Sunday, August 31, 2014

Warm Bread and Honey Cake - Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra

The last couple of weeks have been somewhat stressful (floods from an upstairs neighbours unsatisfactory plumbing and all the attendant hassle that goes along with that, trying to renegotiate my mortgage - there are no shortcuts it seems - and a very busy time at work) so faced with a whole weekend off it's no surprise that I woke up with a burning desire to mooch around a bookshop for a few restorative hours. Accordingly I took myself off to Nottingham, which has a much better branch of Waterstones than Leicester has, and had a good old browse. I wasn't after anything in particular but never the less felt an irresistible pull towards food and drink titles. I didn't try and resist it for a moment.

'Warm Bread and Honey Cake' came out about 5 years ago, and I know I've picked it up a couple of times with no special interest but today it grabbed me - which is part of the charm of a good bookshop; it would have been cheaper online but then I've never come across it whilst browsing amazon and at no time does coordinating with couriers appeal to me, even less so when I have the desired object in my hand. Since I last looked at this particular book I've acquired (and used) another of Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra's titles 'Sugar & Spice' which I liked more than enough to favourably predispose me to anything with her name on it. She has had one of those lives which give roots in all sorts of distinctive cultures - perhaps the most obvious sign of which us not the recipes so much as that the measurements are given in grams, ounces, and cups (or sticks where butter is concerned) and whilst that might not sound like a big thing American measurements look exotic to me; it's a combination that speaks far more of international experience than any recipe could. This also sounds like the perfect autumn book; warm bread, honey cake... Longer nights and unpredictable weather beg for such things.

It's also time for a confession; this is the first season of the Great British Bake Off I've properly watched and I'm not really a fan. I like bits of it, I'm a fan of baking, I'm definitely a fan of Mel and Sue, and I'm very much in awe of some of those creations, but they seem ever further away from anything I'd want to bake at home. The same could be said for a lot of the baking books I saw for sale  yesterday (I'm think of Surprise-Inside cakes and Peek-a-Boo cakes especially) all of which were full of things that had a wow factor to look at, but none of which made me want to eat them. Opening 'Warm Bread and Honey Cake' at random I'm confronted with spice cake stuffed with Almond paste - it's a good looking thing in a homely kind of way and the very thought of it is making my mouth water - I can almost smell it - and I can't wait to make it. No wonder I fell in love with it on the spot.

It's a book full of things I want to try, things which look useful, things which might present a challenge if that's what I'm in the mood for, and things that speak of comfort along with long tradition. There are things to read about rather than do, and things to dream of, it is in short a book which mixes practicality with a magical alchemy and one which I intend to spend a lot of time with.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Return To Night - Mary Renault

 In 2005 Virago re-printed Mary Renault's 'The Friendly Young Ladies' which I read and loved. On the back of that I went hunting for more Mary, found and discarded the historic novels on the grounds that it didn't sound just entirely my sort of thing (I'm reassessing that viewpoint now) and bought a copy of 'The Charioteer' which I still haven't read perhaps because it's described as a monumental work in gay literature which somehow makes reading it sound like something one ought to do and which in turn isn't always very appealing. A brand new copy of 'Return To Night' on my doorstep however was a bit more inspiring, so only slightly daunted by its 417 pages I got started - and then basically read through it in 3 sittings - and am now fully enthused by Renault again; I don't care how monumental she is!

When Virago first looked to reprint 'The Friendly Young Ladies' back in the early 80's and not long before Renault died she was keen to alter the ending which she felt was too conventional and unconvincing (one if the young ladies rides off into the sunset with a man) in the end a compromise was reached in the form of an afterword. Sarah Dunant suggests in her introduction to these reissues that the same criticism of an imposed happy ending could be levelled at 'Return To Night' but I'm inclined to disagree. Reading 'The Friendly Young Ladies' a decade ago the ending suggested that the heroine was still exploring herself. In 'Return To Night' it's a bit more complicated.

It's 1938 and Dr Hilary Mansell is in her mid 30's with a stalling career. After a job she wants in London goes to her lover, David, she clears off into country practice where she's somewhat bored by the slower pace and more routine work. When Julian Fleming is admitted with a head injury Hilary's experience saves his life, but she also manages to make an enemy of his mother. Later the pair meet again, Julian is extravagantly attractive, intelligent, charming, 10 years younger than Hilary, and has an uncomfortable relationship with his mother. Despite herself she falls in love with him, and he with her. Julian's sexuality is arguably ambiguous but I think this is a red herring; beautiful young men who want to be actors and are uncomfortably close to their mothers do not have to be gay, but it's a convenient suspicion for the reader to hold whilst they try and decipher the tension between mother and son. And tension there is, Mrs Fleming is one of those terrifyingly horrible mothers that crop up all over the place in books of this vintage (do they still? I don't read enough contemporary fiction to really know.) her relationship with Julian is desperately manipulative - she controls him by deliberately withdrawing her favour and affection. There is never anything as vulgar or openly expressed as anger or frustration, never any discussion, just a pervasive sense of disapproval or disappointment which is utterly corrosive. Julian is undeniably damaged, but then how many women don't want to fix a man at some point in there lives?

