Infectious laughter IS the best medicine

Yesterday afternoon we went shopping as we have guests arriving. Guess what – the automated banking system went down THROUGHOUT THE TOWN, so nobody could make any purchase anywhere by bank card, nor withdraw cash from any machine. Which, when you have a heaped trolley of shopping and no cash or chequebook with you is rather inconvenient at the supermarket checkout.

Being a handbag-hater I had not taken mine with me, which meant that after driving around fruitlessly for half-an-hour trying to extract cash from machines around the town, TOH finally had to drive all the way home – about 8 miles – to find my handbag which contained the chequebook, while I stood beside the check-out for over an hour, watching more and more customers frustrated and thwarted by the failure of the system. The poor cashier became increasingly frazzled at having to explain to customers that they’d have to find an alternative method of payment. Although she asked the somewhat apathetic manager to either put up a notice or make an announcement so that customers were forewarned, he declined to do so.

So what should have been a 40-minute trip to town turned out to be over two hours.

When we arrived home I emptied the washing machine of the white wash I had put on earlier, only to find that somebody who uses a fine-tip ball  pen (i.e. not me) had thoughtfully left it in a pocket, creating a hideous black-grey tie-dye effect on my best sheets and towels which I don’t think is going to come out. Grrrrrrr.

Then I went to take down the coloured wash from the line, and stood in fresh wet dog poo. Could things get any worse?

In fact, no, because when I checked  my email there was one from the talented and very lovely Anne Day-Jones who has so beautifully narrated the audio version of Best Foot Forward, now available from Audible.


Anne Day-Jones

During the time we have been working on the recording, Anne has complained that she sometimes laughed so much it took her an unreasonably long time to record some passages. Her email attached an audio file of one of those occasions. It gives meaning to “laugh and the whole world laughs with you,” because listening to this instantly erased all the irritations and exasperations of the afternoon. Thanks, Anne! 😀

Anne Day-Jones loses the plot 


My ten favourite books, and a few more

Stephanie at Blackbird Books has nominated me to name my all-time ten favourite books. Nothing too difficult there, Stephanie, just a matter of searching my mental database and picking out the best from a library of, I estimate, at least 6,000 books based on reading two a week every year since I was seven, and there have been periods where I have read at least a book a day.

Ten years ago, my choices would be different. In ten years time, they’ll more than likely be different again. But the following titles are those which come instantly to mind, all of them having been read in the last few years and having made a lasting impression, and all of them that I will definitely read again.  From my selection, you may notice that I don’t read “fluffy” books. I generally prefer a good, hard toffee to chew on, rather than a soft marshmallow that melts away too quickly. 😀

The Impressionist, by Hari Kunzru. An enthralling tale of a pampered child who becomes an outcast and climbs his way back to the peak of respectability, using his chameleon-like personality to blend into the different cultures he moves in. The ending is an absolute knock-out.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. I fell in love with Dr Jones, world authority on the life cycle of the caddis fly, charged with the preposterous task of finding a way to introduce salmon fishing into the arid Yemen in order to foster relations between the British Government and a wealthy sheikh. I laughed until I wept. Not only hilarious, but biting satirical. Thank goodness I read the book before watching the film, which I thought was one of the worst adaptations ever and a travesty. And by the way, here is a review by somebody who seems somewhat confused:  “I FOUND it UTTERLY nonsensical and total rubbish though I Will admit a lot of its ideas did make sense.” Um? 🙂

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This is a tale of tragedy and terrible hardship. It’s harrowing. The treatment of the characters made my blood boil with the injustice and cruelty. But what I found so wonderful is the way that no matter what, the victims never lose their sense of humour and their loyalty to each other, and their spirits remain uncrushed. It’s not for people who want a “happy ever after” ending. But if you’re looking for an extraordinary tale, beautifully written, you won’t be disappointed.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I’ve enjoyed all his books, of which this is my favourite. Set in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, it’s a sickening tale of the abuse of women, and it’s also story of love and self-sacrifice. Hosseini knows how to tell a gripping story.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Both funny and sad, I read this at one sitting, as Harold’s trip to the nearest letterbox becomes a pilgrimage from Devon to northern England to visit a dying friend. Ill-equipped, unsuitably dressed, Harold trudges doggedly onwards, reflecting on his unsatisfactory home life with his shrewish wife, hoping to meet his elusive son, and trying to shake off followers as his pilgrimage attracts media attention and he becomes a cult figure. I could really identify with his sore feet!

