Simon at stuck-in-a-book has a challenge – find a picture that sums up something about your reading. Given that a picture is meant to paint a thousand words I thought this would be reasonably easy but the moment I started looking through pictures it became a bit of a quest. There were no shortage of pictures which summed up no end of things about me, but it was when a not terribly proposing view of Port Ellen distillery (a whisky legend, the distillery is sadly mothballed now) which really chimed with what I read and why.
Monday, May 31, 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010
I should (still) be writing up sales reports and the like, but realise I’ve spent the last hour tidying my bedroom (not saying it didn’t need it because it did, but...) and have come to the conclusion that if I’m not going to concentrate on work for a bit than I should write up what I thought of ‘Death and the Maiden’ before I forget, which would be a shame because I loved it.
This has to be my favourite Mitchell so far and is exactly why I’m happy to stick with her through thick and thin. Bits of the plot are still a bit hazy to me but that’s okay, and I have to say that more of it made sense to me than usual. Indeed hazy bits included I thought it was a particularly ingenious plot with a compelling and convincingly nasty villain.
Without giving anything away there are reports of a water nymph sited near Winchester and the eccentric Edris Tidson (who has reappeared in London with an expensive young wife and the intention of living of his cousin Prissie, much to the disgust of Prissie’s young ward Connie) soon convinces the whole family to pack bags and go nymph hunting. At this point Prissie calls in Mrs Bradley to pronounce on Mr Tidson’s sanity and then two young boys are found dead... from this point on the plot twists and turns in a way that very satisfactorily passes the time until the eventual conclusion. The identity of the killer is never really in doubt, but working out how it was done, and then in fact having to wait until I was told why it was done, was more than enough of a challenge to keep me interested. Even if it hadn’t been the Mitchellism’s would be more than enough to keep me happy. This for example as a description of a professionally dour Scotsman with something on his mind:
“what will ye?” he enquired, looming like a minor prophet with a major message, uncompromisingly beside the tiny table.”
Or this when Mrs Bradley pulls a psychological rabbit out the hat:
“...he MUST HAVE SEEN THE NAIAD!’ She suddenly bellowed these words in the ear of the unfortunate Mr Tidson’s right ear, so that he jumped like a gaffed salmon and had the same expression on his face that one sometimes sees on a dead fish – at once surprised and peevish.”
I can’t resist this kind of thing. It’s so wonderfully English and gives the right period feel to a plot that’s easily disturbing enough in its essence for the darkest contemporary drama. I found this perfect reading for an early summer’s weekend not least because of a series of evocative and beautiful descriptions of the river and riverside in all its glory. Beyond that the mix of mystery, slightly tongue in cheek humour, coupled with the intellectual exercise of trying to work out if the plot held together, and in the end who precisely was guilty of what kept me very happily absorbed when I should have been doing something sensible and worthy. Really can you ask for much more from a book?
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Saturday, May 22, 2010
In the Scottish ones garden it’s a lovely evening, the sky is blue, the sun gold on the tree tops, the Hawthorne is in flower – in fact the whole place is awash with blossom and sweet smells, and in the fridge is a bottle of my favourite Gin. It would be perfect if I was actually there and not back in town contemplating a gigantic set of notes that need to be written up for work in a very stuffy flat with no gin. It’s proving hard to motivate myself regarding the finer points of sales statistics so here I am blogging instead (pretending it’s a well earned break).
‘Stone in a Landslide’ came to me from Peirene Press, and is it seems the modern Catalan classic. Now as regular readers will know I’m not much of a reader of contemporary fiction and this is not normally a book that I would have given a second look but Peirene press is new and its founder Meike Ziervogel sent me an email asking if I would like a copy. Initially I wasn’t very interested; I’m as lax as most when it comes to reading literature from other countries, and everything about this book sounded a little out of my normal field of interest. On the other hand how often does someone give you the opportunity to broaden your horizons, and for free at that? Exactly; not so very often, and the promise that it was a short book swung me totally (much less intimidating when you’re not sure how much you’re going to enjoy something.)