This book works now because one taboo that remains firmly in place is that of an older woman having a relationship with a younger man. Eleven years is enough for the reader to know that Hilary is right to fear being made to look a fool, to worry about the condemnation of her family, and to dread local gossip - none of these are calculated to help a relationship. She's right too to wonder how much she can trust in the continuing love of a still very young and inexperienced man, and how as a woman with a profession can she go on respecting a man who has none. Or as a woman who fought her own parents to get into that profession how does she find the patience to accept a man who hasn't yet worked out how to do the same? And then Julian wants marriage which make all of Hilary's considerations so much more acute; it would after all be so public.

In the end marriage, or at least an engagement, becomes necessary despite Hilary's doubts or Julian's reservations about his mothers reaction. For Hilary it's hardly a conventional happy ending - she understands that she's as much replacement mother as lover, and by the same measure Julian is in part the child she's unlikely to have. But. War is on the horizon, written in 1946 it's made clear that we know the war has happened even if it's set in 38-39, Julian is going into the airforce and Hilary is a surgeon as well as a GP. Survival is hardly assured so having found love, even messy far from perfect love, why not take a chance on any happiness that's going?

There are clearly parallels between Renault's relationship with another woman and Hilary and Julian's situation - discreet affairs might be tolerated but an open relationship would be a scandal (that 70 years later same sex marriages should still be a contentious issue is a disgrace) in which case the happy ending is that this book bought Renault a huge wedge of cash from MGM which allowed her and her partner to move to South Africa where they lived together until Mary died more than 30 years later. There are things about the book which aren't perfect - it's a bit too Freudian in places (underground caves especially make for quite heavy handed symbolism) but it's a hell of a page turner and she nails so much about loving that it shouldn't be missed.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

August Folly - Angela Thirkell

I first read 'August Folly' almost exactly 3 years ago - I guess it's the August in the title that makes it seem like the right time to do it. Looking back I didn't seem to have much to say other than to have finally been able to pick up on the Trollope references but as ever (or so it seems to be turning out) Thirkell repays re-reading. The Trollope references still amuse me (there is a dramatic incident with a bull which is the making of the fortunes of both young Richard Tebben here and young Johnny Eames in 'The Small House at Allington' ) and I still think this is a good stand alone book despite it's Barsetshire setting, in fact it's a pretty good place to start with Thirkell for a couple of reasons.

The thing with Thirkell, and this is in part why this is a good book to start with, is that she can be a terrible snob. There are moments here when that snobbishness comes out, moments I thought I'd made a note of - but it turns out hadn't so I hope I'm remembering correctly, the point being that if you can't warm to Thirkell here than she's probably not for you. A much better reason to start here is that it's a charming funny book, exactly the sort of thing to lift a person out of the kind of flat mood to be found after their flat has been flooded (or at least significantly leaked into) twice in the space of a week (that's my flat people, and I'm not happy about it).

'August Folly' has two families at it's heart, the Tebben's and the Dean's. The Tebben's are a scholarly couple with not much money and a brace of grown up children who are rather a worry at the start of the book - how are they to be started out in life? Richard Tebben has just come down from Oxford with a third class degree and Margaret has returned from being an aupair in Grenoble. Both are slightly embarrassed by their parents, especially their mother who's inclined to wear shabby clothes and fuss a lot, and both are uneasily aware that they need to find jobs without being particularly qualified for anything, or well enough connected to get a helping hand.

The senior Tebbens are genuinely the sort of parents who might be a trial to their offspring and at the same time a couple who the reader really feels for. Mr Tebben is a civil servant who lived for academic argument about the Norse saga's, Mrs Tebben (who took a first in economics) supplements the family income by writing textbooks on the subject. It's the money she's earned that has built a house just a little to small in the country (where her dear family least want to be). Thirkell's characters can be a little two dimensional, but not the Tebben's, which made me wonder if they were based on real people.

The Dean's are a family of nine children ranging in age from mid twenties down to about five, only six of the children feature. Mrs Dean, despite her many children and being almost 50 is a woman still beautiful enough to be a suitable object of infatuation for a young man (Richard Tebben) her husband is a vague kind of a figure and the childre fill their various places in the plot most satisfactorily but they don't come alive in quite the same way that the Tebben's do. But then the Dean's have money, pots of money, their lives are charmed and easy in comparison to others and that's the point of them.

