Tag Archives: reading

Random Norwegians

On Saturday night I found myself at a party talking to a woman from Norway. As we chatted I had to restrain myself from randomly asking her about every tiny thing I knew about Norway.

I don’t know a lot, but ever since I had a ‘thing’ with a woman who went there as an exchange student I have learned how to flirt in Norse (badly), and noticed all things Norge in the media.

The Daily Show knowingly used the Swedish Chef to illustrate a story about Norway (archly pointing out that it would annoy any Norwegians watching).

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Peggy Olsen in Mad Men told a prospective 1960’s New York flatmate that she was Norwegian, rather than Swedish (the startled young woman replied “Well… we won’t tell my mother.”) Love Peggy so much.

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The arch baddie in Hell on Wheels, known as The Swede, comically protests “but I am Norvegian!” Hate the Swede.

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Van Alden’s babysitter, Sigrid, in Boardwalk Empire showed shocking enterprise by becoming his wife. And a murderer. And a boot-legger, brewing her national drink, Aquavit, to sell to Norwegian immigrants. Really love Sigrid (even though the actress is Danish).

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I first became aware of the Sweden/Norway relationship/history/gag in the film Kitchen Stories from 2003. It illustrates the patronising relationship of Sweden towards Norway through a (real) 1950s study of the kitchen habits of single Norwegian men, where Swedish researchers would silently sit on a high chair in the corner of the room watching the Norwegian bachelor’s every move. It’s a very funny film.

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Growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was very aware of the role winning the race to the South Pole played in the burgeoning Norwegian national consciousness. Scott left on his ill-fated journey from Chch in 1912, 7 years after Norway broke away from Sweden. The statue Scott’s wife made of him sat by the Avon until the 2011 earthquake.

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But even though NZ was a British colony, and there are many artefacts from Scott’s attempt in Canterbury museum, the bust of Amundsen seems better loved (going by the way everyone touches his nose, polishing the proud bronze beak).

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I have written about how much I enjoy the TV show Vikings. How I regularly travel to NZ’s own ‘Viking’ settlements of Dannevirke and Norsewood (One day I shall take a hacksaw and free the giant Vikings that adorn Dannevirke from the anachronistic horns sprouting from their helmets).

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I also own a lovely old 2nd-hand book picked up on Waiheke Island 10 years ago. Published in 1949, West Ward Bound is a piece of pure Cold War propaganda that celebrates Norway joining the ‘ring of iron’ surrounding the Atlantic i.e. NATO. I didn’t buy it because of this aspect (ring of iron vs. iron curtain… hilarious!) I wanted the wonderful colour plates that illustrate the mythical/historic Viking past.

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Norway looks like Canterbury High Country

Amongst many cheesy 1950s/Medieval images is the taking of Paris in 885 AD by 700 long-ships (Vikings featured it at the climax of season 3, anticipating the settlement of Normandy by Norsemen).

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I have always wondered how these Vikings became the French Normans who conquered England in 1066, a few generations later. The History of the English Language podcast I listen to recently filled in a lot of the blanks for me. The Norsemen/Normans quickly switched to speaking French. But they also brought some Norman Norse into English. Creek for a small winding stream (crook and crooked have the same root). Wicket for a small gate (now used in cricket). And the name Gary.

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But I didn’t gush any of this  when speaking to the Norwegian woman on Saturday night. Instead, I told her that I was reading the Norwegian publishing sensation, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I am thoroughly enjoying his memoir of being a disaffected teenager in the ‘80s. Playing in shit bands. Pining after the music the English music press wrote about while surrounded by folk and metal. Fumbling encounters with girls. Trying to smuggle beer to a party. Becoming a parent at the same time you lose your own. Struggling to put your art ahead of being a parent/person in the world. His books shouldn’t work. It’s about nothing astounding. But it’s mesmerising. Astounding. Something he wrote while not writing a novel. He has provocatively titled the multi-volume series My Struggle (a knowing echo of Hitler’s Mein Kampf). It has sold so many copies 1 in 10 Norwegians owns it. I’m loving it. Memoir as art. Non-fiction as fiction. The old rules don’t exist. And the reading public approves.

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But the Norse woman had not heard of Knausgaard, that rock star of writing. Which disappointed me, slightly.