Ziervogel’s enthusiasm for what she’s doing is palpable and infectious, and with only 120 tempting pages to deal with I got straight to it. ‘Stone in a Landslide’ tells the life of Conxa, a peasant girl from the mountains born around the beginning of the century. Her life is work and the rhythms of the country she lives in, love and motherhood bring happiness, but also more work; women are (as in most farming communities) the ones who keep the home going and do many of the tough jobs around the farm. The needs and demands of motherhood come second to the harvest – her daughters have to do without milk if the calves need it more and so like her mother before her Conxa comes to understand little but work. Her husband is a different character – he thinks and dreams - dangerous dreams of equality - so the rise of fascism brings tragedy to the family. All the while the passing of the century is bringing change of its own, so the life Conxa knows won’t be the life her children settle for.
My grandmother was German, she too came from a mountain village. I didn’t know her terribly well – we never really saw much eye to eye, she rather disapproved of education for girls, or careers for girls outside of marriage, though hard work was right up her street. From what I know of her life I can begin to understand why she was so difficult to know, and why she was so unwilling to share much of her history. Reading ‘Stone in a Landslide’ bought her very much to mind – I think she would have recognised Conxa; a woman who knows how to be strong, but not how to fight, and someone who’s bewilderment in being caught up in political events which mean nothing to her is palpable.
For a short book it packs quite a punch emotionally, and celebrates an image of womanhood that isn’t I think so very fashionable these days. I look forward to seeing what else Peirene Press bring out, I have a feeling it’s going to interesting.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
It’s the first really sticky day of the year here and I am sat on the sofa looking and feeling somewhat less than cool and dignified and adding the list of reasons I wish I lived in a remote part of Northern Scotland. Good access to shops is only attractive in the winter; a proper distance from car alarms however is never more desirable than when you have to have the windows open or melt.
Still if I can’t be in the country I can lay back with a fan in one hand and a book that takes me there in the other and that’s not bad either. ‘Hatfield’s Herbal’ is one of those books that makes me feel a little bit smug about being such a dyed in the wool book collector. If I didn’t hoard books in much the same manner that a squirrel hoards nuts for the winter then I wouldn’t have had the happy few hours I’ve spent with this particular volume this evening.
One of those books that arrive in my life courtesy of a 3 for 2 offer and to the untutored observer might appear to be destined to do nothing more than look pretty on the shelf, but eventually, one day, it’s time will come and so it is with ‘Hatfield’s Herbal’. Still on the trail of the wild garlic and wondering what to do with it when I’ve got it, a herbal seemed to be a good place to look for information (I don’t doubt that River Cottage holds the answers, but the cakes are far too distracting). It is a good place to look for information; it has masses of it, and all very interesting as well. I’m assuming this has been a reasonably successful book – it made it out of hardback and into paperback (do books do this automatically or do they have to prove themselves?) I hope it has been, and indeed continues to be.
I love this sort of thing; shortish essays on every wild plant I could imagine detailing their folk history, medical uses, and edible properties – in short the lot. It’s all so interesting – how could I not have known before that cow parsley was used to make a yellow dye for tweed? Or what Elecampane looks like, and now I’m off to find a flower book somewhere on the shelves so I can find out what Elecampane looks like. Books to be dipped into between books that demand a full reading are heaven anyway but books which combine passions (growing things, history, folk lore, and the possibility of concocting arcane but useful preparations) are a special kind of heaven.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
So why I wonder am I procrastinating in front of the television again? Okay so the answer to that is I’m a sucker for a hospital drama and ridiculously easily distracted at times. Ridiculously easily distracted on Sunday at any rate – I set off into town in search of another Gladys Mitchell. It wasn’t available (poor show on behalf of the high streets only remaining dedicated bookseller) but they did – and still do – have the penguin decade’s series in a three for two offer which changed my dilemma from the normal ‘can only find two books’ to the still overly familiar one of ‘too much choice’.
