To round out the game, I'm going to use my two favorite anthologies among all the Christmas books I've listened to this month for the holiday book joker, and I'll use them for the Epiphany house blessing task (task 2), which feels appropriate for this day, and for Hogswatch task 2, as I (perhaps luckily) never had any encounters with department store Santas at all.
I know I've posted this before, but it simply isn't New Year's Eve without it hereabouts ...
I've decided to combine these two tasks -- they both deal with dining in some fashion, and while I would actually not want to change anything about my / our personal holiday traditions, just for once I think it might be fun to have
Christmas or New Year's Eve dinner with Mark Twain,
enjoy his sense of humor and myriads of stories (he must have been quite the raconteur), all the while enjoying an
all you can eat dinner
featuring my mom's very own minced beef and bell pepper stir fry, her potato salad, as well as my BFF's curry & cream soup, Indonesian rice salad, and mousse au chocolat;
amplified by some of the goodies that make up my favorite restaurant's weekly changing culinary trip all around the Mediterranean and some of my favorite Spanish restaurant's tapas. (Alternatively, a bunch of Indian curries -- say, mango, korma and saag --, Thai / Indonesian / Vietnamese lemongrass chicken, Szechuan beef, and sweet & sour pork. Or a selection of Mexican burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and tacos with guacamole, salsa roja and sourcream on the side ...)
All of this, with a nice Rioja Gran Reserva, plenty of sparkling mineral water, and an espresso or cappuccino to chase it down ... as well as a single malt, preferably 15+ years of age. Cheers!
My three wishes, as we close out the old year and begin the new one:
For myself: To be able to look back, at the end of 2019, and have preserved what I like in my life, and have improved what I don't like.
For the BookLikes community: Long may it survive, and I hope it will grow ever closer together! (Wish 1.a: Many happy returns of Halloween Bingo and Festive Tasks.)
For the world: A return to sanity, peace, justice, and (dare I say it?) wisdom. In everything from society and politics to the environment and everyday relations and communication. (And don't tell me that's more than one wish (again). It really isn't. But even if it were, I wouldn't care a rat's rear end.)
I hadn't actually thought of this incident in a long time, and when I remembered it during the course of this game, it took me a while to make up my mind whether to use it for the "miracle" or the "homing pigeon" task -- but given that it scared the living daylights out of me, somehow "miracle" seems to cut it better.
This happened during a skiing holiday when I was in my mid-20s, in the Dolomites region of the Italian Alps (which, for the record, I still love dearly -- it's one of the most dramatic and beautiful parts of the Alps). And it was an incredibly effective reminder that even in today's highly technicized world, nature can easily get the better of you, with potentially lethal consequences. Even if you think you know what you are doing (or if only one in a party of two knows what they are doing).
My mom first put skis under my feet when I was 3, and we'd been spending at least a week or two per winter -- and most years, more than that -- in the various skiing regions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy ever since (often also with the family of my mom's sister, all of whom were avid skiers as well). So by the time this incident happened, I was well familiar with the vagaries of winter weather in the mountains, too -- we had had several tricky situations in the past, but had always been able to deal with them, regardless whether it was just the two of us or the larger family party of six.
This vacation was different, however. This time, I had gone with my then-boyfriend, who had never skied in his life, nor spent time in the mountains in winter. We went to Val di Fassa, where I had stayed before and which I liked a lot, on the one hand because of its natural beauty, but on the other hand I also thought the comparatively easy slopes available in this part of the Dolomites would be a great place to learn skiing, for anybody who really wanted to learn. The more advanced Fassa slopes are also part of the so-called Sella Ronda, a circular network of interlinked slopes and ski lifts all around the Sella massif which allows you to make entire day or half-day tours on your skis and explore several different skiing regions, instead of being limited to only a single one ... but obviously this sort of thing is impossible with someone who has never been on skis before. So we agreed that I'd spend most of the time with my boyfriend, teaching him to ski on one of the Val di Fassa beginners's slopes. Only one day I'd do part of the Sella Ronda and ski over to neighboring Val Gardena (Grödnertal), where my mom and my aunt and uncle were staying at the same time. And tellingly, what happened did NOT happen while I was out alone, going to Val Gardena and back (on a series of slopes that I was well familiar with -- we had spent several vacations in Val Gardena in the past, too, and the part of the Sella Ronda between there and Val di Fassa was one stretch that we particularly loved and had skied many, many times).
