way it was interpreted for a 21st century audience, particularly in drawing out the feminist undertones (Elizabeth is played more strongly than in the book, while Frankenstein is often exposed as foolish). It had thrills, spills and lots of action, and stayed very true to the book, leaving out remarkably little and using some of the really powerful passages (particularly those spoken by the monster) verbatim. It will have been a fantastic bonus for any young people studying it for exams this year.

A thoroughly enjoyable monstrous week!

April Reading Challenge

At last, it’s starting to feel a little more spring-like as we enter April, which must mean it’s time for this month’s book on the Facebook Reading Challenge group.

2018-03-29-10-08-25.jpgLast month, we battled our way through Madame Bovary, some enjoying it more than others, it has to be said. Our theme was a classic novel, and this can be a challenging genre. It can take you right back to schooldays and unhappy memories of working line by line through a text that had no relevance to your teenage life. And if you are out of the habit of reading classic, usually older, novels, the language can feel outdated, and hard work.

For me, the challenge was the size of the typeface in my University days edition! Not only was this a strain on my ‘mature’ eyesight, but it meant that pages were turned less frequently than I am used to. A trivial point perhaps but it gave me an insight into what motivates continued reading, and feeling like you are making progress can be a part of that. Personally, I really enjoyed it – it was all about the writing for me. Just sublime. Irony on a par with Jane Austen. I had forgotten how good a novel it is.

2018-03-29-10-28-24.jpgThis months’s challenge is something altogether different – a children’s novel and I have chosen Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. This book first came to my attention before Christmas and I have been keen to read it ever since. It is written from the perspective of three different polar bears: the first , a female, who flees her homeland in Soviet Russia, the second, her daughter, a dancing bear in a Berlin circus, and the third, the most recent, born in captivity in Germany.

The book has won high praise for its Japanese author. It’ll be the second children’s book I’ve read recently that is written, in part at least, from the perspective of an animal (the other being Pax, which I enjoyed enormously), so I’m looking forward to it. I expect it will be one of those books that blurs the boundary between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’ fiction. Happily.

If you would like to participate in the challenge, do join us on the Facebook group, or if you have read this book and have a view on it, I would love to hear it. 

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Easter Greetings

easter-3248883_1280

Easter is falling rather early this year, and with the weather not looking great for the UK this weekend, it could be a rather chilly Spring break. Perfect for spending time with a book! My kids will be getting the usual smallish chocolate egg from the Easter mummy bunny, plus a book token, a tradition I started a couple of years ago.

I’ll be away for a few days and have been giving some thought to what reading material I will take with me. I will, as always, take far more than I will actually get through, but I do that because I get a bit nervous when I have only one book available to read! I like to have a choice and nearly always have a couple of books on the go, in any case.

I’ll be taking Paul Auster’s 4321, about which I posted here a couple of weeks ago. I started it last Autumn and have found it really hard-going. I have been pondering whether to give up on it, but I think I’m going to give it one last focussed go, to see how I get on.

I’ll also be taking Frankenstein, the 1818 classic by Mary Shelley, which celebrates its bicentenary this year. I’m reading that with my girlfriends from my book club and we have booked to see the new production that is currently running at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in a couple of weeks. Really excited about that.

That’s it. Just the two books! That demonstrates an unusual realism about my reading and my commitment to doing justice to 4321, I think. (Although I do have a couple of back up books on my e-reader. Just in case.)

I bought a couple of magazines for the journey (I can’t read a book in a car) and nearly choked when I discovered they were £4.30. Each! Is it really that long since I bought a magazine? You can buy half a book for that!

Have a wonderful Easter, with plenty of reading and chocolate!

What will you be up to this Easter? What are you reading?

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Kids book review: “Red Nemesis (Young Bond)” by Steve Cole

When I was a kid, I watched all the James Bond movies, several times over, because my Dad loved them. So, I know the storylines well and have views about who is my favourite ‘Bond’ (Sean Connery, of course!). In recent years, the Bond movies have got darker, more erotic (rather than just sexy with a smile) and have greater psychological depth, more adult in other words. But there is something about the Bond marque which remains innocent, boyish and which has an appeal across the age groups, despite the inevitable multiple death toll! And it’s not just the baddies who die, which is awkward for younger viewers. However, I watched them all as a child and I think I’m okay.

