Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year

I'm off to my (parents*) winter retreat for a few days (me, the Scottish one, my brother, my brother's rabbit, my father's dogs... and others) which I hope will be peaceful and idyllic - well there's nothing wrong with hoping. I have a suitcase full of Victorian novels and warm jumpers, a bottle of single malt waiting for me, and a chocolate reindeer for emergencies so think I have the basics covered. 

I hope that everyone reading this has something equally good to look forward to and that the New Year brings good things for all. 

*It's flats - we retreat to one small corner, but the picture has a pleasingly Mitford feel for someone who finished 'Christmas Pudding' on the bus home tonight

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Joy of Dictionaries

One day my friend the blonde will let me take pictures of her collection of dictionaries - I have never, even in a university library, seen so many or on so many different subjects. So far she's resisted my attempts to sneak in with a camera on the grounds that her house isn't tidy enough (tidier by far than mine though) but one day... My own collection of dictionaries and reference books is a small affair by any standards never mind hers but I still like to have books to hand.

True enough the internet is a wondrous and useful thing but sometimes it's hard to find what you want amongst all the other stuff on there, though more often my problem is that I only find what I want and not so much of the incidental stuff along the way (I know this isn't the usual problem - maybe it's my age). The great thing about something like 'The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations' is that I can browse in it for hours - or minutes as time allows. I spent a lot of Christmas and Boxing day flipping through my new copy and would keep it by my bed if I thought it wouldn't keep me awake for hours. It's the sheer variety of stuff in there (and the pretty blue and yellow ribbons - my old university colours which feels like a happy coincidence). I briefly entertained myself texting the blonde Goethe quotes in German which she understands, I don't though so when she replied in kind I came unstuck. I found some cracking stuff about sailing which I think I'll soon have cause to repeat, and swore yet again that I should actually read Dorothy Parker and not just her quotes.

It's not even as if I'm a crossword aficionado or need this sort of thing for essays or the like, I simply find myself really enjoying time in the company of a book like this. I look at it and it seems full of promise and possibility; sentences that could lead to entirely unexpected and new (to me) writers - because clearly I need more books in my life - oh yes, the dictionary is my favourite present of Christmas (excluding the half a kitchen aid which wasn't for my birthday).  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Company She Keeps - Mary McCarthy

It feels like an age since I've finished a book (I read of others managing to get through 160 + a year with a slight feeling of envy - 60 is doing well for me) but now that work has calmed down, my stress levels have fallen, and I no longer want to crawl into bed the moment I get home it's time to tackle my to be read pile.

I started 'The Company She Keeps' weeks back and was, until yesterday, in two minds about it. I didn't love 'The Group' when Virago reissued it a couple of years ago but liked it enough to pick up 'A Charmed Life' when I saw it second hand which I found a much more satisfying read. 'The Company She Keeps' was McCarthy's first book and feels semi autobiographical, each chapter is a self contained story and all of them have Meg Sargent somewhere in them. Initially she's an unattractive character; shallow, self absorbed, promiscuous, and a snob, but slowly and without McCarthy noticeably making Meg more sympathetic I found myself warming to her. 

I think it's because there are no real excuses for her behaviour that it starts to become acceptable - in the final chapter Meg's seeing a decidedly second rate psycho analyst who assures her that it's all due to a repressive upbringing - she seems unconvinced: it's to easy. I can't quite imagine how this book would have read when it was first published in 1942 but it's fair to say that Meg is a woman we've all met - the difference being that it's no longer normal to marry at 20 and not unusual to have the sort of complicated sex life that Meg engages in  which takes away some of the shock value.

The pay off for me came in the final chapter when Meg/McCarthy takes a good look at what bothers her - a failure to be happily middle class, or a decent socialist, along with the realisation that the accessories of her New York liberal lifestyle all covered in there "own patina of social anxiety" fill her with disgust. McCarthy has also answered a long held question for me, for years I've wondered why so many of the husbands in the  books I read are architects - Meg's second husband is an architect "the perfect compromise candidate, something halfway between a businessman and an artist". In her case it's an admission of failure to be one thing or the other.

