Monthly Archives: March 2014

Skiing in Scotland

Skiing in Scotland

Glenshee resort under thick cloud. Mountains have streaks of snow where the ski runs are.

I got a bit of a shock when we went skiing in Scotland earlier this month. I like to think I’m not a judgmental traveller, but there are some things I have fixed ideas about and skiing is clearly one of them. I’m used to skiing in the Alps, having some of the best skiing in the world on my doorstep, and having everything done in a tidy, Swiss way. Plus, I really, really like it to be sunny, and when you pick a random day in March, there’s a low chance of sun in Scotland. So I was inclined to be a bit snobbish about the skiing, but actually, given what they were starting with, the Glenshee resort put on a pretty good show.

Weather – clearly no one can control this, but it has a big impact on how enjoyable the day is. It was very windy when we went, not sunny but not raining either. Not a white-out, where you ski in clouds, but not super-enjoyable either.

Snow – there really wasn’t much snow! I realise it’s been a very warm winter, but honestly, I was a little shocked. The Glenshee team had managed the snow there was very well. While the areas off-piste were totally bare, the pistes that were open mostly had coverage, although we were scraping heather in places. I always worry that this will be particularly bad for the mountains.

Ski lift base station in a deep puddle of water

Lifts – like skiing in the early ’90s! Glenshee is a low station, with a short drop from the highest peak (Glas Maol, 1068m) to the station (Glenshee, 650m). As a result, it makes sense to have mainly drag tows (button lifts and T-bars). At the larger Jura and Alpine resorts, chair lifts have been replacing these over the last couple decades, as they have much better throughput. Plus, due to the wind, the existing chair lifts were shut.

View of a button tow from the tow

Runs – the runs are short and easy. We skied everything that was open, and I don’t think we skied a proper red. It’s a good choice for beginners and families, as it would be hard to get lost! That said, the runs weren’t very well connected – we seemed to have to hike at the top and bottom of each lift, often into a strong headwind.

Food – there is only one option, really, as it seems that all the canteens are run by the same team. It was a bit limited: think greasy spoon or chip shop menu. I had macaroni pie, which is macaroni and cheese in a proper pork pie style pastry case.

Cost – relatively cheap. I think we paid £20 for skis, boots, poles and a helmet (although they did, also, look like they were from the mid ’90s) and another £25 or so for a day’s ski pass.

Would I go back? Probably not. It was a 2h car drive from Edinburgh to Glenshee, not counting time spent picking up the rental kit. I don’t think it’s worth it. That said, if you do live in the area, it’s a great way to introduce people to skiing or snow boarding without the commitment of a full week’s holiday.

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The reason I haven’t posted a Big Read review in a while is that I’ve been stuck. I hate this book. Fortunately, #190 Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence is free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg, so I didn’t have to pay to hate it.

Sons and Lovers is bleak. It’s set in a hamlet near a coal mine outside of Nottingham, in a family where no one seems to choose their life partner very well. It starts off in a gritty-family-drama sort of vein, then slips into hundreds of pages of wallowing in a young man’s confused and depressed ramblings, interspersed with coded descriptions of his sexual adventures.

Worse than a boring dinner party
Reading this book reminded me of being depressed or talking to someone with serious clinical depression. I don’t think the state is interesting, almost by definition. It’s a state of not-doing, where anxiety overrides normal actions, decisions are avoided and everything is dragged out and discussed until it’s painful. Where everything seems pointless and wishing for the end seems reasonable.

I realise there’s an idea of the artist as a tortured soul, but this book doesn’t read like that, at least for me. It’s not the late-night-party, let’s-go-to-Paris manic-pixie-dream-girl or the vibrant-but-damaged-artist. It’s like a long conversation with someone who is deeply unhappy and so anxious they can’t change anything. It’s the person who can’t get out of bed for the week, because finding clothes is too hard. The one who never smiles. And then, at certain points, it’s cruel. I definitely do not recommend reading this book if you’re grieving. At a certain moment, I stopped wanting to slap a certain character and started wanting the whole parcel of them locked up for cruelty and murder. That makes it sound more interesting than it is: you’ll wait about 390 pages for this section.

