Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Book Talk: The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim - a book review

I had never heard of Elizabeth von Arnim or about The Enchanted April until I read a recommendation by Barbara (Barbara's Book Obsession,) an avid bibliophile that I follow on Instagram. The Enchanted April  was one of many books that I was gifted last Christmas and, even though I was really looking forward to reading it, I decided that I should wait until April, to better enjoy the images that I was sure the book would evoke. And I was not disappointed.
Sincerely Loree: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

The story takes place in the early 1920s when four very different women decide to spend a month in a medieval castle in Italy called San Salvatore that is surrounded by gardens in full bloom, and a magnificent view. Two of the women, Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot are middle class and live in Hampstead. The other two, the elderly Mrs. Fisher and the young and beautiful Lady Caroline Dester, are upper class and, initially very snobbish, intending to keep themselves apart from the others. The Enchanted April is simply the story of the unexpected friendship that develops between these four women because the beauty of Italy in April seems to lay a spell on them, changing them into better versions of themselves. By the end of their month-long sojourn at San Salvatore, they are happier, kinder and more at peace with the world than they have ever been.
There are no villains in this book, nothing bad or scandalous happens; a few men risk making fools of themselves but all ends well. San Salvatore is a place of enchantment and nobody that crosses its threshold remains the same; all are transformed, to a greater or lesser degree.

So why did I enjoy reading this gently-paced book so much? Because it whisked me away to another era, to life as it was one hundred years ago, when manners mattered and the most outrageous thing one could do was to bare one's shoulders at suppertime. I think that The Enchanted April is the sort of book that will offend no one. Yes, there is some classism, but considering that the book was written in 1922, it does not feel out of place. 

I don't need to tell you that Italy is able to work its magic on people during any month of the year. But Italy in April is something else altogether and von Arnim's descriptions of the gardens at San Salvatore are so detailed that I felt like I could touch and smell the flowers while I was reading. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who wants a gentle escape to another century in the company of genteel society. I did not want to leave the world that von Arnim wrote about so well. The only slightly negative thing I have to say about this book is that there are quite a few overly-long sentences that I had to re-read, especially if I was slightly distracted. But that didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of this book. I think it will be one of those that I will go back to from time to time because we all need a little enchantment in our lives every now and then.

So I will end by recommending The Enchanted April to all those in touch with their feminine side who might need to escape from the constant noise of 21st century life to the Italian Riviera of 100 years ago.

My rating: 4 ⭐

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

The 'Other' Valletta

 In mid-March we had a public holiday so we decided to spend the morning in Valletta, concentrating on  the area beyond the Grandmaster's Palace. I call this 'the other Valletta'. Unlike the more commercial upper half, between City Gate and the Grandmaster's Palace, the lower half is mainly residential. There are no high-street stores there, just small shops like groceries, ironmongeries, bakeries and so on, catering for the residents' needs. There are a few restaurants, here and there, and some boutique hotels, but it's much quieter and has a very different vibe from upper Valletta.

The Siege Bell War Memorial

Sincerely Loree: Siege Bell War Memorial, Valletta,  Malta

Our first stop was at the Siege Bell Memorial that is located right at the end of the peninsula on which Valletta is built. The Siege Bell Memorial was  inaugurated in 1992 by HM Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate the 50th anniversary since Malta was awarded the George Cross by her father, King George VI. Malta suffered heavy bombardments between June 1940 and the end of 1942 that resulted in the loss of 7000 civilians and servicemen and women. Malta emerged from the conflict as the most heavily bombed place in the world. If you're interested, you can read more about Malta's role in the conflict in this informative article by Conan White: The Island Everyone Wanted.
Sincerely Loree: Siege Bell War Memorial, Valletta,  Malta

The Siege Bell Memorial consists of a colonnaded belfry that surrounds a heavy bronze bell. The siege bell tolls everyday at noon in remembrance of the fallen. A reclining figure in bronze that protrudes over the parapet represents all the unknown dead.
Sincerely Loree: Siege Bell War Memorial, Valletta,  Malta

The Lower Barrakka Gardens

The Lower Barrakka Gardens are located just across the road from the Siege Bell War Memorial. They are smaller and more intimate than their counterpart, the Upper Barrakka Gardens that are located close to the Malta Stock Exchange and the Auberge de Castille, which houses the Office of the Prime Minister. 
Dominating the Lower Barrakka Gardens is a monument in the shape of a neo-classical Greek temple dedicated to Sir Alexander Ball, the first, and much-loved, Civil Commissioner of Malta.
Sincerely Loree: Sir Alexander Ball Memorial, Valletta,  Malta

 There are spectacular of Grand Harbour from both the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens, but the latter are generally more peaceful and secluded and a perfect place to wind down. The Lower Barrakka gardens are my favourite of the two.

