Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Long and Varied Week

Let me start this post with last Saturday
I love museums, but have not been to one in a long time. So I was all for it when, at my sister's birthday, we (i. e. two friends, RJ, my sister and I) agreed on seeing an exhibition at the museum in Stuttgart's Alte Schloss ("old castle", a building from Renaissance times, as opposed to the "new" palace, which was built and rebuilt much later). The exhibition we wanted to see is about the connection between the House of Wuerttemberg and the Russian royal dynasty of the Romanovs. Several marriages between both houses meant a relationship was established that made the families and countries profit from each other in many ways, not only politically.

In 2011, I read two biographical novels about the ladies who were most prominent in my area from that connection. You can find my reviews on these books here and here.
Naturally, I was interested in seeing the exhibition that would show objects these ladies I had been reading about had used in real life; dresses they had worn, and many other things. 
When we arrived at the entrance, though, we found there was a queue so long it would have taken us half an hour just to get tickets. We decided against going in and went somewhere else.

I found this video on youtube that allows a glimpse of what we missed. The video is less than two minutes, and so I hope some of you will watch it although the commentary is in German.

Stuttgart has much to offer in terms of culture, and many places of interest are within easy walking distance. After a brief discussion, we settled for visiting the Willi Baumeister exhibition in the new art museum.

Now, I don't expect many of you to have heard the name of the artist before; although he was internationally known and his work popular outside Germany, he was pretty much a "local hero", having been born in Stuttgart and maintaining close ties with his home town throughout his life. 
If you click here, you will get to the official website in English.

We enjoyed the exhibition; the building alone is worth a closer look. A short description in English and pictures of what the building looks like by day and night can be found here.

After so much cultural input, we needed physical sustenance as well and went to a Spanish tapas restaurant a few hundred metres away, for good food and free-flowing conversation.

Sunday was a lazy day for me. I read my weekly paper, watched a bit of telly, played my Sims and just had quiet day in.

On Monday, I worked from home and had lunch at my parents'.

On Tuesday, I worked from home again, where RJ joined me in the afternoon. In the evening, we went to the pub, where I had finally managed to get my team for the pub quiz together again. It was our first quiz this year, and the very first pub quiz ever for RJ, who came up with some really good answers.
Some of the questions were easy enough, while others needed more knowledge than we had, and our team only reached 24 of 29 points.

Wednesday was spent at the office of our biggest client. RJ was still staying at my place, and invited me for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant near my home after work.

Not my own picture, but these gnocchi al pomodoro look pretty much like the ones I had.
On Thursday, we worked together from home, and on Friday, we were back at the office. After work, RJ spontaneously decided to accompany me to a friend's birthday party, where we had once again good food and drinks, interesting conversations and lots to laugh about.

I came home last night (or, rather, this morning) just before 1.00 am, and was quite ready for bed. It has been a long and varied week, with two projects finished at work and several new ones on the way. There was culture, there were friends and family, there was laughter and there was some seriousness as well. What I did not have all week was much exercise, apart from skipping rope. I miss running, and am looking forward to going dancing next week Saturday.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Read in 2014 - 2: Initials Only

The first ebook I have read this year (mainly on the train to and from work) was "Initials Only" by Anna Katharine Green.  

A detective story first published in 1911, "Initials Only" deals with the case of beautiful young heiress Edith Challoner dropping dead in the writing room of a luxury hotel while nobody is near her, and no shot is heard and no bullet found in the deadly wound. Did she take her own life by stabbing herself through the heart with a paper knife, later found on the floor in the hotel lobby (but with no traces of blood on it)?

Her grieving father refuses to believe the coroner's verdict of suicide, and employs an investigator who is actually part of the police force but acts on his own for most of the time.
Among Miss Challoner's personal belongings are found letters signed with initials only, O.B. Who is O.B., and what - if anything - does he have to do with her death?

Sweetwater, the investigator, finds out the identity of O.B. pretty soon, but instead of answering the questions the case poses, he only brings up more mysteries.

In the end, though, the truth is revealed by the murderer himself, and we are left with a ray of hope for the grieving people left behind in possibly finding love and happiness again.

