Sunday 19 May 2019

Armchair travelling

Recently, I seem to have spent a fair bit of literary time in France and Italy, not on purpose, sometimes it just works out that way. Possibly I'm in the mood for those countries right now in a way I wasn't during the winter... which I suppose does make sense.

Anyway, first up, The Riviera Set by Mary S. Lovell (Read in April). This is my 11th. book for Bev's MTR Reading challenge 2019 and my 2nd. book for the The European Reading challenge 2019 covering the country of France.

This book is subtitled, '1920-1960: The golden years of glamour and excess' and that just about sums it up. The author chose a house, Chateau de l'Horizon, and its history to concentrate on and starts the book with the history of the woman who originally built it, Maxine Elliot. Maxine, born Jessica Dermot, in Maine in 1868 was of fairly humble stock. She became an actress and eventually ended up in England where she fell in love with the aristocracy and its way of life and determined to be accepted into it. This she eventually managed and after becoming a successful actress and wealthy business woman built the Chateau de l'Horizon in 1930 on the French Riviera between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. It became a magnet for the rich and famous: actors, politicians and the British aristocracy all stayed there. Winston Churchill was a regular visitor and there's a lot about his visits which he mainly undertook on his own as his wife, Clementine, hated The Riviera and the kind of people it attracted. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived nearby, at least until the war, and sections that involved them were also intriguing. When Maxine died the house was eventually bought by Prince Aly Khan and was where he first met and fell in love with Rita Heyworth. In fact, he had a decided penchant for actresses which effectively disinherited him and prevented him becoming the Aga Khan when his father died. This was a fascinating book. Mary Lovell is an excellent biographer, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mitford Sisters... this book is not quite as good, possibly the subject being not quite as rivetting, but I was nevertheless very impressed and definitely plan to read more by her. (I now own The Churchills.)

Next, A Small Place in Italy by Eric Newby. This is my book 12 for Bev's MTR Reading challenge 2019 and my 3rd. book for The European Reading challenge 2019, covering the country of Italy.

One of the most well-known travel writers of the 20th. century, Eric Newby, recounts how he and his wife Wanda, whom he met during WW2 and features in Love and War in the Apennines, bought and renovated a ruin of a house, 'I Castagni', in Italy, beginning in 1967. As they were not living there year-round the work had to be done during their holidays, although they did seem to have quite long breaks away from England. This was a charming book, I loved getting to know his Italian neighbours, all their quirks, their routines which had not changed in hundreds of years (the spot was very isolated at that time) and their kindness which at times was overwhelming. The Newbys took part in the yearly wine-making and the descriptions of how it used to be when the grapes were picked by hand, and how it was an honour to be asked to help your neighbours, were fascinating. My goodness it was real hard graft, brightened only by interruptions for meals and plenty of wine. I love this type of book, these days there are a lot of French based ones, a few of which I've read, but it made a refreshing change to have an Italian one, although I suspect if I looked I would find there are a few modern Italian ones out there. Perhaps I will look.

Lastly, a fiction book, Mr. Gandy's Grand Tour by Alan Titchmarsh.

Timothy Gandy, in his mid-fifties and married with three grown-up children, suddenly becomes a widower when his wife, Isobel, collapses and dies unexpectedly. He's always wanted to travel abroad but Isobel was a poor traveller so they never did. Since childhood, Timothy has been interested in people who did The Grand Tour of Europe in the 19th. century and early 20th., taking in the art and the culture of countries such as France and Italy. Life with Isobel has turned him into a rather quiet, timid sort of man but he feels that if he doesn't go on this tour now, he never will. Paris is his first destination and he is quite unprepared for an encounter that happens there as he's painting, and the consequences. In fact, his whole holiday is going to follow this pattern and Tim not quite sure whether this is a good thing, or bad.

Well now, I read something by TV gardener, Alan Titchmarsh, a fair few years ago and wasn't all that smitten. It seemed unremarkable: although the writing wasn't bad, I didn't connect with his characters very much, it all seemed a bit 'surface'. But it seems Mr. Titchmarsh has now matured as a writer and this offering is a lot better. Tim is a delightful character with depth and empathy, self-searching and introspective. I loved his voyage of discovery and the gentle way he made friends and subsequently helped and encouraged people with their problems. It was also a voyage of self-discovery for him, sometimes painful, always illuminating, never boring. If you like quiet, introspective, gentle books and also enjoy a bit of armchair travelling then quite honestly, you could do a lot worse.



DesLily said...

Well... you've had you vacation... now what? (lol)

Cath said...

Another vacation... going up to Surrey in a couple of weeks so P can visit RHS Wisley (a huge garden).

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Armchair travels is an added bonus to the joy of reading. This year I've seemed to travel more outside of the US than inside so, that has been nice. I love visiting a country with unfamiliar customs as well.

Sam said...

Armchair traveling is all I did for a while, and I learned to enjoy it very much. I remember reading a couple of roadtroip books and using Google Earth to get street views of the stops along the way that the authors were describing (even did a post on it). It was great fun to be able to explore the block or two surrounding the stop being described, and the like, and I really need to go back and do that again ro see how the latest Google Earth pictures and maps do. I'm reading one book right now about a children's zoo in remote Nebraska that might lend itself to a Google Earth search.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I read a few of Alan Titchmarsh's novels some years ago and wasn't all that impressed, maybe I should try Mr. Gandy's Grand Tour.

The Riviera Set sounds fascinating and so I've reserved a copy at the library, I've now got 4 books on my reserve list and am hoping they won't all arrive together!

A Small Place in Italy looks good too. Have you read Frances Mayes' books Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany? In the first book she describes how she bought and renovated an abandoned villa. It’s full of the pleasures of living in Tuscany – the sun, the food, the wine and the local people. Bella Tuscany is the follow up book with more details about the restoration of the villa and its garden, plus recipes. I read these years ago and loved them.

Nicola said...

I loved Lovell's book about the Mitford set - I like anything about the Mitfords. Prob won't read The Riviera Set as I'm not so interested in that period. I wish Lovell would write another Mitford biog!

Nan said...

I'm very interested in the AT book. I've looked into his work, but the subject matter didn't interest me except for one that I loved so much I read it twice - Animal Instincts. I put up a passage from it here:

Cath said...

Diane: I too like visiting unfamiliar countries, it's one of the reasons I like to do the European Reading challenge as it encourages me to learn about new places.

Sam: I'm glad I'm not the only one that looks the settings of books up on Google Earth. I aslo like to find tourist pics of the areas to get an idea of the landscape and lie of the land. It really is very helpful. Amazing to think that years ago none of this was available and now you can find anything you want online.

Margaret: I think AT has matured as a writer. It could have been the subject matter, I am quite interested in France & Italy, but I do honestly think it was more than that. He had interesting characters and the book was quite introspective.

LOL... I know what you mean about books on reserve piling up. I seem not to be able to resist doing it though.

No I haven't read Frances Mayes' books, I'll look into those on Goodreads in a moment. Thanks for the rec.

Nicola: Oh, have you read that too? Goodness, it read like a sensational novel almost. I couldn't put it down. The WW2 details fascinated me the most. Yes, I wish she would write another Mitford biog. I must get around to reading something by Nancy, so far I've just tried her essays.

Nan: I think you would like the AT book, I adored its gentleness and how 'thinking' it was. I don't know Animal Instincts, will check it out. I've seen a Scottish one in the library, Bring Me Home, so I might that at some stage.

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