 

Nevermind. It was a wonderful evening. One conversation among many.

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It was a friend’s 40th, and as the sun went down we gathered around one of the gifts, a Viking log candle: a 6 foot log cut long-ways several times and rammed into the earth, allowing it to burn down from the top leaving large charcoal spikes pointing at the night while the fire consumed its heart.

 

 

 

Shaking Hands with the Past

This a quick rant on a great love. My great love is history, or more precisely, the magazine History Today. It’s a wonderful collection of images and writing put together in a way that thrills and inspires me.

I can think of nothing better than lazing in bed reading articles about something I thought I had minimal interest in, before discovering that it fascinates me to such a degree I want to tell the world about it.

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I’m particularly enraptured with the February 2015 issue which featured a stunning cover of Mosley and his boy band of British Union of Fascists. It’s a great snap made prettier and more poignant by being superimposed over an orange Union Jack.

I have delighted in the picture every time I’ve read the magazine, which I read cover to cover. It’s an aspect that has stopped me from reading the magazine online. Yes online is convenient, but I spend so much time staring at screens… and nothing can match the presence and feel of a well laid-out magazine.

The article was clearly timed to provide context to the (at the time) upcoming UK election where the populist ultra right-wing UKIP party was getting so much support. So often, the articles seem to be about now.

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Before selfies, there were paintings

I have only read about Mosley in his wife’s autobiography ‘A Life of Contrasts’ which, unsurprisingly, has nothing bad to same about him. Diana Mosley was one of the glamorous Mitford sisters. Growing up with the Churchill’s these aristocratic debutantes/socialites/celebrities were the Bright Young Things who wowed inter-war society. Her sister, Nancy Mitford, was the well-known novelist, while Unity Valkyrie Mitford was so in love with Hitler she shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany.

scanned by EPD from the magazine Newstatesman Dec-Jan 2008 edition page 37 Hitler, Unity and SA Obergruppenfuhrer Franz von Pfeffer, pictures in Bayreuth, 1936

Unity Mitford & friend

There is a whole shelf-load of books written about these girls.

I always thought Mosley was a bit of a joke; a twit who backed the wrong side in WWII. He and his Blackshirt cronies look like an early ‘80s neo-Goth/New Romantic dad-band in their funny-button shirts and tricky belts.

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The cute one, the tubby one, the scary one, the one that plays the drums

But then, fascism had many fans at the time (Charles Lindbergh loved the Nazis and tried to keep the USA out of WWII).

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British fascist rally

I once did a course with someone who went to a British Fascist rally in the 1930s. His father took him to mock Mosley and see how deluded the fascists were. At the meeting some communists, or anti-fascists, tried to storm the stage (resistance was strong in Britain). They were roughed-up in trademark Blackshirt fashion: gloved fingers shoved up noses to tear blood vessels, disabling without striking.

Co-incidentally, on the same writing course I met the woman who had written the number one book in New Zealand. It was a childhood memoir of her Nazi father, and having strawberries with the Fuhrer. When I held her hand I felt the most incredible dread knowing she had shaken hands with the monster she described as friendly and funny.strawberries_

The past comes close in such moments, and I have always struggled to understand those who do not feel the magic. Is the ignorance wilful? Or is it simply a failure to imagine how things are, were and will be?

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Diana & Unity yuk it up with German chums

When I read these magazines I always wonder who I would most like to meet. It would not be Mosley, the Mitfords or Hitler.

It would be this marvellous woman speaking to an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in 1933.

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What a woman!

She is striking the most incredible pose, shaking her fist at the crowd, telling them what’s what, what is to come. I know nothing more than what the words say, that she is suffragist called Charlotte Despard.

I can’t wait to learn more.

My Left Foot

This morning was delicious, lingering in bed with my favourite companion, the magazine History Today – which isn’t to say that there isn’t another companion I would prefer to dandle but I have to say I find lazing and exploring this trove of pictures and articles far more satisfying than… well, I would say the proverbial but as an amateur historian and writer I find it hard to

1. Employ tired cliché

2. Believe in simplistic statements.

Cliché may be a trope of hacks of every ilk, an easy and lazy shorthand, but like tired and repetitive intimacy it communicates little and must always be subverted and extended otherwise any engagement will be unsatisfying and brief.

