Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It was almost a really good cake.

I was really keen to make something from 'Scandilicious' and this seemed like a good week for a bake. Danish coconut dream cake felt like the obvious choice because not only did I have all the ingredients but it specifically calls for vanilla salt and I've been wondering what to do with the jar of it I have for almost a year now. It's a deceptive sort of recipe in that the cake bit is all very reasonable and innocent looking and then you start on the topping. The topping is not innocent, it contains enough butter and sugar to make Nigella think twice, consequently it's delicious. 

Not my best effort.
Unfortunately I made a bit of a mess of this one. I didn't have a 30 x 20 cm baking tin handy and thought that a round 23cm tin would be okay, it wasn't. the cake didn't want to cook in the middle and when it had been in almost twice as long as the recipe suggested the outsides were in danger of over cooking, which is when I started to dicker around with the oven shelf. Unsurprisingly the cake sank a bit in the middle. The smaller tin also meant there was a lot of topping to go round, most of it congregated in the sunken dip in the middle so when it came to crisping that bit up it only really worked on the edges. The result is a curate's egg of a cake; parts of it are excellent. It's also worth noting that it's very rich and makes a huge amount, perfect for parties a bit much if you don't think you'll be sharing. 

4 medium eggs                                   Topping
300g golden caster sugar                    200g butter
1 tsp Vanilla extract                            200g light brown soft sugar
150g of melted butter                         150g dessicated coconut
150ml of buttermilk                            100ml whole milk
300g of plain flour                              1 heaped tsp vanilla salt
3 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Pre heat the oven to 190c / gas 5, find a baking tin 20cm x 30 cm and lay two sheets of parchment paper in it cross wise (this is to make it easy to lift the cake out later).

Whisk the eggs, sugar, and vanilla until pale and fluffy. Pour in half the melted butter and buttermilk, sift in half the flour and fold in, then add the rest along with the baking powder and salt. Pour into the baking tin and cook for about 20 mins - or until cooked.

Meanwhile stick all the topping ingredients into a pan and bring to simmering point. Simmer for about 5 mins stirring all the time so the sugar doesn't catch, and until the mix has reduced a bit and is nice and thick. 

When the cake comes out the oven up the temp to 220c/gas 7 and cover the cake with the topping. Whack it all back in the oven and cook for 5 to 10 mins until the topping is a deep golden colour, don't let it burn. 

Finally let it cool in it's tin, and finally eat.

Monday, August 27, 2012

An Impulse Purchase

My bank holiday weekend has mostly been spent at work, there was an interlude stripping wallpaper with friends, which due to excellent company and potable liquor was far more fun than it may sound. Outside it's dark, not very warm, and raining - which I don't mind at all because I have a new cook book which looks to be full of good things. 

I didn't go into Waterstones looking to buy anything, which is always when it's most dangerous, and of all the things I didn't mean to buy 'Hugh's Three Good Things' would probably have topped the list. I knew it was in the offing but was inclined to be dismissive because really - how much Hugh does one woman need in her kitchen? It had also occurred to me that this might be a slightly lazy book, I'm not especially opposed to cookbooks based around specific concepts and the idea of'Three Good Things' isn't so far away from Nikki Segnit's 'Flavour Thesaurus' which I really rated, but there's always the risk that this kind of thing is  a gimmick.

One quick look dispelled any such suspicions. A second look convinced me that I couldn't go home without this book - there was no question of waiting for a slightly cheaper amazon delivery, and never mind sticking it on a Christmas list and hoping for the best. Obviously I bought it. First impressions suggest that it's the best Hugh cookbook yet - at least for my purposes and preferences. The three good things refer to the main ingredients in a dish, not as I had assumed all of them. The range of recipes is inspiring - everything from honey and olive oil on toast to good things to do with a pheasant. There are familiar River Cottage staples, though de-constructed and simplified - this is what I expected from Jamie Oliver when he was the naked chef - and never really got. I'm really looking forward to using this book, expect to hear more about it soon.   