As it goes the love story between Margaret Tebben and Laurence Dean is more convincing than some I've found in Thirkell, and Margaret's situation calls for genuine sympathy but the real point of reading Thirkell for me is her humour. This is a book that can raise a smile (in the face of considerable domestic disasters on this readers part) through a well described pair of ears in the moonlight, there's something utterly charming and extremely English about it all - I thoroughly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sweets Made Simple - Miss Hope

Over the last few years I've amassed a small collection if books about confectionary - some of them are specifically chocolate based but quite a few of them cover more general sweets. Of all of them my favourites, the ones I keep using, and the ones where I've learnt actual skills from, are the trio of Hope and Greenwood books I have. Because of this I was mildly excited to see they have a TV series (BBC2, Friday nights) now 2 episodes in. Hope and Greenwood started as the sort of shop you find in London or Brighton and not in Leicester (retro vibe and thoroughly thought out design in every detail) all that style charms me and makes me mildly suspicious in equal measure, but the acid test is the quality of the product - Hope and Greenwood are more than satisfactory on that score.

Eventually the books came along (I've posted about them all in the past) with the same mix of fun, design, and thoroughly reliable (as well as delicious) recipes. The instructions are clear, specific, and generally need to be followed to the letter - boiling sugar is not the thing to mess around with, and chocolate is temperamental. In short these are good books and making your own sweets is first if all very satisfying and secondly means you know exactly what you're eating. Nothing brings sugar and fat content to life like measuring it out, and this way there are no hidden or mysterious ingredients.

The BBC2 series is great, there's a charm about Miss Hope and Mr Greenwood that I'm finding genuinely irresistible (no suspicion this time, the dynamic between them really works on camera) and the recipes are fabulous. There is a book to accompany the series - 'Sweets Made Simple' - which looks to be a conglomeration of the first 2 ('Life Is Sweet' and 'Miss Hope's Chocolate Box') as such it is a bargain, in W H Smiths this weekend it was even more of a bargain at half price. Their vanilla fudge recipe is the best I've ever found (the book would be worth it for that alone) but this week I've been trying the pecan maple fudge. It took me 3 attempts to get it right. First time I used to dark a sugar which was okay but the flavour profile was all wrong (the maple was over powered), second time I inadvertently took the pan off one hot ring only to put it down on another, so the fudge burnt (entirely my fault) but the third time was the charm. The book calls for a chocolate covering which
was more than I wanted so I didn't bother with it, but the fudge itself is perfect (ostensibly destined for my boss who has been very accommodating about me waiting around for plumbers and electricians after my bathroom was flooded twice in a week by an upstairs neighbour who I cannot currently feel charitable towards) great flavour and nice crumbly texture.

I would include the recipe but think it would be much better if interested parties bought the book, recipes included in the series so far are on the BBC2 website.

(It turns out that even very good fudge is a poor choice for breakfast, no matter how early you've had to get up for an electrician and feel a treat is called for, or how small an amount you eat, so looks like my boss will get most of the it after all.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

'H is for Hawk' feels like one of those books which has come from nowhere and is suddenly everywhere. I saw a particularly pretty cover on twitter a couple of months ago and commented on it, on the back of that Shiny New Books asked me if I'd write about it for them (the answer was obviously yes) and in due course an uncorrected proof arrived. It sat around for a few weeks and then just as I was thinking I ought to get on with it it was published, Waterstones book of the month, reviewed everywhere, and a best seller. I've checked, and whilst this isn't Helen Macdonald's first book (there's an earlier one about falcons, and a collection of poetry) there's nothing to suggest that something like this was in the offing either. Seeing success like this is beguiling, it sheds a particular sort of glamour about it.

When Macdonald's father dies suddenly and unexpectedly - he's out working when he has a heart attack - she has something of a breakdown. To cope she turns back to an earlier career as a falconer, feeling compelled to train a Goshawk, it partly works though a later diagnosis of depression makes it clear that there are no shortcuts to dealing with grief. In a nutshell that's what the books about; grief, falconry, identity, oh and T H White author of (amongst other things) 'The Goshawk' and 'The Once and Future King'. The beauty of it is that it's got a lot of other things in it too, and that it's capable of drawing a deeply personal response from the reader.

I sometimes think the Victorians had it right with their highly codified approach to mourning, rules and routine can be so very helpful in times of extreme distress. One of Macdonald's problems is that she has no partner, no children, and no 9-5 job, so very little to distract her from what she's feeling. A hawk will provide distraction, or at least it'll demand concentration and impose a routine, give time for the bereaved mind to readjust to this changed status and order of things. The choice of a goshawk, is for Macdonald, an indication of how much the order of things have changed. It's not her normal bird, and they have a very specific reputation, history, and symbolism.

Initially it seems the hawk is doing what the reader hopes it might - helping Macdonald put herself back together. The process of building up a working relationship with the bird is enthralling, a slow winning of a certain amount of trust from the animal based on a mix of familiarity and food. There is always a sense that it can all be lost in a moment if for any reason the hawk decides it's had enough - tame isn't really a word to describe a bird of prey however long it's lived with people.