The wikipedia entry about Anna Katharine Green dubs her as "the mother of the detective novel", having created not only the series detective later made so famous by other authors, but also inventing the prototype for Miss Marple (nosy society spinster Amelia Butterworth), the girl detective (Violet Strange, a debutante with a secret life as a sleuth) and using legally accurate descriptions of police procedures and scientific methods employed in both the murders and their solvings.

Her first mystery novel, "The Leavenworth Case", was already a bestseller ten years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entered the stage with Sherlock Holmes. At one time, there was even doubt on whether her books could have really been written by a woman!

Green's life (1846 to 1935) was not quite average for her times; she seems to have been a rather unconventional lady with very much her own head on her shoulders. For instance, she married relatively late (at 38 years) and a man seven years her junior.

"Initials Only" held a few surprises for me, but none of its twists and turns was so illogical or incredible as to appear ridiculous. The language and descriptions of places and people very much reflect their times. I really enjoyed reading this mystery, and will maybe look for more (free) ebooks by the same author.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Read in 2014 - 1: The Bell Jar

After she saw the kind of reading material I reviewed here on my blog during December, my sister decided it was about time I read something of a better literary quality, and lent me "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath.

The wikipedia entry about this book, the only novel by the author (she was a poet first and foremost), says that the story is semi-autobiographical and mirrors Plath's own experience with clinical depression and the kind of health care mentally ill patients received in those days.

"The Bell Jar" starts in the summer of 1953, when 19-year-old Esther Greenwood is on an internship at a fashionable New York magazine. But what she expects to be the time of her life turns into the beginning of her problems with herself and the world around her, eventually leading to a suicide attempt after she returns home and a long stay in various mental health institutions.

I do not want to tell too much of those events, or the effects her depression has on her relationships with her family and friends, and I am not going to reveal how the book ends, but I recommend "The Bell Jar" to anyone who appreciates the telling of a dramatic story without the need to recurr to overly dramatic language. 

For me, depression has always been something I found hard to understand, and still do after having read this book. On the surface, Esther (or Sylvia Plath in real life) has many more reasons for happiness than for the paralyzing sad numbness she feels. Yes, her father died when she was a little girl; she does not really love the young man who sees himself as her fiancé, and she is not accepted for a writing course she wanted to attend. But she has a mother who loves her, friends who are interested in her well-being, is a reasonably good-looking, physically healthy young woman with no hard-pressing financial worries and a bright mind which can lead her to a fulfilling university career and beyond.

Don't we all have both good and bad things happening to us in our lives? How come some people plunge into black depths by something others get through with more strength they would have believed themselves to have previously? Why are some of us more resilient than others?
Although clinical depression has been scientifically examined for a long time now, and continues to be at the centre of attention for many great minds, it remains a puzzle to me. Can it really all be down to a chemical imbalance in the brain?

Thankfully (and there are so many things I am thankful for in my everyday life!), I was never given to depression myself. Maybe that is the advantage of being so shallow.

Anyway, "The Bell Jar" was a good read, and I am sorry for the author and her loved ones: Sylvia Plath commited suicide mere weeks after it was first published in the UK.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Hummus Hunters

For RJ and I, the first working week of 2014 was quite unlike what our weeks usually are. We were off to a rather relaxed start on Tuesday, the 7th (the 6th is a holiday in my part of Germany). We were both working from my place; I have three desks here, all of them with internet access, and so it is no problem to have an efficient day at the home office. Most of what we did on that first day was preparing everything for this year.

On Wednesday, we had a visitor. I hesitate to simply call him a customer, because he is more than that; we also cooperate with him in more than one way, and he has been an acquaintance of RJ's long before the idea of working together came up.
We had several meetings with him in December, but this was the first time we had the occasion to talk in detail about what we were going to do, terms and conditions and so on. Well, it was a session that lasted 12 hours, including lunch, coffee and cake, and a (delivered) pizza late in the evening. For the rest of the week, RJ and I were both knackered and were glad for being able to take things a bit slower at our biggest customer's office on Thursday and Friday.
We still had lots to think and talk about, since several new opportunities have opened up for us, so we used some of the weekend for business as well, not neglecting the fun and relaxing bits; there was my sister's birthday to celebrate Friday night, and we went dancing on Saturday night.

