January has been so mild (so far) this year! The bulbs are all coming up in the garden, and this week I found this lovely little spot of color on our California Lilac. We have a couple of months before Spring is really here, but this tough lilac gives me hope that it won’t be too long!
When Robert Louis Stevenson was in his late 20’s, he set out on a journey that he hoped would provide material for writing a book. It was a hiking journey of approximately 120 miles through the Cévennes Mountains of France, but it was not a solo hike. He took with him a companion — a donkey he named Modestine. He wrote of his adventures in his book Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes.
From the publisher:
In twelve days, from September 22, 1878, until October 3, 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson walked from Le Monastier to St. Jean du Gard in the Cevennes. His only companion was Modestine, a donkey. He traveled as his fancy led him, stopping to sleep whenever occasion offered. One morning after a night’s sleep out of doors Stevenson scattered coins along the road upon the turf in payment for his night’s lodging.
Modestine, the donkey, demanded that her owner exercise all his ingenuity. At first he loathed her for her intractable differences of opinion displayed concerning the rate of travel to be maintained. Repeated blows seemed not to influence her until he learned to use the magical word “Proot” to get her moving.
If you have read some of his other books, like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, or his book of children’s poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses, you know he is a wonderful writer and storyteller. This was one of his early works, but he already had the power of description and fun storytelling, so it is an enjoyable recount of his travels. It actually became a very influential book in the genre of travel writing. Traveling with a donkey also provided a fair amount of comic relief for the reader, although I’m sure it was massive frustration for him as a traveler!
Since our travel is so restricted these days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was fun to walk alongside Robert Louis Stevenson through these mountains in France. There were times when I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed being with him, though, because he appeared to be a bit of a curmudgeon, but I would love to retrace his route with my husband as my walking companion! Many people do just that!
An Excerpt from the Book:
Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature. What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield. All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest, she turns and smiles; and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet.
He captured the people and the times very well, described the outdoor experience beautifully, and there was plenty of adventure (such as convincing Modestine to take a short-cut up a steep hill!) to keep you reading through this short book.
The Reluctant Dragon, by Kenneth Grahame, is another classic I chose to read for my 50-classics-in-5-years challenge for The Classics Club. I downloaded the audiobook version from Audible, narrated by Anton Lesser, and absolutely loved listening to it! The narration was so much fun, and the story truly is a wonderful old classic. I would love to listen to it again while on a road trip (ahh…some day we’ll be able to do that again!). The story is a fun twist on the Medieval story of Saint George and the Dragon. But in this sweet and gentle story, the dragon is a completely non-violent and friendly creature, with a great interest in poetry.
From the publisher:
…a young boy befriends a poetry-loving dragon living in the Downs above his home. When the town-folk send for St. George to slay the dragon, the boy needs to come up with a clever plan to save his friend and convince the townsfolk to accept him.
A favorite quote from the book:
“You see all the other fellows were so active and earnest and all that sort of thing- always rampaging, and skirmishing, and scouring the desert sands, and pacing the margin of the sea, and chasing knights all over the place, and devouring damsels, and going on generally- whereas I liked to get my meals regular and then to prop my back against a bit of rock and snooze a bit, and wake up and think of things going on and how they kept going on just the same, you know!”
The wonderful artist, E. H. Shepard was the illustrator of the original publication.
Both of these books are fun and timeless classics for the whole family!
“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”
I just finished listening to this audiobook. Loved it!
I am such a Nevil Shute fan! He was a wonderful storyteller/writer, and his books always completely immerse me in another life and time. Most Secret is the 17th book I’ve read by him. I’m slowing working my way through all his works, and it’s a fun project. And since today is his birthday, I celebrate him by sharing this review with you. But to start, I’ve copied this short biography for you from the Powell’s Books website:
NEVIL SHUTE NORWAY was born on January 17, 1899 in Ealing, London. After attending the Dragon School and Shrewsbury School, he studied Engineering Science at Balliol College, Oxford. He worked as an aeronautical engineer and published his first novel, Marazan, in 1926. In 1931 he married Frances Mary Heaton and they went on to have two daughters. During the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve where he worked on developing secret weapons. After the war he continued to write and settled in Australia where he lived until his death on January 12, 1960. His most celebrated novels include Pied Piper (1942), No Highway (1948), A Town Like Alice (1950) and On the Beach (1957).
Most Secret, from the publisher:
In their trusty fishing boat, Genevieve, armed with only a flame thrower and limited ammunition, a small group of officers and men take a stand against the might of the German army after the fall of France in World War II.
What armament would you propose to give her for the job?” He said: “A flame-thrower—one of the big ones. A flame-thrower and a few Tommy-guns.”
…I paused before replying, wondering how to put it when I saw him. I had to tell my admiral that the Army had proposed a naval expedition, to be commanded by a pseudo-Army officer of curious past history, sailing in a fishing-boat manned principally by foreigners, armed with an unconventional and utterly disgusting weapon, with the object of stiffening morale over on the other side. It was certainly an unusual proposal.
The Germans had used flame throwers during the war, but the British had never used them. The men of this ragtag crew, each with his own backstory which led him to this historic mission, all had reasons to embrace this unusual idea of a young man who desperately wanted to make a difference in the war effort. As usual, Nevil Shute took his time telling this story, carefully building the backgrounds of each character so that we would understand them well at that significant moment in history. It’s a story that shows what a difference one person, or each person, can make in any given circumstance, especially during war. I found it fascinating!
The Enchanted April, by Elizaberth von Arnim, is my first book read in 2021. It was a reread of a book I love, so it was a comforting and enjoyable way to start this new reading year. It is a lovely book to read in the dead of winter. It is so full of color and the warmth of the sun. In a time of continuing quarantine, it’s revives the spirit and quenches the thirst for travel to warmer climes.
Synopsis from the publisher:
A discreet advertisement in The Times, addressed to “those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine,” is the prelude to a revelatory month for four very different women. High above a bay on the Italian Riviera stands the medieval castle San Salvatore. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the gentle spirit of the Mediterranean, they gradually shed their public skins, discovering a harmony each of them has longed for but none has ever known. First published in 1922, this captivating novel is imbued with the descriptive power and lighthearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnim is renowned.
Favorite descriptions from the book:
“All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in color, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colors of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.
She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.”
“All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine . . . she remembered the advertisement. Here indeed were both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach-trees, and cherry-trees.
The story is not all sunshine and light, however. The four women brought together by that wonderful advertisement, have complicated lives, marriages, relationships. We get to know each of their stories very well. It’s quite fascinating to see the profound effect such a month away from their usual lives has on each of them.
For the last few years I have chosen a word as my focus for the year. The first word I chose was HOPE, and it was so appropriate for 2019. Then I chose GRATITUDE for 2020, and that turned out to be the perfect word for such a crazy year. It reminded me each day to focus on the positives instead of all the negatives that surrounded us all.
Now that 2021 has finally arrived, I’ve chosen a word that will remind me each day to be present in the moment; to appreciate the love and beauty that surrounds me; and to treasure all the people in my life.
So my guiding word for 2021 is CHERISH.