chestnut book blog

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Hebrides and Peter May

A few visual treats for you from Peter May and David Wilson’s beautiful Hebrides:

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

I fell in love with the west coast of Scotland and its islands on my twenty-fifth birthday on a visit to Skye. Since then, I have visited Lewis and North Uist, Iona, Ullapool and Oban among others. This coffee-table book captures the beauty, wildness and majesty of the landscape of Lewis and Harris. It made me want to sell up immediately, buy a croft and a pack of dogs and live happily ever after! A pipe dream of course but one day perhaps!

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson


Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

This picture book accompanies an excellent trilogy of crime novels by Peter May, all set on Lewis and Harris. I think I’ve said before that crime novels are not usually my favourites, but The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man in particular are exceptions. I was first introduced to Peter May by Cornflower and they are truly excellent crime novels and I thoroughly enjoyed them. The settings were also beautifully imagined in the novels and the images in Hebrides were the cherry on the top of this reading experience! If you love Scotland too, do check them out!

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I read once that you should go to at least one new place each year. Switzerland was my first new place for 2014. I’ve skirted around the borders before, in France, in Italy and Germany, but Switzerland itself was a bit of an unknown. As you can see though, it was beautiful:

The Slopes, Nendaz

The Slopes, Nendaz

Haute Nendaz, looking towards St Bernard's Pass

Haute Nendaz, looking towards St Bernard’s Pass

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva


We stayed in a beautiful chalet and this book was on the bedside table in our room – Swiss Watching: Inside the land of milk and money – I couldn’t resist a flick through! With a slight disclaimer that I didn’t have time to read the whole thing, what I did read was very good. Not only was it funny, but it also summed up some of my own observations of Switzerland. Here are a few headlines:

– The countryside, lakes and mountains  are absolutely stunning, but there is a surprising amount of ugly graffiti in towns.

– CH is used on Swiss number plates. I was confused by this as it seems to bear no resemblance in any language used in Switzerland to the country’s name: La Suisse, Schweiz etc. This book informed me that, because of the many languages used in Switzerland, and the Swiss love of consensus, they chose a long dead language to use as their international registration code. Confoerderatio Helvetica – the name for the area from an ancient Roman tribe.

– I love cheese. I didn’t like fondue as much as I thought I would though. There is much more to Swiss cooking than fondue though. See here for some examples we tried. The food was eye-wateringly expensive, but excellent quality wherever we went. As we were in the french-speaking area it was also (luckily for me as I’m not a huge fan of German food I’m afraid) more French than German influenced.

– This bit made me laugh: ‘But the Swiss and the British are more alike than either realise. Both societies are ruled by etiquette and red tape, and outsiders find it hard to make friends or become fully integrated. Added to that both share a reluctance to commit to European federalism, have a common distrust of the Germans and want to keep their own currency.’ Massive generalisations there, but more than a grain of truth I think!

– Switzerland is, of course, land locked. This book argued that the mountains have historically served a similar purpose to the sea and helped keep Switzerland somewhat isolated and remote. I thought this was interesting. I also found that I was very aware of not being anywhere near the sea, for the whole time I was in Switzerland. This was a bit strange and unexpected. I think I must have been a sailor in a former life because I love the sea and could never live in a land-locked country I don’t think.

All in all, we had a wonderful time in Switzerland and I’d recommend it for a short visit. I won’t say too much about the skiing we did itself, apart from to say that I came home in one piece, but with some huge bruises!

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A Private History of Happiness No. 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness this week as I have been reading A Private History of Happiness by George Myerson. What makes me happy and why? How do I feel when I am perfectly happy? Is it when I have those occasional heart-flutter moments or is it the deep, calm peaceful feeling I have when snuggled up with a good book on a cold evening or when eating with friends? Or all of those things?

A Private History of Happiness is a collection of ninety-nine short written extracts from many different people in many different times. These extracts are accompanied by a short analysis from Myerson that draws out the nub of the happiness in each section. They are loosely themed in the cycle of a day, from early morning to evening. This works well as it echoes that fact that so many of these observations of happiness are about the small, mundane details of nature and nurture. This book is not only heart-warming but also, as Myerson points out in the introduction, shows us that over the centuries, human happiness is a thread that unites us:

As these people from many ways of life wrote down their experiences, there was an inner core that said, “This was a moment when I was glad to be alive.” Reading their words now, even centuries later, we can feel immediately how their happiness filled passing moments, creating occasions that needed to be recorded.

This book made me feel happier and more peaceful just reading it so if that is not a recommendation, I don’t know what is! I also read it all in one go as I was enjoying it so much, but if anything, it is more suited to reading a small bit each night before going to bed I think. The joy of savouring a beloved book just before bedtime is actually one of the extracts appropriately!

George Myerson commenting on an extract from George Ridpath, historian and vicar, writing in his diary, December 13th, 1755.