Meanwhile there is also the question oh T H White, his 'The Goshawk' is a classic of nature writing, his story of an epic battle with a bird he calls Gos, the first he attempts to train. I know it's a classic because I've heard of it, even if I haven't read it, I haven't read it because it's always sounded a little bit to macho to really appeal. Macdonald discovered it as a falconry obsessed child, already one who knew White was getting it wrong, but to young to appreciate what might have been going on behind the training. An adult Macdonald finds more in the book and to such an extent that she becomes a little bit obsessed (or haunted) by White in a way that will be familiar to any reader who's ever found themselves talking to a book (not the ones you want to throw across a room in frustration, or just stop reading, but the ones that call forth an altogether more constructive desire for debate). I think White is what gives this book it's balance, he's where emotion and technique meet, he makes it a less intensely personal read but also a more human one, and he's a great bridge for exploring the symbolism and history of the hawk.

My copy is an uncorrected proof (in due course I'll buy a paperback copy so I have the finished article as well as something which is almost the last stage but also a work in progress) on the cover it has a quote from Mark Haddon saying "It just sings. I couldn't stop reading". In the end that sums it up, it does sing, is full of ideas and questions, it deserves every bit of success it gets

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Shetland Notebook - Norman Ackroyd

I blame my mother for this - she keeps leaving copies lying around - but I'm developing something of a 'Country Life' habit, I like to think I could stop at any time but the appraising glances I keep sending towards 'The Field' suggest that it's simply a gateway to a tweedier kind of reading. That and fantasies about owning lavish country estates. If it hadn't been for Country Life and its book reviews though I wouldn't have known about Norman Ackroyd's 'A Shetland Notebook' and that would have been a shame.

I read about Ackroyd in connection with some collaboration with Robert Macfarlane some time last year, he's been on the edge of my mind ever since. Ackroyd has been travelling the edges of the British isles snatching images as he goes - it's not much of an explanation for what he does - google his work to get a better idea, but as most the images I've been looking at are based on sketches taken quickly from the deck of a boat snatched is the best word I can think of. I'm desperate to see some of these images off the screen and on a wall somewhere. The Shetland series is being exhibited in London at the moment so I'm hoping to organise myself down there in time to catch them. I'm also quietly coveting a print but that represents a lot of un-bought books.

'A Shetland Notebook' is a Royal Academy publication, a slightly annoying format for fitting on a shelf, and an absolute delight. I'm guessing the format is tied to the shape of sketch books that Ackroyd uses, I hope it is because there's a romance about that which attracts me. I wanted this book for my Shetland library (which is in reality a small collection) and because it's always interesting to see a place you know through the eyes of another person. What I'm actually looking at is far more than I hoped for.

The thing that I find really exciting about this notebook is that it's just that; a notebook. These aren't highly finished sketches but images taken in haste that sometimes only hint at the ostensible subject but they have a magic about them, some combination of mood and moment, light and mass. Something. How is it that the roughest of sketches can capture a place more uniquely and completely than a photograph? There is another thing I really like about this book, a silly thing really, but many if the pages that don't have sketches on them have smudges and watercolour marks - facsimiles of the original sketchbooks presumably, it's unexpectedly pleasing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Man Who Loved His Wife - Vera Caspary

It might well be that Vera Caspary is the best writer you've never read, if you have read her you'll know exactly what I mean. She's not the easiest writer to stumble across in the UK, I first found her through The Feminist Press and then only because I'd really liked one of their other books (maybe Gypsy Rose Lee's 'The G-String Murders' which is also brilliant by the way). Caspary was a It might It might well be that Vera Caspary is the best writer you've never read, if you have read her you'll know exactly what I mean. She's not the easiest writer to stumble across in the UK, I first found her through The Feminist Press and then only because I'd really liked one of their other books (maybe Gypsy Rose Lee's 'The G-String Murders' which is also brilliant by the way). Caspary was a revelation, the first one I read was 'Laura' which is also a classic film noir and probably her most famous book too (she also worked on the screenplay) Vintage published this in the last couple of years too so it's easy to get hold of. Also from The Feminist Press there's 'Bedelia' which is just brilliant on every level. 'The Man Who Loved His Wife' was everything I've come to expect from Caspary, altogether she wrote 21 books so I'm hopeful I'll find a few more at reasonable prices, or better yet that more will be republished - she deserves the audience.

