Sunday, August 19, 2018

Tamburlaine at the RSC

It's been a busy week one way or another, including a Stratford trip to see the opening preview performance of Tamburlaine at The Swan. Preview performances are a bit of a mixed bag, especially the first one - the atmosphere is generally really good, with a theatre full of people willing to be pleased, and appreciative of the lower prices. The down side is that there are sometimes wrinkles to be ironed out, and hesitations over dialogue - although I think the atmosphere more than balances any occasional hiccup.

We were both totally unfamiliar with Tamburlaine, and made a conscious decision not to read up on it before we got the programme on Thursday night, so beyond knowing that I generally love Christopher Marlowe, but that this isn't one of his best plays, it was all unknown territory.

It isn't his best work, if I understand correctly part 2 (the second half) was originally a sequel. The 2 parts together take a good 3 hours to get through, and I wonder if they wouldn't be better as separate plays which would give everybody, but mostly the audience, more energy for the second half. There are also a lot of characters, with a significant part of the cast taking on 2 or 3 roles each which isn't as confusing as it might sound, but does mean you really need to concentrate.

For Marlowes purposes Tamburlaine started as a shepherd, although the historical character he's based on was a warlord who seized power in the vacuum created by the death of Genghis Khan. Whichever way you look at it the empire he built was impressive.

Jude Owusu has more than enough charisma and presence on stage to make the character convincing,     both as the ruthless warlord capable of the greatest brutality to achieve his ambitions, but also as a man who might inspire loyalty by more than fear. He's softened by his love for Zenocrate (played by Rosy McEwen who was excellent, I very much hope to see her in more things in the future because I thought she was brilliant) and by his friendship with his followers.

It's a beautiful looking production too, with some gorgeous costumes, and a host of golden crowns that gleam against muted backgrounds in a particularly pleasing way. After the extremely bloody 'Duchess of Malfi' it was also noticible that less can be more. This is still a bloody play, there's still a lot of blood on the stage, but it's relative economy of use has much more emotional impact (watching the cast literally wallow around on a stage covered in gore was more distracting than anything else in the Duchess).

The reason I love Marlowe so much is that I always recognise his characters in a way that I don't with   Shakespeare. In this case Tamburlaines ambition, confidence, and focus on his ends all make sense. His relationship with Zenocrate feels of a piece with that, as does his extravagant grief at her death, and his awful reaction to it (in contrast to a sub plot between his follower, Theridamas, and Olympia, a widow he briefly has a passion for). Zenocrate, at least the way she's played here, also feels like a real woman with a complex set of emotions. Every thing me I see a Marlowe play I wonder exactly how much we lost by his early death. Imagine if he'd written as much as Shakespeare.

Basically, this is well worth seeing. There are some fantastic performances, it's an interesting play, and I came out of it with a lot to think about - and also buzzing with enthusiasm which in the end is what I really want from live theatre.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Nusstorte Von Hammerstein (From Classic German Baking)

It's a while since I've cooked properly, even before the oppressive heat of this summer the I've been struggling to find the enthusiasm or energy to really get stuck into new recipes. This might be somewhat age related - I've reached a point where I need to think far more carefully about cholesterol and sugar intake, as has D. The need to be sensible isn't always the best spur for imagination, it's also means baking cakes is a bad idea unless there's a proper crowd of people to eat it.

Last night I did have a proper crowd though - 8 of us from a food family, with my youngest sister who is a tremendous baker, so something special was called for.

The whole night sent me back to the cookbooks, and was a stark reminder of how long it's been since I really thought about a whole meal and how it should work. Because it was really hot when I started planning this I'd already settled on a collection of salads and dips, some decent bread (which I could buy, because I had to be at work in the day) plenty of fruit and cheese (family loves cheese) and initially the plan was for Diana Henry's super boozy chocolate and px Ice cream, but the weather cooled and it felt out of balance with the other things I was leaning towards.

Maybe I just really wanted to bake a cake. After some searching (I do love a good rummage through cookbooks) I found the Nusstorte Von Hammerstein (glazed hazelnut torte) in Luisa Weiss' 'Classic German Baking'. The name alone was irrisistable, and after Vienna and Zurich I find this kind of baking more appealing than ever.