For George Ridpath, it was a real treat to settle down with a good book on a wintery evening, his sermon done for another week, his thought free to wander as he drifted towards sleep. It was the perfect end to the day and also the best of ways to welcome the night.

Interestingly, one of the other extracts that appealed to me most was one of the oldest:

Ptolemy, astronomer, making a note in the margin of his book. Alexandria, Second Century BC

I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.

Isn’t that beautiful? It sums up more elegantly than I ever could exactly how I feel when I take the time to look properly at the stars. The feeling of being pleasantly small and insignificant, but also in the presence of something much greater.

I find reading blogs makes me happy and I definitely gravitate to ones that make me feel peaceful and contented. I thought, because winter can often be a difficult time, I would write about experiences and things that make me happy here as a little mini-series, in the hope that it also makes you think about happiness through the dark winter nights.

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Slow reading

Although I mentioned this in a previous post, I thought slow reading was so interesting it deserved a post of its own!

In her lovely book, Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill recommends the virtues of slow reading; of savouring words and paragraphs, rolling them around in your brain and digesting them at leisure. This really struck a chord with me as I am more of a gobbler. I am greedy with words. I devour them in large chunks and with unseemly haste.

“It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence. Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.”

She is so right. Since I read this paragraph above in particular, I’ve been trying my best to read more slowly, with mixed success. I find myself racing away without really realising it and then have to draw myself back in. What I am finding though is that slow reading makes certain books a much more nourishing experience than before, but it doesn’t work with every book. Some of my holiday books for example were pacey and easy with few hidden depths and I think they are enjoyed more for reading quickly with the brain off. It helps you enjoy the story for what it is, without being a snob and cringing over the odd awkward sentence, typo* or repetition.

If you would like to know more, here are some useful resources I came across in my slow reading research:

The Art of Slow Reading

Reading Fast and Slow

A Slow Books Manifesto

What do you think? Are you a slow reading fan?

* On an unrelated note, have you noticed that there are more typos and repetition errors in books over the last few years or is it just me? The demise of the literary editor might be a future post!


Howards End is on the Landing

Susan Hill is a wonderful writer and I have a feeling that if I were ever lucky enough to meet her, I would find a kindred spirit. I have not read much of her fiction, apart from the wonderful The Woman in Black and The Second Mrs De Winter, but her non-fiction is so evocative and well-written I almost prefer it.

I was introduced to my first non-fiction Susan Hill book by my regular blog read, DoveGreyReader Scribbles. DoveGreyReader and her subscribers recommended The Magic Apple Tree as a touching meditation on life in a small village. At the time I read those comments, I was feeling a little overwhelmed by life in London and so jumped at the chance to immerse myself in the changing seasons of the English countryside and I was richly rewarded.

After that, I forgot about Susan Hill until I saw this beautiful book on a table in Waterstone’s. Howards End is on the Landing has one of the nicest covers I’ve seen in a long time.

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

The blurb evoked a journey through Hill’s bookshelves and the importance of reading. I was hooked and couldn’t leave the shop without it. One reason this particularly appealed to me that day was I’d been having a slightly heated discussion with the love of my life about the problem of book storage. He was asking me to whittle down my collection so we could avoid the double stacking, stacks on the floor, general nightmare of our study cum third bedroom. I was horrified. Give away my books? How could I do that and deprive myself of re-reading them all when I’m too old or poor to buy any more? Or deprive myself of a niggling question about X author or Y last line that a quick flip through my shelves can answer? Or deprive myself of the sentimental value and memories tied to so many of my copies? You can imagine I gave a rather robust defence. Love me, love my books! So this was the conversation I had in mind when I picked up this book about a year of reading exclusively from your own collection and the joys of rediscovery. Perfect.

The first thing to say is that Hill’s home sounds wonderful! Cosy fires, bookshelves everywhere and nestled into the countryside. She describes wonderful autumn afternoons of browsing through the bookshelves and then settling down with her selections at the kitchen table or in a soft armchair, with a fire and a cup of tea. She talks of her reasons for doing this year of rereading as wanting to ‘repossess her books, explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and map this house of many volumes.’ I think that is exactly what I had in mind when thinking about why I was holding on so fiercely to all my own books.

There were so many gems of ideas, vignettes of Hill’s meetings with many authors and general bookish information in this book that I can’t begin to summarise them all, but one in particular that connected with me was about slow reading. Hill describes how her books deserve to be savoured: ‘Everything I am reading during this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect by reading it slowly.’ Hill is absolutely right that much is missed when reading quickly and it is a fault I know I have. I am so greedy for books I gobble them up quickly without pausing to reflect on the nuances and intricacies. I will now try to read more slowly to see if I get more from my own books.

At the end of the book, Hill lists the forty books that she could not be without. I have read about a quarter of them so that will be a challenge to do later this year. I grew to respect Hill’s opinions so much in this book that I will take her top forty extremely seriously. I suspect that Howards End is on the Landing may just be in my top forty.