The book opens with Fletcher Strode trying to make love to his young wife on New Year's Eve, he can't and he hates both of them for it. The next day he starts a diary. We learn that Fletcher has been a very successful self made business man, and that 5 years earlier at the age of 42 he fell in love with a woman 19 years his junior. Divorce, and marriage to Elaine follow in short order - at first the couple are happy, what's drawn them to each other is a shared vitality and zest for life. Otherwise they have very little in common. Then tragedy strikes, Fletcher is diagnosed with cancer and has his larynx removed. His voice, big, and a big part of him is suddenly gone, it utterly emasculates him. For Fletchers sake the couple uproot from New York and head out to California, Fletcher can't bare for people to hear him try and speak so they have no social life, he gives up work without having anything to take its place, and it's Elaine who deals with any of the mundane things that require a conversation.

The result for Fletcher is anger, depression, frustration, and a spiralling paranoia that his wife will take lovers. As a reader it was hard for me to remember that Fletcher isn't actually an invalid, all he should really have lost is his voice - the actual physical restrictions of the stoma are that dry heat is painful for him and swimming no longer practical. His problem is more that he's not a man given to inward contemplation or high brow pursuits; the loss of his voice bars him from the social and business activities he loved - it really is catastrophic. As for Elaine, it's really only at the end of the book that I realised how little Caspary has told me about how she feels or what she thinks.

When Fletcher starts his diary he uses it to record his fantasies of betrayal with some idea that he might commit suicide in such a way that it will look like his wife has killed him, the diary, full of imaginary suspicions will be the damning evidence against her. He doesn't want the death penalty for his wife though, rather he sees a life in prison for her with release only when she's to old to be desirable to other men.

Into an already claustrophobic mix Fletchers daughter, only 6 years younger than Elaine, and suitably resentful of the new wife, and her husband come to stay. Don and Cindy have been living beyond there means, smooth plausible Don is desperate for a job but not really prepared to work his way up. Fletcher despises him, nor is there much affection between father and daughter. There is plenty of motive for the pair to want Fletcher dead too. When he does die it's unclear if it's the suicide he might have been planning or murder, but the police end up thinking murder.

The genius of Caspary is how she keeps the reader guessing and the complexity of her female protagonists. Fletcher plays with the idea of Elaine being a guilty wife, Don realise that a guilty Elaine can't inherit her husbands property so is happy to throw suspicion on her, Cindy the daughter is motivated mostly by spite, and the policeman investigating has his eye on publicity and promotion. A successful prosecution of a young beautiful widow will do him no harm at all. Sergeant Knight is presumably gay, he certainly doesn't have much use for women, remains impervious to Elaine's beauty, and potentially ambivalent about the truth - what he's interested in is how good this case might be for his future.

Amongst all this Elaine remains elusive, Fletchers dark imaginings don't tell us what Elaine really feels, she repeats like a mantra that she loves Fletcher, but does she love him enough? This being Caspary you can be sure that she's no passive victim but not of much else.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Rhubarb Jam

The weather has finally broken, after what must have been 10 hours or more of solid rain even when the sun finally came out again the temperature and general humidity were more along the lines that a hardy northern type such as myself can handle (the heat is not my friend). It's just as well the temperature has dropped because there's an abundance of rhubarb in the garden and the idea of making jam is bearable for the first time in months.

Rhubarb and Ginger is apparently D's favourite, he certainly sounded very enthusiastic when I told him I'd make some (and seems more than pleased with the result) I'm not the biggest fan of ginger in sweet things but this was a really good opportunity to use up a jar of crystallised ginger in syrup, I'm also pleased with the result, the ginger is subtle but definitely makes the jam more interesting. The recipe is from the River Cottage preserves book.

Take 1 kilo of rhubarb and 900g of jam sugar (the sort with added pectin) along with 100g of crystallised stem ginger. Chop the rhubarb into 1 - 2 cm chunks and pour a layer of sugar onto the bottom of your jam pan followed by a layer of rhubarb. Repeat until all the rhubarb is used up and finish with a layer of sugar. Cover and leave for a couple of hours, even better overnight - it draws the juice from the rhubarb which in turn helps it keep it's shape once it's boiled (though I prefer it without to many chunks). Gently bring to the boil, stirring as you go, and then boil rapidly for 5-6 minutes before testing for setting point. When setting point is reached allow it to rest off the heat for 5 minutes before bottling. This jam is far nicer than the rhubarb jelly I made last time I had a glut, the jelly was a bit dull - to the point that it became something of a chore to use up, the jam is already going down nicely.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Money - Emile Zola

This is the third Zola I've read, but the first by a different translator - in this case Valerie Minogue rather than Brian Nelson - and I think I'm beginning to get to know him a little. I wondered how much difference different translators would make, or if it would even be noticeable. In the end there did seem to be something subtly different about the general tone but nothing specific all of which is fascinating to me as I'm still struggling with a mild prejudice against translated fiction but is a bit if a dead end here.