Why do people love this book?
I have no idea, and I can’t guess as I found the whole thing frustrating and tedious, after the initial pot-boiler phase. I googled around a bit, looking for clues, and found two articles that might interest other readers. One is a review published in The Guardian in 1913; the second a review published in the same paper in 2013, to mark the centenary of the book’s publication. Both are in favour, neither explains the greatness very well. Perhaps I’m missing something. Which reminds me: as a content note, it seems that I missed a physically incestuous element in Paul’s relationship with his mother, or perhaps I read the original 1913 edition which had been edited more strictly than later versions.

Help me get unstuck
When I started the year, I gave myself permission to not finish a Big Read book every week. I intended to focus on some of the longer books left on the list, like Les Misérables and David Copperfield. Instead, I’ve gotten stuck. I started Lord of the Rings and got stuck. I moved on to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and got stuck, skipped on to Sons and Lovers and got stuck. I’m starting to feel like there are no cheerful books left on the list. I’ll be travelling a lot for the next few months, so I can only read books on Kindle. I’m listing the ones I have available below. If you enjoyed any of them or they made you laugh, please let me know and I’ll read that next! You can also look at the list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed, and recommend ones I should buy.

The Count of Monte Cristo
The Wasp Factory
Lorna Doone
The Woman in White
Bleak House
David Copperfield
Crime and Punishment
Silas Marner
The Magician
The Forsyte Saga
Sunset Song
Anna Karenina
War and Peace
Far from the Madding Crowd
Jude the Obscure
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Les Misérables
Brave New World
Moby Dick
Vanity Fair
The Lord of the Rings 
(parts 1, 2 and 3)
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Any suggestions?

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.

Saying goodbye to Oxford

Saying goodbye to Oxford

Our time in Oxford is ending very soon: on Thursday we’re leaving, and won’t be coming back for the foreseeable future. I don’t really know how to describe our time here. When people talk about Oxford in the future, will I say I ‘lived’ here, ‘stayed’ here or ‘visited’? I don’t think I’ve spent a whole month here, and I’ve been in Switzerland for the last month or so, which makes our stay here feel very temporary and short. My ‘must visit’ list has a lot of items remaining: I haven’t visited Blenheim or gone on a tour of the Bodleian Library, and I won’t have the chance to go for a swim at the Hinksey Outdoor Pool as it doesn’t open until May.

I do like Oxford, and I’ve enjoyed exploring. While I’m not sure I count as town yet, I am definitely  not gown, so for me the centre feels like its full of blank walls and locked doors, with the ‘dreaming spires’ shut away from the masses. Luckily, there’s still a lot to do. I was going to do a full round up of free things to do in Oxford, but I only got as far as museums I like. Here are five.

Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum shares a building with the Pitt Rivers Museum. Both are free, and both are excellent, with a sort of Victorian twist. It’s as though while the exhibits have been updated, the style of display hasn’t. This isn’t the place to go for interactive exhibits with flashing lights, but buggies are welcome and the small children I saw seemed to love looking at the bones. There are a lot of genuine preserved animals, insects and birds, so if you don’t like that, don’t go. The building is beautiful, too.

The Oxford Natural History Museum interior, with a high glass roof, decorative beams and dinosaur skeleton


Pitt Rivers Museum
You have to walk through the Natural History Museum to get to the Pitt Rivers. I’ve never seen a museum like it. You walk into an indoor courtyard crowded with cabinets. Above you, there are three more floors of galleries, each crowded with objects. Items are arranged thematically, not by culture or geography, so the textiles section has European spinning wheels, English crochet, Egyptian cotton, Inuit bead work and much more. And then two steps later you’re in a different section altogether. It’s actually a really good way to display the mass of objects, as it lets the viewer establish similarities and differences across centuries and cultures without being told what to think. That said, the labelling is really limited, so context is somewhat lacking.

