Monthly Archives: February 2014

At swim, two ducks

At swim, two ducks

There are a lot of wild birds on the lake at the moment, as the winter has been so mild that some seasonal visitors have stayed, rather than head futher south. I don’t know which should be where when though.
Lake Geneva, with Alps in the distance. Birds everywhere in the foreground.

The swans are here all year round, I know that much!

Behind a white swan is a group of smaller waterfowl

And they’re always pretty bossy when someone starts throwing food around. Or when a dog comes by, and they hiss for dominance.

Close up of a white swan in shallow water

The only one I recognize out of these is the mallard.

Three ducks, each a different species, in shallow water on Lake Geneva

I took this last photo about a week before the others. The coots are sheltering from strong winds blowing on the lake by hiding in the harbour with a flock of brown tufty ducks. I’d never seen a flock this size – I usually see one or two coots, paddling along quickly with their giant feet. I think they’re rather lovely.

A flock of coots floating among the small boats in a harbour

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I enjoyed rereading #142 Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson was one of my favourite authors when I was at uni, and Behind the Scenes is set in York, where I studied. I haven’t picked up her books much in the last few years, but now I’ve read both this and Life After Life n the last couple of months; both were good.

The story starts at conception, and the narrator, Ruby, tells the story of her life from that point on. With flashbacks to earlier generations, Ruby builds up a clear picture of an ordinary family living through extraordinary times.

Ruby’s narrative gives the reader insight into her family. She shares the details of their lives, of their loves and losses, dreams and depressions. The book answers the sort of question you can’t ask your neighbours: who fathered the baby? what did you really think of your parents? why did so-and-so get married? Atkinson goes into a useful level of detail, without getting bogged down so the book moves along at a good clip.

The novel has the plot of the family saga about it, but uses literary motifs and techniques which elevate it from the fast-paced gossipy style to something more contemplative. It’s a clever book. As an example, it quickly becomes clear that Ruby isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator, giving the story extra levels. As well as trying to puzzle out what she’s hiding, I also wondered about what she was reporting. Was Ruby, the character, making it all up, just as Atkinson, the novelist was?

A good book, but no longer popular
If the Big Read survey was redone today, I don’t think Behind the Scenes would make the cut. That’s not because I don’t like the book or think it’s not worthy, I just feel its wider appeal was fleeting. I think people would now choose Life After Life, or something else entirely.

I suspect that Behind the Scenes will last though, be passed around second hand, and recommended by word-of-mouth through the decades. It’s a good mix of literary and readable, plus the historical setting makes it date less and be more nostalgic. So I think it has a good chance of being in print in 50 years (particularly as it has already been transformed into an e-book), although I don’t think it’ll ever be more popular than when it was the big new thing.

I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it. I don’t have any detailed content notes, all though I will say that the story spans three or four generations, and a period where infant mortality was higher.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in my Lord of the Rings reviews and the review will be split over several posts.

Reading #1 The Lord of the Rings is a slow process for me. Clearly, a lot of people love this book very much. I really don’t understand why, but I would be glad if you could tell me what it is you like.

Book One is the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows on directly from The Hobbit – well, sort of. Bilbo has handed over the adventuring to his nephew, Frodo. Advised by Gandalf to quit the Shire, he packs up a few friends and a few ponies and heads into the dark and magical woods.

The timings
After the adventures in The Hobbit, Bilbo waits 60 years before handing the ring of the title onto his successor, and Frodo waits another 30 years before setting out on the next adventure. In the mean time, nothing has changed whatsoever in Middle Earth. And everyone’s still alive, apart from one grouchy relative and two dwarves.

I don’t understand why the lifespans are so extended. It doesn’t add anything to the story as nothing has changed – at least so far. There’s no evidence of 90 years of progress in any of the places we’ve visited. Also, humans (at least, I assume Gandalf is human) seem to live for ages as well. What’s the point of having super-human supernatural races if humans are just as good?

The races
As in The Hobbit, each race has distinct characteristics and individuals are slave to them. It seems like lazy world-building, but perhaps Tolkien is making some meta point about how he views the world. There aren’t enough humans in Book One to provide a test, but in The Hobbit it seemed that humans were allowed to vary, having no one type, so I think it’s a lack of detail. And, of course, some races are good and some are bad and no one shall ever swap sides.

The woman
There is a woman in Book One. Her name is Goldberry and she is as beautiful as I don’t know what. She’s a very gentle river goddess, so far as I can tell, and married to the god of the forest. She’s a hostess, and says nothing that doesn’t relate to her guests’ comfort.

Another woman is mentioned, an elf maid who is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She’s captured by a human man who has determined to own her. There’s something really off about this, and even Tolkien calls their first embrace ‘her doom’. This is glossed over and she gives up her immortality for him and they die happily ever after.

The poetry
I don’t like it. I like poetry by other poets. I don’t like Tolkien’s comic songs, I don’t like the elf-lore, I don’t like the historical ballads. They all seem pale imitations of the real thing – they are a bit soppy and far too nice. I remember reading Beowulf at school, and it’s it’s strange and beautiful, even in translation. This is a bowdlerised version.

The luck
One trait not mentioned, is that hobbits are incredibly lucky. In Book One, Frodo and friends get rescued at least three times. On each occasion, the timing is critical. A few minutes more and everything would have been lost. Fortunately, someone turns up and saves them each time. In once case, this is literally the only other person for a hundred miles. How lucky! How unsatisfying.

Sam’s servile attitude
It’s bugging the crap out of me. I really don’t understand why there’s this ongoing distinction between the different hobbits. And given that Sam is so low-class and servile, who are Merry and Pippin? And why haven’t they brought valets?

The economy
I don’t understand how hobbit society survives. What has Frodo been living off for all these years? Bilbo’s gold from his adventure? What about everyone else? Where do things like ponies come from? They actually pay for a pony in this book, and it gives the reader a glimpse of the economy. A pony costs about 4 silver pennies, and that’s a lot of money to working folk. And yet, throughout The Hobbit, people scratching a living in the wilderness gave ponies away like water. So who is making what, in Middle Earth? And who does all the cooking and cleaning?

The geography
Who makes all these paths? Who maintains them?

What I liked
I am growing fond of the hobbits – I feel like they could be rounded characters, if they were allowed. I also liked Strider (Aragorn). He’s been my favourite character in every incarnation of this story I’ve encountered. I don’t know why, but he’s less frustrating that the rest of the crew. I liked the barrow wraiths, and thought they were a good villain. I really liked the image of the river taking the form of foam horses, and sweeping off the threat. I quite like the Nasgul. They have a lot to put up with. I was sad to encounter the trolls from The Hobbit again. They were some of my favourite characters in that book and deserved a better fate. (I also don’t understand how trolls work, seeing as they can’t ever stand daylight? Not a good evolutionary tactic for creatures that live above ground…)

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The importance of a good altitude

The importance of a good altitude

A lot of people imagine that Switzerland is completely covered in snow all winter. It really isn’t. At least, it isn’t completely covered. Here (and I’m back in Switzerland for a few weeks, woo!) altitude matters in a way that it doesn’t in the UK, or most areas. As an example, here’s what it’s like at 400m above sea level, around where I grew up: Vineyard in winter under a blue sky. No snow anywhere.


No snow. Not a speck. This next photo was taken a 20-minute drive away, at 1200m.

Meadow in winter under a blue sky. Completely covered in snow to a depth of at least 50cm.


Now that’s Switzerland in winter, right?

You can see more photos from La Givrine in my post from last year.