My boyfriend and I were not staying in one of the skiing towns and villages down in the valley but halfway up to Passo Sella, because most hotels were already fully booked by the time he said he wanted to go -- which for a popular Alpine skiing region was not unexpected (and I was quite frankly happy to still find any accommodation at all). So for a few days we went down to the beginners's slopes in Campitello and Canazei, and back up to Passo Sella again in the afternoon. One day, we were late getting started on our trip back -- I forgot why. The weather had been fine in the morning when we started (and most of the day, too); I'd packed skid chains regardless, but even those ultimately were no help.
At some point on our way up to the Pass, dusk began to fall. At the same time, clouds were moving in, fogging up the view and snowing in the road, until we were caught in a complete whiteout, with dusk added into the mix and visibility reduced to practically zero. There was nobody else on the road, not even snow ploughs -- I think their operators had been surprised by the sudden change of weather, too (this was when weather reports were a lot more unreliable anyway, but particularly so in the mountains, where the weather can change very rapidly). Somehow, I made it all the way up to within almost a kilometre or two (1 - 1 1/2 miles) of our hotel, to a point where the road was flattening out again for a stretch. I don't remember why exactly we didn't manage the last part of the road back to the hotel in our car, but I do remember pulling over to the side with my inner reserves thoroughly drained by that point already, telling my boyfriend there was nothing for it; we'd have to walk the last part of the way, carrying our skis. So we set out with me leading the way, warning him to stay close behind me, walking single file; and with nothing to guide me but the telegraph poles along the road, the respective next one of which I could barely make out with everyone that I passed.
After a while, I realized that my boyfriend was no longer walking behind me. I couldn't tell how long that had been the case (in a whiteout, the combined effect of low clouds and snow will also muffle almost all sound) and whether, disregarding my warning, he had just dropped into one of his habitual slow ambles or whether he had actually fallen. I briefly hesitated whether to go back and look for him or walk on and try to get help as fast as possible. Since dusk was really closing in on us and even if he had fallen and I had gone back, I wasn't sure whether there would have been anything I could have done on my own, I decided to walk on and try to get to the hotel and call for help as quickly as possible; all the more since I thought I had almost reached the turnoff. This, fortunately, was true. But although the pathway to the hotel was short, there was now no more landmark to guide me -- and of course, the path itself was rapidly disappearing under layers of freshly fallen snow, too. I literally stumbled on, hoping I was going in the right direction. Then I slipped and fell, and was instantly and completely disoriented -- and in despair, ready to just lie down and give up.
Eventually I pulled myself up and crawled forward, hoping to at some point be able to grab onto something that would show me where I was. That something, when I found it at last, turned out the stairs to the hotel -- luckily I had fallen right in the hotel (originally a farm) forecourt. I burst into the door and, once inside, into the hotel kitchen, where I hoped the host family would be staying at that moment (which they were), and blurted out something to the effect that our car had broken down a kilometre or two back on the main road, my boyfriend hadn't followed me and I didn't know whether anything had happened to him. Like many hotels and farms in the area (and as I had hoped they would), this one had a snowcat, which they brought out to go look for my boyfriend, while the landlady made me sit down in the kitchen to get warm again, gave me a cup of hot cocoa and tried to calm me down. A while later, the guys who had gone out returned with my boyfriend -- unscathed and merely disgusted.
We had only one more day left during that stay; I don't recall what we did on that day, but it wasn't skiing. Two days later we left for home.
And I've learned that even today, it is still possible to come to serious harm literally on the doorstep of a welcoming house that you're not able to recognize. I shudder to think what sort of peril whiteouts and blizzards must have meant in decades and centuries gone by.
Sassolungo (Langkofel): Unquestionably the most dramatic peak between Val di Fassa and Val Gardena; the Sella Ronda passes just below it, somehwere behind the snowed-in ridge to the right.
