Monday, December 31, 2012

Scandinavian Christmas - Trine Hahnemann

I don't think this book's title does it any favours - Christmas sounds far to specific when to my way of thinking it's a good all round winter cookbook with a few of things that would be welcome all year (we love pickled herring in my family), but the Christmas in the title is probably the reason it was half price in Waterstones and as that's more my budget I probably shouldn't complain. Indeed Waterstones have done me proud this year in their sale, I haven't bought a lot but I'm really pleased with what I've got - particularly this one; I'd been half interested in it beforehand but hadn't been able to find a copy to have a good look at and had assumed it would be to specific to be really useful or desirable. So far I've only looked through it but that's been enough to convince me that it's a little treasure. 

The great thing about borrowing from other peoples traditions is that you're not bound by them. I love mince pies but it feels somehow transgressive to make them before December or long after New Year, never mind things like Christmas pudding... Part of the pleasure they bring is bound by there seasonality (disgusted of Leicester is not impressed that the first Easter eggs were being put out for sale on the 27th of December) but Lebkuchen or any other honey or spice biscuit I could see my way to eating any time and as far as I'm concerned if it's cold outside mulled wine in any form is quite acceptable so a recipe for a Glogg syrup is quite useful - especially because the sort of teabag arrangement that I normally favour doesn't scale down very well, but a syrup will so it can be used up on leftover cooking wine and the like, which is sensible rather than hangover inducing. 

There are, as I would expect from a Scandinavian inspired book, plenty of recipes for pickled herring; something I've tried, and failed, to make well at home before, but am now encouraged to try again with. As I have a few days off I can engage in projects like this so mean to gather together all the pickling recipes I can find on my shelves, try and work out where I went wrong before, search out some good looking herrings and have another go - possibly a few goes involving different ingredients - and see if I can nail it. 

This book also happens to be very reasonably priced on amazon - well worth checking out... 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas Cake - Was it a Success?

Having almost finished the mince pies my mother made me (I think she makes the best mince pies ever - I have never ever had better - and fear I have no chance of rivalling her prowess) it was quite clearly time to start on the Christmas cake. 

A few weeks back I read somewhere (I can't remember who or where) one of those really obvious things which somehow you never consider until it's pointed out to you and which boiled down to practice makes perfect. It was an observation that restaurant cooks make the same dish over and over which is why they get so good at them, and not so many years ago we cooked at home in the same sort of way - a few dishes that appeared again and again and lack of variety aside there's something to be said for it; every time I make bread it gets better because every time I do it I know a little bit more and the same is true of the Christmas cake...

Last years effort was the first fruit cake I'd ever baked - there's nothing very challenging about it - but it was all a bit new and mysterious especially as every recipe is different, second time round I felt I could mess around with it a bit; I found the glacé cherries rather too sweet last time so this year substituted half of them for dried apricots soaked in whisky which for me is a big improvement - next time I might dispense with the cherries altogether. This time round I had a much better idea of how long my oven would take to cook the beast and just generally it all seemed altogether more satisfactory - perhaps because I've discovered that a fruit cake made the way you like it is an altogether more enjoyable proposition than any other sort.

Fruit cake is a recently discovered enthusiasm, or at least the enthusiasm is recently discovered, a nice slab of it (though moderation is necessary) is just the thing to have with a cup of tea; it's rich spiciness transforms even the dullest winter afternoon, I put it down to the solid Victorian comfort of the thing, and the way it feels like it's been built to last and urge the unconverted to have a go... I like the tradition of it too, both in the idea that it's a throw back to the 13th Century crusaders returning with new flavours and ideas, and that my father loves a good fruit cake - they strike me as a very gentlemanly sort of snack and something that calls for further experimentation.   


Friday, December 28, 2012

Patience - John Coates

After enjoying 'The Making of a Marchioness' so much I wanted something else similarly enjoyable and undemanding at which point I remembered my Persephone haul from late November. It was a toss up between 'Miss Buncle Married' and 'Patience' but I picked up 'Patience' which turned out to be something of a mistake. It's a rare occurrence but sometimes a Perephone title just doesn't suit me and this was one of those times which was mildly disappointing as it's the one I'd had the highest expectations for after reading reviews like Book Snob's.

Patience is 28, the mother of 3 babies with the possibility of a 4th on the way, she's been married for 7 years, is a devout Catholic, and has never achieved any sort of sexual fulfilment - or even dreamed it was possible - until she meets Philip one night at a party. A couple of hours later morals and inhibitions are thrown to the wind as she falls into bed with him and they swear undying love. Fortunately Philip doesn't mind all Patience's babies and her existing husband is soon dealt with.

My problem was Patience, and to a lesser extent Philip, Patience seems to be utterly oblivious to everything going on around her apart from her babies. Her husband is a mystery to her, money is a mystery to her, dates aren't her strong point which is why a question mark hangs over her possible pregnancy, and her own body is clearly a mystery too. She doesn't seem to have any friends of her own, her circle consists of a divorced and re-married sister, and a brother whose wife left him for a Catholic retreat - Patience doesn't understand why. She married her husband Edward because he was a suitable suitor and she thought it would be nice to have a man to tell all ones stray thoughts too so that he might re arrange them and hand them back in good order... Luckily for Patience she's exceptionally attractive. She's also been entirely submissive in her marriage, just as her church tells her to be, which may be why her husband is keen to keep her but also perhaps why her marriage has been so unsatisfying.

Philip is another vague sort of a character who seems quite happy to shoulder the responsibility of Patience and her family after only a few hours acquaintance. Dull considerations like something to live on, or even somewhere to live don't really figure in his consideration, and Patience is so impressed by her first orgasm that she doesn't worry about these things either. In fact she seems to worry about nothing more than when she can next have Philip regardless of any consequences.

I just can't believe in Patience, and if I did I really wouldn't like her very much. I can just dimly perceive why another reader might love this book, Edward and Lionel (Patience's brother) were rather more interesting, well rounded characters. Lionel especially with his religious mania is both comic and tragic. Edward is rather easy to understand as the man who has been able to have his cake and eat it for the last 7 years. I actually found myself feeling sorry for him at the end - I'm fairly sure that wasn't intended.      

It's a curious thing to find yourself really not liking a book that you feel ought to have been just your cup of tea. Other readers who I'm generally in sympathy with have found this a delightfully funny and intriguing book - I saw inconsistencies. Some of my irritation may have been down to my fraught pre Christmas mood so I have a vague intention of having another look one day (if life doesn't prove to be to short) but then again maybe not.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Boxing Day

Christmas is finally over for another year; all those months of preparation and anticipation and it's nothing but washing up before you know where you are. I got a nice pile of books for Christmas and a couple more today when I was out and about (I'm sorely tempted to reduce my amazon wish list as well, but perhaps I should read some books before I buy any more) I also got a decent haul of kitchen bits too, so I'm basically a contented woman (or would be if I hadn't been struck down with another cold, so instead I'm revoltingly snotty).