Sincerely Loree: Lower Barrakka Gardens, Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Lower Barrakka Gardens, Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Lower Barrakka Gardens, Valletta,  Malta

The Other Valletta

After exiting the Lower Barrakka Gardens and crossing the road we plunged into one of the shady side streets intent on exploring this residential quarter, stopping every now and then to admire some architectural or quirky detail that stood out from its surroundings. I'm sure that, by now, you all know how small Valletta is, so it will probably surprise you to learn that I haven't ventured into these streets for many years (around 20 to be exact) and I definitely felt a bit like a tourist. The best thing is that, even though we were there during the first week of another semi-lockdown, this part of the city is quiet even on normal days and it is possible to walk around without too many interruptions. Here are a few of the things that caught my eye:

Niches and statues

When Valletta was being built, one of the requirements for prospective home owners was that houses on corner lots had to be embellished with niches or statues. These usually depicted religious figures like saints or angels. In the photos below you can see St Roque (Rocco) patron saint of dogs and dog lovers and protector against the plagues; and Michael the archange,l who is always depicted in his eternal struggle with Satan. (Here I would like to thank Niches of Malta who I follow on Instagram for enhancing my scant knowledge of Catholic iconography).
Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Balconies and doors

No house in Valletta is complete without the ubiquitous balcony. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours but some are more interesting than others. 

The balcony of this house, which was built in 1776 according to a  plaque over the front door, is very unusual in shape and I've never seen another  like it in Malta.
Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

I also admired the exquisite details of these lion heads carved on the balcony supports of another house. I think they look very realistic and quite fierce.
Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

This part of Valletta is not lacking in colour and many doors, window frames and shutters are painted in deep hues that create a vivid contrast when compared to the paler colour of the local limestone. 
Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Although some shops and houses in this area have been abandoned for years, others are newly renovated, resulting in an interesting mixture of patina and freshness.

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Casa Sotto

Sincerely Loree: Casa Sotto, Valletta,  Malta

By now it was past noon and we were feeling really hungry so we walked to Casa Sotto in Archbishop Street for a 'pinsa romana' (thankfully they are open for take-away). Pinsa is a salty focaccia of Roman origins which  is rectangular or oval in shape and that is said to be descended from a recipe of ancient Rome. In reality, it is a flatbread that comes in a variety of different toppings. It doesn't get better than that, in my opinion, and to have a little bit of Rome in the heart of Valletta is just sublime.
Sincerely Loree: Casa Sotto, Valletta,  Malta

And today I will leave you with this endearing photo of one of  Valletta's cats that looked like it had just discarded a cigarette butt. I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the 'other' Valletta..
Sincerely Loree: Valletta,  Malta

Location: Valletta, March 2021

More about Valletta:

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Books I read in 2021: Part 1

Today I will be sharing the titles of the books I read between January and March of this year. By the end of March I'd finished 11 books. Since I don't want these types of posts to get too long, they will be taking a different format to the ones I wrote last year. My full reviews are on Goodreads and I will link each book to that site so you can read the book blurb from there, but I will include a few short sentences about the plot of each book and what I liked or disliked about it . If you are a Goodreads member you can find me under my real name (Lorna Dykstra) and read my reviews directly on the site.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood spends one summer in New York working for a popular woman's magazine. The future looks bright. Or does it?

Sincerely Loree: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
This American classic surely needs no introduction but it is definitely not an easy book to read. Plaths's description of Esther Greenwood's descent into insanity is so accurate that it's chilling. What makes it even harder to read is the knowledge that this novel is semi-autobiographical and published just a few weeks before Plath's suicide in 1963.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Tita loves Pedro and Pedro loves Tita. But they cannot get married because the tradition in the De La Garza family is for the youngest daughter to take care of her mother until she dies. In desperation, Tita pours all her emotions into the food she cooks, which sometimes has hilarious, disastrous or unexpected consequences.

This novel abounds in magical surrealism - so I would only recommend it to those who don't mind a hefty dose of fantasy in their novels. It is also peppered with an earthy humour that some may find offensive. Like Water for Chocolate is divided into 12 chapters and each chapter starts with a recipe that sets the tone for what comes next.  This book is probably best described as a folk-tale centred around the cuisine of Mexico.
3.5 ⭐

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

At the age of ten, Patroclus is banished from his father's kingdom and sent to the court of King Peleus. There, he and Achilles form a strong bond of friendship that finally turns into love. Eventually, the two join the rest of the Greek heroes in the war against Troy - and the rest is the myth that is famous all over the world. 
Sincerely Loree: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Growing up, I was a Greek mythology geek and had even created a 'family tree' for the pantheon of Greek gods, goddesses and their numerous offspring. Miller does not stray far from Homer's Iliad  so, for those like me who are familiar with the story, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. However, the final poignant chapter really takes this book to another level. I also loved Miller's portrayal of Thetis, Achilles' sea nymph mother, as a strong-willed, formidable, unflinching and, frequently cruel, woman who finally has the opportunity to redeem herself. 
3.8 ⭐

The Dressmaker's Gift by Fiona Valpy

In Paris in 1940, three seamstresses: Claire, Mireille and Vivienne go about their work - all of them hiding a secret. Two generations later, Claire's grand-daughter Harriet moves Paris determined to learn the truth about her grandmother.

