Sunday, April 13, 2014

Emily's Quest - L. M. Montgomery

I read the first two books from the Emily series earlier this year (here and here) then with great self control managed to hold back on the last one until now. I really enjoyed the Anne of Green Gables series as a child and it's been a pleasure reacquainting myself with Montgomery again as an adult. I assume this series is meant for younger readers though my local waterstones and I are a little unsure, they have the books in both adult and children's sections - not that it matters, good books are universal.

On the down side, and probably something that wouldn't have bothered me in the least when I was 12, Montgomery is a little bit to ecstatic about nature - there are far to many references to sparkling fairy brews and enchanted anything's for my current taste so a little bit of effort was required to accommodate that. The effort is more than rewarded by the pleasure I got from the lush descriptions of Prince Edward Island, she makes me want to be there, and also feel like I am there. Montgomery has her characters discuss the idea of a specifically Canadian literature in both 'Emily Climbs' and a little bit here as well, she sees it through by keeping Emily at new Moon farm and on her island. I am a sucker for an island location, and all the things that people care about in life happen in small places as well as large.

'Emily Climbs' finished with Emily, Teddy, Ilse, and Perry finishing high school and setting off in different directions, Teddy and Ilse are headed for Montreal to carry on their studies, Perry is a clerk in a solicitors office and well on his way to a dazzling career. It's only Emily who has chosen to stay at home where she intends to pursue her dreams to be a writer. At first all goes well for her, she misses her friends but her stories are being accepted and she's beginning to make a reasonable living for herself. What remains unresolved are her feelings for Teddy Kent whose letters are becoming colder and more remote, still they are young, there are other distractions for Emily, and surely all the time in the world, meanwhile there are novels to be written.

Emily's first novel is the child of her heart and soul, but it's rejected by the first three publishers she sends it to, finally she hands it to her old friend Dean Priest who tells her it's no good, it's a turning point for Emily who burns her manuscript, suffers a horrible accident, and gives up on her dream. After her recuperation, cut off from her friends and her muse she finally agrees to marry Dean.

The relationship between Dean and Emily has been troubling me from the first book, Dean decided Emily was the girl for him when she was 12, 7 years later his patience pays off - his single-mindedness on the subject was hard to stomach whilst Emily was so young (though there's no hint of impropriety) but what's worrying now is his jealous nature. He has developed a habit of belittling Emily's writing because he resents the time and attention it takes from him. He lies when he tells her the book is no good, it's controlling behaviour that hints at the possibility of something more abusive in a time when marriage would be utterly binding.

In the end the marriage doesn't take place (forgive the spoiler) and we can hope again that Emily and Teddy sort out their differences because they're clearly meant to be together. I hope it's not to much of a spoiler to say that the book will end happily, because before that happens Montgomery throws in all sorts of obstacles, the path of true love won't run smoothly. For the adult reader this is a light and enjoyable book with something to say about the choices women have to make regarding career, love, and family life. Montgomery doesn't say you can't have it all but I think she's clear that compromises have to be made for relationships to work and that sometimes ambition isn't compatible with domestic bliss. For younger readers it's basically the same and that's the beauty of a really good book. I think this is a great series, in its way it's quietly subversive - really how often are girls told in fiction that a career might actually be enough by itself? Love is desirable but it's not the only thing.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dark Horse - Rumer Godden

I managed to mark the start of spring with a nasty cold, it was bad enough to keep me sofa bound for a couple of days which if I'm entirely honest I quite enjoyed despite the runny nose and throat that felt like it had been sandpapered - this had a lot to do with the unexpected arrival of a parcel from Virago books. In it were a brace of Rumer Godden's - 'An Episode of Sparrows' and 'The Dark Horse' which looked like just the thing to cheer up someone feeling distinctly under the weather.

Both are part of Virago's series for children/young adults which they launched a year ago. I haven't read the earlier Godden's from this series which looked like they were intended for really quite young children but the first thing to say about these two is how gorgeous the covers are. They are exquisite, the sort of books that you have to pick up. I started with 'The Dark Horse' (nuns and racehorses turned out to be an irresistible combination) which brings me to the second thing I have to say - I have no clear idea of what makes a children's book. In this case I'm taking Virago's word for it but there's no child protagonist or anything else to make it obvious to me. My own reading career went from mostly Enid Blyton to the likes of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, and Terry Pratchett none of which are unsuitable for 13 year olds but are all just as likely aimed at 30 year olds. In short I missed out on that middle faze which is probably why the idea of 'young adult' fiction baffles me a bit.