Partly in a bid for fresh air, and partly because it's the first time I've ever been asked to such a thing I went to a Boxing day shoot on Wednesday. We've had rotten weather over the last week - it's rained enough to make building an ark seem like an excellent plan but Boxing day morning couldn't have been more perfect - right down to the crisp frost. Since retirement my mother has developed a passion for shooting and it was interesting to see her in action. She's fiercely competitive which helps because even on a fun day - which the Boxing day shoot traditionally is - they all take it very seriously. It was just like pictures in 'The Field' or 'Country Life' suggest - or for that matter in any country house story written since the mid 19th century (although there are rather more Land Rovers than the Victorians might have had, and indeed more than the average dealership has on display even now). 

I've been quite keen to learn to shoot for a while - though my ambitions are strictly clay based. Even if Pheasant shooting wasn't so expensive, or such a male dominated sport (lady guns are rather frowned on even now) I don't think it would be for me (though I do like the clothes and the scenery) it just doesn't feel like my world, though possibly it has something to do with mum confiding in me that most people who shoot get peppered with shot at least once. She told me this just when it was precisely to late to turn back, thankfully we all escape injury this time... I could easily get used to the hospitality though, there's nothing like a hot glass of mulled wine followed by a cold glass of champagne, not to mention the warm mince pies, to set one up before an hour spent ankle deep in Derbyshire mud. The lunch was rather good too. Indeed the only thing I would have liked to see, but didn't, were the dogs working (I have a soft spot for 'One Man and His Dog' and watching working dogs generally).

Books tomorrow. And maybe more mulled wine.   


   

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happy Christmas


Well it's the end of an unbelievably busy day at work (followed by 'Great Expectations' which was quite satisfying) and I still have to pack up ready to go to my mothers after work tomorrow, wrap the last few presents, put a load of washing on, and generally make sure that when she comes round the place looks half presentable... 


Christmas isn't really my favourite time of year. The last week at work has been challenging, it feels like I have a bruise for every day of advent, my back hurts, I seem to have broken every single nail, my hands are a mass of paper cuts from cardboard boxes and scratches from broken glass, and I ran over my foot with a cage of wine (they weigh about a third of a ton so it's lucky that I've only got another cut and not a broken foot). Such is the physical reality of Christmas in retail. My mood is probably in an even worse state than my body (depressing thought). Happily at 5 O'clock tomorrow it will all be other for another year and I can think about relaxing (books and jaffa cakes feature large in my plans for the next couple of weeks).

2012 has been a mixed year, the last month especially has bought quite a lot of bad news culminating with the death of a much loved family friend so I'm particularly looking forward to a new year and a new start this time round. Wrapping up the last presents is a reminder of much better things in life - things to be grateful for rather than to mourn over.

I hope we all have the Christmas we want and that 2013 brings good things - by new year the bruises will have faded and the champagne will be chilled.

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Making of a Marchioness - Frances Hodgson Burnett

One of the few bits of Christmas television that I'd heard about, and was also looking forward to, was an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'The Making of a Marchioness' renamed The Making of a Lady, and rescheduled to be shown last Sunday evening. There was a slightly worrying article in the Telegraph over the weekend which rather dwelt on the shoe string budget and didn't inspire confidence in the finished article. Fears that turned out to be well justified; The Making of a Lady was mostly terrible, I won't knock the acting particularly - I don't know how much they could have done with what ended up being a rotten adaptation of quite an interesting story, Elaine has strong feelings about this book, her reactions and the following comments sum up what went wrong. The good to come out of it was that I reread my own copy.

'The Making of a Marchioness' must have been one of the first Persephone's I bought, it had been a while since I read it, and the details were hazy - I remembered enough to know that the first half was a Cinderella story, the second a thriller. Lingering impressions were of an enjoyable but not brilliant read. Second time around I have a better appreciation of why this book is such a favourite with some. 

Emily Fox-Seaton is 34, well born, desperately poor, and frequently described as childlike in her goodness, innocence, and when she smiles. Emily doesn't think of herself as an intelligent woman, and neither does anybody else, but she's extremely practical and thoughtful with excellent taste. Her childlike qualities have nothing to do with childishness and are principally an innocence concerning worldly matters, a limited sense of humour, and an ability to take pleasure from any mildly pleasant thing around her. 34 is a depressing age for an unmarried woman though, there is a growing sense that one day she will be unable to run the errands for people by which she makes a sort of living, as well as the realisation that she is quite alone in the world except for the interested affection of her landlady and landladies daughter.

Loneliness, poverty, and the need to maintain appearances are not issues that have gone away so it's deeply satisfying when Emily is rescued by Lord Walderhurst at a moment when everything seems quite hopeless (and a great pity that this scene was dropped from the adaptation as it's hilarious). Walderhurst's proposal isn't particularly romantic, but Emily likes him, and the reader can agree with his aunt that he's shown remarkable good sense in choosing her, and really, what sensible girl wouldn't be thrilled to hear the words "You are the woman I want...You make me feel quite sentimental."? It's enough for Emily and I anyway.

So much for the Cinderella story, now the thriller - and this is the bit that ITV really made a mess of. Lord Walderhurst has an heir presumptive, a generally bad egg called Alec Osborn, Alec comes back on leave from India with a bitter wife and a silently watchful servant. Hester Osborn is Emily's opposite in every way. Where Emily has always looked for the silver lining, Hester has brooded on life's slings and arrows, Her marriage isn't happy - Alec is an abusive drunk - and pregnancy is adding to her anxieties. It would be so much better for them if an accident were to befall the also pregnant Emily; just as long as nothing could be proven...

I have no idea how common or otherwise depictions of domestic violence were in popular Edwardian fiction, I can think of a few examples but suspect that then, as now, it's a somewhat taboo subject. Burnett was apparently writing from experience, she certainly paints a convincing picture of how a thing can get out of hand. Hester, who remembers that she loved her husband as well as being frightened of him, shares his sense of resentment that the Walderhurst fortune is slipping away from them so at first it's easy enough to ignore his plotting, but can she continue to do so?

The beauty of the book is that there is an acknowledgement that it's all ridiculous and melodramatic - everybody gets caught up in the situation which Burnett then diffuses quite naturally before building it up again with the everyday drama of childbirth and reunion. 'The Making of a Marchioness' isn't a perfect book - some of it has aged in a way that's just a little awkward, but it's a really satisfying one which deserved rather better treatment than it got the other night. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday

I know this is stating the obvious but it's amazing how much a day of doing things you enjoy, and can afford, will cheer a person up. I've been feeling a little low recently but after spending last night watching utter rubbish on television, and today doing Christmas cooking and catching up with friends I feel like a new woman. 

The baking consisted of mince pies (pastry somewhat too short as some of them disintegrated) two kinds of fudge, and the final dipping of candied oranges in chocolate - basically my favourites from the last couple of Christmases. I'm particularly pleased with the fudge as I find it all too easy to burn and this lot didn't even come close to catching. I had meant to make some sort of biscuit as well but didn't get up early enough to organise that so they'll have to wait. The second batch of fudge was the chocolate and walnut from 'Sugar and Spice' the first lot was a universal hit, second time round I like the recipe even more which fills me with enthusiasm for further experimentation with this book. 