Something else appealing about this one is that it's better made at least a day in advance (apparently it's essential), and keeps well. It's a torte that takes a little time to make but it's worth the effort because it's beautifully light.

Toast, cool, and finely grind 275g of hazelnuts. They need to be properly cool before they're ground or you get a paste. Mix 70g of plain flour through the ground nuts.

Line the bottom of a 23cm springform tin and butter it's sides. Set oven to 180°C. Separate 7 eggs.

Mix 170g of unsalted butter with 270g of caster sugar until light and fluffy (this torte is a lot easier to make if you have a stand mixer), add the yolks one at a time mixing all the time. When all the yolks are in whip the mixture for another 7 minutes, then beat in 30 mills of lemon juice and half a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Add the hazelnut and flour mix, beat until just combined.

In a separate bowl whip the egg whites until large bubbles form, add quarterbof a spoon of salt, then continue beating until you have stiff peaks. Fold one third of the egg whites into the yolk mix to lighten it, then fold in the 2nd third, and the last third until no trace of egg white is left.

Put the batter in the tin, and bake for 50-55 mins or until it's golden brown and a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin on a rack for half an hour, then remove from the tin and leave to cool completely.

Heat 150g of jam (raspberry/red current, or something else with some acidity to it - I used some quite tart apricot jam I had) to loosen it. Cut the torte in half horizontally, spread the jam in the middle, and put the top back on. Make a glaze with  200g of icing sugar lemon juice and rum (the Rum is optional) and spread it over the torte. Decorate with a few hazelnuts, and spend the next 24 hours wondering what it will be like (or a little longer, you can make it a good 3 days before you want it).

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Circe - Madeline Miller

As mentioned in the previous post I bought 'Circe' with no particular expectations because I was short of something to read (I don't like Kindles but I'm not ungrateful for the kindle app on my phone). Finding it was every bit as good as it's good reviews (I've only read good reviews, but I assume there are some negative ones around, there always are) was a total bonus.

Circe is probably best known from the Odyssey (she's the one who turns the sailors into pigs, and with whom Odysseus stops for a year), but she appears in other myth cycles too, some more or less lost - which raises all sorts of tantalising possibilities. Miller has gathered them altogether and filled in the gaps to create this feminist version of her life - and it's brilliant.

Circe is the eldest daughter of the Titan sun god, Helios, and the nymph Perse, and in this version at least, the most unsatisfactory. The least attractive ambitious, diplomatic, or clever, although all of these things are relative, she sits on the sidelines until she discovers her gift for witchcraft. It's something that brings down the wrath of both her father and Zeus, so it's off into exile she goes.

For a lonely and unhappy girl this really isn't the worst thing that could happen, it gives her the chance to hone her magic and for a while find peace. Islands attract visitors though, so whilst Circe might more or less be trapped, it's hard to stop visitors, and male visitors finding a lone woman aren't always very well behaved. Which makes turning them into pigs a reasonable course of action.

When Odysseus turns up however he's a welcome diversion from a growing boredom, and he also provides a son, Telegonus. Whilst reading 'Circe' I spent quite a lot of time googling characters who's names I knew, but who I didn't particularly remember, and more who I had never heard of - which provided some spoilers. Telegonus is one of those.

A postscript to the story of Odysseus is that he's destined to be killed by his son, he assumes that this means Telemachus, but it doesn't. It's an interesting postscript to the story of Penelope as well, and I'm curious as to why Margaret Atwood doesn't persue it in 'The Penelopiad'.

One of the things I really liked about this book is Millers treatment of Penelope, here she's a very clever woman, set on keeping her own council. It's a shared intelligence that ties her to Odysseus- which makes sense of their relationship. Her version of an Odysseus who returns to Ithaca as a paranoid, brutalised, survivor no longer fit for civilian life makes sense too. It certainly makes sense of his order to kill the maids that so bothers Atwood (and bothers Circe too).

The most intriguing thing about this book though for me was the question of all those lost stories. The ones that have survived were written by men, and focus on men, but they came from an oral tradition - so what stories did women tell each other?

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Penelopiad- Margaret Atwood

I read Madeline Miller's 'Circe' recently. It was an impulse kindle app buy when I was staying with my mother and didn't fancy the book I'd bought with me. I must have seen somebody be enthusiastic about it, and it had a list of excellent reviews so it seemed like a good bet. It was. It also made me think of Atwood's Penelopiad, and as I had that to hand it made sense to read it again as well.