Red Nemesis imgTo my shame I have never read any of the Fleming novels (my husband has and he likes them a lot), so I was delighted to pick up this book from the children’s section of my local library and if you have pre/young teens in your household, I think they might like it. Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, is the ninth novel in the ‘Young Bond’ series by Penguin Random House (under their imprint Red Fox). Five have been written by Charlie Higson (author of ‘The Enemy Novels’ – The Enemy, The Dead, The Fear, etc) and four so far by Steve Cole (famous for his Astrosaurs books). They are all closely linked to and published under the aegis of the Ian Fleming novels. In these books, we meet James Bond as a schoolboy. He already has connections with the British Secret Services, thanks to his father’s career in defence sales, and becomes involved in improbable missions and adventures. All part of the escapism! In Young Bond we get to see the life events that shape the man we know so well. (In my case through Sean, Roger, Pierce, Daniel, et al).

Red Nemesis is set in the summer of 1935 during James’s summer break from Fettes College, a smart public school in Scotland. He is about to go home with his Aunt Charmian; his parents are dead, having been killed in a skiing ‘accident’ when he was younger. The story opens a couple of years earlier in London with a mysterious Russian, Ivan Kalashnikov, deliberately breaking the legs of his daughter, Anya, in a car crash that was meant to look like an accident. Anya is a promising ballerina set for a glittering career on the international stage. Why would a father do this?

On the train back from Scotland, Charmian hands James a backpack which belonged to his father and which has been retrieved from the ice where he died. The contents are mysterious and include items which James senses are clues to an unsolved mystery in which his father may have been involved, in particular a cryptic postcard penned to his brother Max, James’s uncle and Charmian’s late husband. James also feels the contents of the backpack may bring him closer to the truth about his parents’ untimely deaths.

Following the clues, James goes to London. He first visits the Secret Intelligence Service to hand over copies of the documents in his father’s backpack to a former acquaintance of Max’s, the SIS agent Adam Elmhirst. He then goes to the Mechta Academy of Performing Arts, an international school near the SIS building. He masquerades as a prospective pupil, the son of a diplomat, pretending he has made an appointment to look around. He is given short shrift by the cold foreign authorities at the school but manages to break free of security. He conducts his own tour of the basement and finds a large stock of a powerful explosive. He is discovered and gets into a fight with a young man who is apparently a pupil. James wakes up in a cell, locked up for trespassing on the premises of the school without permission, until he is rescued by the aforementioned Elmhirst, who immediately invites James to accompany him to Moscow to help solve the mystery of the contents of the backpack, which Elmhirst says will lead them to uncover some malign Russian plot.

Most of the rest of the book is set in Moscow, as James and Elmhirst get into numerous scrapes. There are dramatic chases, villains, fights, plus of course, a bit of young love interest when James tracks down Anya Kalashnikov (he was clearly already powerfully attractive from quite a young age). Anya becomes James’s sidekick after her father is brutally killed; she realises she is not safe and has nothing to lose by getting involved with the mystery-solving activity.

There is violence, peril, quite a few deaths, unlikely villains, stereotypes and spies, but all of it in true James Bond fashion. It’s not as tongue-in-cheek as some of the earlier Bond films; there is an element of the troubled soul, the three-dimensional human we have come to see in the Daniel Craig incarnation of Bond (though not that dark), which is probably truer to the Fleming novels.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it has nail-biting action, problem-solving, and James feels like a well-developed character with fears, feelings and flaws as well as bravery, resilience and strong fighting instincts. There is quite a bit of violence and death, so I would recommend for 12-14 year olds. Alongside James, Anya provides a strong female character so I think both girls and boys would enjoy this. I did!

What do your kids think of the ‘Young Bond’ novels?

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Book Review: “The Life and Loves of a He-Devil” by Graham Norton

I love my little book club – it’s small and very exclusive and, besides books, we specialise in popcorn, gin and tonic and extra-curricular trips. All in the name of literature, of course!