There has also been a gathering together of all the other things I've made over the last few months with Christmas in mind. The Russian Plum Liquor, and Apricots preserved in Muscat (though I've used a fortified moscatel - same grape, Spanish name - partly because it's unfashionable enough to be slightly cheaper, partly because I think the extra alcohol will be good for the preservation process. It's a luscious and lovely wine anyway with clean grapey flavours that will be perfect for apricots) are from Diana Henry's 'Salt Sugar Smoke' - still my book of the year for it's wonderful combination of the unusual and brilliantly simple. There are also all the jams and jellies from the same book - the shelves will look bare when they've gone but it will be licence to start again and I'm obviously looking forward to that...

Other reasons to be cheerful this week have been bumping into Fiona Cairns at work - she shops with us semi regularly but whenever I've spotted her before I've been far to busy or she's looked far to harassed for me to be able to buttonhole her - not this time, and so I got to hear a little bit about her new book (coming out in September) it's about seasonal baking and is apparently the book she's always wanted to write. I especially loved 'Bake and Decorate' and am really looking forward to this one. 

Finally Reading Matters has posted a round up of bloggers books of the year (including mine - the excellent 'Island Years Island Farm') I've just spent a happy half hour browsing through titles, adding both to my wish list and blog list - the latter certainly fits my criteria of enjoyable and affordable occupations. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christmas Cake

Well my birthday came and went - not a very bookish one this year but it bought plenty of other good things, and then it was back to work and after two days of Christmas mayhem (no we don't sell an alcohol free mulled wine, and if you consider adding this sachet of spices to fruit juice and heating it up too much trouble I really can't help you... No, I know we don't have it in stock, my climbing four flights of stairs to get to the store room and having another look won't change that... And I'm sorry madam I don't know where you bought that wine, but you didn't buy it here, or indeed anywhere in the last decade, so I'm not going to replace it for you no matter how much you try and tell me you got it here a week ago - and if you don't like my attitude try and imagine how I feel about yours...) it's like it never happened.
At least I finished work at a very reasonable 5 o'clock tonight and so have had the chance to decorate my Christmas cake, I'm not quite as pleased with it as I was last years effort but had fun with the stamp thingys making snowflakes and the liberal sprinkling of glitter the kitchen has acquired is very festive.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Preparations

Tomorrow is my birthday and I'll be one step closer to being as old as I feel - based on tonight's performance my memory is already going, although that could just possibly be wine related. I've spent all afternoon making crazy attempts to impose order on my surroundings whilst baking like a thing possessed. The baking bit was by way of being a treat for me, I've made bread, Santa Lucia buns (tomorrow is Saint Lucy's day) and a cake which I'm now a bit worried about as I forgot to add the 100g of ground almonds the recipe calls for (annoying, I've made this cake a few times so there's no excuse, fingers crossed it will still taste good). I love baking and it was fun but my kitchen looks far worse than I could have imagined, there is a mountain of washing up and even hot tea and rum cocktails aren't making it look any better.  

Even so there is something both cathartic and comforting for me in spending an afternoon in the kitchen. Work has been hectic and demanding, between writing cards and planning presents home hasn't felt much better, so taking an afternoon out just to mess about making things for my own pleasure has been a welcome pause, I'm certainly a calmer person than I was at lunch time (though again that might be due to wine and rum) and probably much nicer to be around. It's also been good to play with my cookbooks (even if I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have). 

Hope and Greenwood's Fireside Rum Tea - serves 4
4 tablespoons of maple syrup mixed up with half a tea spoon of ground cinnamon and the finely ground seeds of a cardamom pod should be set aside in a bowl whilst the kettle boils. Make a pot of tea, and let it steep for a couple of minutes (a light brew is better). Pour a good splash of rum in the bottom of a cup, add the tea and a tablespoon of syrup and drink up.   


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sugar and Spice Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra

I've been wanting to write about this book for a good few weeks now but somehow time has got away from me, however I've done my last big wine tasting of the season (it was the definitely the best from my point of view, it was a big event and I got to taste loads of things the other exhibitors were showing), written most of my Christmas cards (enough anyway), and today have started on the Christmas baking (trial recipes today to see if they'll do for hamper presents). My home preparations for Christmas are quite minimal (I still go to my mother's for the actual day), but the thought that I only have 3 days off between now and the 25th is quite daunting; I like to make some elements of the presents I give for the pleasure it gives me - don't believe anybody who tells you home made is cheaper; ingredients, materials, and packaging cost a fortune (and then consider the time that goes into being thoughtful) it is however a lot of fun.  

'Sugar & Spice' - sweets and treats from around the world - is the sort of book I seem pre-programmed to love. There are projects for every level of kitchen competence - I'm quite keen to try making my own marzipan for which there are several recipes here - it sounds quite simple as long as you have a mixer with a paddle attachment which I think I do which leads me to a bit of an aside.

Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra was bought up in Guyana, her ancestors were indentured labourers recruited in India, plantation life was a mix of British inspired living and individual ethnicity with both elements controlled by the availability of goods. After that it was university in Nova Scotia, time spent in Spain, and finally a home in Holland. Ingredients are measured in grams, ounces, and cups - it's very multi-cultural but occasionally a little confusing - so for example in the chocolate fudge recipe I made tonight all the instructions are simple and informative bar one; the specified tin. The specified tin is referred to a few times but in the end is simply referred to as a large loaf tin, there's a picture that shows it's not a UK standard but no measurements to help find an equivalent. Paddle is another example - is a paddle the same as a beater? (Google images suggests that it is.) This is a tiny quibble which I only mention because I'm a pedant in the kitchen, it doesn't spoil my enjoyment of the book but I've learnt I need to pay it a little bit extra attention.

One of the reasons I like making gifts for people is that it gives me the opportunity to cook all sorts of things which would send a single woman into a diabetic coma, never more true than with sweets, I can't make them for myself - I'd eat them ALL, but they are at least far easier to share than cake. Initial impressions of the chocolate fudge are good (I'll know more in the morning when it's properly set), especially as you don't need to boil it to soft ball stage, the chocolate is meant to help it set, the advantage being that it's less easy to burn as well as quicker to make. 

The reason that I love this book is that it really is multi-cultural, there are exciting things from all over including a sizeable selection of Indian sweets, something I've got quite fond of after all these years in Leicester. There's also a lot of information about all sorts of stuff in general, another thing I can't resist. A cookbook that promises years of sharing good things with friends has got to be a book to treasure.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

High Rising - Angela Thirkell

The shine has worn off Christmas a bit for me now (I've had two months of it already and the milk of superhuman patience is drying up which is unlucky when I consider what the next three weeks has in store for me...) I'm also to tired to concentrate on anything overly complex so have picked up and re-shelved George Bernard Shaw's 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide', Ali Smith's 'Artful' went the same way, and I think it's probably better if Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'Apricot Jam' waits until I'm in a more receptive mood too. For now my reading is mostly being sponsored by E.F. Benson's 'Night Terrors' and Angela Thirkell. Thank god for Thirkell and Virago.