I don't know a huge amount about Zola having read no further than Wikipedia where I gather he was principally a novelist who made some money from journalism, but from reading 'Money' I absolutely came away with a sense of him as a journalist first and foremost. It felt like reading an extended feature in a Sunday paper (albeit a significantly extended feature) I guess this is naturalism in action. Wikipedia also told me that the Rougon-Macquart novels don't need to be read in any particular order as they all stand alone but 'Money' is a direct sequel to 'The Kill' and in this case I think it does matter that they're read in the right order.

In 'The Kill' we see the rise and fall of Saccard as a property speculator along with the effects of decedent self indulgence on his wife. Saccard is undoubtedly a villain in that piece and there's no shortage of moral judgement from Zola. In 'Money' the cycle is repeated, it opens with Saccard a broken man greeted with something just short of contempt by his peers on the Bourse, follows his rise as a banker, and then inevitable fall again after he artificially inflates the value of shares creating a bubble which has to burst. When it does burst ruin is total and all encompassing for many more than Saccard, and yet somehow he's not quite the villain in this piece. There is occasionally something magnificent in his irresponsibility and passion, certainly in the breadth of his vision, and this time some of his actions are - if not motivated purely by kindness - at least charitable in their effect. Zola also uses the financial setting to examine antisemitic feeling.

The plot of 'The Kill' was driven by the fate of Saccard's wife Renee, a weak woman utterly corrupted by her contact with Saccard. 'Money' isn't plot driven in the same way, the female protagonist is Madame Caroline, a strong good woman who becomes Saccard's mistress almost against her own will, certainly against her better judgement. She is an example to the reader of how even the best if us can get caught up in a temporary madness, but in the end her experience is nothing more than an episode in her life; one that leaves her essentially unaltered. In the end 'Money' hardly has any plot to speak of. Saccard's failure is inevitable, that he will take others with him just as inevitable, it's also certain that he'll be the instrument of his own downfall but where the book excels is in bringing the shock exchange to life. Saccard's great battles in the Bourse as he attempts to bring off various coups or avoid disaster are utterly gripping - almost white knuckle stuff. I had to look up what short selling was and found myself utterly (far more so than I might have expected) fascinated by all the ways share prices are manipulated. On top of the technical details are extraordinarily vivid descriptions right down to the patina of dirt on the walls and smoke in the air which further bring these scenes to life.

Just as in 'The Kill' there's a strong sense if moral outrage against crazy gambling complete with the images of previously hard working responsible citizens bought low by this vice (doubtless to die in terrible poverty somewhere) which is all in the best Victorian tradition. Mocking aside though the human suffering portrayed feels real and in turn drew real emotion from me as the reader. The more so because reading Zola has so far been a very visual experience for me, he constantly calls paintings to mind - in this case very English works by the likes of William Powell Frith (I'm thinking Derby day or the railway station) or Augustus Egg's Past and Present.

Saccard's great faults in this book are his volatility and ambition. He always wants more, bigger, faster. More opulence, greater excesses, bigger successes, and always immediately. His bĂȘte noir is the Jewish banker Gundermann, apparently based on Rothschild, Gundermann is logical, cold, ascetic, and in the end bound to win. The risks he takes are reasonable, backed by almost unlimited wealth and in every way he's the antithesis of Saccard who in turn has a fanatical hatred of Jews and their perceived mastery of money. The relationship between the two men is a neat examination of prejudice, very interesting to read, and adds another layer of complexity to an already richly textured book.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


I had meant to finish Zola's 'Money' and write about it this weekend but things got in the way. Yesterday we girded our loins and all that sort of thing to braved Ikea (it was predictably hellish, I panicked and got lost for a bit, I had visions of going round in circles until I could find a member of staff to rescue us but D calmed me down and found the way out so it was okay. I do not like Ikea much.) The purpose of the visit was to get temporary frames for a couple of sizable pictures bought back from Shetland and that at least was a successful mission. Since then I've spent a serious chunk of time first trying to get the pictures into the frames straight and then trying to get the frames closed whilst still keeping the pictures straight. I had to borrow a screwdriver from an obliging neighbour (tiny screws into the side of the frame are fiddly) and predictably sliced my finger on a sharp metal hinge which seems to have been included purely for that purpose, happily I managed not to bleed on the art. What took even longer, and I'm not half finished yet, is hanging everything. Picture hanging is complicated (but enjoyable) it'll be weeks before I'm happy with the results.

Meanwhile I've also been enjoying 'The Oxford Companion to Food' it's officially released later this month but I got very lucky when Shiny New Books offered me a chance to review it for them (very lucky, that's a big thank you to Oxford University Press and Shiny New Books because I'm beyond delighted to have a copy of this). I have a lot of time for the Oxford Companions to things, the Companion to Wine is the industry standard if you sell wine (which I do) and has seen me through all my exams, it is very useful indeed. I'm hoping work will spring for the Beer companion at some point - we really need that too. 'The Oxford Companion to English Literature' was a birthday present last year, it was a long coveted item which more than lived up to expectation.