'The Dark Horse' is apparently based on a true story, Dark Invader is a classic looking racehorse picked up in Ireland by a spoilt young owner and taken over to England, he performs well in his first race but disappoints after that and is consequently sold to an Indian owner and shipped out to Calcutta where he becomes a favourite with the crowd and turns around his fortunes, then just before the biggest race of the season he disappears. He's found in the nick of time taking sanctuary with some nuns but the question remains - will he be ready to race?

Godden (who I missed out on as a teenager, but have been delighted to discover as an adult) uses her horse tale to explore a number of other issues. Written in 1981 but set in the 1930's 'The Dark Horse' mostly deals with issues of redemption and prejudice. Dark Invader's new owner is a Mr Leventine, he may be Jewish, he's definitely an outsider despite his impressive wealth, it seems it's not easy to buy your way into Calcutta society. His trainer is John Quillan a young man of excellent family who gave up a promising career in the army when he married a Eurasian woman. This marriage has  estranged him from his family, also bars him from Calcutta society, lays quite a stigma on the couples many children, and has generally made John extremely sensitive. Mr Leventine also imports Dark Invader's 'lad' an over the hill jockey by the name of Ted Mullins who has lost his licence to race, lost his wife to influenza, and has a drink problem to boot. Finally there are the nuns, sisters of poverty who do their best to help Calcutta's many poor headed up by the enigmatic sister Morag who is determined to do what she can to help the needy. Add to all that wonderfully evocative descriptions of Calcutta and its racing scene and then wonder at how it's all packed into a couple of hundred pages.

In the end all the characters who need redemption find it - Leventine who has always been generous in his way learns the satisfaction of charity, Mullins finds a purpose he lost when his wife died, and Quillan - who's marriage is happy despite what it cost him - finds people who will accepts his family despite their mixed race heritage. The nuns also get what they need (after observing that god helps those who help themselves).

I think this is a great book for younger and older readers alike. It doesn't have that element of quite dark, often violent, sexuality that can make some of Godden's other books so disturbing, and that along with the happy endings and moral certainties are perhaps what marks it out as a children's book but it truly does cross over. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Kitchen Aid

It's been a while since I last posted about a kitchen item but I'm still inspired by Lindsey Bareham's trifle bowl so here we are again... My Kitchen Aid (which was an unexpectedly generous and very much appreciated birthday present) is easily the most expensive single item in my kitchen. For all the Le Creuset I've acquired I don't think I've spent as much on it as that one item would cost to replace, and though I've undoubtedly spent more on books over the years there are at least a lot of them. If I ever to have to replace the fridge or oven that were already in place when I bought this flat (the oven might need replacing quite soon, but fingers crossed it will carry on for a bit longer) the chances are that I'll buy the cheapest thing that fits in the space and that might well come to less than that one highly decorative food mixer.

Generally I really dislike spending serious money on something that won't last longer than I will (I would infinitely rather spend a thousand pounds on a picture than on a computer - and in the very unlikely event that I find myself with £1000 in hand that's exactly what I would do) but when the Kitchen Aid arrived in my life I was ready to do it. I think they're beautiful as well as functional, I'd wanted one for a very long time, and damn it I felt like I deserved it. In short it was a weak spot, but the tipping point was when I burnt out my 3rd or 4th hand blender (roughly one every 2 years) and decided it had to be something more robust.

It could have been a Kenwood but I have a prejudice against them - not really the Kenwood's fault, the kitchens I worked in as a girl all had knackered ones that were forever breaking down but they were domestic machines being used industrially so that's not really a reflection on the Kenwood's ability, more importantly I just don't find them as pretty. It could have been another hand blender - which would have been cheap and probably sensible, however looking at a hand blender has never given me a thrill of pride or made me feel that one of life's small goals has been achieved. (My mother always said she didn't feel truly grown up until she got her first Kenwood chef).

It qualifies to be mentioned here because it has had a very specific influence on how I cook. One of the, lets call it endearing, traits of a Kitchen Aid is that it needs a regular work out, if it doesn't get them the oil inside it starts to separate and leak (not desirable). Ironically since I got it I'm less inclined to bake cakes, I still make them, just not the cake a week of a few years ago. Nor do I whip a whole lot of stuff in it either - though when I do it's nice to be able to multi task around the kitchen rather than stand over those egg whites or whatever. What I have done though is experiment with more breads and that is a change. Any recipe that warns 'this is quite a wet dough' - which applies to a lot of sweeter bread and buns is much less icky in a food mixer. Chucking everything in the bowl and letting the machine do the initial hard work but still getting the hands on element when you knock back your dough or shape it is the best of both worlds.