My over all impression of McCarthy is that she could be a bitch, when she turns that on other people as she does in 'The Group' I find it mildly repellent, when she takes that same view of herself it's really effective and totally compelling. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

More New Books

Back home from my mother's (she does the best turkey ever - fact) and have had a peaceful boxing day playing with my new books and anticipating an evening eating too many mince pies whilst watching Poirot. Having got a whole pile of readable presents I still felt compelled to hit the Waterstone's sale today which I'm slightly torn about, I feel quite strongly that there are days when everything should close down and boxing day is one of them. It's not a religious thing, although religious festivals are as good an excuse as any, it's that I think life would be so much nicer if there were more days we could all spend with family and friends. I'm lucky in that I currently work for a company that does close on boxing day which is becoming increasingly rare in retail. Truthfully though we could all wait to shop for another twenty four hours in favour of a bit more time contemplating things more important than the pursuit of a bargain.

So yes, I came home and then I went shopping and managed to come home with Dan Lepard's 'Short and Sweet' (half price) 'Private Eye the First 50 Years' (half price) and 'Great Expectations' - probably won't watch it but do plan on reading it - it's long overdue that I try and have another crack at Dickens and I'm a little bit in love with the idea of Miss Havisham although I have no idea if the reality will match the myth. To make myself feel better about it I'm telling myself it was good to spend money locally and in supporting the high street - which it is.

I'm particularly pleased to have a new dictionary of quotations - the rather magnificent Oxford edition from my friend L, she gave me (at my request/hint both times) a dictionary of quotations for my 18th birthday so there's a neat symmetry about getting this one twenty years later. 'Let's Preserve It' is just a brilliant little book that I look forward to spending more time with, I'm also quite excited about getting to grips with 'River Cottage Veg Every Day!'. The remaining paperbacks are crying out for more investigation but look like an inspired set of choices so more of those in the future.

I hope that you all had as good a Christmas as I did with excellent company, a little bit to much to eat and drink, and presents that make you feel lucky and generally privileged in the friends you have (mawkish I know but it's the season for it).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Christmas

I'm finally done with work (for the next three days anyway) and am scrubbed clean, with presents all wrapped, in a warm and fragrant if still untidy flat. All I have to think about now is what I'm going to read, what to drink, and what to wear (in that order) and I couldn't be happier - nothing is ever perfect but this is close so here's wishing anyone reading this a Merry Christmas and a wonderful break from the everyday nonsense of life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Books

Now that I can realistically count down the time left at work before things calm down (four and a half days, thirty nine hours, or a lot of minutes) I'm beginning to plan my holiday reading. This is a ritual that I love and another reason that I don't really think an e-reader is for me - eyeing up the possibilities, trying to predict my reading moods, balancing a wildcard choice along with something worthy and wordy, and finally remembering to follow the golden rule of no more books than knickers when you pack to go away - its not a bad way to unwind.

These beauties are a collection of review copies, birthday presents, and purchases, some of which will definitely come away with me. Nancy Mitford's 'Christmas Pudding' is an obvious choice, as is 'The G-String Murders'. 'The Whores Assylum' looks promising but isn't officially out until February so that might wait, and of course there may well be books for Christmas too... Also I also have shelves full of things I've meant to read for ages, I think a Trollope may be on the cards, and I wouldn't rule out a Walter Scott either - but then I'd like to read some more Wilkie Collins and now it's all getting a bit Victorian. I also have some Dorothy Whipple that needs reading, it's been a while since I've read any P.G. Wodehouse. I have a George Mackay Brown, about one hundred and fifty Virago books, plenty of Stella Gibbons, and who knows what else (is this the year for 'Moby Dick'?). The consideration and anticipation is almost as good as the actual reading. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas cooking (well it’s an excuse to use my Kitchen aid)

Today I have finished the candied oranges dipped in chocolate that have been in the making for the past week – chocolate stage which was messy but satisfying, made fudge, finally used the star/tree cutters I was given last year (mine are small tree’s but I’m pleased with the results, and also couldn’t imagine eating a biscuit as big as the biggest star in the set). We also tried what has now become the week before Christmas cake.

It’s a cake that my father (winner as you may remember of ‘Best Fruit Cake Baked By A Gentleman’ at the Walls agricultural show) can be proud of – he’s clearly passed on the fruit cake baking gene, he also reminded me that my mother makes a darned good cake as well which I guess is where the gentleman bit comes into the equation (she does too). Either way it tasted good and come the New Year I’m definitely getting ‘Short and Sweet’ I think Dan Lepard may be the way forward.

All this kitchen activity combined with a heavy week at work has meant not much reading but there is a book post coming soon...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Lives of the Novelists – John Sutherland

Yesterday was my birthday – I spent the day working which is something I’m going to try and avoid next year because the result has been vaguely depressing, it turns out that a lovely weekend doesn’t make up for nine hours of hard graft lugging heavy boxes around, a freezing wait for a bus that’s late (at my age getting in from work after 9pm feels too late), and finally home alone for a sandwich before bed. I can, and do, do that at least twice a week anyway, it didn’t make the day feel special.