This is how I remember skiing in the Dolomites with my mom and my family! ;)
Total number of books read in 2018: 225
Number of as-yet unread books added to "owned books" TBR in 2018: 240
-- plus the 100 or so Audible downloads that I haven't even added to my BookLikes shelves yet.
So the ratio of buying vs. reading is seriously off this year. (Last year, I read almost 40 books more than remained unread on my "owned books" TBR of the books added over the course of the year.)
Nevertheless, I am very happy with my reading year: very few of my reads were 3 stars or less, I didn't expect I'd even make it to 200 books (so I actually read more than expected), I finished my Women Writers project, and compared to last year, my stats have come out on the "right" side in every aspect I primarily looked at -- I read more women authors than men, and more new books than rereads:
In summary, I guess you can call this my year of listening to mystery audiobooks chiefly written by women writers ... which is fine, though, and in a way even what I expected this year to be.
In fact, I'm expecting to continue reading many more mysteries in 2019 as well -- I'd like to complete my "inofficial" Detection Club Bingo reads for one thing, I'm planning to read more Golden Age mysteries republished as part of the British Library Crime Classics and Collins Crime club series, and I'm likely going to join Wanda and Moonlight at least for parts of "A Study in Sherlock" / "Summer of Sherlock". But I'm also planning to reprise my Women Writers challenge, however with a twist along the lines of the "Around the World in 80 Books" group on Goodreads.
All in all, if 2019 turns out even half as good as 2018 has been (even against the odds in some respects), I'll color myself extremely lucky.
The book I'm burning in effigy is the same as the one I already buried last year, E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey. It just can't die too many deaths. Maybe I ought to put a stake through its rotten little heart as well.
First things first: The Gävle Goat did survive this year! Here are the website, Twitter, and Instagram pages to prove it. So, I am going to add a bonus point to the score of everybody who guessed correctly. (If you did, please respond to this post or in the Bingo Group to confirm and make sure I don't miss your guess.)
Next, all those of you who have read one or two books during these past 2 months that are set on one of the holidays included in the game and which you haven't used for the game yet: remember that you can use up to two holiday books for the holiday book joker and collect 2 extra points that way.
Along similar lines, all those who are now posting "my 2018 in books" and "2019 reading plans" posts, remember that these, too, qualify as 24 Festive Tasks posts (Door 22, New Year's Day, tasks 1 and 2, respectively.)
And, lastly, we've already cracked 1000 points and the game isn't even over yet -- go us!
I've been blessed with a pretty amazing reading year in which disappointments were few and far between -- so it was fortunately not difficult at all to spot the small number of candidates for my "grievances" list when scrolling back through my BookLikes shelves. They are / were, in no particular order (except for no. 1):
Margaret Drabble: The Red Queen
Pretentious, artificial, historically incorrect and, most of all, monumentally self-involved. If this is the type of book that Drabble's sister A.S. Byatt criticizes under the byword "faction", then I'm with Byatt all the way -- and that statement is far from a given where Byatt's own fiction is concerned. Someday I'll seek out the actual memoirs of the Crown Princess whose story inspired this poor excuse for a novel. I doubt I'll go anywhere near Drabble's writing again anytime soon, however.
Original review HERE.
Stephen Brusatte: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
Speaking of monumentally self-involved, this wasn't much better than Drabble's book in that particular department. It does contain the actual bit of paleonthological information, but that bit is essentially hidden between tales of Steve the Great and his almost-as-great famous friends and acquaintances, as well as Brusatte's pet theories -- pun not intended -- and a lot of generalization on subjects that don't necessarily lend themselves to same. (Also, Brusatte obviously loves T-Rex ... and his obsession with the Rex's "puny arms" has me wondering about the wider psychological implications of Brusatte's fascination with the big bad boys (and girls) of dino-dom.)
Original review HERE.
Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon
Our third candidate under the "monumentally self-involved" header. Leaving aside that the book's subtitle ("History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them") is a complete misnomer, this, too, is chiefly about the bright and sparky Ms. Wright and her opinions, frequently at best shallow research, and largely inappropriate oh-so-clever (NOT) quips, asides, and pop culture references. At least two of the "plagues" mentioned in the book actually are not epidemics at all (which shows that indeterminate "medical horrors" is what Wright was truly after), and on the epidemics that do get mentioned, entire chapters of medical research and the world-renowned scientists chiefly responsible for that research don't even get so much as a passing mention. Virtually the book's only saving grace was Wright's stance against anti-vaxxers and similar superstitious nonsense -- the sum total of which, however, would easily have fit into one of the magazine articles that Wright produces when she's not pretending she is a science writer.
Original review HERE.
Ethel Lina White: The Lady Vanishes
One of the rare examples where I like the movie adaptation (by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock, no less) vastly better than the literary original. "Woman in peril" stories aren't my cup of tea to begin with, but leaving aside that I rather like Hitch's spin on the conspiracy at the heart of the book, most of all, the two protagonists (Margaret Lockwood's Iris and her "knight in shining armour", portrayed by Michael Redgrave in the movie) come across as much more likeable and believable in the screen version -- the guy in particular is nothing more than a pretentious prick in the book, for however much he's supposed to be the Hero and Iris's big savior and love interest. All in all, Hitchcock elevated what seems to amount at best to B movie material on paper into one of his early masterpieces -- no small feat on his part.
Original review HERE.
Francine Matthews: The Cutout
Not strictly a disappointment, as I was a bit skeptical going in anyway; however, it had an interesting premise and started well and thus got my hopes up to a certain extent -- only to deflate them pretty thoroughly, alas, before it had really gotten going. Totalitarian political machinations in a post-collapse-of-the-Wall Europe may have sounded interesting when the book was written in the early 2000s -- and sound even more up-to-date these days, in fact -- but it would have required a different writer to pull this off convincingly. Matthews has no understanding of Germany, German society and politics, nor that of the Eastern European countries where her book is set (if she ever lived in Berlin or any of the book's other main locations, she obviously had virtually zero interactions with anybody other than her American intelligence colleagues), and unfortunately, name-dropping half a street atlas' worth of names of tourist sites and major traffic arteries is no replacement for a believable reproduction of local atmosphere. Similarly, not one of the characters is anything other than a two-dimensional cipher, and by the time the book reaches its end, it degenerates into the cheapest of cheap spy thriller clichés once and for all.
Original review (of sorts) HERE.
(Or would that be "dishonorable mentions"?)
John Bude: The Lake District Murder
I already used this for the task of finding something redeeming in an otherwise disappointing book (International Day of Tolerance / Door 6, Task 1), so I won't formally use it again in this particular context -- besides, unlike the five above-mentioned books it didn't actually make me angry ... it just fell flat of what it could have been.
Original review HERE.
Joanne Fluke / Laura Levine / Leslie Meier: Candy Cane Murder
A huge disappointment only considering how popular these three ladies' books are (particularly so, Fluke's) -- ultimately, I guess this was nothing more than a confirmation of the fact that cozy mysteries aren't actually my kind of thing (with the sole exception of Donna Andrews's Meg Langslow series). Of the three entries, Meier's was by far the weakest, but I neither cared particularly for Fluke's nor ultimately for Levine's, either -- though in the sense of "amongst the blind, the one-eyed man is king", Levine's was the strongest entry in an overall weak threesome.
Original review HERE.
Thinking about this task, I realize that quite a few African destinations are sitting on my travel bucket list.
I've been to Tunisia and I've done the big "must see" things in Egypt, but I'd still love to return to Egypt one day and see some of the remaining sights; particularly Alexandria, Mount Sinai/St. Catherine's Monastery, Abydos, Dendera, Deir el-Medina/Medinet Habu, and Al Fayoum/Meidum.
I'd also like to see Morocco (Marrakech, Fes, Benhaddou, Essaouira, Merzouga Dunes and, if only for sentimental reasons, Casablanca).