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I almost gave up on this because it started so s-l-o-w-l-y and I began to lose patience and think that nothing was ever going to happen. And then, suddenly, bang – I was hooked and couldn’t put it down. Shriver brings the characters to life – the cunning, psychotic son, the despairing mother, the doting, delusional father blind to his son’s faults, as the story builds to its frightful climax. A real page-turner.

Paris – the Novel by Edward Rutherfurd. A BIG book. A gripping saga of four French families from differing social classes, set in the City of Light. Drama, intrigue, and loads of history of the great city spanning several centuries from the Middle Ages to WWII.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Written for young adults, I know many ‘older’ adults like myself who simply love this trilogy. Set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, where the elite class live a life of pampered luxury and hedonism whilst the rest struggle to survive in brutal, impoverished conditions. (Ring any bells?) To punish these ‘lower classes’ for a mutiny many years previously, and entertain the elite, once a year 2 children from each of 12 ‘districts’ are selected to fight to the death in a virtual public arena. The last one standing brings glory and bounty to their district. That’s enough – read the books for yourself if you haven’t already!

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Set in Nigeria during the Biafran war, the fortunes and misfortunes of twin sisters, their friends and families. Brings home the horror of war in general, and civil war in particular. Totally gripping and beautifully written.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Bolsover. I read this with a touch of schadenfreude. I don’t really know why, but I couldn’t help enjoying the miseries and discomforts foisted on the unfortunate wife and children of the fire and brimstone bible-thumping missionary who dragged them all into the Congo, where not only is the land hostile, but so are the natives as they fight for Independence from Belgium. It made me laugh, although I don’t think that was the author’s intention. 🙂 There’s also a deeper thread regarding the evils of colonialism and political upheaval and the chasm between Western and African culture.

Finally, this one made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Those people who gave it bad reviews must, I think, have entirely missed the point. It’s a true story of somebody who could be described as a sociopath, who decides to open a delicatessen without any experience and in the wrong place. Following is the review I wrote on Amazon after reading it for the first time. The second time I found it just as funny.

I’d Sooner Starve by Mark Sinclair

“This book is about a council employee who decides he’d rather be a delicatessen/restaurant owner, his sole qualification being his ability to make a quiche without a recipe. Opening during the winter and serving only cold meals showed a certain misunderstanding of his market, and the student two-ring oven wasn’t really adequate for the shift to hot meals. The author readily accepts that many of his problems were of his own making, and I had a strong feeling that he was far from being a “people” person. He hated his customers. Not only did they force him into entirely changing his ideas of the type of food he wished to serve, they complained, blagged, carped and criticised endlessly. I hated them too.

I found his vitriolic rages hysterically funny, couldn’t put this book down and had tears streaming down my face. Whether all the stories are true, I can’t say, but fact very often is stranger than fiction, so it’s quite possible that the customer who preferred her cheese warmed really did stick it up her skirt. The book is full of similar anecdotes about the idiosyncratic behaviour of Mr and Mrs Middle England. It is only at the very end that Sinclair adopts a serious note, comparing the waste of food in the developed world with the terrible poverty in which too many people still live. I’ll definitely read this one again – but not in a public place. It’s just too funny.”

Oops, that makes eleven! I’ve overshot. Bad me.

And then there’s Suite Française,  The Taliban Cricket Club, BirdsongI am Pilgrim, all of Gerald Seymour’s books, Cloud of Sparrows,  and I’ve barely started ……………..

Oh Stephanie, what have you done?

Whither we go, chaos follows

After several years of following The Fly in the Web’s brilliant blogs about real life in France, and now Costa Rica, TOH, the dogs and I had the supreme pleasure of meeting her and her husband ‘in the flesh’ yesterday.

Now you are wondering what we were doing in Costa Rica, I expect. But we were not there, nor at home in France, but holidaying on the Orange Blossom Coast in Spain.