It is a functional machine, it is rather nice to be able to put things in it and then turn your back on them for a bit, it does make some things much easier, and it is a thing of beauty if you're that way inclined. I can't really claim it's necessary, or even that it does the job better than anything else can but I love it - it's my pride and joy, and it's very much part of my kitchen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Dead Lake - Hamid Ismailov

It's a while since I've read a Peirenne book but I have a small pile of them and the possibility of getting to hear Meike Ziervogel speak at The Leicester Book Festival (if I can arrange the evening off from work. I had better be able to arrange the evening off work. Pity any poor customer who asks me a question if I can't arrange the evening off work...) so I'm motivated to read them in a timely fashion. There are likely all sorts of bookish things happening in Leicester that I'm unaware of, but there aren't many that I am aware of - the Leicester Book Festival is being organised from a (very good) small independent bookshop in the village of Kibworth, well outside of the city. When the odd chance does arise to do something bookish locally (other than read) I don't want to miss out.

'The Dead Lake' is described as a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War which gave me a certain expectation of what I'd find in it but it was nowhere near as bleak as I expected. I've been googling images of the Kazakh steppe but no thumbnail image on a laptop is going to convey the scale of place that Ismailov describes - day 4 of a train journey through unchanging scenery, that's all but unimaginable to someone who's never been anywhere it's seriously possible to get lost in, the only thing I can think of to give it context is the sea. Anything could happen in a place that big.

Between 1949 and 1989 a total of 468 nuclear explosions took place at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Sites both in the atmosphere and underground. It was a populated area even if the population was sparse, that activity has left a lasting legacy. Yerzhan is born in the way station of Kara-Shagan, a settlement of two house, his father is a mystery, his mother hasn't spoken since he was born. The two households are intimately linked with a child in each - Aisulu is the girl next door. This little island of humanity in the middle of the steppe provides the setting for a happy childhood for Yerzhan and Aisulu. Yerzhan is a musical prodigy secure in his world and his growing love for Aisulu, everything would be perfect if it wasn't for the forbidden 'zone' and the explosions that rock it with blinding lights and rushing winds.

Ismailov (translated by Andrew Bromfield) brings the Steppe vividly to life, icy winters when wolves are a real danger, scorching summers, swathes of wild flowers and all the small landmarks that allow the initiated to navigate this vast landscape - including deserted towns and nuclear testing facilities. When a bomb is detonated the families retreat indoors for a few days before returning to life as normal, at school the children hide beneath their desks, Yerzhan is blasé about the explosions, but still lurking just under the surface there is a palpable fear of some half understood secret from the adult world.

In the end it seems that Yerzhan isn't destined to grow up, he remains trapped in a child's body as Aisulu continues to grow. All of this is explained to a chance met stranger on a train by a Yerzhan who is apparently 27 though he still looks 12. In the second part of the book the stranger try's to imagine the rest of Yerzhan's story as he sleeps, he also speculates as to whether it's all some sort of elaborate con. I think the reader has the choice of reading it all as a fairy tale or more literally as they wish. For myself I chose to read it quite literally, I was so caught up in the scenes Ismailov (and Bromfield) kept spreading before me that I paid scant attention to the metaphors beneath the images, but it's a short book and I can read it again when I want to untangle further meaning from it.

It's a book that begs discussion, I would love to know what others have made of it and found in it so will be searching avidly for other bloggers and reviewers opinions. Meanwhile it's also a reminder of what happens on the edges of our consciousness and civilisation in the places that are easy to forget about and ignore, and also a book that's well worth reading, even if only once.   

Monday, April 7, 2014

Elsewhere (Shiny New Books)

It's the launch of Shiny New Books today - I've only had a quick browse so far but it's looking good, there are a few books on there that I've been mulling over - the second opinions are all pushing me towards purchases, and I'm looking forward to exploring more over the next few days.

I've made my own small contribution in the form of a review of Andrew Taylor's 'Books That Changed The World'. It's one of those books that looks like a fun read for booklovers but, in my case at any rate, turned out to be much more. It's the sort of book that re-acquaints you with things already on your shelf (often unread) and generally gives you plenty to think about - but you can read all about it here.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Diary of a Provincial Lady - E. M. Delafield

Today I overslept a bit, finally got up and attempted to make cinnamon buns prior to friends coming round - they might have turned out better if I'd not been so sleepy I poured cold milk straight onto the flour and yeast (it should be scalded then cooled, and I can now confirm that this does make a softer bun) but my friends were charmingly polite about them. I did manage to make a really good wholemeal loaf (for which credit belongs to the kitchen aid that did all the hard work) but forgot to offer it to friends who would probably have been grateful for a sandwich instead of an indifferent cinnamon bun - they were to polite to suggest it. Whilst the bread was rising I bumbled round the flat making neatish stacks of things, throwing away old newspapers, and getting rid of the worst of the dust - all in the hope I would give a vague impression of domestic competence. We talked about old acquaintances all of whom seem to have been very successful. After they left I gave in to a lurking cold and spent my afternoon on the sofa with the Provincial Lady and watching the boat race.