Inside the Pitt Rivers Museum. A mass of cabinets crammed with objects reach the ceiling

Ashmolean Museum
The Ashmolean Museum is also free, and a great complement to the other two. It’s about a 5-minute walk away. It focuses on art and fine objects, and provides more information and context than the Pitt Rivers. It’s the place to go for tapestries, fine china and musical instruments. It features both paintings and sculpture, although its remit is wider than that. The collection has been cleverly curated, so it’s easy to just wander round, skimming the surface, or you can delve deeper into something that interests you.

Fine china at the Ashmolean museum


The plate on the left is an original Chinese piece, the two to the right are later European copies. The technologies for making fine porcelain were brand new in Europe at the time, and both real and imitation Chinese porcelain was very popular. 

Bodleian Library 
If you want to visit the inside of Bodleian Library, you’ll need to pay for a tour or become a reader. However, they do have a small exhibition space, and the exhibitions are free. There are two spaces to check out: the display cabinet by the way into the library, which highlights a few objects from the collection. The main exhibition space will have a theme, and the exhibition I saw had relatively few objects, but plenty of information. Both collections change regularly, and it’s a quick visit. Unlike the three museums above, which could easily soak up a day each, you can budget half an hour or an hour for the Bodleian (not counting the tour).

Town Hall Museum
I won’t say this one’s excellent, but it is free. It’s a couple of rooms in the Town Hall, which is very centrally located. It’s a very quick one to visit, and gives a neat overview of Oxford’s history.

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

This is the space where a Big Read update should go, but there isn’t one. I haven’t picked up a Big Read book at all this week, despite putting ‘finish Sons and Lovers‘ on my to-do list at least twice. I’ve got to that point where I’ve by-passed all the books I have available so often that even the ones I know will be good seem dull. Have you noticed this effect? The more often I look at a book and then read something else, the less likely I am to ever read it, even if I love it or its a book I’ve been waiting to come out.

I’m back in the UK now, which has switched up my TBR pile, but I’m not making any promises. Instead, here are three books I’ve read this week:

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (1998)
I totally love Diana Wynne Jones, so I was thrilled when the price on The Dark Lord of Derkholm dropped to £1.99. It’s well worth two quid. It’s a really fun read on several levels. It’s a fantasy novel for children, with magic and fun. It’s set in a world which is being destroyed by a rapacious tourist industry, so the wizards of the realm decide to take action. Gamers (RPG or computer) will appreciate the world, as the tourists are on trips which look rather like a gaming quest. It’s as if the NPCs finally got a chance to talk… Having been recently reading Tolkien, I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel has, oh, female wizards, and women at all. People of different races act like people, not like walking stereotypes, talking animals are people, and you can have different kinds of people in one family. It’s not that it’s an ‘issues’ book, it’s just good world building.

The Amazing Thing About the Way It Goes 
by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (2014)
The Yarn Harlot‘s newest book, The Amazing Thing has surprisingly little knitting in it. Really, there’s not much yarn at all, so don’t buy it for that. It’s got the same mix of uncommon common sense, humour and minor disasters as the previous books, but without the yarn. There’s parenting advice, but no advice on what not to knit for your kids. As a result, it’s still a good book, but disappointing. I really like reading about knitting, and I don’t have any teenagers that need wrangling. On the plus side, the book should appeal to a much wider audience, and I’m all in favour of knitters who make me laugh having a bigger yarn budget.

Demon Hunter and Baby by Anna Elliott (2012)
I have to say that I got Demon Hunter and Baby when it was free, and I don’t think it’s well edited enough to be worth the £3+ that it’s currently selling for. However, I really like the concept. I enjoy urban fantasy, and part of the reason I like it is that there are lots of physically, mentally and magically strong female characters in the genre. Unfortunately, few of them ever get to settle down, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one have a baby. Demon Hunter and Baby is a good example of the genre, with a neat twist (the baby, I mean. The plot is a bit more predictable). The mythology feels a bit disjointed at times, and at times I felt like there was too much going on. It reads a bit like book 2 in a trilogy, but it’s a stand alone novel, and I feel like a good editor would have made the book rather better.