Sunday, 24 February 2019

Seek And Ye Shall Find


Christmas Rose

In yesterday's post, I said I had not yet found any signs of spring in the form of spring flowers outdoors... Now I have! Only went for a short walk today, but found these growing in a flowerbed outside one of the apartment buildings not far from my own. (Photos taken with my phone.) The big surprise was the Christmas Rose, as I can't remember seeing those around here before!

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Tulip Time

Meteorologically, it's supposed to be Spring here in the southern parts Sweden now. However, I have not yet found any proof in the form of spring flowers outdoors. (Pretty much the only colour yet to be seen is moss-green...)

But last week, I bought myself a bunch of tulips for Valentine's:

A week+ later, two still standing... But as a goal for my afternoon walk today, I went into town to get some more fresh ones. 

No, I don't usually buy myself flowers every week... 
But in the tulip season, I'm easily tempted to spoil myself! ;)

Friday, 22 February 2019

Bookish Postcards

Two bookish postcards that arrived last week, only a few days apart, from my "favourite British brothers" ... Made me laugh as I seem to have buried myself in books a lot after New Year!

This week I'm reading a novel in Swedish for a change. (No point in writing details here as it's not available in English...) 

Monday, 18 February 2019

Audiobook Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

The House with a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs

Unabridged Audiobook (4 hrs 33 min)
Narrated by George Guidall

This was an audiobook I bought (cheap) because I was intrigued by the title. I had never heard of the author before. When I look him up now, I find that he was an American author (1938-1991) who wrote quite a few ”gothic mystery novels for young adults”.

This one was written in 1973. Lewis, an orphan after his parents died in a car crash, comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, whom he has never met before. He soon learns that Jonathan is a magician, and his next-door neighbor and friend, Mrs. Zimmermann, is also a witch. As the book title indicates, the story also involves a mystery clock, hidden somewhere within the walls of Jonathan's house, which was previously owned by an evil wizard.

While the book starts out as a rather innocent encounter with magic illusions, it grows a lot darker when Lewis seeks to impress a boy from school by trying to resurrect an anonymous dead person in the local cemetery at Halloween. This only succeeds ”sort of”, but with dire consequences... (Think gothic ghost story!)

Some review of the book that I read before I bought it introduced it as ”Before Harry Potter, there was Lewis Barnavelt”. Yes, there are a number of obvious (and classic) common ingredients, like an orphan child hero with certain flaws, weird old house, magic that runs in the family, ghosts and graveyards, good vs evil, one or more objects that must be found and destroyed to save the world etc. (I'd not be surprised to find it among Rowling's sources of inspiration.) But compared to the Potter world, the setting in this book is very narrow, with only a handful of important characters, and mostly make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of magic – but also mixed with some dark stuff, which at Hogwarts would have been kept in the restricted section of the library. On the whole I found the story ”uneven”. 

There was a film based on the book made as late as in 2018. This seems to have got mixed reviews as well – ranging from entertaining to too scary (for a family movie) to plain boring. (And that's pretty much how I felt about the book, too...)

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Book Review: The Sound of Language

The Sound of Language
by Amulya Malladi (2007)

(Read on Kindle in February 2019)

This is a story about a young woman, Raihana, who comes as refugee to Denmark from Afghanistan, fleeing from the war and chaos in Kabul. In Denmark, she is staying with relatives, a couple with a small child. As is prescribed for all immigrants, she goes to language school to learn Danish. At first, the Danish language sounds to her like the buzzing of bees. But thinking of the sound of bees also stirs up some good childhood memories for Raihana, of visiting an uncle who had a bee farm back in Afghanistan. She finds a new friend in her Danish language teacher, and when in some context Raihana mentions thee bees, the teacher is inspired to help her to get an apprenticeship with a man she knows who keeps bees. This man, Gunnar, is an elderly recent widower. He and his wife started beekeeping as a hobby and enjoyed working with this together. After his wife died, Gunnar has sunk into a state of depression, and doesn't really care much about anything any more – including the bees. However, he reluctantly agrees to have Raihana coming to help him with the bees three days a week.

In the beginning, both of them feel rather skeptical and awkward about the arrangement, and so do their families (Gunnar's daughter-in-law, and the family Raihana is staying with). But they decide to give it a trial period. In the beginning, Gunnar and Raihana don't really communicate much at all, and Raihana doesn't even come into his house (the beehives are outside in the garage). But with time, they get used to each other, and a sort of friendship grows between them. Raihana also finds a beekeeping journal that was kept by Gunnar's wife (Anna), and uses that (with Gunnar's permission) to learn more both about beekeeping, and the Danish language.

The author also uses quotes from Anna's beekeeping journal as introduction to each chapter, subtly indicating certain parallels between the behaviour of bees vs people. Slowly, we also get to know each of the characters in the book better – their strengths as well as their prejudices and weaknesses, and also background stories which perhaps explain why they react and feel like they do.

It's all put to a serious test when violence and persecution towards immigrants shows its ugly face even in Denmark, awakening bad memories for the refugees – but also challenging the local Danish community to take a stand.