The details of the P.L.'s life are quite different from mine (not married, no children, don't have to worry about servants.) but generally we have a lot in common (a tendency to being ever so slightly over drawn, a partner who doesn't even need a copy of the times to fall asleep in his chair, never being quite as organised as I would like, and a feeling that in some direction I'm not trying quite hard enough). Not trying quite hard enough ought possibly to be capitalised and mostly concerns the books not read, the plays not seen, the exhibitions not visited - it's the uneasy sense of horizons narrowing, and the most disquieting thing about it is that most the time you don't notice it's happening because you get so bogged down in the day to day stuff - see above. (Horizons may be just fine, but a cold doesn't encourage a particularly positive outlook on life). 

I can't remember when I first found the Provincial Lady but it must be twenty years or more ago, my original copy has all but fallen apart so I'm very pleased to have the new Persephone edition, she always comforts me. At 40 I have heard of and read more of the authors the P.L. mentions but otherwise I don't think my reaction to her has changed at all. The afterword here has a faintly apologetic air (the ladies at Persephone are not provincial) which I don't really agree with. I've only read a couple of Delafield's other books (Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are) neither of which I thought as good as The Provincial Lady. I found myself particularly out of sympathy with Laura, the heroine of The Way Things Are who is a sort of precursor of the P.L. who's charm lies in her acceptance of her world and her ability to make the everyday amusing. I even like the phlegmatic Robert (he seems like a reliable man, the sort who might not declare his undying love, or even whole hearted support, but very much the sort who will get you to or from the train station on time along with other equally practical attributes). I even sympathise with the servant and school fees problems, my equivalent is a mortgage and a crazy china habit. The bottom line is that I love this book and everything about it, I think it's a work of genius. I'm guessing that most people reading this will also be fans but on the off chance that it's new to anybody - well just get a copy and read it. (Please).


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Things found on the shelves

At a rough guess I have something between 2500 - 3000 books, up until 2000 I had a reasonably good grasp on what I had and where each book might be, but at some point (that point was probably in 2010, or possibly at 2010 - who knows) I ran out of sufficient shelf space and also lost track of what exactly I had. I would love more shelves (a slightly bigger flat or house to put them in would be handy too) more shelves would mean better organisation (I like to think that's what would happen) and it might be easier to find things which would mostly be a bonus. On the other hand something that I've come to love are those times when I'm looking for something and come across a cache of books I'd forgotten I had, in some ways it's even more exciting than getting new books. I'd miss that with better organisation. I might not miss the increased possibility if buying the same book twice.

Occasionally, in a half hearted way, I think about a clear out, stare at things I haven't picked up for years, and wonder how much I need a shelf for poetry. This week, after probably about a decade of indifference I can't seem to read enough of the stuff. Maybe it's spring in the air. Because it's been so long there have been some discovery's. Turns out I did buy a collection of Donne at some point, no doubt influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, it also turns out that I'm not anything like the fan that Sayers was. The Romantic poets that I loved as a teenager, especially Keats, don't resonate with me in the same way at the moment, and I daren't open my collection of Victorian poetry which was always more for local colour than emotional connection.

The nicest find though was a forgotten collected poems of Philip Larkin. I'd written in it 2004, 31, the nicest thing, from which I gather that it was a 31st birthday present, there is only one person who would have given it to me, it was and is a lovely present to have received. I'm also quite pleased to find I have Heaney's Beowulf which I was thinking of buying.

This rediscovered love for reading poetry is partly due to being in-between books and unsure of quite what I'm in the mood for next, normally it's short stories at a time like this, but poems provide an even quicker fix and I've found something else in them that I didn't expect. Because many of these books haven't been opened for the best part of a decade they're full of page markers and reminders of a somewhat younger self, it's a much kinder reminder of (relative) youth than a photograph which generally serves to highlight the acquisition of grey hairs, it certainly reinforces my idea of a collection of books being a form of self portrait.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Shiny New Books

Simon at Stuck-In-A-Book Annabel Harriet Devine and Victoria from Tales From The Reading Room have all been working on a new quarterly on-line magazine based around book recommendations. Shiny New Books goes properly live next week but they're on twitter @shinynewbooks and on facebook - look for shiny new books... Go and follow, sign up, like, and generally get excited by what looks like a great project.