Penelope has a significant presence in Miller's book too so it was interesting to compare the two versions of her, and I'm always interested in the Odyssey. I remember being read a child friendly version of it at primary school which was more than enough to hook me into the Greek myths, and make me want to read as much as I could. There was a cartoon set in space but based on the Odyssey at about the same time, which left less of an impression but reinforced the power of the story.

I read E. V. Rieu's translation published by Penguin classics when I was 17, an earnest A level student, and still very impressionable, also long before I understood that translations are interpretations. It's times like this when I think I could quite happily spend the rest of my reading life concentrating on a close reading of different translations and versions of the same story cycle.

I first read 'The Penelopiad' not long after it came out (2005), and after decades of accepting Penelope as the dutiful wife at home, and never really questioning the fate of the maids it was a jolt out of complacency. It still has the same affect on me.

The thing about encountering something like the Odyssey at a young enough age is that you don't really question any of it. Atwood's book is all questions, most of them uncomfortable. Who was Penelope, what motivated her, who did she care about, what lies did she tell, what kind of wife was she, what other versions of her are there, what did she know? And here there's the question of how complicit she was in the murder of her 12 maids, who form an angry chorus throughout the book.

This Penelope is unreliable, at least as a narrator, ever changing, jealous of her cousin Helen, cynical, capable, clever, frustrated - a real woman with all the imperfections that implies, and all the interest too.

There's a quote on the cover from The New York Times which says Determinedly irreverent- which seems about right. That irreverence is a useful thing to bring to The Odyssey, it also leaves me with more questions about Penelope than answers, which again seems right - it's a reminder that this story is still a living changing thing, and to not stop questioning it.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Canongate Myth series

I've been a fan of the Canongate myth series pretty much since it launched - which I think was around 2005, so when Canongate were offering a bundle to review a month or so ago I jumped at the chance. They arrived whilst I was on holiday - I can think of few nicer things to be waiting for you when you get home then a good sized parcel of books - and here they are...

I need to go through the books I have, and get a comprehensive list of the series. I know I've written about some of them on here in the past (definitely Baba Yaga Laid an Egg and A.S. Byatt's Ragnarok) and read a few more pre blogging days but it's been a while.

Out of the six sent to me there are a couple I've already read and am keen to read again - Ali Smith's 'Girl Meets Boy' which I don't remember much about and don't think I really got first time, and Margaret Atwood's 'The Penelopiad' which I loved when I first read it, and is an excellent companion to Madelaine Miller's 'Circe' which I've recently finished.

There are a couple I haven't read but am quite excited about - Karen Armstrong's 'A Short Histort of Myth' and Jeanette Winterson's 'Weight'. Winterson is forever on my list of authors I feel I should read but somehow haven't. There's no particular reason for not having read her, this book is a timely push to get on with it.

And then there's a couple I'd never have picked up, which makes them an excellent opportunity. David Grossman's 'Lion's Honey' and Philip Pullman's 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ'. With the Pullman it's partly a relative lack of interest in biblical myths, partly a lack of interest in Pullman after losing patience with 'The Amber Spyglass'. The Grossman is reminding me how few books I read by men. I'm looking forward to all of them.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Oliver's Hat from A Shetland Story

Despite the heat cranking up to almost unbearable temperatures (I'm really not much of a fan of anything over 20 degrees), all I really want to do is knit. Maybe it's because it reminds me of cooler days, but mostly I think it's because I find it easier to concentrate on knitting than reading when it's like this.

 It's also distracting me from the sad fact that every local supermarket has sold out of Rowntrees Fruit pastille lollies - less local shops might have them but they'd be melted by the time I got home. They're     clearly not just my favourite, and I'm feeling their absence today.

What I've knitted is the Oliver's Hat pattern from 'A Shetland Story'. It was the crown of this hat that made me want to buy the book - I really liked it. The hat itself was mostly fun to knit - quick and simple. It also made finally learn how to do a long tail cast on - which is useful.

