Laurie Lee: A Rose for Winter

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I’ve recently been to Malaga and when I’m away, I like to take along a novel or travel book set wherever I’m heading. I actually bought Laurie Lee’s A Rose for Winter last year to take to Granada, and indeed read that chapter while there. Planning my reading for Malaga, I couldn’t find anything actually set in the city, but as Lee’s book is about Andalucia then I thought I should give it another airing and read more. In the end, I became captivated by his writing and read the whole thing (not actually very long at 112 pages), including the ‘Granada’ chapter again.

Lee (aged 37) and his wife Kati set off to Andalucia in the winter of 1951 and travelled around the area for 4 months. Lee had been there 15 years before, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Thus the ‘new’ journey with Kati revisits some of the ‘old’ places and people from the earlier trip. He was a successful poet by now and making some money from it, but they still had to travel on a budget and walked most of the way, stayed in cheap hotels or lodgings, and Laurie made some extra money from busking with his violin. He was working on Cider with Rosie, his most famous and successful book, but it wasn’t published until 1959.

I think it is because Lee is a poet that his writing is so poetically wonderful. Laurie and Katie visit five places in the book, including Seville and Granada. It’s not a travel book in the sense of being a guide or giving historical background and discussing the major sights. Lee doesn’t even discuss the politics of the day much (and this is the age of Franco). It’s about a personal journey and the book shimmers with radiant life and truly transports you to Andalucia and gives you an insight into the land and its people. It opens: ‘A brilliant November morning with a sky of diamond blue above the bay and the red flowers of a long summer still glowing darkly on the rock‘ and the country they had come to seek ‘crouched before us in a great ring of lion-coloured mountains, raw, sleeping and savage.’

Lee writes of Granada that it is ‘perhaps the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow.’ Of Seville he writes: ‘Seville of sweet wines and bitter oranges … the city where, more than in any other, one may bite on the air and taste the multitudinous flavours of Spain … acid, sugary, intoxicating, sickening, but flavours which, above all in a synthetic world, are real as nowhere else.

Allowances have to be made for the book’s age and sometimes it seems dated. It has also been criticised for employing some ‘poetic’ licence, yet don’t the best travel books do this? If you want pure facts, read the guide book or history book; A Rose for Winter is about the experience and feeling of being in southern Spain in the 1950s and even in the 21st century it provides a wonderful backdrop to any visit to Andalucia and Lee’s writing is pure literary joy.

David Michie: The Dalai Lama’s Cat

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It may be some time since I wrote here about what books I’ve been reading but I can assure you the reading has been happening. It’s just a question of some being for work, some being for my book group (that has its own blog) and some I just didn’t feel inspired enough to write about and recommend.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat was irresistible to me. I first spied it on my daughter’s book shelves but decided to buy my own copy rather than borrow hers. I’m pleased I did because it’s a book that deserves more than one reading but also I’ve always had a weakness for wanting to have my own copy of books I enjoy a lot. I remember discussing this over lunch with another book editor once. We’d both bought books we’d borrowed from others and loved, just to have our own copies!

This book was irresistible because 1, it was about cats, and I’m a devoted cat lover (as my own cat Bella would attest to if asked, I’m quite certain), and 2, I’ve had a long interest in Buddhism and have also taught mindfulness meditation (part of some alternative health work I do).  The Dalai Lama’s Cat is categorised as a ‘novel’ by its publishers, but being Hay House, which was founded by the late and wonderful Louise Hay, then it was bound to have a spiritual element to it.

It really is a delightful book. It’s deceptively light in reading but full of wisdom and humour. There are wonderful, vivid descriptions of life within the Dalai Lama’s home, the Namgyal Monastery in Mcleod Ganj, India, and a host of colourful characters who are part of his – and later the kitten’s – life.  When the Dalai Lama notices a stray and injured kitten on the streets of New Dehli, he gets his driver to stop and the little kitten is carefully taken back to the monastery. Here, in a home filled with love and the privilege of being able to sleep at the bottom of the Dalai Lama’s bed and sit during the day in his office, HHC (His Holiness’s Cat, a.k.a Snow Lion) learns many of life’s lessons according to the Buddhist way of thinking. For anyone who wants to know more about Buddhist teachings this is a wonderfully accessible way to learn more and it’s a story told with love and happiness. I enjoyed it so much I’ve ordered the next 2 books in the trilogy: The Art of Purring and The Power of Meow. How could any cat lover resist!!

Ian McEwan: Nutshell

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Ian McEwan has been one of my favourite writers for many years; perhaps he is even my very favourite writer. I find his books both scintillatingly engaging right from the start, but sometimes so painful and often macabre that I can remember once, years and years ago – perhaps it was The Cement Garden? – I had to stop reading it on the train home from work and wait until later to finish it. Or maybe it was The Child in Time, recently made into an excellent TV film starring Benedict Cumberbatch? The story of every parent’s nightmare: taking your eyes from a small child for just one moment, to pay for something in a shop, and wham! The child is gone and your life will never be the same.

Nutshell also brings a lot of wham! bang! OMG! shocks. And it hooks you in from the very first two sentences: ‘So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.’ This is McEwan at his most inventive: a brilliant retelling of Hamlet but from the perspective of a ‘Hamlet’ in the womb, waiting to be born, all too aware of what’s going on outside. Gertrude becomes Trudy; Claudius is Claude. As the unborn Hamlet gradually realises that his mother and uncle are plotting to kill his father, we are witness to his dreadful dilemma: horror at what is planned and the child’s strong yearning to love their parent. And, of course, Hamlet is all about revenge, so how will this unborn child avenge the murder of his father? Well, I won’t spoil the ending, though of course we know how the story plays out, but this time in McEwan’s unique and chilling way. I found this a totally compelling, clever, suspenseful read but full too of wonderful humour that made me actually laugh. Highly recommended.