We have been meeting every month for a couple of years now and have read a wide range of books: fiction, non-fiction, YA, thrillers, classics, to name but a few of our chosen genres. Some books we have loved, some we have loved less. Some generate an enormous amount of discussion, others less.

The Life and Loves of a He Devil imgWe decided for our March meeting we’d read Graham Norton’s 2014 memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil. We wanted to read an autobiography and felt that among the many “celebrity” memoirs out there, Graham’s might have more to offer than most. We all like him as a broadcaster and personality and thought it might be fun. We were not wrong! But when we came to meet and discuss it, we had very little to say. We’d exchanged a number of messages on our WhatsApp group in the preceding weeks, with many laughter emojis, asking each other if we’d come across the dog and condom anecdote yet, or the Dolly Parton story. Some sections of this book, which I read most of whilst on a train journey to London, were laugh-out-loud, or rather “try to suppress a laugh because I’m in public”, moments. It’s a romp and Graham writes the way he speaks, with wit, authenticity and complete honesty. His writing style is similar in his novel Holding, which I reviewed here last year, and really enjoyed. (His second novel, entitled A Keeper, is due out in the Autumn.)

It’s charming and funny, and there is such a lot of name-dropping that it’s a bit of escapism too. Reading it is a reminder of just how successful, Graham is; I lost count of the number of homes he owns and the list of people he calls friends is something to behold. I think it’s because he manages to make you feel that he is a regular guy, just like the rest of us, and just as in awe of all the celebs and their glitter. He also manages to convey a kind of naivety and innocence that make you feel he is very ordinary. He is not of course; he’s supremely talented and clearly unusually astute to have achieved what he has. That does not come from luck alone. Concealing all of that beneath a veneer of self-deprecation is a talent in itself and I admire him enormously.

Back to my book club, we had only one criticism, and that is that the opening chapter (the book is divided into chapters, each of which is about one of his ‘loves’), about the joys of being a dog-owner, was, we felt, by far the funniest, so everything that followed was not inferior exactly, but did not quite meet the same high bar.

Not much to say then, except that it’s hugely funny, and if you like Graham Norton, you’ll love this book!

Have you read this or any of Graham Norton’s other books?

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Waiting for Spring…

…feels a bit like Waiting for Godot this year!

Tomorrow it’s the Vernal Equinox, the mid-point on the calendar between the Winter and Summer Solstices, when the number of hours of day and night are equal. It may be the official start of spring in meteorological terms, but, here in the UK, it still feels very much like winter! The daffodils in my garden are putting a brave face on it, but we have just had a weekend of snow-related disruption in many parts of the country and the strong winds blowing in from the east mean it is freezing out.

2018-03-19 14.58.03
Spring bulbs are flowering in the sunshine, but it’s freezing out!

It is at this time of year that many of us start to get itchy feet, desperate to get outside after the long winter, and yet the weather is making that quite challenging. I’m keen to blow the winter cobwebs away, but not to get blown away! We have been relatively lucky here in Manchester, in the north west of England, with very little snow settling, particularly compared to other parts of the country. Temperatures look set to improve by the middle of the week.

The downsides of this protracted winter are obvious: less fresh air, less getting out and about, less exercise and more hours with the heating on! I’ve written here before about my reluctance to make New Year’s resolutions, but at this time of year, I start to get some energy and motivation back. So I’m trying this year to see more of the positive in events, to default to ‘Yes’ and to see a glass half full. In that spirit, I’m trying to think about the upsides of this unexpected weather and one definite bonus is more time for reading: I can still justify curling up with a blanket and a book when it’s too cold to go out!

I’ve almost finished Madame Bovary, the March title in my 2018 Reading Challenge, and am looking forward to starting our children’s book for April, which I’ll be announcing next week. After blogging here about my difficulties with 4321 last week, I’ve resolved to give it another go and take it on holiday over Easter. I’m also looking forward to reading my next book from the children’s library, Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, a Young Bond adventure set during the Cold War. Very topical!

What are you reading at the moment?

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