I was somewhat surprised to learn from the Afterword in the book that the author is neither Afghan nor a beekeeper herself. (So the background story in the book must have involved quite a lot of research.) Amulya Malladi was born 1974 in India, studied electronic engineering and journalism in the US, lived for several years in Copenhagen (Denmark), and has written seven novels. Her books have been translated into several languages, including Dutch, German, Spanish, Danish, Romanian, Serbian, and Tamil.

I liked the book because although I was never under the pressure of being a refugee seeking a new life in a foreign country, I do recognize the difficulties (and joys!) involved in learning foreign languages. Moreover, as Denmark and Sweden are neighbour countries with a lot in common, I also recognize the social structure and the range of difficulties and fears involved in meetings between immigrants and ”natives” - from both sides! I think the author describes all that very well.

I downloaded this book to my Kindle for free in May 2018. It's no longer free but still quite cheap, if anyone feels tempted.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

1000 Days of Duolingo


Yes, I'm still keeping up my daily language lessons! I think my last report here was from 900 days; today the number 1000 turned up on my screen... Worth celebrating!

My main focus is still on Spanish. (At least one lesson every day.) However, what feels like my main achievement over the past 100 days is probably that I've managed to complete the basic "tree" (first level) of lessons in both Welsh and Russian. I didn't really think I'd get there with either of those languages! Before anyone gets too impressed, though, you should know that a lot of the Duolingo lessons consist of exercises like pairing English/foreign words together, or putting a number of words in the right order, etc. I'm still having trouble even with the Russian alphabet (even if I'm getting better at it). In Welsh, I'm also still struggling with very basic stuff.

I'm fascinated by languages in general, and also by the learning process... With Duolingo I have not "studied" the way one did in school. In fact, I see it more as relaxation - like playing a game. And yet one learns...

Monday, 11 February 2019

Audiobook Review: The Man With No Face

The Man with No Face
by Peter May (2018)

Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs 48 mins
Narrated by Peter Forbes

This is one of Peter May's earlier books (first published in 1981) which was recently re-published. The story takes place in the winter of 1979. The setting is Brussels, and the backdrop is a British general election, and political debate about Britain's membership in the European Union. This was in the early days of the union; and before the era of laptops and internet and mobile phones...

Neil Bannerman, journalist from Edinburgh, is sent to Brussels to cover political news for the newspaper he works for. Not long after his arrival, he happens to get involved in a murder case. One of the victims is a fellow journalist (with whom Bannerman is staying), the other is a British Government Minister. It appears at first as if the two men killed each other. However, the police investigation shows evidence pointing in another direction; and it turns out there is also an unexpected witness – a child, daughter of the dead journalist. However, the girl has autistic problems, including not speaking; which means that she cannot tell anyone what happened. She is very good at drawing though, and she draws a picture. But for some reason, she has left the man's face a blank.

Like with Peter May's later novels that I've read (the Lewis trilogy and a few more), I find his primary strength as an author to be in the description of places, emotions and atmosphere. He is good at creating mental images that linger in my mind long after I've forgotten the intricate details of the plot.Some of the characters also stand out (while others, I have to say, remain rather faceless!) As for the genre, I would call this book a psychological thriller rather than a detective novel.

As usual, I think the audio narration by Peter Forbes (with Scottish accent) adds to the atmosphere (because the main character is Scottish, even if the story takes place mostly in Brussels).

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Wintry Postcards

While waiting for the snow to melt away (the rain is still working on it!), here are some wintry postcrossing postcards from January:

From Germany
A Moomin card from Finland

A Unicorn card from the US

Saturday, 9 February 2019

And It Rained

"It rained and it rained and it rained."

That's the first sentence of the chapter "Piglet is completely surrounded by water" in Winnie-the-Pooh; and also quite a good summary of the past few days here. It has rained and rained and rained; and still the rain has not quite managed to melt all the snow and ice yet. I've only been out now and then just to check where one is able to walk, or not. Mostly, it has been "or not". My usual shortcuts are still blocked either by snow banks or little lakes.

Going out today, I took my big umbrella which can also be used as a walking stick. It came in handy both ways.

I also contemplated trying Pooh's idea, but decided against it.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019


In case anyone is wondering why I've spent so much time reading lately, instead of being "out and about"...

No photo description available.

Last Thursday, I made an attempt to walk to the supermarket, but gave up half-way, because beyond that point, the sidewalks were either not plowed at all, or pure hard ice. I looked at them, and turned around... The few items I wanted just weren't worth it!

Since then, we have had a lot more snow coming down, and temperatures alternating between just below and just over freezing point - causing a lot of traffic chaos, also including collisions between buses in the city centre. So I've not felt tempted to take the bus into town either, unless I really need to.