I was sorely tempted by a Julia Childe cookbook until I worked out (by reading the cover, but it took a lot longer than might reasonably be expected) that it was volume 2. No volume 1 being available I went back to the penguins and dithered for a very long time. Choice finally made I set off for home again full of good intentions regarding ironing and hovering, and then got waylaid by a bench with an attractive view. In my defence I don’t have a garden of my own, and the park is on the way home, and it was far too nice and sunny to be doing housework anyway.
In the park (okay in park number two – it’s a leafy area) I was utterly sidetracked by a huge quantity of wild garlic, I’ve seen it every year for the last five years and every year swear I’m going to pick and cook some – it’s taking such a long time because I want to identify a patch which hasn’t been visited by dogs/cats/foxes/tramps and a time when passing youth won’t laugh. Sunday afternoon wasn’t quite the time. Besides which why do when you can read about doing? (A lot of good answers to that question which I will probably be ignoring.) So it was home for a good browse on things to do with wild garlic – at this point I had every intention of going back to gather some but ended up distracted by something in River Cottage Everyday... Apple and Almond Pudding Cake. It was very good, and yet again I ended up going to bed wondering how it is that I do so few of the things I mean to do on a day off. I still need to hoover.
3 or 4 good sized apples
25g unsalted butter
1 heaped tablespoon granulated sugar (I prefer golden sugars for apples)
¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
150g soft butter
125g sugar (I mixed golden castor sugar with a spoon of muscavado – because I could!)
1 teaspoon of Almond extract
75g of self raising flour
75g of ground almonds
20cm springform tin, lined and greased
Peel core and cut the apples into chunky slices, melt the butter and sugar, add the cinnamon and cook for about five mins until the apples are getting just soft. Put to one side and heat the oven to 170°C gas 3
Mix the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, add 1 egg and beat some more, add egg 2 along with the almond extract and a spoon of flour to stop it curdling. Fold in the rest of the flour and the ground nuts and spread onto the bottom of the tin. Arrange the apples, complete with any juices, on top of the cake and bake for 45 mins. Good hot or cold – that Hugh knows his cakes.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
My relationship with Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley started some years ago care of the Diana Rigg television version in the late ‘90’s. I looked hard for the books at the time, but for once in a way there was no tie in republication, so no Gladys Mitchell for me. A good decade later I found one printed by Virago (The Rising of the Moon) and was very taken with the dark and threatening atmosphere of it all, but at the time still no other affordable or easily available versions of the sixty five other Mrs Bradley novels Mitchell wrote. Frustrating, and surprising for a woman who was admired by Philip Larkin, won the silver dagger award and was a member of the detection club along with Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie.
Finally last year Vintage put an end to my periodic whinging on the subject by re releasing three Mitchells, and now three more have appeared. After the first three (loved one, ambivalent about another, never finished the third) I began to understand why she had been out of print for a while. Producing a book or more a year for over fifty years it’s not perhaps surprising that quality seems to be a bit variable, a writing career spanning from 1929 to the early 1980’s will inevitably include some books which have aged better than others, and (I’ve been consulting wikipedia) some inconsistencies in the heroines back story.
Having hugely enjoyed ‘Death at the Opera’, and now being half way through ‘Death and the Maiden’ which I’m also really enjoying, I find I don’t care about Mitchell’s faults (as I see them). I hope that Vintage keep on bringing them out – she’s just such an interesting writer, and nothing like any other golden age crime writer I’ve known and loved. It’s Mrs Bradley herself that I adore, she’s an older lady with a tremendous past, an expert knife thrower with a penchant for wearing bright and clashing colours, she has a lovely voice and a hideous aspect variously described as being crocodile or boa constrictor like. She has a knife sharp intellect being an eminent psychiatrist, gets on well with children and seems totally fearless, has been married more than once, has an elastic take on morals, and has travelled extensively. In short quite the woman and in honour of that fact I can overlook instances in the plot that don’t make a lot of sense to me.