The tricky bit (for me) was the last 9 rows. I'm not sure what I did wrong, but I had to rip it back 3 times and then improvise to make the pattern line up properly. I'm still not entirely happy - I can't work out what I was misreading which is bothersome. Overall I'm pleased with the hat though, which I suppose is what matters.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Case of the Constant Suicides - John Dickson Carr

What makes a good detective story? For me it's something that doesn't take itself to seriously. I like camp characters who appear to have come straight from central casting, I like authors who are prepared to have some fun with the genre, and authors who are just as prepared to have some fun at the expense of the reader (I'm thinking specifically of Richard Hull's Excellent Intentions and the long section on the finer points of stamp collecting that he makes us read - I love him for that). I also appreciate a good setting.

For all these reasons I loved 'The Case of the Constant Suicides' that Polygon have just reprinted. It's set in a dour Scottish castle which is presumably why Polygon have reprinted it, the introduction also suggests that it's argued to be John Dickson Carr's best work - which is intriguing, because I loved this, but if it's the high water mark how hard do I want to look for some of his other books? If anyone has recommendations - or warnings - I'd love to hear them.

The book opens during the early days of WW2, before air raids and rationing have taken their toll, but train berths are already at a premium... Dr Alan Campbell is heading north in answer to a mysterious summons from Castle Shira, when he finds himself arguing over the same 1st class sleeping compartment as Katherine Campbell who is answering the same summons. It turns out the two have been having a bitter academic argument in the letter pages over a review Alan has written about Katherine's book.

Because this is the kind of detail I love the book had me from the start, and the reason I love these details is that a cleverly worked out murder will entertain me until I know how it's done, but I'll happily re read something I find funny again and again.

Once in Scotland all sorts of unlikely things happen, many of them fuelled by a whisky I can only assume is the product of an illicit still, and considerably overproof, whilst the younger Campbell's try and work out if cousin Angus was murdered in a locked room (in which case his dependents come into a decent insurance pay out), or committed suicide, in which case they get nothing because he'd spent all his money on trying to invent a tartan ice cream.

As I said, I loved this one, for me it's the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy with a nice twist at the end. I thouroughly recommend it.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Diana Henry's Chocolate and Pedro Ximenez ice cream and a book find

The heat has broken, for now, and I'm fighting the urge to take a nap in the relative cool. I'm being assisted by my mothers dog who is determined to play. This may also affect blogging capabilities.

If Diana Henry were ever to write a book about ice cream it would be a happy thing, the handful of recipes she includes in 'How to Eat a Peach' are worth the price of the book alone, and of all of them the one I most wanted to try was the chocolate and PX ice cream.

This was partly because it sounded like a wonderfully rich, slightly decadent, flavour, and a lot because I love Sherry in pretty much all its forms and am always interested if I see something different I can do with it.

I'be got a good excuse for a boozy ice cream coming up, which made a good excuse for a practice run to see if it really would be as good as it sounded (it is), I'm delighted with the results. The ice cream is rich, satisfyingly chocolaty, and very boozy - the raisin flavour of the Sherry makes it taste something like a good Rum truffle and it will make an excellent end to a dinner.

Pedro Ximenez is not the cheapest Sherry, but don't be put off by that - this is a special treat kind of a thing, and there's enough wine left in the bottle for everyone to be able to drink it too. The recipe is Here along with some other useful information about Pedro Ximenez, but honestly, buy the book - it's worth it.

My book find of the day (from a very empty looking Oxfam shop) is a copy of 'The Lady Investigates' Women detectives and spies in fiction. Published in 1986 it covers territory from Wilkie Collins up to P.D. James. As I'm primarily interested in the earlier writers anyway I'm hoping this will be interesting.

And now my mother has returned and the dog has someone else to bother, so I might get that nap after all.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Spinning Silver - Naomi Novik

I don't cope well with heat, so this last week especially has been somewhat trying (I'm very tempted to run a cold bath and stay in it for the next few hours) but two cinema trips have helped a bit, and hopefully it will break tonight.

The films were 'Mamma Mia! Here we go again' and 'Mary Shelley'. 'Mamma Mia' is a safe bet for anyone who likes ABBA (which I do), but even so I was surprised at how much I liked this one. Mary Shelley was awful, there's nothing about it that I could recommend.