What has made me feel special though is presents and I’ve had some lovely ones. Most intriguing is from my friend L who’s given me a pot of soil filled with mystery bulbs – it’ll be months before I know what’s in there but that isn’t going to stop me from looking everyday anyway. Another gratefully received gift (from my sister who received some pretty heavy hints) was John Sutherland’s ‘Lives of the Novelists’ – a history of fiction in 294 lives. I’ve not been able to resist it (and only partly because I’ve had my eye on it for what feels like an age) and have been dipping in and out whenever I’ve had the opportunity over the last 48 hours.

I’m not the biggest fan of biography but this book suits me perfectly because each writer is delineated with admirable brevity – on average two or three pages each – in which space Sutherland manages to pack in the salient facts along with a few more salacious/gossipy details; it’s more than enough to be going on with. So far I’ve been reading about authors I already know but look forward to being informed and possibly tempted by a whole lot that I don’t.

294 seems like a fairly arbitrary number (surely he could have found 300?) but then this is also an unashamedly personal view of literature – presumably the history of one man’s reading journey, which makes it all the more intriguing. I wanted it for reference, am already quite inspired by it, and wonder now where else it might take me and what else it might prove to be. Doubtless I’ll let you know.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Cake

I'm actually quite proud of this cake (although that may change when we actually try eating it, I mean it should be good seeing as I followed the recipe and all but you never know until you cut a slice do you) and am relieved it's turned out pretty enough to share, especially after the lack of faith both my mother and the scottish one displayed when I described what I wanted to do. They admit they were wrong now, though it's sadly not often that my 'artistic' vision works out the way I pictured it so they had some cause for doubt. This time though it's worked and because the chance to decorate it was the whole reason to bake the cake I feel as smug as a cat that's not only got the cream, but the sweet spot on a cushion by a fire.

It's fair to say that the cake itself is a little lumpy and uneven (rustic?) which might not have been as noticeable if I'd managed not to roll the marzipan quite so thin (but it leaves me with enough to bake into something else so that's okay). The ready roll icing was new to me as well and much softer than I expected so it's full of little dents and what not which are now artfully covered by ribbon. After that I spent quite some time looking for an appropriate picture of a stag (google stag and it's not just deer that you get) made a stencil, practised on a piece of paper (an example of forethought which is quite un-typical) and then proceeded to sprinkle edible glitter over the cake, myself, the work-surfaces, and the floor, which means soon it will be everywhere which is at least festive.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

Humbug or Another long week at work.

Ahh, Christmas – a time of good will to all and such like, unless you’re shopping. I haven’t had much time to open a book this week partly because everything is now in full swing for the big day and even when I’m not actually working I’m mostly tending to the days cuts (two new ones because the cardboard boxes hate me) and bruises (a cracker across the back of my hand where I trapped it between a rolling cage and an immovable object – possibly another cage, possibly a wall, maybe a shelf, I was too busy swearing to notice which isn’t good because the same spot will inevitably get me again until I identify it to avoid.) After all that excitement all I really want to do is try and scrub off the dirt and sleep.

It has been a trying few days and I can’t help but feel that it’s in the public interest to share a few don’ts with you. Don’t for example ask your harassed wine merchant for a bottle of wine you think is called “Chateau de something”, adding that it may be French and probably red doesn’t actually narrow the field much. Accept that if you don’t actually know what you want you’re not in a position to ask for it, I can and will recommend something I think you might like but can’t promise that it’s the same thing you don’t know the name of.

Don’t keep asking the same question, the answer will inevitably remain the same. For example lady proffering a miniature bottle of Bailey’s “How big is this” me “it’s a miniature so 5ml’s”, “That’s quite small” “yes (not saying it but the clue’s in the name MINIATURE), “Have you got a bigger bottle?” “why yes, we have bottles and litres.” “Oh, do you have anything smaller?” “Just the miniatures.” “you see it’s for a present and I want something bigger than this but smaller than that.” “I’m sorry we only have these sizes.” picks up a bottle of something else “do you have anything in this size?” “Well we have that.” “Do you have Baileys in this size?” “No.” “But I want it in this size, are you sure you don’t have any?” “Yes, we only have the sizes I’ve shown you.” “But it’s for a present and this size would be just perfect.” “.....Can I help you with anything else at all madam?” In truth this conversation went on for a lot longer than you could believe possible and happens many times a day. I will eventually snap and say what I’m thinking and get sacked.