I have a friend who's almost fanatical about reference books, she loves them with a passion, collects them with a passion, and actually quivered with delight when she saw the Companion to Food on my kitchen table. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about reference books as she is but convenient as it is to google a thing there's so much information out there that I'm increasingly attracted back to actual books. This is partly about branding and reputation - if OUP has put their name on something I trust it. It's also partly about convenience - maybe it's a sign of age but certainly for wine related queries the book is often the quicker option, but finally it's partly down to personality. The tone Jancis Robinson brings to 'The Oxford Companion to Wine' is scholarly and authoritative (just what I want for work) but in 'The Oxford Companion to Food' I'm detecting a certain dry humour as well which makes it very enjoyable to read. It's a winning combination.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Books, Books, Books

I'm having one of those moments that I assume are familiar to all enthusiastic book owners and collectors (or perhaps more accurately in my case hoarders) where I feel totally overwhelmed by the number of books hanging around the place. They're everywhere. In an attempt to eat at a table tonight I had to move a pile of them only to realize that if they went on a counter there would be nowhere to prepare the food - and then I started looking for a specific title (The Bloomsbury Cookbook)... I couldn't find it in the pile of books I'd bought myself, the pile that I mean to read very soon, the pile I keep by the bed, the pile of review copies that I'm committed to getting around to soon, or the pile of review copies that I've had for a shamefully long time. It didn't seem to be among any of the piles of books read but still looking for some sort of permanent home or in any of the wooden wine boxes enjoying a new life as makeshift book shelving. I was quite surprised when I found it in the last place I looked - with the other cookbooks - where it doesn't really belong yet because I've not had a proper look at it. Now I have located it I'm not sure which pile (bedside books I've bought myself and not yet read, sitting room books I've bought and not yet read, books I'd quite like to review soon because I'm specifically excited about them, or back in the kitchen) it properly belongs in.

What I do know is that I don't have enough space on my bookshelves, don't have enough space for more bookshelves, and don't have any intention of not buying more books and actually to be fair it's not precisely the number of books or the scenes of mild chaos that are overwhelming me. No, the problem is the sheer number of books I want to read now, right this minute - or at least by the end of the week - and the possibly irrational resentment that I have to spend time at work earning a living and sleeping instead. The problem with my recent holiday it seems, is that it was just long enough to unwind and get over a mild case of readers block, not nearly long enough to find the time to follow every inspiration that came my way. At least it's not the worst problem a person can have...  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Summer Half - Angela Thirkell

'Summer Half' was the only book I managed to finish on holiday, I'm easily distracted at the moment - maybe it's the heat - but Thirkell is amusing enough to hold my attention which is one good reason to love her. I've said this before, and doubtless will say it every time I re read one of her books (or find one that's new to me) but she's a writer that improves with acquaintance. I've read all the current Virago releases before but they're proving far more rewarding second time round.

I think there are probably a couple of reasons for this - the most obvious is that I'm more attuned to Thirkell's sense of humour now that I'm more familiar with her, she can be quite subtle so it's easy to miss bits first time round. The second reason is that I've read more around her since I first read these books. I now recognize the Trollope references along with some of the others, and am better at recognizing when something probably is a reference all of which adds layers to her writing. It possibly also helps that I'm now in the best part of the series - I haven't read any of the later books but am told they become increasingly formulaic, the very early ones have a tendency to a casual antisemitism that I find disconcerting but that seems to crop up less as the books go on. 

I imagine somebody somewhere must have researched this but it's a curious thing observing how general attitudes change towards Jewishness in middle brow fiction. I'm reading Zola at the moment and he's having a sly dig at attitudes in France. Most Victorian writers I've read have displayed what was clearly a common prejudice and this continues well into the 1930's but from my reading I would guess it suddenly becomes less acceptable, less politically correct perhaps, as those uncomfortable references start to disappear. 

There is also a particular poignancy to the pre war books - this is a world of comfortable middle class living which would never exist again; servants are plentiful, standards are set, and the world seems a uniquely secure place for these characters full of comfortable certainties and afternoon tea on the lawn. Plot wise not so very much happens, young Colin Keith is training to be a barrister but wants some financial independence from his father so takes a job as a junior master at a local school. There is plenty of discussion about boys - also poignant - boys like this may still exist in the grandest private schools but mostly they have turned into teenagers which on the whole doesn't sound like much of an improvement. There is also the obligatory romance and a fair amount of humour booth of which are extremely satisfactory but what makes Thirkell special and worth being reprinted and reread are her occasional moments of observation and insight.