I really enjoyed Naomi Novik's 'Uprooted' when I read it last year, so much so that I've been really looking forward to 'Spinning Silver' which is a sort of pendant novel. 'Uprooted' (I think I have this right) borrows quite heavily from Polish folklore, 'Spinning Silver' nods to Rumplestiltskin but is based in a Russian Jewish tradition - which I'm sure I read is her husbands family background. Both books play with magic and fairy tales, both are set in a non specific once upon a time kind of a world, and both are what I think of as young adult fiction.

The sort of Russian background, and very Russian folklore figures and demons reminded me of Katherine Arden's 'The Bear and the Nightingale' - Russian/Slavic folklore is definitely getting a moment. The comparison definitely highlights Novik's experience as a writer - she has a much lighter touch, but beyond that I don't really want to make comparisons.

'Spinning Silver' is all told in the first person (which I have no strong feelings about, but I know annoys some) mostly by Miryem, the moneylenders daughter, Wanda a peasant girl who goes to work for her to help pay her fathers debt, and Irina, a dukes daughter. Their paths cross and re-cross as they try their best to make something out of their lives.

Miryem's father doesn't like to ask for the money he has lent back, so in desperation Miryem takes over the business and thrives at it - which dismays her parents, but pleases her grandfather. Wanda's father is an abusive alcoholic, working off his debt is a chance for her to widen her horizons and maybe escape - but it's all jeopardised by a deal Miryem is forced into by an ice king. Irina is the plain daughter of a powerful man, transformed by the silver Miryem has to change into gold. She has to make the best of the marriage that enchantment brings her.

What I really liked about this book was the way that Novik explores the transactional nature of human relationships - because everything is based on give and take, decisions do come with a cost attached, and so does power. The considerations which motivate the different characters are compelling, not least because they're sometimes as simple as the fear of starvation and violence.

Novik's handling of anti-semitism is masterly as well. She doesn't over do it, but there's a thread of isolation and prejudice that runs through the book, sometimes erupting into something uglier, but mostly a background sense of hostility towards Miryem and her parents.

There's a lot to like about 'Spinning Silver' (though for me 'Uprooted' has some extra spark about it that this one lacks) and whilst I'm not much interested in Novik's Dragon books, I'm really interested to see what she does next.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Jamieson & Smith A Shetland Story

I thought it would be sensible to write about the other knitting book I bought on holiday before finally trying to wrench my thoughts away from Shetland for a bit but I'm getting distracted. We have to book our next years holidays in October, and so I'm beginning to think about when I might want to go home next year and if it should be a little bit later. The white nights of midsummer are one of the things I love about Shetland, but they have an unsettling effect on the imagination, and then there's the promise of the early autumn light if we go a bit later and a whole different spectrum of inspiration.

Closer to home I'm also thinking hard about ice cream. Principally the chocolate and Pedro Ximenez ice cream from Diana Henry's 'How to Eat a Peach' that I hope is setting in my freezer. I feel like I say every summer that an ice cream maker is my favourite kitchen gadget. I say it because it's true, but they never last long. I'm on my 4th. A couple of inexpensive kenwood machines both started leaking after a while, a not cheap kitchen aid attachment did the same, and the current cheap one I have that came from Aldi is proving that you get what you pay for. It's rubbish.

I have high hopes for this particular recipe though - the chocolaty boozy custard that I poured into a tub after almost an hours churning tasted amazing. I think it's going to be just the thing for a family dinner in a few weeks, but I wanted to give it a trial run first. With any luck I'll be able to make an informed decision about it before bed.

This book from Jamieson and Smith is half a history of the company and the wool trade, and half a collection of patterns. I haven't read the history part yet - which I'm viewing as an unexpected bonus, I bought the book for the patterns. And I haven't knitted anything from it yet, though there are a couple of things I want to try once the weather is a little more conducive to it (all I want to do in this heat is sleep).

What I really like about this collection is that each of the ten designs comes from a different knitter - it has the same appeal to me as an anthology of short stories, and perhaps in a way that's what it is. Each pattern has a distinct personality behind it suggesting different lives and interests, and different preoccupations with pattern and colour. There's a kind of story in that, and I guess each knitter who comes to these patterns will add their own chapter to it - which is another idea that appeals to me.

On a more practical note, it's a collection that has something for every level of knitter from the total Fair Isle beginner, through to some great jumpers and vests, and some very fetching hats along the way. There should be something for everyone here.