I've hoped that somebody would start to reprint Thirkell for a long time now but must admit my money was on Vintage doing it - Thirkell fits much the same niche as Stella Gibbons and Vintage have a nice habit of doing the whole back catalogue even if it is only as print on demand. My knowledge of Thirkell is limited to the half dozen or so easy to find second hand copies here in the UK, and they are all from fairly early in her Barsetshire series, the later books are far to expensive to be attractive. I've heard that the quality of her work was somewhat variable and wonder if this is why the later books weren't as widely printed? Either way I'd be happy to see plenty more.

I realised when I started 'High Rising' that I'd read it before albeit a while ago, now so far I've thought of Thirkell books as a bit of fun but perhaps slightly throw away, a second read has made me reassess her. 'High Rising' centres around the novelist Laura Morland (mother of the irrepressible Tony) she's a widow who has turned to writing to support her four sons through school and into their various careers, Tony is the only one left but feels like quite enough boy to be going round. Laura, who is surely based on Thirkell, is a woman happy with her life and in her skin, and who for all her apparent absent mindedness has no intention of letting the comfortable balance of that life slip. She has an old friend - George - who's secretary is making eyes at him, and Laura is having none of it... So will George be rescued from the ambitious Miss Grey, will his daughter find love,will Laura manage to fend off inopportune proposals, and will Tony Ever Stop talking about trains?

Everything bounces along in a jolly enough way with plenty of snappy one liners, first time round I was probably caught up more by the story which is a little unevenly paced - everything happens in fits and starts, but this time it was the humour that drew me in and that, I think, works a lot better than the plot. Thirkell takes some time to explain Laura's approach to novels; she wants to write good bad novels, repeatedly making the point that her work is second rate but as good as second rate gets.

This is actually something I have quite a bit of respect for, too much high art gets a bit wearing, and Thirkell's gentle, well crafted, humour absolutely has it's place. I think in this book, and in Alexander McCall Smith's introduction there is perhaps too much apology for Thirkell's perceived shortcomings - she's good at what she does and books like this are the perfect antidote to stress filled winter days.

More problematical are some of Thirkell's prejudices, she makes casually racist observations in a way that absolutely reflects attitudes in the 1930's but which can be quite abrasive to modern sensibilities. In 'High Rising' it's some throw away comments about Jews - the context takes much of the sting out of it but it's those moments that show the books occasional shortcomings, although from a historical perspective it's also what makes it really interesting - it's another reason I'd like to read some of the later books in the series; to see if those attitudes change or are edited out. 

'High Rising' is a perfect winter read, and was a much bigger treat than I expected (the perfect stocking filler for any Virago lover) I have everything crossed that more Thirkell's will join the list. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Qualified to Criticise a Classic or Not?

A week or so ago Savidge Reads and A J Reads reviewed Trollope's 'The Warden' as part of their Classically Challenged project and afterwards Simon (Savidge Reads) wrote more about feeling qualified to criticise classics or not, I've pinched his post title but am sure he won't mind. I had meant to comment, then came down with some disgusting virus and am now feeling almost human again so thought I'd attempt a blog instead because it's something I occasionally consider.

I've never been very comfortable using the term 'Review' to describe my blogging about books, it feels like a loaded term, when I stop to analyse why I think that I come up with no very satisfactory answer, but it is in part tied up with a determination when I started blogging that I would only write about books that I was enthusiastic about. Broadly speaking this is what I've done for the last three years. I haven't absolutely loved every book that's appeared here, and have sometimes even made mild criticisms, but basically if I've put that kind of time into it it's because I thought it was interesting enough to deserve the attention. I would actually be hard pressed to write about books I didn't like having reached a point where I'm not prepared to read something if I'm not enjoying it, or at least finding it rewarding on some level. Beyond that my critical facilities come from studying History of Art (a long time ago) and wine (continuously), I imagine that broadly speaking the same techniques apply to literature, but again criticism as such is not what I consider this blog for as I read mostly for fun - any formal criticism is purely accidental.

When it comes to wine it's my job to sell it, so when I describe it I naturally want it to sound like just what you want so you'll buy it, more importantly I actually want it to be just what you want so you'll come back and buy more - that's why I'm good at my job. Now I know that everything I recommend is good, but I also know that not everyone will like it, when it comes to wine my palate might be more educated than my customers but that doesn't make my opinion more valid than theirs - I'm not going to be drinking the bottle, and education aside there are all sorts of excellent wines that just don't excite me that much (Pinot Noir - it moves some people to poetry, it moves me to a good Cabernet). 

That's basically my approach to the classics as well. If you've read it than your opinion is valid, and part of that is going to be whether you liked it or not, though what I'm interested in is why. I also like spoilers. Now neither AJ or Simon enjoyed 'The Warden' which is a shame - I think it a wonderful book and Trollope a marvellous writer (though I recognise he has his faults), I do take exception to Simon's comparison between 'The Warden' and Fifty Shades (How Very Dare He) but accept the point he's making. I can also understand why he didn't like the book - not everybody will care for knotty moral issues centred around obscure church practices (I happen to love that kind of thing... and it's occurring to me about now that Simon probably has a much better social life than I do). 

To answer Simon's question I really do believe that the only qualification you need to critique a classic, or any other book, is to have read it, to be able to maintain an open mind, and to be able to explain why you feel the way you do about it. Everything else is gravy.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Black Spider - Jeremias Gotthelf

'The Black Spider' was a book group choice - and did exactly what good book group books should - made me read something I'd never otherwise have picked up (the dirty great spider on the cover would have been more that enough to put me off). Jeremias Gotthelf  (real name Albert Bitzius) was a pastor, and writer, in Emmental in the early 19th century, 'The Black Spider' is by far his best known work - it's apparently a set text in Swiss schools, I had nothing so terrifying in my day.

Part morality tale, part horror story 'The Black Spider' opens with busy preparations for a christening in full swing, the setting is a prosperous farm house in the Emmental -everything is neat, clean, and as it should be in a god fearing household. After the child is safely baptised and everyone has eaten and drunk to bursting point the party is sitting in the meadow when someone asks why a particular piece of old wood was used in the building of such a fine new farmhouse. After a little hesitation the grandfather starts to tell how the village was once visited by a terrible plague...

Back in the middle ages the village was ruled by a wicked Knight who had picked up heathen habits, he worked the villagers past endurance until one night in the depths of their despair and faced with starvation the devil appears to them in the form of a huntsman. He will help them out of their trouble he says in return for one un-baptised* child. The villagers flee in terror apart from one woman who makes a pact with the huntsman convinced that she can later deceive him. It's a bargain the village is happy enough with, there is an unspoken conviction amongst the men that the soul of a single child is a small thing weighed against all their lives, and in the end they themselves made no pact - the responsibility all rests with this one woman - Christine.

Eventually a child is born but the villagers manage to have it baptised at birth so the devil is cheated, something they congratulate themselves mightily about, only Christine begins to realise the devil won't be thwarted so easily. When a second child is born, and the deal is reneged on again, a terrible plague of poisonous spiders is unleashed - all the cattle are killed and the wicked knight demands that the bargain be upheld. It isn't and the next time the plague is even more terrible.