Instead I decided to just be thankful (as always) for the possibility nowadays to order groceries online, with home delivery. I've been making use of this service regularly since it was introduced here around four years ago - normally twice a month (and buying a few extras manually in between if needed). But the frequency is entirely up to myself. So this week I put in my order early; and had it delivered today. So ready to face another week of hibernation, if I have to. ;)

The photo above was snapped when I took the garbage out. (I do still have to go out for that... )


Monday, 4 February 2019

Book Review: The Children's Train

The Children's Train
by Jana Zinser (2015)

(Read on Kindle, February  2019)

This novel is a work of fiction, but inspired by real events. The story starts in Berlin in November 1938, just before what has become known as the Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass, when violent persecution of Jews broke out across Germany. While the attacks appeared to be unplanned, they were in fact organized. Synagogues were burned, thousands of Jewish businesses were trashed and looted, dozens of Jewish people were killed, and Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted without police and fire brigades intervening. And this was only the start of even worse to follow.

From England, arrangements were made to take Jewish children out of Germany by train to Holland, and from there by ferry across the English Channel to England. Against this background, we are introduced to some (fictional) Jewish families living in Berlin at the time; and especially the children of those families. Some of them do get on a Kindertransport train before the war breaks out (and stops further transports like that). Some of the children did not get on the train, and were left behind. We get to follow both some of those who did make it over to England (separated from their parents), and some of those who did not. Some end up getting sent to concentration camps; one or two manage to dodge the authorities and live ”on the street” and in hiding.

Peter, a shy violin player, and his sister Becca, both make it over to England – but there they are separated. Becca is welcomed by a wealthy family in London, but Peter is sent to a farm in Coventry, and set to hard work there (rather than getting a chance to develop his musical talent). When the Coventry farm is bombed, Peter feels that he has nothing left, and decides to join the Jewish underground resistance – including going back into Germany under cover, and do what he can to actively fight Hitler and the Nazis by partaking in various acts of sabotage.

I found this novel increasingly hard to put down. In some ways I feel that it reads a bit like a screenplay, in the sense that it presents events in a non-stop series of illuminating ”snapshots” rather than long explanations. At first I felt a bit disturbed by fictional place-names also being used instead of real names of some towns and concentration camps in Germany and Poland. But as the story moved along, I could see why the author chose that alternative (giving more freedom for fictional details of the plot). Even if this is a work of fiction, I think it still gives an overall true representation of how things were (compared to true stories I have read/heard/seen before – and I also once visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial site near München).

Because this book focuses primarily on the children, I think it is probably a good book to recommend to young people (not small children, but 'young adults' and upwards). Besides bringing to life the stories and horrors from WWII, the book also inevitably made me think of other wars still going in other parts of the world – and all the refugees arriving ”on our doorstep” here in Europe in the last few years alone. Many of them children, separated from their parents much like the Jewish children in this book – and many of them no doubt also facing similar kind of prejudices as those that preceded the events of WWII.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Audiobook Review: Jane Austen's 'Emma'


By Jane Austen
Adapted for Audible by Anna Lea (2018)
Length 8 hrs 21 mins

Narrated by: Emma Thompson, Joanne Froggatt, Isabella Inchbald, Aisling Loftus, Joseph Millson, Morgana Robinson

Emma is perhaps my favourite among Jane Austen's novels. I'm not sure when I first read it – it may have been already in my teens – but I do know that it was included in the English literature course in my first term of English at university in the spring of 1982 (which means that I studied it pretty closely back then), and I have returned to it several times after that as well. Besides rereading my own old Penguin Classics copy with lots of notes and underlined quotes, I've also seen it as film and TV-series, and listened to it as unabridged audio book. And now: an Audible version mixing narrative with drama – very well done, still keeping close to the original, and with excellent actors dramatising the dialogues. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
After I had listened to it all, I went back to listen to the first chapter again, with my old printed book in hand. I could then see that while they kept to the original text a lot (word-by-word), they also managed to make certain clever shortcuts in between. While listening, those shortcuts did not really interfere with my previous memories of the book at all. But they will probably contribute to making it even more accessible for younger listeners today. After all, the book was first published in 1816 – two hundred years ago!

It is definitely a classic that deserves to be kept ”alive”. Even if society, social conventions and our means of communication have changed a lot, Emma reminds us that human nature remains remarkably unchanged. And Jane Austen still deserves credit for her way of pinpointing how fake news, speculations and rumours always caused problems – even back in the days when news travelled slower than they do today...

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich; with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. ---

--- The real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.

(Famous quotes from Chapter 1 of the book)

Friday, 1 February 2019

Audiobook Review: 'Becoming'

by Michelle Obama (2018)

Unabridged Audiobook (19:03 hours)
Narrated by: Michelle Obama

It's not always that the author of a book is also the best person to read it aloud; but in this case I really think it must be. It was not only interesting but also a pleasure to listen to Michelle Obama reading her own autobiography.

The book itself is also very clear and chronological in its structure. It's divided into three major parts: 'Becoming Me', 'Becoming Us' and 'Becoming More'. Basically, the first part is about Michelle's background and family; the second about meeting and marrying her husband; and the third about their time in the White House (primarily from Michelle's own perspective). I found the book well written and interesting, and I think the audio narration enhances that impression even further. I find it very likely that I may want to listen to it again after some time has passed.

Quote from the preface:
”Now I think it's one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child – What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that's the end.”

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