I'm really looking forward to it all go properly live and can't wait to see what books they'll have to recommend in the first edition, these are all bloggers I follow with enthusiasm as it is, seeing who else they've got roped in and what they've found for our entertainment is going to be a treat.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Lake District Murder - John Bude

'The Lake District Murder' is the second title I've read from The British Library's crime classics series and it's proved to be every bit as enjoyable as the last one (The Santa Klaus Murder). The back blurb tells me that John Bude was the pen name of Ernest Elmore wrote 30 crime novels, all of which are now rare and collectable - their rarity is doubtless one reason I'd never heard of him. Elmore was also a co-founder of the Crime Writer's Association.

Whilst I was reading this it occurred to me that the majority of golden age detective fiction I've read has been written by women - specifically Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers all of whom chose to distinctly aristocratic detectives and all of whom seemed to have rather fallen for their own creations. This is especially true of Sayers who definitely overdoes it in 'Busman's Honeymoon' with her descriptions of Peter and Harriet's wedding night. I think Agatha Christie is more sensible but it's a shamefully long time since I've read her. Anyway after that lot a book about a bunch of fairly ordinary chaps solving a crime perpetrated by a bunch of other fairly ordinary chaps was oddly refreshing. There are women in 'The Lake District Murder' but they exist to make tea for their husbands and clean things - clearly there were no femme fatales in Penrith in 1935.

It also occurred to me (again) how much I like it when a book has a very specific, real, geographical location. I'm not well acquainted with the lake district, and it's almost always blanketed in driving rain when I'm passing through it, but even so I've seen enough to roughly know what it would look like and there's just something about being able to follow a book on a map that brings it alive for me.

Plot wise a body is found in an isolated garage, at first glance it looks like suicide, but a very little investigation throws this into doubt; the dead man's tea is waiting for him with a kettle boiled dry and now slowly melting still on the hob, and further investigation confirms the theory that it's murder. Unfortunately for the police there is no obvious motive for either suicide or murder but a lot of cast iron alibi's. There is also an earlier case which was ruled as suicide but with some doubts hanging over how it was done - what's going on amongst the lakes?

Slowly the police begin to suspect there must be a criminal gang at work who have had good reasons to dispose of the dead men, but what sort of gang and what can they be up to? Effectively then we get two investigations; the murder mystery (which is fairly standard fare) and the efforts to uncover whatever scam is being perpetrated on an unsuspecting public and under the very nose of the police. Coincidentally it turned out to be a crime very much after my own heart - I found it both clever and entertaining. Inspector Meredith is a likable hero speeding around the lakes in, or on, the police motorcycle and sidecar combination, he makes mistakes, try's to bend the evidence to fit his theory's, forgets odd bits of evidence (before remembering them or their significance in the nick of time) and is generally thoroughly human. The feeling here is of solid police work executed with the aid of a good pipe of tobacco, there is no psychology or quoting of metaphysical poets, but the plot is ingenious and the whole thing is entertaining fun. I'm really excited about this series generally, the British Library must have access to some pretty cool stuff, and the idea that someone is poking around in a dusty stack somewhere unearthing treasures is delightful (it's probably not that romantic or hands on in real life but this is how I dream it). However the process actually works the result in this case is a book that's both entertaining to read and interesting to consider alongside more familiar Golden Age titles - so basically an all round winner!     

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Books, Books, Books

These are just some of the books I've acquired over the last couple of weeks - it's getting late, I have an early start tomorrow, and suddenly the task of trying to herd them all into one place felt like to big a job. These are the ones that formed a pile that finally toppled over in my bedroom, almost blocking the doorway, and constituting a definite health and safety risk. It wasn't the only pile in there, it was just the one that fell over. I feel like the books are getting a bit out of hand at the moment. Everywhere I look at home there are stacks of them and I want to read so many of them now (damn having to waste all that time working for a living). Happily I'm off this weekend so hopefully I'll manage to have a decent tidy up, resist buying any more books, and actually read a couple.

The small collection of John Suthertland's books in the middle deserve special mention. I have a definite thing for his books (for want of a better description he's my literary crush) but because they're the sort of thing that I dip in and out of they're seldom the books I write about here - which is an omission because they're brilliant. 'Love, Sex, Death & Words' is a collection of literary anecdotes tied to the days of the year and is compulsive reading (not to be read before bed because it's very hard to stop in time to get enough sleep). 'A Little History of Literature' was a Christmas present and is a series of essays, it is also a particularly beautiful book complete with charming woodcut illustrations (at least they look like wood or lino cuts - whatever they are they're very pleasing). I've only read a few so far but they're fascinating. The last one, and my most recent purchase is 'Curiosities of Literature' it's very funny and is, I think, best described as a series thoughts and speculations based on a lifetime spent in literature. It makes me laugh and want to read just about everything which I find very endearing in a book.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Change of Appetite - Diana Henry

I'm so enthusiastic about Diana Henry's books that I can't imagine my kitchen without them lined up on the shelf, they tend to be the first place I look for inspiration and because her influences come from far and wide it's rare not to find something to fit mood and available ingredients. In fact I'm so enthusiastic that it's hard to remember that I only really discovered her writing a couple of years ago (shame on me) with 'Salt Sugar Smoke', and that these books aren't the oldest of friends. Anyway I got there, even if it is a case of better late than never, so when I saw 'A Change of Appetite' appear as an amazon suggestion I was suitably excited, some months later I'm even more excited now I have the book.