Eventually a young mother sacrifices herself to trap the spider and all is well for a while, but eventually the villagers forget what they owe to God, they have become prosperous and proud, and then the spider is released again...

The moral is pretty clear - the God fearing person has no need to fear the devil or death but it absolutely in God that one must put ones trust. I think this is a little hard on the first lot of villagers who find themselves in a very tight spot indeed - it would take a great deal of faith to face the starvation of yourself and your family with any sort of equanimity. As a horror story though this is superb. The arrival of the spider is one of the most horrible things I've ever read, I'm frightened of them anyway and this book certainly won't help with that. The descriptions of Emmental life are interesting in themselves, the comparison between all that's clean, bright, and wholesome, against what the spider brings is hugely effective in ratcheting up the tension. A book that's well worth seeking out.

*Note, spell checker tried to change unbaptised to unoptimised which seems somehow in keeping with the story.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Treats

My friend C and I went to London today, ostensibly to see the Northern Renaissance exhibition at the Queens Gallery - it's very good - and something we particularly wanted to see to honour the memory of the history teacher who made the time and subject come alive. Of course there was also some time for shopping so there was a quick visit to Persephone books. C and I also have birthdays in the next couple of weeks so I bought myself a present - I'm so excited about these - the books should be the reasonably light reading I want at the moment and the bowl and jug combine two things I'm quite keen on (Persephone books and Emma Bridgewater). A very definite extravagance but I'm very happy with them - now all I need to do is find them a home.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ten books from the last twelve months


Last year was the first time I did this (it's quite likely I was procrastinating over organising a Christmas card list then too), it was interesting to look back and assess what books really stood out - looking at that list again tonight I wonder how many would have made the cut pitted against this years books. There were plenty of good books last year but it was quite hard work to pick ten that really stood out. This year couldn't be more different, the difficulty has been in narrowing it down to only ten - whatever else has been less than satisfactory on the last twelve months the books have been tremendous.


So once again in no particular order here are my favourites - the ones I've actually buttonholed strangers in bookshops over and tried to persuade them to buy, or bought to press on friends with utterly evangelical fervour, and if you're not already acquainted with these books you really should be...

John Sutherland's Lives Of The Novelists was a birthday present from my sister, it's great for dipping in and out of as well as for reference. I don't read much biography generally being more interested in the writing than the writer but sometimes curiosity gets the better of me. What I love about this book is that you have the basics of a career, a few key dates, a recommendation for the must read text of each author, and quite a lot of gossipy detail - everything I want in short. 

Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier' was my first successful foray into modernism, I liked it so much that it really shocked me to find that not everybody is a mad keen fan. Personally the conversational nature of the book, the narrator's chronic unreliability, and the way it bends itself to any number of interpretations were all irresistible. I'm really curious to see what I make of this book when I get round to a re-read, I have a feeling that I'll hardly recognise it and that's an exciting thought too. This has also been the year that I overcame my prejudices regarding Dickens and read 'Great Expectations' I have no idea how it compares to the rest of his oeuvre but this just totally hooked me in - what more can I say?

Shirley Conran's 'Lace' did much the same sort of thing, hands up the writing can be pretty dire, but it all bounces along in the most encouraging way and when you strip away the trash there's plenty of substance. It's not everyone who could deal with child exploitation, alcoholism, and rape in the way Conran does. There's an energy about this book that really brings the eighties back to life as well as a passionate manifesto for female friendship and saying when something just isn't good enough. 

Somewhere between 'Great Expectations' and 'Lace' lies Elizabeth Jenkins 'Harriet' (probably not entirely the company she's entirely used to keeping). There's a gothic quality to 'Harriet' that puts me in mind of 'Great Expectations' as well as a burning sense of social injustice which ties all three books together. 'Harriet' is an extraordinary book - despite knowing better I tend to think of Persephone as being a source of cosy books - this one really isn't cosy. It's shocking and provocative; almost a horror story this is a subtle examination of how ordinary enough people can find themselves doing terrible things without ever really noticing they've crossed a line until far to late. 

My love affair with Trollope continues, I'm by no means blind to his faults but I still adore him. 'Can You Forgive Her' comes with it's frustrations but it's also glorious. The heroine can't make up her mind about who to marry which leads her into all sorts of bother; honestly she's quite annoying, so happily that's not the only story line. Where Trollope excels is in creating thoroughly human and nuanced characters, whilst I'm reading his books I really feel like I'm living in his world - I just think he's wonderful. 


Back in the spring I replaced my disintegrating copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' which lead me to discover Little Toller books, from there I found first Frank Fraser Darling's 'Island Years Island Farm which felt like a book I'd been looking for for something like thirty years (ever since I grew out of Enid Blyton's island books) and then onto so many others. Islands draw me in, this account of family life in tents and huts speaks of adventure without ignoring the more mundane aspects of life on a deserted island. Gavin Maxwell's Harpoon at a Venture probably shouldn't be on this list. This is a favourite from way back, it's also out of print at the moment, but it's worth tracking down - it was Maxwell's first book and to me is probably his best. There is a rawness about that it that creates a real bond between reader and writer. It could have been all boys own adventure but I think it's a far more significant book than that. It touches on what life was like for the many ex service men who struggled with peace, and for boys who perhaps weren't quite ready to grow up. It's also a brilliant, visceral, read.


  'Findings' was a serendipitous discovery off the back of my island reading, reading it was an unexpectedly profound experience; It's one of those books that quietly encourages you to look at the world around you again and find new patterns in it. There's nothing flashy about it, it's simply a beautifully crafted piece of art that should on no account be overlooked.


Finally, and this might not come as a surprise, there is Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke, in a vintage year for every sort of book that's crossed my threshold this is the One, something really special. I've mentioned it a few times but will say again; it's given me a huge amount of satisfaction already. The kitchen shelves are groaning under the weight of preserved goods waiting to go out as Christmas presents, soon the post man will be groaning under the weight of copies of 'Salt Sugar Smoke' destined to be yet more Christmas presents. Promise me you'll look at it...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremount - Elizabeth Taylor


So far I've done nothing at all to celebrate Elizabeth Taylor's centenary - something that I've been mildly ashamed of because I have a pile of her books unread on my Virago shelf. The original green spined covers are particularly attractive, and the back blurbs sound so good that I've managed to collect any number of them without ever actually finishing one of her books - worse still there have been a few false starts. 'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremount' was one of a few half read volumes in the collection and after Verity's conversation it seemed imperative to finish it.


Until I discovered some of her short stories a few years back I'd rather given up on Taylor, but I loved those stories - they finally gave me an insight into why people love Taylor so much. This time round I read Mrs Palfrey in a day, for me I rather think she needs to be approached like this - at something of a gallop. The writing is lovely, she's funny and perceptive with a deft touch for the tragic, but there was still the fear that when I put the book down it just wouldn't occur to me to pick it up again. Maybe this is because in this case Mrs Palfrey's age made it unlikely that she had much to look forward to but death.