The one I've bookmarked in 'Summer Half' is a bit about blackshirts, it's only a couple of paragraphs but it jumped out at me. The phenomenally shallow Rose Birkett has been to the cinema with a couple of brothers (Fairweather Senior and Junior who are, I believe, on leave from the Navy) and they're recounting a something they found funny...
 "Oh yes, that was awfully funny,' said Fairweather Junior. 'It was a man selling little books. One of those blackshirt fellows, you know like Puss in Boots in a polo jersey. I don't know why, but it was awfully funny. Lord! It was funny!' he added breaking into laughter again.
   'I'll tell you another funny thing about those blackshirts,' said Lydia. 'No one knows who they are, or where they go. I mean, have you ever seen one, except standing on the pavement in waders, looking a bit seedy? You meet quite a lot of communists and things in people's houses...But you never go to tea with someone and find them sitting there in their boots."
It's not much but it says a lot about attitudes in Britain in around 1936 (the book was originally published in 1937) and about Thirkell's attitude inparticular. Fascism may have been alright for the lower orders and a few eccentric aristocrats but for decent middle class people it clearly wasn't the done thing. The earnestness of young communists is mocked in a friendly way in the assumption that they'll grow out of it but at least it has a sort of drawing room respectability.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Another picture post

This is sheer self indulgence on my part but there are a few more pictures I wanted to post here as a holiday reminder so here goes...
Dinner (vegetarians look away) getting dad to cook lobster for me is a holiday tradition, as is the drive to get them and then listening to them try and escape in the back of the car.
Not quite as reliable a tradition but by no means an uncommon holiday experience if you favour Scottish islands is stumbling across a replica viking ship. This one is the largest of her kind at 115 feet and is apparently more of a re-imagining than a replica. Possibly a replica would have been a better bet as the mast of this one (Draken Harald Harfagre) snapped in the middle of the north sea. Fortunately nobody was hurt but something that looked a lot like a very large tree trunk (because that's exactly what it was) snapped like a match stick. Impressive boat though.
This is the view from the museum cafe where they sell huge and delicious scones. The scones are really very good indeed (so good) the view is nice too, even when it's misty. A lot of the boats belong to the museum and there's a refreshing lack of safety rails.

knitwear and wool, because I can't get enough of it. Sadly not so many people are knitting commercially in Shetland any more, some of the older generation do, but their daughters aren't keen to - perhaps because for so long it was one of the only options for women work wise and it was liberating to get away from it. Knitting is no longer taught in schools (a shame) so I guess we just have to hope that enough people will decide to take it up to keep this particular tradition alive. This board of colour ways is from Shetland Designer (wonderful luscious colours which catch bit of the landscape) where I got thoroughly over excited.
 Not a great picture but spectacular coastal walks are what you go to a Scottish island for so there has to be a picture...
And now all I have left to do is find a home for the pictures I bought back. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Maria Chapdelaine - Louis Hemon

'Maria Chapdelaine' came my way as a postal book group read, as a classic of French Canadian literature it's perhaps not entirely surprising that I'd never come across it before but it seems it's required reading in Canada (presumably all of Canada and not just the French bits?) has been filmed at least 3 times and is well translated. My knowledge of Canadian literature is limited but positive so it was a bit of a bonus to get a chance to read this, it proved to be every bit as good as I could have hoped for.

On the whole it's a simple enough story, Maria and her family live somewhere on the frontier in Quebec carving a farm out of the wilderness of forest there. Maria's father is a born pioneer and this is the 5th farm he's win from the land - as soon as the work is completed he feels the urge to move yet further north and start again. It's a harsh way of life in a country that is 7 months severe winter, and living 8 miles from the nearest hamlet but it's also the life that he's compelled to live, and despite his wife's desire for life in a parish where she would have neighbours she's content too.

Maria hasn't questioned what she really wants from life at the beginning of the book, but 3 potential suitors and 2 deaths will change all that. First there is the man she falls in love with and who loves her in return. It's a chaste courtship - a couple of meetings - but enough for a deep understanding, when the man dies in a snowstorm on his way to see her Maria is quietly devastated. Of her remaining suitors one offers her a new life of relative ease in America, the other - a neighbour can only offer her more of the life she knows. For Maria who likes but doesn't love both men the choice initially seems simple; America, far away from the forest she's coming to hate for taking her man from her. The death of her mother makes Maria think again though, without love the prospect of a life away from family and culture she knows is to much, a secondary consideration is that her family suddenly needs her to hold the home together.

A couple of years ago I saw an exhibition in Shetland that traced the lives of some of those who had emigrated, this book describes the life that dome of them would have found. Despite 300 years in the country there is still a sense of being French as well as Canadian, and what Hemon presents us with is  a hard life but a rewarding one for these people are making something fundamental. He doesn't disparage city life as such but there's a definite belief in the noble peasant. In the end though it's the description of Canada, and the people of Quebec that I think will stay with me. The harsh farming life  undertaken on the edge of viable country isn't entirely unfamiliar to me, though the freezing winters are, but I've never experienced the vastness of a country like this and it's something I long to see.