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Adaptable

The BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's 'Parade's End' started on Friday, I enjoyed it for many reasons, but especially because it was something new to me. I am sick and tired of adaptations of Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, anything else written by a Bronte, and beginning to feel the same way about Dickens*. That 'Parade's End'  is pretty to look at is another attraction, it also has a top class bitch in the alluring form of Sylvia and that doesn't go amiss either.

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent reader, one even prepared to take on a challenge from time to time, but Modernism has never really appealed to me. My degree wasn't in English Literature so I've never had to tackle it, youthful flirtations with Virginia Woolf and James Joyce weren't fruitful and since then I've been content to leave well alone. I had heard of Ford Madox Ford, but mostly because I once got him confused with Ford Madox Brown (the painter), I never got further than that with him.

Now that 'Parade's End' is not only on a screen near me, but was also spread across the weekend papers, and I think coincidentally being read by Thomas at My Porch, I'm definitely interested despite being told it's a Modernist masterpiece. So interested that I picked up a copy of the actual book whilst out and about earlier - something I'm sure plenty of others will do too, some of us may even read it - I certainly have ambitions in that direction. 

For all the book's relative obscurity the BBC series isn't an off beat choice. After Downton Abbey anything Edwardian and First World War based had to be a safe bet, it seems there's also a lot of sex - which always sells, and having Benedict Cumberbatch on board is icing on the cake. Because I, and I guess plenty of people who watch this series, didn't know the book beforehand it's possible to come at it without all the preconceptions attached to another 'Pride and Prejudice' or similar, and I say this as someone who's generally prepared to sit back and be entertained by what ever is put in front of her. 

As for what I've seen so far - it's intriguing, Julian Fellows talked about all the sex in Saturday's Guardian but I was more interested in how angry the main characters seemed. Christopher and his wife Sylvia are trapped together in marriage, bound by moral responsibility on his side, religious conviction on hers, both are angry, I can only imagine how they'll feel once the war kicks in. Watching it has also encouraged me to think about some sort of reading strategy for the book - it's a quartet that currently comes packaged as the one book - 'Parade's End' that takes up roughly 800 pages of closely typed print. For a book everybody seems to consider confusing that feels like a lot to tackle in one run, especially if my reading time is an hour here or there, I'm hoping a better plan will be to tackle it a book at a time and only when I can throw a whole weekend at it but any better advice will be taken on board.

*Much as I love Jane Austen and tolerate both the Bronte's and Dickin's enough is enough.

Friday, August 24, 2012

3 Years of Blogging

Today is my third blog birthday, celebrations have basically consisted of a chocolate croissant and reading 'Guys and Dolls' on the bus. Both were excellent. When I started blogging I was working part time and getting desperate about the lack of full time work and how to pay the bills - which is where the name came from. Job hunting in a recession isn't a situation I recommend, as blogging is a cheap hobby it seemed like a good idea, and was - in so many more ways than I expected. Maybe it was coincidence but interviews came along at the same time and quite quickly after that a job. Whilst looking for work blogging was a distraction  from care, now I have work it's a distraction from work - so really this is a thank you to anybody who has visited here over the last few years and 500 posts. Comments and interactions have all been gratefully received, they brightens up dull days and I intend to carry on enjoying it. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scandilicious - Signe Johhansen

The season feels like it's definitely on the turn today, still summer, but not for much longer. It's cooled down enough for me to think I probably will make jam tonight, which is just as well because the fridge is full of raspberries bought for the purpose and there are greengages around too, very tempting. A week ago the idea of standing over a pan of boiling sugar would have made me swear, but then a week ago the sun hadn't set when I left work late, this week it has.

I was initially sceptical about 'Scandilicious', almost entirely due to the name which I harbour an unreasonable prejudice over. However it was raining, and I was in Waterstones, and they had money off the book, and I found myself giving it a proper look, and finally being beguiled enough to buy it. The rest of my scepticism about this book stems from my wanting a specifically Swedish cookbook, preferably very traditional. 