This is another World War II story with a dual timeline. Unfortunately, the modern storyline does nothing for the book and I felt that the story would have been stronger if it had focussed on the wartime narrative. The Dressmaker's Gift is an enjoyable read but not a remarkable one.
2.9 ⭐

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clarke is abandoned by her family and left to live by herself in the coastal marshes of  North Carolina. Labelled the "Marsh Girl" she becomes an outcast, unfit for polite society. When popular hearth-throb Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately start to suspect her. 
Sincerely Loree: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Prior to reading this book, I'd seen nothing but rave reviews. Most people considered it to be a 5-star read and I was really looking forward to reading it and was prepared to be blown away by the story. Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed with it and what marred my enjoyment most of all is the ending. Although many readers felt like it 'made' the book, I felt cheated; but I won't say anything else just in case some of you want to read it. 
3.2 ⭐

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Lucius, a twenty-two-year-old medical student  who has very little experience of the world is sent to  a remote medical outpost in the Carpathian Mountains. It is ravaged by typhus and his only companion is the intriguing Sister Margarete. One day, an unconscious soldier is brought in who will change their lives forever.

I found it really hard to rate this book. in some places it was brilliant, in others a little too slow for my taste. I enjoyed learning a bit about the Eastern front during WW!, a subject I knew nothing about and which I mean to correct. Some readers may find the medical descriptions rather gruesome but I  think what I most wanted was for it to have a happy ending. Alhtough I do understand why Mason ended it as he did.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

The dual storyline in this book takes us from 17th century London to the early 2000s. The central characters are Ester Velasquez, a scribe to a blind rabbi and Helen Watts, an ailing scholar with a special interest in Jewish history. Although a distance of 350 years separates these two women, there is much that they have in common, especially their formidable strength of character.

Sincerely Loree: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

This book is heavy in the philosophy of the early Enlightenment and modern Biblical criticism and, because of this, there were times when I found it slow and hard-going but I found the overall story of the two women fascinating . The Weight of Ink also make me realise that anti-Semitism did not start with the Nazis and that the history of the Jews is fascinating and something I need to learn more about.
3.7 ⭐

Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII's Fifth Queen by Josephine Wilkinson

This biography of Katherine Howard sheds interesting light on Henry VIII's fifth wife. Like her cousin Anne Boleyn before her, Katherine was beheaded after being found guilty of adultery (and hence treason) against the king. She was just 19. Wilkinson believes that the charges brought against Katherine were false and the 'confessions' were given under torture. According to this biography, Katherine Howard, was a victim of sexual abuse by men older than she was who ultimately paid with her life for circumstances over which she had little to no control. 

Was Katherine as innocent as Wilkinson portrays her? I suppose I will have to read a few other biographies to make up my mind.
This book will only be of interest to those who have a morbid fascination (like yours truly) with the Tudors.
3.8 ⭐

Lea by Pascal Mercier

Two strangers, both from Bern, meet in Provence and, on a whim, decide to drive home together. During the journey Martijn van Vliet, a former research scientist, talks about his daughter Lea, a celebrated violinist, whose ruthless ambition drives a wedge between them that slowly starts to tear them apart.  To keep her close, he performs a desperate act that ultimately destroys them both.

Sincerely Loree: Lea by Pascal Mercier

Lea is not an action-packed book. Essentially, it is a monologue with van Vliet recounting his story to the book's narrator. It is an example of the extent to which some parents may go to make sure their children are content. The story is slow and depressing in places and the only glimpses we get of Lea are through her father's narrative.
2.9 ⭐

The Girl on the  Train by Paul Hawkins

Rachel, a young woman who catches the same commuter train every morning, builds an ideal world around a couple she glimpses when the train stops at a signal  overlooking a row of back gardens. They seem so happy. And she wants to feel happy too. But, one day, she sees something shocking that makes her realise their world may not be so perfect after all.

If you can put up with an unpredictable narrator, a few swear words and marital infidelity, I can guarantee that you will not want to put this suspense-filled thriller down. I could have read it in one sitting but managed to prolong my agony to three days. 
3.9 ⭐

Tell It To The Skies by Erica James

Lydia and her sister Valerie are orphaned at a young age and sent to live with their cruel grandparents whom they've never met before. Lydia grows up quickly, learns to keep secrets and trust sparingly. When Noah, a boy with a limp, starts to attend her school, the two form a tentative friendship that eventually turns into an inseparable bond. Then the unthinkable happens and  Lydia flees, leaving everything she had worked so hard for behind.
Sincerely Loree: Tell It To The Skies by Erica James

Tell It To The Skies  is a fast and easy read that's a perfect book to take along with you on vacation. It's entertaining enough but not a story that will leave you with deep thoughts. Throughout the book I felt like I was constantly inside the main character's head. The narrative was constantly interrupted by the rhetorical questions that Lydia keep asking and there were too many coincidences thrown in to the story to  make it entirely believable. 
2.9 ⭐

I hope I didn't ramble on for too long. And I hope you don't mind my weird rating system. Each time I rate a fictional book I use the same five criteria and give 'points' for plot, characters etc. What I try not to do is compare one book with another. Instead I try to rate it, as much as possible, on its own merits. Naturally, we are all drawn to different things and will not necessarily enjoy the same types of books. But I hope I have helped you find a few books you may add to your library or your future reading list.

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