I've never thought of the New Year as being a particularly good time to make resolutions, especially of the dietary kind - there are to many good things hanging around post Christmas, and the weather hardly discourages self indulgence, but Spring is a different matter altogether. 'A Change of Appetite' is all about exploring where healthy meets delicious and that's just what I need. I've never been a fan of dieting; neither discipline or denial are very appealing to me and I don't want to think about the things that I can't have or god forbid calorie count (miserable way to live). Regardless of how I feel about it though I've reached a point in my life where some change is necessary, foods that don't suit me really don't suit me anymore and I want more energy. To do this I need to change bad habits for better ones and Spring is a good time to start that process.

Recipe wise the first thing you notice about this book are the colours, it's full of really vibrant fruit and vegetables which are instantly appealing and the flavours match the colour. There are all sorts of salads, lots of Asian inspired dishes and just generally lots of things that look and sound great. Everything I've tried so far has been shared with other people and without exception has been enthusiastically received (especially Persian saffron and mint chicken with spring couscous which I keep making) which in turn feeds my enthusiasm for the book. I can also recommend an orange feta and fennel salad, a really good hot steak salad, and an absolutely brilliant pomegranate and orange cake (of which I'm enjoying a slice as I write) - oh and that black bread as well...

One of the many things I like so much about Henry's recipes are how flexible they can be - part of the orange feta and fennel salad are blanched almonds toasted in olive oil and then caramelised with honey, cumin, and smoked pa
prika. They're great, and will be great with other things too, I love the bits from a cookbook like this, bits which can be picked out magpie fashion - the bits which make me feel like I've learnt something useful. One of the other things I like about Henry is how she writes, this isn't just recipes, it's research (one thing that surprised me is how clear it becomes that even now we know relatively little about the food we eat) and philosophy - and quite a bit of common sense. This book feels like a conversation with a friend, or perhaps a particularly good teacher, the sort that inspires you to go and investigate all sorts of things (in my case with this book that's going to be Japanese cooking) but never leaves you feeling like you've been lectured to.

The common sense bit is that clearly if you're eating food you've made from raw ingredients rather than out of a packet the chances are it will be far better for you, I find this to be particularly true of bread - mass produced bread is pretty grotty - it's not even good for ducks, home made or good artisan bread is much better (though possibly still not the best thing for ducks). I find the high GI indexes in the mass produced stuff gives me the most appalling sugar crash within about half an hour of eating it, with home made bread that just doesn't happen. It's also reassuring to know exactly what it is you're eating.

Finally there's just something very attractive about the idea of being accidentally healthy which I can't quite manage to put into words. There is more about this on Henry's own website (she can put it into words) here which is excellent - the piece about writing 'A Change of Appetite' is fascinating but everything I've read on there is brilliant (read her on blood oranges - I tell you, the woman's a genius) and this book is a great way to greet the Spring.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Phineas Redux - Anthony Trollope

It's taken a while to get round to reading the fourth instalment of Trollope's Palliser series, mostly because I find that more than any other writer (with the possible exception of Scott) he dictates my reading pace. I cannot rush Trollope, theoretically I could skip the extended descriptions of hunting and skim through some of the frequent plot recaps and other general repetition's but then what would be the point of reading him? It's the detail that attracts me, that and his insistence on seeing an issue from everybody's point of view. I know this was first published as a serial over a 6 month period (I might try reading 'The Prime Minister' a chapter a week and see how it works) and I guess if you're doing that you don't really need to produce a page turner, I assume it also gives you licence to have a bit of fun from time to time describing something you're enthusiastic about which in Trollope's case is hunting. At any rate Trollope certainly doesn't miss an opportunity to describe a day out with the hounds (I find his enthusiasm infectious). But just because he isn't necessarily producing an action filled page turner it doesn't mean he isn't compelling - just that you don't always get instant gratification.