It’s not appropriate to say to a total stranger who’s putting bottles on a shelf that you like to see a woman on her knees. It’s really not appropriate to explain that you want German wine because it’s lower alcohol content means that you can drink a lot of it and still maintain you enthusiasm (the customer was more explicit) in the bedroom.

It’s all very well asking your wine seller to “Check out back” but out back today I had 16 cages of stock and a full cellar, each cage weighs about a third of a ton and at the moment each one is surrounded by a whole lot of other stuff. It’s not easy to find anything amongst that lot so come back later and stop bothering me be nice when you’re asking and don’t get impatient if you have to wait. We all have better things to do and whilst I’m on it “Can you show me your Chardonnay” is something that’ll take a while.

Mulled wine, Glühwein, and Glögg are essentially the same thing, we happen to sell mulled wine, if you don’t like the mulled wine we sell please consider making your own. It’s not hard and will be better than tearfully insisting that Glühwein is very different – I can’t actually do anything about it. It’s not ‘too much trouble’ to make bucks fizz. Adding fizzy wine to orange juice is unlikely to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Truthfully adding a sachet of pre mixed spices to wine isn't a big effort, and if you want a non alcoholic version adding the sachet to red grape juice isn’t a killer either.  

The answer to ‘Where is the £10 bottle of gin?” is Asda, I can’t remember what wine you might have bought from us sometime in the summer when it was on an offer, wanting something reduced because the label is slightly damaged AND YOU WANT IT FOR A PRESENT makes you sound cheap, I’m glad you’re not my friend. I look forward to Christmas being over – although before it is there will be a lot of harassed men who suddenly realise that it’s the 23rd of December and they’ve done nothing about it, and I will have said we had it until yesterday about a thousand times. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

Bought from the newly improved Waterstone's who are (joy of joys) experimenting with single book price cuts rather than multi-buys. I read 'Cold Comfort Farm' ago but don't think I really got it. I keep meaning to try again because it's so generally loved and I don't like feeling that I'm missing out but I also want to read some of the books it parodies in the hope that it'll give me more insight - but I'm not sure I can face the doom and gloom yet.

Because of all the above the Cold Comfort sequels have never appealed to me as much as other Stella Gibbons have, but it's that time of year and Christmas in the title swung it. Imagine my joy to discover that this is a collection of short stories and only the title one is set on the farm. They all started life in magazines like 'The Lady' and 'Good Housekeeping' which is a sure sign of quality. Perhaps in homage to the general ambience of Cold Comfort Farm a lot of them deal with unhappy marriages and unfulfilled women but I find that cheering at a time of year when so much of the imagery around me seems designed to point out that I don't have a perfect life (and after all how many people do) .

It turns out that Gibbons writes a cracking good short story - small but perfectly formed. Gibbons is very much of her time and quite happy to take easy shots (at bohemians versus sensible married people and the like) but she has the humour to carry it off. My favourite is 'Golden Vanity' where a slim legged grey eyed English beauty spends her time daydreaming over romantic novels, passing up the chance for real romance whilst she does so. The pay off it that her dark handsome hero author turns out to be a woman... I like to think that she had Georgette Heyer in mind.

I'm inclined to think that this is Stella Gibbons at her best (you can keep 'Cold Comfort Farm' - even if it's sacrilege to say it) or at least it's a concentrated dose of all that she does best and a nice showcase of her talents. There's a lot more I could try and say about this book but Nicholas Lezard (who is after all a professional) has already done it better in the weekend Guardian so instead of me paraphrasing him do have a look.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Preparations / Procrastinating

I had good intentions for today which involved Christmas card writing and some festive baking but got off to a bad start after an epic oversleep wiped out the morning and a big dose of apathy put paid to cards (tomorrow or maybe Tuesday I swear). On only a slight tangent I've been canvassing my friends about Christmas decorations and whether to bother. Once upon a time when I still lived at home we had a tradition of no decorations before my birthday (just over a week away), when I started living alone I made an effort for the first few years because I like decorations but recently it's seemed pointless. Ironically although I no longer have to work 60+ hour weeks over the festive period I feel like I'm at home less than ever and much as I love putting decorations up I hate taking them down. Everything seems so dismal without them and January doesn't need much help with being dismal, also with no one in to see them it's increasingly hard to find reasons to do it.
However the consensus seems to be that decorations are the way forward so I'm aiming for a compromise. My  Fair Isle bunting has gone up - it's not tinsel so it can stay up indefinitely as far as I'm concerned, and the stick tree my sisters boyfriend gentleman caller made has come out. (I drenched it in pine essential oil to make it smell festive but it mostly smells like disinfectant now so that wasn't one of my best ideas. Whisky might have been more appropriate - it's working for the cake.) More concessions to the season are on the way but need some consideration, chief amongst them being what to put on the tree. I've thought about meringues to look like dollops of snow which I think is a pretty idea but may look a bit silly in this case, biscuits or gingerbread are another option but I'm worried that it might end up looking somewhat like I knitted the whole thing out of yoghurt, and then there's the proper old fashioned sparkly but specifically Christmasy baubles which will have to come off. What to do? 