So how shall I put it? History Today: better than bad sex, almost as satisfying as good sex.

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Mmm, such sweet pleasure

Why do I believe this? Because I always learn something new and the experience invariably leaves me inspired to share and create.

This morning, after a late night at work I have escaped my warm bed (and reliable lover) to jump on the computer because of an article about events that took place on Good Friday in Dublin earlier this year which commemorated (celebrated?) the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles in Irish history. Medieval monks characterised it as Christian Irish seeing off pagan Vikings, but like all history (and story, and life) it was more nuanced than that and modern historians characterise it as Celt-on-Celt with high-king of Munster, Brian Boru, fighting the rebel king of Munster, with paid Vikings employed on both sides.

I had never heard of Clontarf, but I have certainly heard of Brian Boru, having seen pubs named after him around the world. What struck me about the story from 1,000 years ago is that Brian Boru, that great hero of Irish nationalism, took no part in the battle as he was in his mid-60s by then, too old to swing an axe. Instead, he waited in his tent for events to unfold.

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Just to be safe, Brian sits out the battle

At this point I will say that I consider myself totally un-Irish. My grandparents were English and Scots. I’m not hostile, my position is more of a friendly rivalry, like that which exists between my home, New Zealand and our (to others) nearly indistinguishable neighbour, Australia.

I fervently resist the lazy sentimentality that seeks to claim Irish descent in everyone’s blood. I despise the compulsion to get pissed on St Patrick’s Day and kiss a spotty Irishman. It’s all far too McDonaldsy for me.

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Definitely not Ireland

That said, the historian in me knows this isn’t a defensible position. There was a huge amount of back and forward migration between Ireland and Britain, both individual and tribal, with the Scots coming across from Ireland to lowland Scotland to displace the Picts to the north. And Irish, Scots (and English) all have Viking blood in them.

I only learned this when I went to Scotland to visit my roots. I asked a Scottish relative how come there were Irish pubs all round the world but no Scottish ones. She said it was because the Scots like to get on with things rather than sitting around whinging (or words to that effect).

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Irishy pub in Maine

Once, a friend of my long-term partner claimed to have a psychic premonition that I would one day marry an Irish girl. She was quite insistent. It amused my (Dutch) partner greatly. I don’t really believe in such things but when we subsequently broke up (we were together, then not, over many years) and I travelled alone through Europe, I couldn’t help thinking that I should avoid visiting Ireland, just in case (my heart, for better or worse, was set on that Dutch girl).

Lately, it has occurred to me that I have never kissed an Irish girl. Wow, what a sad thought, I thought. But what a great opening line for a story, it would make.

I promised myself I would write fiction today, but as I sat in my cosy bed on a cold, cold morning reading about the pathetic death of Brian Boru I wondered if I would ever visit Ireland.

I want to. Just as much as I want to hear an Irish girl whisper warm words in my ear.

About a month ago I had an interesting encounter at a cafe in Petone. Things had been very busy (aren’t they always?) so I took the opportunity to sit and think over a coffee, scrawling my thoughts, lyrics and ideas in the journal I always carry.

As I left an old man sitting alone with a glass of wine, touched my arm and stopped me. He apologised but said he wanted to say that he had noticed me sitting there and that there was something… something… something about my eyes, and that if I wasn’t in a rush and if I didn’t mind, would I sit with him and tell him about myself… if he bought me a drink?

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Irish gal in the cafe where I met Harry

Well-dressed in a suit and tie, maybe in his 80s with a white, white beard, Harry was well-spoken, Irish: eloquently drunk.

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Harry’s Dad

His flattery worked. I sat with him for maybe an hour, as he told me of his fascinating life punctuating it with constant apologies for going on instead of me. From Belfast, his father had helped build the Titanic, and the other one, ah? Britannic? Yes, yes… he was a politician for many, many years, instrumental in organizing volunteers to go and fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. They had meetings in our house. Really, Harry? Really? Wow. Wow.

His father was also on the board of the local football team, Linfield; had a field named after him. I was transfixed. Was it true or the ramblings of a natural storyteller? Every question I asked was plausibly answered. I told him that I too played soccer, that although I was right-footed, I had a great left foot (better than a leftie) and always played left back. This amused him greatly as a ‘left-footer’ was a term for a catholic (Linfield being, of course, a protestant team).