Mrs Palfrey is an elderly widow looking for somewhere to spend her last days after realising life with her daughter and son in law would be impossible. She settles on a cheapish hotel off the Cromwell road - because there's so much going on in London, and there's the proximity of her grandson Desmond who she was close to in his childhood. Widowhood in a dull hotel where the residential guests are none to welcome in the eyes of the management is destined to hold few charms for Mrs Palfrey - or her fellow inmates. What the hotel does represent is freedom from the indignity of old peoples homes and hospitals and for that it's cherished.

Desmond proves to be a disappointment - one of the many that the elderly have to bear. He couldn't be less interested in his grandmother, but Mrs Palfrey finds somebody else to love - a young writer called Ludo who in his own way is just as in need of somebody to be loved by in a grandmotherly sort of way. Like all love though there is a possessive element to it, especially on Mrs Palfrey's part, but then she has rather less in her life to look forward to - nothing really but the maintenance of appearances, so having something to hold onto matters rather more to her.

Taylor's vision of old age is quite bleak - Mrs Palfrey and her friends are treated shamefully, it's bad enough that their families don't want them, but worse that the services they pay so much for are so grudgingly given - the impatience that the hotel treats it's guests with is a stark reminder of how easy it is to exploit and mistreat the vulnerable. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Food Of Morocco – Paula Wolfert


Of all the notable things about this book the first thing that struck me when I opened it was the smell. It’s almost certainly auto suggestion courtesy of the crocus on the cover but every time I open it I think I can smell saffron. 

The second thing is that this quite clearly the culmination of a life times work, if there was any doubt the introduction confirms it, Paula Wolfert first visited Morocco 50 years ago as a 19 year old, where she found the land that Edith Wharton and Paul Bowles had described, it was obviously a life changing trip. Wolfert has written a number of books about Mediterranean food and cooking generally, a few about Moroccan food specifically but nothing a think quite as authoritative as this one. Her love for the country leaps off the page as does the knowledge gained from 7 years living there and many more visiting.

After that you just get lost in the general lusciousness of it all for a while. There are wonderful pictures, and although I'm not always a fan of lavishly illustrated cook books I'm making an exception here. Pictures that show you what the food will look like or diagrams that demonstrate something useful are always fine anyway and because this book isn't just about food, but about the country at large, all the shots of bits and pieces feel relevant as well as looking good.

In previous books Wolfert has been quite easy going about what cooking pots you use and suggested alternatives for some of the harder to acquire ingredients, but this is something of a manifesto and she's quite hard line about authenticity. I don't as yet own a tagine - I've thought about it a couple of times, they're inexpensive enough to be tempting, but do I have the space for another quite large pot in my kitchen? (No I do not.) Theoretically I love the idea of being very authentic when it comes to cooking from different cultures, realistically I've never been to Morocco and have no idea how close an approximation what I make at home is to what I might find there, and until I actually do know I'm not very worried about it. What I appreciate here is that if I was so minded I have all the instructions I need to get it absolutely right - I take the insistence on authenticity as tacit permission to fudge it a bit sometimes.   

There are something like 200 recipes here, all but two of them are traditional, and they have been collected from people that Wolfert has met - this book is a true reflection of the Morocco that Wolfert knows and knew. For a change my favourite thing about it isn't a recipe but the little snippets about culture and folklore that she slips in - the section on Ras-El-Hanout is a particular treat. Otherwise the layout for each recipe is admirable in it's clarity - again something that's rarer than you might hope.

This is a wonderful book - as chance would have it possibly the perfect Christmas present - it's as informative as it is inspiring and I whole heartedly agree with the Claudia Roden quote on the cover when she says 'There is no book on the food of Morocco as good as this one'. I don't imagine there ever could be.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Who Knew?

There is a Costa coffee upstairs in my local Waterstones, I'm fond of it for many reasons; it's where the Scottish one and I had our first date (he invited me for tea and buns which sounded entirely innocent and then swept me off my feet), it's dependably quiet when everywhere else in town is busy - possibly because there's no lift, it's only a ten minute walk from my flat, and of course there are books so it's an obvious place for Sunday hot chocolates and my hot tip for a peaceful bolt hole if you ever find yourself in Leicester.



Despite being flat broke I found myself in there yesterday having a coffee and a nice browse round with a friend when I came across this... Attracted by the name (E.F. Benson, not Night Terrors) I went to have a closer look, could this possibly be the same E.F. Benson of Mapp and Lucia? Well yes it could. I had no idea that he wrote ghost stories but it seems he did, there are over 50 of them here with terrifying titles like 'The Horror Horn', 'Spinach', 'The Bath Chair' and 'The Physical Mallards' (okay some of them are more terrifying than that but they don't amuse me as much).

This is a Wordsworth classic so it's only £2.99 which is remarkably cheap for any book, never mind one that's more than 700 pages, it has a couple of really enthusiastic reviews on amazon, and I couldn't go home without it. The cover is frankly awful but if that's the trade off for cheap I'm happy to take it.

This is exactly the kind of find that makes me love bookshops - and you really have to be in a shop to have that moment of serendipity. My new treasure might turn out to be a bit rubbish, though I doubt that it will - and either way it'll be interesting to read Benson in this form, but nothing will take away that happy moment of discovery.



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Phineas Finn - Anthony Trollope

I will confess know that whilst I loved the first Palliser novel ('Can You Forgive Her') and raced through it, I found 'Phineas Finn' a bit more of a slog. It wasn't any lack of enjoyment on my part, or pace on Trollope's (not always the case) but somehow it turned into a considerable investment of time. In some ways this is a good thing; I really was immersed in Phineas's world by the time I was done and can hardly wait to find the time to tackle the next instalments in the Palliser series, 'Phineas Redux' in-particular. The down side is trying to find that time, not easy for me this side of Christmas.

Phineas himself is a charming, handsome, Irish man (exactly the sort my mother warned me about) freshly qualified as a barrister at the start of the book. He's persuaded his parents to let him study in London and support him whilst he learns his trade, Mr Finn senior is a prosperous country doctor back in Ireland who wants his son in Dublin but as Phineas is the only boy he seems unable to deny him his way whatever sacrifices that may call for back home. Phineas is also one of fortunes favourites, and the first hero of his type I've encountered in Trollope. He has an interest in politics and at the tender age of 25 finds himself with a seat in parliament thanks to a handy rotten borough and the needs of friends in high places. 

Phineas knows he can't really afford a parliamentary career either from a financial point of view or for the damage it's likely to do his future prospects as a barrister - he's starting from the top where the only way is likely to be down. However his natural gifts (Irish good looks and pleasing manners) continue to make him friends - especially amongst the ladies. Phineas is basically a good egg - he's honourable, modest, hard working, and on the whole unspoiled by the many successes that come his way. Indeed politicians are on the whole portrayed as a pretty decent bunch here - not something I'm currently used to. 