‘Death at the Opera’ (a relatively early Mitchell from 1934) has a multitude of red herrings as well as some entirely incidental murders. The eventual discovery of the killer doesn’t seem terribly important in the end – I can’t say more without totally revealing the plot and thereby ruining the book for anyone planning on reading it, which would be a shame. Mrs Bradley’s take on right and wrong (not the same as Miss Marple’s for example) is just what I wanted to read; nothing too black and white and a whodunit element to keep me guessing is exactly what the book doctor would have prescribed.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Please excuse the awful pun but I dragged the Scottish one to the theatre for the first time in many years, certainly for the first time in our acquaintanceship, and I think it might take us both a while to get over the experience. The chosen play was Salome, I have a soft spot for Wilde and when I saw this was in town I wanted to go to it. The posters I might add where seductive, and as I missed the ballet version of Dorian Grey earlier in the year I was determined to see this.
I like the theatre, generally in quite an unsophisticated ‘entertain me please’ sort of way. I can handle a bit of symbolism and have no particular problem with a modern dress version of pretty much anything (though I prefer some proper dressing up if I’m given the choice), ‘contemporary’ doesn’t put me off, but sometimes I have to wonder why. In this case it was over the beer I felt compelled to feed the Scottish one to make up for a show that really wasn’t his thing.
So now I’m going to ask am I wrong to think that Wilde is about the language and manners and a certain amount of subtlety? Twentieth century decadence was the tag line, which in this case meant a set composed of mud and gravel with a Middle Eastern militaristic aesthetic and almost constant groping and furtling on the part of the cast. Which might have worked if Salome had not been interpreted as a petulant adolescent, the words suggest a young women confident in her sexuality, but in this case the actions were of a girl without any real sense of her desires or desirability. At least the last ten minutes were as chilling as could be hoped for, and the thing is I had one of the best evenings out in Leicester for a long time.
This is what I love about live theatre, a couple of hours in the pub pulling the play to pieces (because clearly being such an expert and all I could do a much better job) is easily as satisfying as watching the most polished and sympathetic performance. It’s been timely because I’m missing the country life at the moment and one of the great compensations of living in a city – even a fairly provincial one – is the chance to engage with this sort of thing (and to have a choice of beer venues at the end of it). On the other hand it might be another three years before I get the Scottish one in a theatre again...
Monday, May 10, 2010
Ruby Ferguson’s ‘Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary’ is a book I’ve tried to read once before, and which didn’t really grab me at the time. This reading week coupled with Paperback Reader’s enthusiasm for this title made me pick it up again and I took it to London with me to read on the train. I feel a little guilty about admitting that it’s still not really a book for me, but I do feel happier about saying it now I’ve finished it. I’ve had a look at a couple of very positive reviews this afternoon, and whilst they haven’t changed my mind they have confirmed a feeling that this would be a terrific book for a reading group because I do feel it’s one to polarise opinion. I’m also pleased to be able to link to fans of the book because I feel it leaves me free to be a bit negative (but not I hope too negative).
Whilst trying not to give too much away this is the story of The Lady Rose as related by an old family retainer to three chance tourists on a sunny afternoon in the 1930’s. Lady Rose is a considerable heiress, a favourite of Queen Victoria, imaginative and passionate and seemingly blessed by every good fairy. (SPOILERS) Eventually she marries, her husband is a ruthlessly repressed man, and despite three children she adores it’s not a terribly happy marriage. At this point I thought I knew what would happen, I thought there would be divorce (because sometimes I can’t resist reading the end of a book before I’ve finished, and yes I do know this makes me a terrible person, but it also revealed that something big was on the way). Anyway it wasn’t divorce, but suffice it to say that the husband is no longer an issue.