Most of all, though, I'd like to visit Southern and Sub-Saharan Africa one day, particularly:
* South Africa (Cape Town / Table Mountain / Western Cape, Garden Route, Kruger National Park / Sabi Sand Game Reserve, and various other parks and reserves -- e.g., Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Karoo National Park, Addo Elephant National Park, and Phinda Game Reserve)
* Tanzania (Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, Ngorongoro Crater)
* Kenya (Maasai Mara, Lake Victoria)
* Victoria Falls (border of Zambia & Zimbabwe)
* Namibia (Etosha National Park, Sossusvlei Dunes, Spitzkoppe, Skeleton Coast)
* Botswana (Kalahari Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Tsodilo Hills, Nxia Pan National Park, Makgadikgadi Pans - in winter)
* Virunga Mountains Gorilla Conservation Area (Uganda / Rwanda / D.R. Congo)
* Seychelles or Mauritius
All of which, I suspect, is going to call for more than one trip ...
I usually give my mom a bouquet of flowers and take her out for lunch or dinner on Mother's Day. One occasion I remember particularly well is when a few years ago we took a trip to a place just south of Bonn, where there is a museum and, right below, the place's former train station has been transformed into a restaurant. It was a gloriously sunny day in May, and we very much enjoyed our food and the views of the Rhine Valley.
The museum (designed by the same architect as the Getty in Los Angeles, Richard Meier) and the train-station-turned-restaurant
The view from our table on the restaurant's terrace
Lunch -- asparagus, as matching the season
... and that year's bouquet
(as always, with hand-picked flowers, not prebound at the store)
Obviously, Agatha Christie is still the reigning queen of misdirection in a mystery, but for this task I'm going to go with Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series, which I am bit by bit revisiting at the moment, courtesy of the splendid audio versions narrated by Samuel West. The solutions of Dexter's books frequently depend on anagrams, crossword-style clues and similar instances of lateral and "six degrees of separation" thinking (the protagonist isn't named Morse for nothing), all which he tends to employ to great effect -- not least since before you've cottoned on to the particular sleight of hand he is using at any given time, the plot still seems to make sense to you and you might well think you're on to quite a different solution. The Wench is Dead has always been one of my favorite books by Dexter, not least because it also contains a bit of historical fiction writing (of sorts) and a story within a story -- in essence, it's Dexter's bow to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair.
No "still believe" about it for me even by age 5, and by age 7 I was well over them all; Santa, Saint Nick, the Easter Bunny and the rest of the lot. I think the last year when I still genuinely believed, or very much wanted to believe, in Santa Claus and in presents being brought by him and by "the Christ-child" (as childhood lore has it in Germany) was at age 4. At some point after that, I'm fairly even before Christmas at age 5, I had wised up to the fact that the giver of my Christmas presents was really my mom -- and ditto the Easter Bunny (whose existence had really never made sense to me to begin with ... a bunny laying eggs?!). So when my mom sat me down one day after I'd started elementary school for a "you're a big girl now, so I'm going to have to tell you something because I think you'll now be able to understand this" talk she had obviously prepared very carefully, I just looked at her and blurted out, equally to her puzzlement and relief: "Oh, I haven't believed in that for a long time anyway .."
All of which doesn't mean in the least, however, that I wasn't easily fooled as a kid, especially if I really wanted to believe in something -- and particularly so, by my two elder cousins (the daughters of my mom's elder sister, with whom we spent a lot of vacation and other time when I was little).
Some of the things they came up with, I just went along with and pretended, simply because I'd have found it much more annoying to have to discuss the whole thing: E.g., while I didn't like the stuff that Germans call Quark (any attempt at translation, e.g., as "curd" or "cottage cheese", is doomed to utter failure -- it's manifestly NOT the same thing), I very much liked cherry compote and preserve, so for a while they tried to get me to eat Quark and cherry compote, calling it "cherry ice cream" and telling me that unfortunately the freezer had failed to work properly ... all of which I wasn't fooled by for a second, but hey, anything for extra stuff with cherries in it (even Quark) -- and if pretending to go along with their story meant I didn't have to discuss that no, I still really didn't like Quark as such, but I did very much like it with compoted or preserved cherries in it, thank you very much, then that was just fine by me.