Now you are wondering how we came to meet somebody who once lived in France, but now lives in Costa Rica, while we are in Spain. Has the heat (even in early October it’s still jolly hot here) addled the remnants of my brain?

But no! By an almost surreal coincidence, it happens that The Fly and her husband are also holidaying in Spain, within a 45 minute drive from where we are staying.

That’s 45 minutes if you rely on a good old-fashioned, low-tech paper map. If, on the other hand you prefer to rely on modern, hi-tech satnav, then it’s anybody’s guess how long the journey could take, as the woman who lives in it seems to think that winding up endless hairpin bends over 1000 metre summits is both the fastest and shortest route to somewhere from anywhere else, and we have consigned her to the black hole of the car’s glove pocket in disgrace.

The directions for our visit yesterday were clear right to the doorstep. 40 minutes had us within 5 minutes of arrival. We’d found all the right roads, sighted the white blob on the hill which was a navigational aid, crossed the three bridges, taken the turning to the right, followed the road to the piggery where we were to take the left immediately afterwards.

Here things began to fall apart, as there was a very large school bus parked right across the entrance to the road. There was no driver to be seen or heard, and no way past. We drove on until we came upon the next turning left, followed a disintegrating track for several kilometers until we found signs of life – Spanish life. A smiling man and his young daughter listened politely as we tried to make ourselves understood, and we reciprocated. All we did learn was that we were at the end of the road, there was no way forward. So we reversed and made our way down the track, back to see if the bus had moved. It hadn’t. Next to the path was a house guarded by about 600 Chihuahuas who yipped and yapped madly as we knocked on a door in the hope of finding somebody who could direct us. There was nobody there.

We drove around for an hour trying to find an alternative route, up perilous tracks leading to nowhere, trying to communicate with Spanish people who had no English while we had no Spanish, to no avail. Desperation began to set in.

Then, driving along the main road, I saw the house in the distance, recognising it from a photo I’d seen earlier. The only means of access we could find was an crude agricultural track running through an almond plantation.

“Let’s go for it,” said TOH, raising the car’s suspension and grinding over the track. We had arrived!

The Fly was so exactly as I had imagined her from her blog, and her husband – gosh, what a gem. I’ve never seen such clear, large brown eyes, nor such a splendid mane of steel-grey hair.

After a couple of glasses of liqueur that had me confusing my words and getting people’s names wrong, we had a tour of their astonishing house, with more twists and turns and rooms than I could count, a gorgeous swimming pool and stunning views across the plains to the mountains beyond.

The dogs instantly made themselves at home and were welcomed with hugs and compliments. Tommy put all his devilish charms to work and looked set to be off to Costa Rica if we didn’t keep a firm hold on him.

We had come for a cup of tea and a chat, but found ourselves invited to stay for supper. A quick trip to the nearest town was called for, and off we went with Fly to do her shopping, which included several bottles of her husband’s favourite wine.

Back at the house, TOH carried the box of bottles into the house, tripped up a step, went flying, breaking one of the bottles and covering the floor with broken glass and spilled wine.

No sooner was that mopped up, than Fly’s husband gave a cry of mock horror (I’m fairly sure it was mock), discovering that one of the dogs (it would be Tally, he’s getting old, he drinks a lot and he can’t always hold on for long) had peed all over the living room floor and firewood.

Despite the swathe of catastrophes we were cutting in their house, we were overwhelmed with hospitality and a superb fish soup, cooked by Fly but overseen by her husband to make sure she had added the correct herbs in the correct quantities. We women need to be kept up to the mark.

Our host and hostess are both great raconteurs, and kept us open-mouthed and laughing with tales of their earlier life in France – gypsies and riot police – and their current life in Costa Rica – murder in Chinatown. Sometimes I think our life is a bit peculiar, but next to them it seems remarkably ordinary. 😀 I was also pleased to know that they both shared my views on the literary efforts of Ernest Hemingway.

I frequently curse the Internet and the way we have come to rely on it, and spend so much time on it, but without it there is almost no likelihood that we would have ever heard of the Fly, her husband and their extraordinary life, let alone had the privilege of spending several hours with them.