So then at the point when it all feels like it should work out it all sort of goes wrong again, except by this point it’s almost the end of the book, and it all happens quite quickly and has left me a bit non plussed. I suspect I would have loved this book when I had a crush on the Scarlet Pimpernel, and was reading Kidnapped, thinking that Bonnie Prince Charlie was a romantic hero, but now I think of him as a vicious alcoholic, bad general, and all round bad egg. For Lady Rose he’s a hero. There was too much of the fairy tale about this book for me, I couldn’t go along with it, and kept doubting the veracity of little things within the plot.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Appropriate in many ways for today (Saturday when I started writing...) I’ve been to London to meet some other book bloggers, an experience that was every bit as enjoyable as I hoped (it seems book bloggers are charming and interesting people), but as with any such gathering a lot of it is about making conversation and trying to get the balance right between talking too much and not talking at all. Oh, and as we met in the Persephone book shop, during Persephone reading week, hw could I have been reading anything but Persephone's?
Fortunately meeting people who all have a shared interest makes conversation easy, but most of growing up is rendered hideous by getting it wrong and not really understanding why. ‘Making Conversation’ flummoxed me a bit because it was described as a funny book, and in all fairness, apart from one moment when I laughed that’s not how I found it. I’m wondering if I would have found it funnier if I wasn’t waiting to be amused – maybe I would, or perhaps the memory of so many excruciating conversations in my own past haven’t been dulled enough yet.
‘Making Conversation’ is a history of Martha Freke from childhood to the untimely end of her university career and her first steps out into the world. I found the details of university life for women students just after the First World War (bit of a mouthful that) the most interesting part of the book. A combination of absolutely recognisable situations, or more accurately, conversations (especially regarding joining societies), and an insight into a world that was so desperately prescriptive for women that wearing the wrong hat could ruin your reputation and to be seen talking to male students in public could lead to being sent down in disgrace.
The limited Christine Longford bio I read makes her sound thoroughly fascinating; that’s what made me want to read ‘Making Conversation’ but I can’t escape a nagging feeling that the books I really want to read by her are the Irish novels that came later, or maybe even a good biography. I’m assuming that a lot of ‘Making Conversation’ is autobiographical but I couldn’t help but feel I only had a part of the picture, and background at that. Very little sense of Martha as a person emerged from the book – understandable given that she’s so young and her behaviour is so carefully monitored – how much personality could emerge in a young woman watched so carefully at home, school, and university? It’s only in the last few pages when she sets off having been cut loose from most of her ties (hopefully not too much of a spoiler) that I could imagine a story about what she does rather than what happens to her.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
My first book for Persephone reading week and it isn’t even a Persephone, but it was Persephone inspired so I’m counting it in. I read Duff Cooper’s ‘Operation Heartbreak’ a couple of years ago so the details are vague now, but I remember finding it very moving – definitely one of the best ones for me so far (and looking very like it’s going to be reread this week). I found ‘The Man Who Never Was’ in a second hand shop in Shetland and bought it partly as a souvenir and also because of the ‘Operation Heartbreak’ connection – In my heart of hearts I didn’t think I’d ever get round to reading it.
Which really would have been my loss. In a nutshell in the spring of 1943 a corpse was launched off the Spanish coast with planted information which significantly helped the allied war effort. ‘Operation Heartbreak’ is an apt name for the Duff Cooper version, the nonfiction version of events is if anything more moving than the fictional account. Cooper who I’m guessing was in the know clearly felt the need to invent a back story for ‘Major Martin’, the sort of life which would make his eventual end make more sense. Ewen Montagu and his team did the same thing, but for slightly different reasons, although there’s still a sense that Major Martin needed to become a person to make what happened to his body acceptable to all those involved.