BUT the one thing they produced and which downright drove me to distraction were Pumuckl's footprints! Pumuckl is the hero of a series of German children's books; a little kobold / gnome who one day takes residence in a master carpenter's shop, where he instantly proceeds to cause all sorts of havoc. I used to love those books, as well as the TV series based on them (with Pumuckl's voice done by Hans Clarin), so imagine my surprise when, one day while we were vacationing on the North Sea coast, my cousins suddenly pointed out to me that Pumuckl had to have been around, because look, there were his footprints! And they were all correct, too, with a big toe print and only three smaller toe prints (since Pumuckl only had four toes -- and he was always walking barefoot). And of course, shortly thereafter small things started to happen -- my bath towel or my little scoop or something else would disappear and reappear somewhere else entirely; just the sort of tricks and practical jokes that Pumuckl was known to play. Since as a rule he was invisible, and since I very much wanted him to exist (even though deep down I knew he didn't), for a while I was seriously thrown, all the more since I couldn't figure out how my cousins, or anybody in league with them for that matter, had produced the magical footprints. So this went on for quite a while, with me skeptical but very much wanting to believe, and my cousins producing more and more evidence of Pumuckl's existence ... until I finally found out how they'd created his "footprints" (namely, by pressing the undersides of their fists into the sand for the main foot impression and then using their fingers for the toe imprints), at which time of course the game was up. I still think of this whenever I'm on the beach, though -- and whenever I see one of the Pumuckl books somewhere, or come across a rerun of the TV series.
(On the beach in Spain, with my elder cousins (left and center),
a year or two before the appearance of "Pumuckl's footprints")
I don't actually have one single favorite holiday tradition -- to me the holidays are pretty much a multi-faceted package, and each one of the components is equally important; everything from Christmas decorations (even if I haven't put up any this year -- but at least my mom did), candles, and Christmas cookies to the way we traditionally spend Christmas Eve (church, gift giving, sausages and potato salad for dinner, and nonstop favorite holiday movies after that) and taking time to relax and unwind on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. I've come to realize over the years that being at home for Christmas really matters to me as well -- I've had some nice Christmases elsewhere, too, but none has even come close to the extra element of comfort and relaxation that doing "all the old familiar things" at home seems to provide.
I know Tolkien didn't actually intend this to be a trilogy, but that is how it has come to be published -- and it's occupied the spot that says "favorite trilogy" to me ever since I first read it in my early teens.
I'm going with the book I read yesterday for this: Mind you, this is by no means a bad book (I gave it 3 1/2 stars); the characters are well-developed, the story gets going fairly quickly, and while it does, it's an engaging read -- even if I didn't like all the characters I was supposed to like quite as much as the author probably hoped. Also, if you haven't made up your mind early on about the "who" (and the probable "why"), and if you like an author twisting your tail round and round until you get to the solution, you'll certainly get your fill here. Alas, the latter wasn't true for me in this instance, though; and as a result, from a certain point onwards the story's twists and turns felt a bit like the manipulations of one of those "three caps and a pea" shell game operators, but one where you've twigged the main sleight of hand early on and are just half-heartedly following the motions and waiting for the big reveal. As a result, the final 100 or so pages of the book took me about twice as long as they would have if I had still been fully engaged at that point -- and in a 230 page book, that equates to almost half the contents.
Side note: While PanMacmillan's (and it always seems to be them) insistence on republishing mysteries set during or even only in the vicinity of Christmas with a new title (and matching cover) shouting "Christmas mystery", "cozy", and "Golden Age tradition" is seriously getting on my nerves at this point, here they've actually hit the bull's eye in a sense -- which will become clear very fast to any reader who's also read the book after which this mystery's title is obviously fashioned, and to which it pays hommage to a certain extent; i.e., Agatha Christie's first Miss Marple mystery. Unfortunately, the new title indirectly also shines a light on precisely those clues and constructive elements of the book that, to me, made it clear fairly early on where we were headed ... and of course now I'll never know whether, if I had read the book under its original title (Redemption), those clues would have stood out to me quite as much as they actually did.