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Heroes of Linfield

When I said I had to leave to pick up my girl from school, he held my hand and gave me his card saying I must come to his place to meet his wife, she is much younger than me, he smiled, she would love to meet you, just love to… she doesn’t drink, he laughed. I left him, sitting alone with another glass of white.

Later that night, with my daughter tucked up in bed, I googled Harry’s name. I had resisted, not wanting to deflate any of his tales or charm, to believe that there was indeed something special in my eyes. Why reduce him to a drunk left alone by a wife tired of his stories, who used a line to get some company?

Lately, I’ve been thinking I am a loner at heart, happiest worshipping at the temple of solitude. My reasons are many, but like all identity, it is fluid and open to challenge.

When my last long-term relationship ended 4 years ago I bought a box of condoms. Back on the market after so many years. I threw out the last of them the other week as they are now past their use-by date.

Says a lot, I guess. Yes, there have been encounters but, clearly, not that many.

Brian Boru was killed by a fleeing Viking mercenary as he sat waiting in his tent: a seemingly sad end for a great warrior.

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Brian harping on

But like all things, there is more than one reading. 1,000 years later his name is known around the word, his harp the symbol of Ireland.

I would never kiss an Irish girl, just because she is Irish. And I hope my bed will see more excitement than increasingly vague historical conquests.

I have been back to Petone (it’s a bit out of my way) but Harry wasn’t there. I’m uncertain if he would remember me, but I would like to see him again. I carry his card in my wallet but I would never call, I’m just not built that way.

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The charming Harry

As the Chinese saying goes, no co-incidence, no story.

If the fleeing Viking had not bumped into (and bumped off) Brian Boru on Good Friday Ireland would be a different place.

If I had not stopped to talk to Harry, there would be no words on this page.

The future is unwritten, the past always open to new discovery.

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Visitors to Dublin

 

 

Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.

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Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

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It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).

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But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.

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I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.

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Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.

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It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).

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Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.

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Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.

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The Means of Escape

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It is never a good idea to open with a declaration of love. Never. But, wow, Penelope Fitzgerald. She so good… I go goo-goo eyes reading her.

I first heard of her in a Julian Barnes collection of essays about writers called Through the Window. She sounded very cool.

She didn’t start writing till she was 63 (very appealing to someone starting writing later in life), and seemed quite the eccentric character given his anecdote about being on a writers’ panel and riding the Tube with her.

And she wasn’t short of ideas or limited in scope. All the novels he talked about were interesting and diverse, ranging across the world and time. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore, and The Blue Flower, set in 18th century Prussia, was ‘the most-loved novel of 1995’. I so wanted to read it.

But, somehow, she was absent from my local library. How could this be? She seemed great. Indeed, The Times had her in the top 50 British novelists since 1945 and The Observer placed The Blue Flower in the top 10 historical novels of all time.

There was, however, her posthumous collection of short stories The Means of Escape available. I hadn’t read a collection of short stories in quite a number of years (a bit shameful, but I’m clearly not alone given the poor sales of collections).

But I wanted a taste.

And, wow.

It’s such a lovely, slim object crafted with care (the books and the stories). Like her novels, they take place all over the world (including New Zealand!) and go back as far as the 1600s.

The start of the story set in ye olde New Zealand.

The start of the story set in ye olde New Zealand.

I must say that I finished most of the stories going ‘what happened just then?’ but it wasn’t due to obscurity…she’s just so good she lulls you into a complacency where the real story can slip by. I read several stories more than once.

I want this book. I want to hold it and look at it, to re-engage and delve deeper into her world. I want to read these stories again and again.

To underscore how smitten I am, I read a couple of Julian Barnes short stories after I finished Fitzgerald’s collection and boy were they unsatisfying, which is significant because I’m a HUGE fan of his novels and essays.

So…what to do? TradeMe has the books new (but The Means of Escape ships from Oz). Amazon has them much cheaper, but it seems nuts getting them from across the Pacific.

Sigh.

It’s hard to be patient when you’re in love. But a hasty heart is always disappointed.

If I get through the day without buying these two books I’ll be surprised.

This love will not wait.