More interesting to me are the female characters. I've yet to really work out what Trollope's position is regarding feminism, or even women generally, 'Phineas Finn' has some remarkable ladies at it's centre, as well as a couple altogether less interesting. There is Lady Laura Standish, later Kennedy, and her friend Violet Effingham. Phineas falls in love first with lady Laura, but she's given all her money to her brother and  has her own political ambitions - although these rise no higher than to be a hostess and friend to great men. Despite having feelings for Finn she chooses to marry money and influence in the form of Mr Kennedy. The marriage is a failure, Kennedy is an impossible husband, not because he's violent or undependable, but because he's totally implacable and an absolute domestic tyrant. 

After Lady Laura Phineas transfers his affections to her wealthy friend Violet, not that Violet's money is the main attraction, just that our hero has to admit it would be useful. Violet loves Laura's brother but isn't at all sure she wants to marry him. She's rich enough to remain single and independent if she wishes it, though that would come at quite a social cost. Lord Chiltern is a violent man, and not very dependable. Trollope seems to have every sympathy with Violets reluctance to marry him, just as he's sympathetic to Laura's plight. I think the suggestion is that her punishment far exceeds any of her mistakes. Both Laura and Violet are far more satisfactory than Alice and Kate in 'Can You Forgive Her' and it's impossible not to compare them. 

Madame Max Goesler is another a peach. A wealthy widow with a shady past, she's young enough to be yet another romantic interest for Phineas, pretty enough too, though Trollope makes it clear how much of her beauty is due to art rather than nature. Madame Max really is independent, she's also ambitious, intelligent, and a definite heroine when she might just as easily have been a villain. These three women are far more than ornaments and love interests, their relative positions raise all sorts of interesting questions about what a woman might expect in a world where marriage was the only respectable career option. More interesting still is the admission that that might not be an entirely satisfactory or just state of affairs.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Nolympics - Nicholas Lezard

Now that the Olympics have been and gone it finally feels safe to admit I'm not a fan. I'm generally bored by watching sport, don't enjoy organised fun, and would quite happily have seen all the hoopla and expense removed to Paris. It was nice that Great Britain won so many medals (as well as being a pleasant surprise) but otherwise my indifference was rivalled only by my partners - who managed to totally ignore the whole thing.

There are a few things that bug me about the Olympics - the first and foremost of these being how the merchandising and sponsorship tie ups work. Secondly it turns out that I really don't like cycling very much - I know not everybody agrees but I find it the dullest thing imaginable to watch on television - but then, as I've already said, most sports baffle me a bit as a spectator.

I was offered 'The Nolympics - One man's struggle against sporting hysteria' by an (I assume) nice man from from a PR firm and wasn't to bothered until I casually mentioned to a couple of friends - their response was outrage, mine was to say yes please. I assumed I would be getting a 100 plus pages of bile - which I wouldn't at all of minded - but it's not really that at all.

On the back blurb it claims to be the only Olympic souvenir you'll ever need, it's certainly the only one I've got, and credit where it's due I plan to keep it. I also thought it might be a bit of a novelty but found instead that it was a reasonably thoughtful and balanced account of a few weeks of relative madness. The Nolympics   is basically a blow by blow account of the action as it unfolds - roughly 1500 words a day - from a man who   would probably sooner avoid it than take part. The deadline for this project was pretty tight so there's a rough around the edges feel which I like but mostly it comes back to balance. Yes there were, and are, lots of things about the Olympics which are great, a lot of people had a brilliant time, but it's not all good, and it wasn't the only thing going on this summer. 

Wherever you stand on sport, and this is about more than sport - there's some politics as well -  this is an amusing and thought provoking little book which is well worth a look.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A time of lists

November more than any other month encourages me to make lists, most of them are Christmas related and depressing as I almost never complete them - you'd think I'd learn. Still there's something about a good list that makes me feel I've achieved something just by writing it, so whilst I should be thinking about presents for other people here's my short list of books I'd really like if I didn't already have them.

Salt Sugar Smoke - Diana Henry This book is quite possibly my favourite of the year, it's already given me hours of fun and is destined to be given to quite a few people (you don't know who you are yet but it's on its way). I've been pricing up stove top hot smokers and find they're not to expensive so it may only be a matter of time before I'm making my own hot smoked salmon. The jams have been brilliant, I have a few liquors maturing, and there are plenty more projects to go. If I didn't already have this book it would be top of my wish list.

The Palliser Box Set - Anthony Trollope I have all of the Palliser novels (I'm almost finished with Phineas Finn) in the lovely Oxford classic editions anyway but almost wish I didn't when I saw this. Reading the Barchester chronicles was a revelation, as well as a whole new level for my obsession with all things Victorian. The Pallisers are a slightly different breed of beasts. The politics are, so far, making for slightly more complex moral dilemmas, there seems to be more going on and so less repetition, and perhaps it's just all a little bit more soap opera. Especially now that I'm acquainted with the characters, looking at the pile of Pallisers still to be read gives me warm feelings of anticipation and security - so many good things to look forward to or fall back on. 

Island Years Island Farm - Frank Fraser Darling I loved this book when I read it early this year, so much so that I went straight out and bought four copies as presents for my nearest and dearest - and can still think of a couple more people I'd like to give it to. Six months or so down the line it's not just the pleasure I got from reading Island Years Island Farm it's all the other books it lead me to, and back to. When you have a bit of a book habit reading is more often than not a hop from one new book to the next. Something that leads you to pull old favourites of the shelf as well as exploring new paths is a real gift.
Short and Sweet - Dan Lepard I've just made my Christmas cake (I hope it isn't over-cooked, it took somewhat longer than advertised to cook and the top is a little crunchy looking) same recipe as last year and yet another bake from Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet. I've had my moments with this one - volcanic cakes determined to escape the all to modest bounds of the prescribed tin, cakes unwilling to cook in the allotted time, and a penchant for nutmeg I don't entirely share but despite this it's the book I keep going back to despite initial reservations. 

Arabella Boxer's Book Of English Food This is another book I was in two minds about before I got my hands on it. It is however a thing of beauty to look at and fascinating to read. It ties up a few of my interests; mostly food, and the inter-war years, but indirectly that touches on class too and being a basically domestic book women feature more than somewhat albeit as the power in the kitchen. It's just a delight. 


Sunday, November 11, 2012

November 11th

I have written about Leicester's war memorial before - it's aligned so that the sun will rise through it on November 11th - something I've wanted to see for the last five years but which the weather has never allowed. Even, or perhaps particularly, when it's blowing a gale and lashing with rain the war memorial is a moving place to find yourself at sunrise on a November morning, this one sits in on the edge of a large park next to Leicester university with a view down across the city and at 7 am everything conspires to make you contemplate the sacrifice it represents and your own mortality.

Today was a perfect sunrise, cold and frosty with a clear sky - it really was very beautiful. There was one other girl there waiting for the same thing we were, and a few dog walkers who didn't stop to look. I'm not sure if I'm grateful that we had that moment almost to ourselves or sorry that it wasn't more widely shared. I did think it a shame that the BBC vans coming to set up for the coming parade had arrived 20 minutes to late to see what we did. 