This week, I am on my own again and will do most of my work at the customer's office. But because of last week's many extra hours, I am only going to take the train a bit after lunch, and work just a few hours this afternoon.

Half an hour ago, I have returned from doing my groceries shopping for the week. I have probably mentioned before that I do nearly all my food shopping at Aldi's, which is the most convenient place for me; it covers all my householdy needs, has great prices and good products, and is close enough for someone like me who does not drive but carries all their purchases on foot.

For a few weeks already, Aldi has been offering a new range of (vegetarian) bread spreads. I am not a vegetarian, but I do not "need" fish and meat; usually, I only eat it when I am invited somewhere, or when RJ cooks here and we eat together. The bread spreads come in many different kinds: there are mushroom-shiitake; cashew and red pepper; onion and cream; olive and herbs, and many more. What really caught my eye, though, was the word "Hummus" on the large cardboard box holding the small tins.

[Picture nicked from Aldi's website.]

If you don't know what hummus is, you can read about it here on wikipedia. I love hummus, but am too lazy to make it myself. So getting it ready-made in a small tin was certainly worth a try.

But... each time since I first noticed the assortment of new bread spreads, I have been looking through the big cardboard box (containing 36 tins) and not once found a hummus one. I've lifted the box on top of the pile and searched the box below, something that obviously other customers before me have been doing as well.
So far, not a single hummus tin in sight!
Of course, I have not stopped at the supermarket long enough to search through ALL the boxes - that would have probably taken me about half an hour. But isn't it odd that, out of all the many kinds of spread, that one is the most hunted for? Who, I wonder, are the other Aldi-customers who manage to grab the coveted tins before me? Is it only one person, filtering out all their hummus stock? Or is it a clever marketing trick to add just one single tin to each palette for the lucky winner, similar to the Golden Ticket in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"?
Will I ever get one of those precious little tins?

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Read in 2013/2014 - 1: The American Woman's Home

Altogether, in 2013 I read just over 50 books. Most of them were free ebooks that I had found on Amazon's kindle shop, and although there were a few that I could have done without, I quite enjoyed a lot of them and do not regret having spent time with them.

The first book I finished this year (last night, to be precise) was "American Woman's Home", written by sisters Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher-Stowe (the latter being best known for "Uncle Tom's Cabin", I suppose). By far the largest portion of this book I read during December 2013.

"American Woman's Home" was published in 1869 and covers all imaginable subjects that matter to the smooth running of a household and the raising of a family, from floorplans to the ideal home to the care of animals, healthy cooking to the care of servants, domestic amusements and social duties to sewing, cutting and mending, ending with a chapter about "The Christian Neighbourhood" and an "Appeal to American Women".

This book is a huge source of information on what daily life in an average home could have been like in those days. It talks about both what the authors deem bad household management and what they recommend. Two things featuring prominently throughout the book are fresh air and Christian principles. There are some bits sounding rather advanced and modern for the times, but also bits that seem quite weird to us now, but are presented in such seriousness that they made me laugh and shudder at the same time.
For instance, while Catharine Beecher was a strong advocat for women's rights in that she thought all women should be able to work for their own livelihood, and that domestic work was just as important as any business conducted in the world out there, she did not think it fitting for women to go into politics. To her, men and women had different roles assigned to them by god and nature, and the way to happiness was adhering to those roles.
In the book, mothers are encouraged to teach both their daughters and sons how a household is run successfully, how to cook, mend clothes, plant fruit and vegetables, and so on, so there is not the strict separation of tasks into male and female, as you'd expect from a writer in 1869.
The  wikipedia article about her is quite interesting.

For me, the chapters talking about the ideal home, how it should be laid out, furnished and decorated, were the most interesting ones. While doing research for this review, I came across this blog post with pictures and excerpts from the book.

My free kindle edition does not contain any pictures, so I was happy to find the complete work with illustrations elsewhere, and I have nicked some of them for my post. 

It was an interesting book and made me glad once more for living where, when and how I live! Back then, managing a household involved so much more work than nowadays with all our modern appliances and ready-made products. One really wonders how come people are so "stressed out" all the time, when in reality they have so much more free time as people did back then.