'Phineas Redux' re-introduces Phineas Finn, the wife he acquired at the end of 'Phineas Finn' has died and his job in Dublin despite supplying for all his material wants isn't providing him with much interest and nor is local society. Finn still craves the excitement of Parliament so when the call from his party comes through he decides to risk everything and return to London with the hope that he'll be given a chance to earn his living. Back in England he begins by picking up old friendships and renewing a couple of old grudges. At the end of 'Phineas Finn' Madam Max had turned down a proposal from the Duke of Omnium and in turn had her own proposal turned down by Finn. Meanwhile she's remained a good friend to the old Duke whose imminent death is about to shake up the shadow cabinet (Plantagenet Palliser is in line to inherit which means he will be ineligible to be chancellor of the exchequer again) and the current government is on it's way out. Everything should be looking good for Finn, his friends are pleased to have him back, he gets into parliament without bankrupting himself, and a useful life in office surely beckons.

And then it starts to go wrong. Scandal erupts over his relationship with Lady Laura Kennedy who has fled to the continent to escape her unsympathetic husband (Robert Kennedy is an exceptionally good argument for sensible divorce laws). Lady Laura's situation is extremely unpleasant, if she returns to England it seems her husband could compel her return to his home, as he's done nothing specifically wrong she has no grounds for divorce, and as her property is rightfully his she has no independent income. She and her father beg Phineas to visit them in Dresden which he does, but he also visits Kennedy who makes it clear that he blames Finn for the break up of his home. It's increasingly clear that Kennedy isn't entirely sane but he can still do a lot of damage to our hero's reputation - which he does by going to the press with accusations which just verge on libel. It's enough for Finn's political enemies to latch onto and things get worse from there on in. His greatest foe is Mr Bonteen - next in line for the chancellors job, he's determined there will be no office for Finn, in turn Finn's friends led by Lady Glencora plot and gossip in such a way that Bonteen is kept from high office as well. After a public argument between the two men Bonteen is found dead and circumstantial evidence points squarely at Finn.

Now we know Finn and Trollope makes it reasonably clear that he's not the man so we can believe in his innocence, but it's not easy for the rest of the cast. There are those who do believe in him but it's blind faith in the man rather than because of concrete evidence of his innocence and he's got enemies in the tabloid press who are determined to blacken his name as far as they possibly can as well. Poor Finn.

I hope it isn't to much of a spoiler to say that it turns out well enough for him in the end, although Trollope makes clear the toll events take on him. I think what marks a book out as a true classic is a certain timeless quality. There are plenty of parallels to draw with contemporary society - the nature of celebrity, the power of the press, public faith (or lack thereof ) in politicians, even the sexual politics at play as the women go into battle for Finn, but what's really interesting are the observations about human nature underneath the action.

Trollope is most definitely a Victorian and not an especially progressive one either; he's clearly anti-Semitic, and just as clearly thinks a woman should know her limitations and place (which oddly doesn't stop him from writing some really interesting and independently minded women). These aren't facets of his character that I find endearing, but he's also a wonderful observer of human nature and he doesn't tie things up to neatly either. Finn's sufferings don't go away when he's declared innocent - they're all the worse because he is innocent, and at the end of the book he's a broken man. Lady Laura doesn't get a happy ending either, but even if Trollope wanted one for her - though I think he believes she deserves a certain amount of punishment for her actions - it wouldn't ring true. The parallels with todays society are interesting but it's the characters that make it live and breath.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why haven't I read that yet?

Jam and Idleness and Wuthering Expectations have been making lists of authors they haven't read yet, authors they feel they should have read. Wuthering Expectations takes it a step further and includes the authors he read instead. I find that an intriguing idea, I've never been aware of making a conscious decision to read one writer rather than another. I think of my reading following a path with one book leading to another, and collect books like a squirrel hoarding nuts for winter. I'm also in the habit of assuming I'll get round to reading through my book store - though as it grows obviously there's clearly a greater chance of byways left unexplored. Anyway I thought I'd have a quick look and see what books I had on the shelves that I probably should have read by now.

That list is obviously much longer than 10 books (much, much, longer) and there are plenty of books on it that I should have read - Moby Dick is somewhere near the top. It came as a highly recommended gift and every time I walk past it I feel guilty about not having read it yet. But the list of individual books would be very long indeed, almost as long as the list of books I don't have (or have any particular interest in which includes just about anything Russian) that you might imagine anybody reasonably well read would have managed to get through...

Here then is a list of authors that I seem to have acquired plenty by, without ever having read a word of. They represent books bought with an earnest intention of reading them, as well as ever so many conversations in second hand bookshops which go like this - friend 'Do you have this one?', self 'oh yes...' friend, 'Is it any good?', self 'Who knows?'. I'm sure we all know that conversation.

My Virago collection has everything they've ever published by Kate O'Brien who not only have I failed to read, I even failed to listen to a radio adaptation of one of her books. This isn't really good enough.

The same collection has a whole lot of Mary Webb in it. 'Precious Bane' is one of those books I really don't want to read but the others all sound much better, so over the years I've bought them, lots of them, still not read any. If anybody can recommend a place to start I'd appreciate it - if anybody strongly recommends that I take the lot back to a charity shop I might also be inclined to listen.