Lyn at I Prefer Reading has posted a Wilfred Owen poem today - Futility - that is particularly apt to go with a sunrise, but there were other things that came to mind up there this morning whilst watching a couple of students stagger back home which were altogether more hopeful, and that's the power of the place - that it's both sombre and celebratory.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

100 Persephone Books

Persephone books have reached the magic hundred (I personally own 46 if anyone is curious) which seems like something to celebrate more especially since it looks like there will be more to come. A year or two back there was talk that they might stop at a hundred titles and although it's a nice round number, and there might be a sort of sense in that, it would be such a shame to have no more Persephone books to look forward to. I'm already particularly excited by news that they're publishing Elizabeth de Waal's 'The Exiles Return' as book 102. Elizabeth's story doesn't get much of an airing in Edmund de Waal's 'Hare With Amber Eyes' but there's a sense that it's worth hearing so I expect this book to be one of next years highlights. 

I hope to call into the Persephone shop later this month to pick up a copy of 'Patience' and possibly a few other titles (well it would be nice to have a round 50 titles...) I'm also coveting the Emma Bridgewater Jug and Bowl that commemorate the occasion and as it'll be almost my birthday by then perhaps I'll feel like I can be that extravagent. Who knows, maybe I'll even take them some 'Persephone Jam' (would that be to weird a thing to do?) because I do feel that some sort of thank you beyond spending money is due.

Along with quite a few other bloggers I got a surprise copy of 'The Persephone Book Of Short Stories' through the post as their thank you for my (our) enthusiasm over the years (it's precisely the sort of thing one daydreams about happening). I'm a big fan of short stories and this is a nice collection. Some are already familiar to me, like Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery', some others from the Persephone Biannually, but I haven't read many of them and am looking forward to working my way through the collection.

Persephone books are the sort of thing where you most definitely remember your first time. I discovered them in 2004, I must have read about them somewhere and they sounded like just the thing for some reviews I was writing for a local magazine. I called them and instead of the one book I was interested in I got sent 3, they also recommended an online book group I might like. I did. 

There are no shortage of publishers specialising in reprints and rescuing lost classics these days but 8 years ago there were rather fewer, Persephone Books looked very different to anything else around and still feels like more of a lifestyle choice than most books do. There is the shop for a start - a pilgrimage point for the devoted, the Biannually helps with the club atmosphere, as do all the enthusiastic online readers - not even a love of Virago books has led to so many real life friendships. There is also the very classy merchandise (Emma Bridgewater, those lovely diaries...) always strictly limited and very desirable. Over all though I think it's Nicola Beauman herself that makes Persephone so special. These books feel like an extension of her personality, you simply can't imagine anything she wasn't absolutely passionate about getting through the net. I might not share that passion for every single book but seeing those grey covers is as good a recommendation as any I know. 


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A life in bottles

My sister and I shared a house for a while when we were in our early twenties, she's still there and when I visited her at the weekend I realised she still has my collection of (empty) champagne bottles.

The kitchen had a lot of shelves, something I miss, but we didn't have enough things to fill them with at the time so we thought we'd have ten green bottles. Ten turned into - well I can count twenty six here and I know in the end we didn't keep all of the bottles by a long way.

The first thing that struck me seeing them all again was sheer wonder that I'd ever had that much money to spend on champagne swiftly followed by the depressing realisation that prices have increased entirely disproportionately with my income. Not so very long ago some of those bottles could be bought for around £25, they'd cost closer to £75 now which I imagine puts them entirely out of reach for most of us, something I can only consider a shame.

These bottles roughly chart my twenties - a time when I lived in shared, rented, houses and had a job that gave me access to excellent wine, a generous discount to allow me to buy it, and equally enthusiastic friends to drink it with. Now that I live alone with a mortgage and most my friends have small children those days seem far distant but the bottles remain to prove they existed and remind me of the people I drank them with more than anything else.

There are a decades worth of birthdays here; the oldest bottle is one that dad gave me for my 21st birthday, the last of a case he bought when I was born, and 30 years old by the time I drank it (with my friend Nicola and a very handsome Dutch exchange student). Old champagne has a deep golden colour and a honeyed sort of flavour. It's complex, subtle, and altogether wonderful. It may have been at that moment that the dye was cast and a career in wine became inevitable.

My sister could tell you a story about her experience drinking Taittinger's Comte De Champagne but I'd probably better not repeat it. There are bottles which recall travels with a tour guide friend through various duty free outlets, a Krug and Dom Perignon that my mother and I spent an increasingly hilarious Sunday afternoon drinking just because we could, and a whole lot that chart a wine education. I wish I could do it all over again!

Monday, November 5, 2012

A brighter prospect

Oh dear, I meant this post to go out on Saturday but I'm still miserable with my cold (and if it sounds like man flu than it probably is, but I've been at work all day being extremely patient and so reserve the right for a bit of a whinge now). Sunday was devoted to James Bond and a family gathering but here I am, back home, in my pyjama's, considering another hot toddy and ready to blog. 


A goodly portion of my book pile has come courtesy of Prospect Books, one of them particularly (Messy Cook) I've had for months without ever seeming to find the time to have a proper look at it so I thought the best thing might be a quick run through of these four titles prior to a better look later.


Michael Raffael's 'Messy Cook' is a book with recipes that wants to be read. It has short stories, experiences, a bit of philosophy, and some instructions - in short there's a whole lifetime's accumulated knowledge, the proper appreciation of which will take some time. I need to find that time somewhere, but until I do - this book looks great, absolutely perfect for anyone interested in cooking and food.

Caroline Conran's 'Sud de France - The food and cooking of the Languedoc' is a slightly more traditional cookbook in that it seems to be slightly more focused on recipes than philosophy. I know a lot of people who would love this book, but not being a francophile it might have been a bit of a hard sell for me until I read the magic words cuisine du terroir. Terroir is a concept that I not only believe in but get quite excited by. The idea that you can taste geography - and culture - is quite seductive, and is the basis for much of my love of cookbooks, so once again I'm looking forward to spending more time with this book.

Peter Brears 'Cooking and Dining in Medieval England' deserves to be a best seller as well as winner of the Andre Simon food book of the year award (2009). You can taste history in food as well, and never more so than at Christmas when all those dried fruits, nuts, and spices hark back to at least the middle ages and all sorts of culinary explorations. (I really love mince pies.) When I first got this book I started flicking through it until I finally put it down at something like 2 am. Everything is in here; what was eaten, how it was eaten, where it was eaten, or made - everything, right down to the lengths of tablecloths and how they went on the tables and it's all really interesting (because honestly, it might not have been). Interestingly Brears has reconstructed the recipes using contemporary ingredients so cooking from this book should be quite easy.

Last but not least I also got a copy of Dorothy Hartley's 'Lost World'. Hartley's best known book is 'Food in England' a complete guide to the food that makes us who we are. It hasn't been out of print since it was first published in 1954 and is familiar to me from many, many, bookshelves (though somewhat inexplicably not my own). Lucy Worsley is presenting a programme about Dorothy Hartley on BBC4 at 9pm Tuesday (6th November) which should be good. meanwhile 'Lost World' is a collection of her journalism written between 1933 and 1936 and covers a range of rural matters from a time when farming and country life were changing fast. It's a beautiful book.