Ten books from the last twelve months.

Books of the year lists are a bit of a departure for me but I thought I’d give it a go, indeed I meant to do it for the first of December but didn’t get organised in time – which is why lists like this generally are a departure for me. However it’s the season to look back on things and having looked back at books it feels like it’s been useful – and slightly surprising. I’ve not perhaps read as much as I hoped I might this year but that’s par for the course (damn having to work for a living and its constant getting in the way of more entertaining things) but although there have been a lot of good books – this is after all the year that I finished Trollope’s Barchester chronicles, read my first Walter Scott, and worked through Mrs Oliphant’s Carlingford series – I don’t feel that it’s been a vintage year. It’s not a struggle to come up with ten books I’d happily recommend, anything I’ve written about I’ve been enthusiastic about, but it’s been quite hard to identify the ones that really stood out – the books which might make it to my fire shelf.
Somehow though I managed, and so in no particular order here they are – all read between December 1st 2010 and December 1st 2011. First up is Matthew Sweet’s ‘West End Front’ from a couple of weeks back. The more I think about it the more time I have for this book. It’s a lot of the dirtier side of war which we do well to remember, it’s also a lot of stories that deserve to be told, thoroughly entertaining, and at times desperately moving. All good.

Another recent read was Constance Maud’s ‘No Surrender’ from Persephone books. Not the best novel ever written but possibly a contender for the most passionately heartfelt. It has an enthusiasm for a cause that’s infectious. It’s also a book that makes you question how much things have changed, and how much has stayed the same. The answers aren’t entirely encouraging for anyone of a feminist persuasion and again these are things which should be thought about otherwise nothing will ever change for the better.

Mark Girouard’s ‘Enthusiasms’ also makes the list, partly because it’s a lovely thing in itself, partly because it’s entertaining, but mostly because it’s a showcase for the virtues of good scholarship – whatever they’re being applied to.

A.S Byatt’s ‘Ragnarok’ was easily my most anticipated title of the year, it didn’t disappoint. I read it months ago but there are still bits that run through my head. I think Byatt is at her best when she writes short stories and novellas; she’s pretty bloody good when she writes epic doorstops as well but I find her shorter books perfectly polished jewels – or something like that anyway. She’s just very, very, good.

Preparation/anticipation for ‘Ragnarok’ featured Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘The Penguin Book Of Norse Myths’ which I approached in the manner of a chore. It wasn’t, and good intentions to read far more saga’s feature for next year.

 John O’Hara’s ‘A Rage to Live’ was a great big messy compelling wonderful book – I love vintage for reprinting him (and so many others). He’s a slight departure from my normal middle brow women – rather less tea and a nice sit down with a scone, more dirty martinis and a few too many of them.   

Sticking with sleazy was Mae West’s ‘The Constant Sinner’ – not just an eye opener. I have more Mae West to read which is something to look forward to. She’s everything I hoped in the way of one liners and wisecracks but underneath that there’s a veracity that makes the heroine Babe Gordon stick with you.

I’m a big fan of Victorian literature and if I’d read Lady Audley this year she would be a shoe in, but I didn’t and I also really love Mrs Oliphant so I’m going with ‘Phoebe Junior’ the last of the Carlingford chronicles. I think it stands well alone, has a cracking good plot, and rips of Trollope with style. That’s virtually the perfect Victorian novel in my world.

The last two books on my list are both a little bit Noir. Vera Caspary’s ‘Bedelia’ which had a twist I didn’t see coming and which turned something run of the mill into something extraordinary. Dorothy B. Hughes ‘In a Lonely Place’ was even darker – and nothing like the film which is good, but an entirely different story. Dorothy B. Hughes was a Persephone find and since then I’ve come across a few of her other titles. Persephone’s ‘The Expendable Man’ is so far the best; ‘In A Lonely Place’ is a very close second.

Now I need to go and get a head start on next years list.