It's Virago which is responsible for the Christina Stead's as well. Lots of them. All still waiting to be read. I must have been attracted to them when I picked them up but when I had a quick look at the shelves earlier I was surprised by how many there were and how little I know about her.

I've never read Vera Brittain either (guess who published all the copies of her book I have) which is at odds with a very definite interest I have in the first world war. Maybe this year is a good time to tackle her - although as she's waited this long for me it might be that 2018 will be soon enough.

I have John Cowper Powys on the shelf too, only 'Wolf Solent' but that's long enough to count as several books anyway. I really wanted it when I bought it, I occasionally read something that mentions Powys and think about how much I want to pick it up, an yet somehow never have. Frankly I'm intimidated by how long it is.

George Gissing feels like a real gap in my reading, but there it is, I almost bought another title at the weekend but decided I had to read one of those I already had before I could reasonably get another. It seems crazy not to have read any of his work as it so clearly sounds like exactly my sort of thing. How has the path not lead there yet?

It's not lead me to Thomas Love Peacock either. I went to the Astley Book farm yesterday with friends, it's been an unusually long time since the last visit when I got a lovely two volume set of his novels (hard back and very nice). I was really excited by those books when I got them home but they're still sitting unopened (next to Moby Dick) on the shelf. I really feel I should have read him.

Stefan Zweig is another omission, I have a couple of his book - bought because they sound brilliant, but I've yet to actually open one. However we went to see the excellent 'Grand Budapest Hotel' today so maybe that'll be the necessary push.

Somerset Maughan is an omission that's about to be corrected - slightly unwillingly if I'm honest, I fear it's going to be a struggle because whenever I've actually picked up one of his books I've had no trouble putting it down again, but he's another writer I feel I should have read and be able to go on reading. The sort who comes recommended by plenty of people who's taste normally coincides with mine and the sort who's books I have bought.

I'm going to make Henry Green the last on this list. I found him when I briefly worked in a bookshop not long after graduating. For almost 20 years I've thought I should read him and still haven't - which is one of the wonderful things about books; they wait for you, more or less without reproach (damn you Moby Dick) until no other book will fit the moment.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Perfect Stranger - P.J. Kavanagh

I'm not a disciplined reader, actually I'm not really a disciplined anything, but just because I know this about myself it doesn't mean I particularly like having it highlighted. 'The Perfect Stranger' was a postal book group book that (moment of shame) I was late reading and late sending on. Now I love that postal group, I'm committed to the idea of it, I've discovered some great books through it, and there was a sneaking feeling that a bit of reading discipline would be a good idea. Regardless I'm consistently late in getting to the book and this one was no exception, the reason is the same every time - whilst it may be a book I want to read sometime it's almost never the book I want to read next.

The book before 'The Perfect Stranger' was Trollope's 'Phineas Redux' and what I wanted to read next was possibly more Trollope definitely something 19th century so I found myself distinctly out of sympathy with Kavanagh all the way through which in turn has coloured my opinion of the book most unfairly. Basically I couldn't get to grips with this one, in another mood I might have been able to understand the enthusiasm for this memoir, and I did enjoy the first part of it but on the whole it left me cold.

Kavanagh skates over his early youth, briefly describes school (fairly horrible) and stint working in Butlins (fairly horrible), a year at a boys version of finishing school in Switzerland (much better), and then time bumming around in Paris trying to find life (a lot of drinking) before national service in Korea. Korea was the turning point for me, the initial descriptions of national service are amusing and of a piece with the first third of the book - an account of a young man trying to find his way in the world told with humour and intelligence. Kavanagh is shot in Korea, the account he includes in 'The Perfect Stranger' is the one that he wrote near the time aged about 20, it's appropriate but extremely mannered (and nothing at all like the 19th century fiction I'm craving) and then he heads off to Oxford. Whilst there he meets his perfect stranger - Sally Lehmann (Rosamond Lehmann's daughter) it's love but one that's destined to end in tragedy. Sally and Patrick marry and things seem to come together well for them, after a stint in London they move to Java and are building a pretty good life when Sally contracts Polio and very quickly dies. That's where the book ends.

The thing is I can't believe in Sally, in Kavanagh's memory she's far to perfect to be true, she's more saint than living woman and all Kavanagh's talk of overwhelming love made me impatient. As he went on to remarry and have a couple of children it also made me wonder what life was like for the wife who had to live with his memories of this incomparable woman. As I say, in another mood I would have enjoyed this book far more, appreciated the insights Kavanagh had to offer, and felt more indulgent to what I saw as youthful hyperbole but this time round I couldn't quite connect with him.