In my copy (penguin) there is a grainy old black and white photo of what I can only describe as the corpse being committed to the waves, sped on by all good hopes for its effectiveness. I kept returning to it – it’s a thoroughly haunting and deeply poignant image which made me as a reader dearly want a satisfying story for Major Martin too. The Major’s actual identity is still unknown (permission to use the body was granted on condition that its actual identity would never be known) which seems to kick into action a deep human need for a story. For the mission, operation mincemeat, to succeed every detail had to make sense so a life was created – a man who has a family, falls in love, is reckless with his money, is an excellent officer, and who enjoys a bit of nightlife.
A man we would all like, who seems to have become real to his creators (shades of Miss Hargreaves) and who having briefly sprung into being dies again to go to war. It raises so many questions for me that I’m surprised ‘Operation Heartbreak’ is the only fictional account to come out of the incident. Had mincemeat been a failure a lot of the pathos would be lost, but Operation Mincemeat was an outstanding success that saved hundreds (maybe thousands) of lives during the invasion of Sicily. Major William Martin of the Royal Marines was a hero even though he never existed; it’s quite a paradox for a Tuesday.
All of which should make it clear that this is a bit of quality writing (despite sometimes dry descriptions of army procedure and protocol) which has aged remarkably well. For any ‘Operation Heartbreak’ fans out there it’s more than worth tracking down, I see it from time to time in charity shops, and cheap copies are available on amazon, it’s also more than worth finding for its own sake.
Finally apologies for the awful picture - still struggling with technical difficulties...
Sunday, May 2, 2010
After last Sunday’s promise of summer this has felt like a bit of a grim old weekend, not a feeling helped by working on Saturday and Monday, or an oncoming cold, or a sense of homework waiting to be done (caused by homework waiting to be done). To avoid the homework I started on a mission To Tidy Up A Bit, quickly followed by an escape to Waterstone’s, ostensibly to find a present for the Scottish one, but mostly to get me out. Foiled by a fire alarm I returned home bookless to a flat that’s at the point of ‘tided up’ that makes it look like I’ve been burgled.
Now several hours later the dust has moved about a bit, but hasn’t actually dispersed, and there is Jam on the floor – the best laid plans etc... Still the day hasn’t been an entire wash out, I’ve finished a book group book (A Month In The Country, which I would love to talk about here, but as it’s a postal group I don’t want to spoil it for the books owner), have put into action a long cherished plan for making Genoese sponge, and have been spending a good few hours with Mr Wright – John Wright’s guide to the ‘Edible Seashore’ to be specific.
(The sponge thing was long cherished but never executed because Leith’s technique Bible suggested it was tricky, Fiona Cairn’s said tricky, and so I thought it would probably be tricky, but ‘River Cottage Everyday’ said no problem, and I trust Hugh, and indeed he was telling the truth so I feel very competent right now.)
Post baking, and just before the jam disaster, when I should have been working out what wines go with a variety of made up dinner scenarios (and at a molecular level why that is) I retired to bed with ‘Edible Seashore’ (I can’t even call myself an armchair forager). My love of the River Cottage Handbooks is no secret, and frankly I could kiss the feet of the commissioning editor. Reading this book positioned so I could see as much sky as possible – and it’s been a suitably dramatic sky for looking at – felt like an adventure (bear with me on this one). The thing with the sky, especially on dramatically cloudy days, is that you really could be anywhere or anytime...
My absolute favourite book as a child was Enid Blyton’s ‘Island of Adventure’, closely followed by any famous five book you care to mention. John Wright’s River Cottage Handbooks appeal to the same part of me; he’s a terrific writer, funny and informative with the ability to make you feel you’re out and about discovering with him. As a girl who spent much of her childhood poking around on beaches he’s speaking my language when he talks about the heady excitement of pulling up lobster pots, or even turning over rocks to see what’s underneath (though I prefer it when it’s not eels), so I’ve spent an entirely blissful couple of hours reading about different types of edible seaweed and winkles, reliving numberless happy memories. Not a wash out weekend after all, now – about that jam...