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Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber found its way into my reading list because of the controversial Hilary Mantel lecture I attended a few months ago. When musing on which book she would recommend to the Duchess of Cambridge, Mantel chose Weber’s biography. ‘Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks’ Mantel said and I knew I just had to read it.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty 1775

It was published sometime ago in 2007 and yet is one of those books that will endure I think as it’s lessons are timeless. It is a hugely original biography and an outstanding piece of work. It tells the story of Marie Antoinette, the hated Austrian Queen of France from her childhood in Vienna to her execution in Paris, through the lens of her dresses. What she wore was one of the few things in her life that Marie Antoinette could control. She was completely constrained by her circumstances in the highly formal court of Versailles and Weber charts her rebellions; such as a refusal to wear a corset, her use of male riding clothes, her enormous hairstyle, the pouf, and her adoption of the unstructured dress, the gaulle. What she wore was also one of the few ways Marie Antoinette could be political in a patriarchal regime. However, it was this politicisation of her dress that Marie Antoinette got so wrong. The luxury and ostentation of her court dresses and hairstyles as befitting her royal status were resented by a starving public for the waste of money and even flour (used to powder her hair). Yet, when she turned to less formal styles like the gaulle, she was attacked for ruining the French silk industry. She could not win and at times, I felt huge sympathy for this tragic woman as I read the biography.

Marie Antoinette in a simple dress

Marie Antoinette en chemise (in her simple Gaulle) by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1783

However, at other times I also felt extreme frustration. The particular episode that completely eroded my sympathy for her was, in planning to escape from Paris at the beginning of the revolution, Marie Antoinette foiled her own escape in many ways. At that time, she was wearing the colours of the revolution, blue, white and red to try to show her sympathy for the cause. It was, of course, an expediency and as they planned to escape, the Queen ordered new dresses in the royal white, blacks, purples and yellows, anticipating wearing them abroad after an escape. This raises suspicions in a minor seamstress and her tip-off  was one of the factors in the failure of their escape. This speaks to me of extreme blindness and stupidity and putting narcissism and vanity above your and your family’s personal safety.

This biography shows both a vain and silly Queen, but also a doomed, sad woman, trapped in circumstances beyond her control and  struggling for freedom in the only way she knew how. It allows the reader to make up their own mind. It also shows the power and the danger of being a fashion-plate in the public eye. A warning that is very pertinent to the Duchess of Cambridge as Mantel suggested. My one tip with this biography is that I might have found it a little hard to follow if I didn’t know the basics of the history of the French Revolution. It concentrates on Marie Antoinette obviously and does not linger on explaining some of the important events and personalities like the Flour Wars and Robespierre which are crucial references. This means that, if you have not already, I would recommend reading a general history of the French Revolution first before reading this book so you have a more rounded background overview of the period.

Reading this book has meant I think a little more carefully about what my clothes choices say about me, even though I am far from the public eye!

p.s this video of Caroline Weber explaining some of the ideas behind this book is really interesting.

The Happiness Project


The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

This book’s very cover makes me happy! It feels lovely! Have you read it?


The Hatfield Banquet

I went to my first Tudor banquet on Friday at Hatfield House and it was absolutely fantastic! We had been given tickets by my parents-in-law who had won them at a charity event last year.  I had little idea of what to expect, but what we got was a very warm welcome, wonderful entertainment, nice food and a magical setting in the Great Hall.

IMAG0038 IMAG0045

The Great Hall, Hatfield House

The Great Hall, Hatfield House

I’d forgotten many traditional songs that I had learnt when I was younger, but as I listened to the players, Greensleeves, Hey Nonny Nonny, and The Boar’s Head all came rushing back. The actors were all beautiful singers as well as highly entertaining. There was also a jester who wowed with his sleight of hand and fire eating. I never quite enjoy magic as much as I should though, because I am always trying to furiously work out how they do it! Knowing that we were just one in a very long line of parties that had been hosted in that beautiful Great Hall made the evening particularly special – there is nothing like a sense of history to put everything in perspective!

This all leads me on nicely to my current reading material, A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. This is the second in series written by Ian Mortimer. The first was a similar guide to Medieval England, which I enjoyed so much that it was very difficult to wait for the paperback version of this next book to be released. But wait I did and it was worth it. These books are such a good, new idea. A cross between a history book and historical fiction, they show you what life would really have been like; what you would smell, what you would say, how you would do things – fascinating! Mortimer has managed to bring the past alive through his research just as Hilary Mantel does – there is extensive research here, but it adds to rather than gets in the way of  your enjoyment. I am going to go back to it now to find out about the state of the roads in Tudor England and I’d thoroughly recommend that you check out this time traveller’s guide as well – it will come in very handy if you happen to go to a Tudor banquet any time soon!

In a month where we as a nation have found Richard III, when there was a discovery of a plague burial ground whilst excavating for the most modern of transport and I personally went to a Tudor banquet, it has shown me that history is anything but bunk!