Meanwhile there's a lot to find interesting in 'Scandilicious'. It's the first book in my collection that advocates the use of fructose (actually to be strictly accurate others might, this is just the first time I've noticed) instead of sugar. The advantages of fructose are that it's sweeter so you use less, and has a lower GI than sugar, it's more expensive but I do like the idea of being able to bake sweet things which are marginally healthier. I had strawberries that wanted using so made ice-cream using fructose last night - the results are excellent, and on the subject of ice-cream there are instructions here for how to make it the old fashioned way with ice and salt which is something I really want to try. 
Signe also recommends using high fruit cordials for making jellies with, I know this is probably obvious but never having been much of a cordial drinker it's new to me. I am however a big fan of five valleys cordials and had thought of using their pomegranate and rose for ice-cream, ice-cream season is almost over though and having never made my own jelly this feels like a plan. Otherwise the instructions look good and clear and  I like the way that alternatives are given for more specialised ingredients.

It looks like the bank holiday weekend is going to be a wash out so I foresee a great opportunity for staying in the kitchen and cooking - it could be much, much, worse.   

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Apple Acre - Adrian Bell

When I first became interested in wine rather than just in drinking it I was lucky to find myself in one of the best places in the world to learn about it. If you live in a wine producing country you get the wine from that country and generally very little else. Here in the UK we get the lot, and even better for me my first wine job was with a company that prided itself on discovering new things and was also small enough to buy in little parcels of wine. Each shop might only get a couple of cases but we could try wines made by producers who were both innovative and artisan in their approach, sometimes they pushed the bounds of eccentricity, bit they always made great wine. Now I work for a supermarket where you can buy excellent wines at prices that are basically fair to producer, retailer, and customer, but which essentially favours the larger producer. If you want wines from the little guys it comes at a price, of course not choosing to pay that price creates a different sort of cost - we lose choice, diversity, and sometimes the chance to imagine a different sort of lifestyle.

'Apple Acre' first came out in 1942, it roughly follows the seasons and events in a farming year on Bell's Smallholding in Suffolk and is full of details of family life as well as the authors own philosophy about how to live. It's a big slice of nostalgia for a way of life which wasn't destined to survive the war, as well as a little bit of myth making about what we were fighting for. 

When I was the same age as Anthea Bell is in the book our lives were really quite similar, the difference that 35 years had made was that my father had a dilapidated tractor, but we grew vegetables, cut hay, and peat to keep us warm in the winter, kept hens, sheep, and at various times cows and a pig. My mother baked bread and scrubbed the old oak table in the kitchen afterwards, she was also the one that dealt with the rabbits and hares that dad sometimes shot. The other difference was that my parents couldn't make it pay and eventually went their separate ways. Farming in Shetland is marginal, I'm grateful for the memories of those childhood years, in many ways they were idyllic, and just as Anthea Bell describes in her introduction they felt like a privilege though I wouldn't choose it for myself now.  

I'm sharing this because there are a few ways to read 'Apple Acre', what I took from it is coloured by my own experience and ideals. On one level this is very much a book of it's time and reading it now it's close to the sort of fiction that Persephone publish. Here in the middle of war is an oasis where nothing matters compared with the weather. If the Germans had invaded the harvest would still have needed to be gathered in the autumn, seeds sown in the spring. It's a world where a family can live with pride and dignity on a few acres despite the struggle, rooted to the earth, timeless. Bell doesn't pretend it's easy but he makes you believe it's worthwhile, worth fighting for, and above all real with family and future generations at the heart of all the effort. 

Seventy years later it doesn't always feel like we've learned very much. In Shetland this summer the fate of the local dairy is in question, it could supply the islands with all their milk needs but is struggling because people are buying imported milk from the supermarkets. I don't blame Tesco for this - they sell Shetland Dairy products alongside the stuff they bring in but I question the choices people make when they decide not to buy local produce especially when it means a choice between independence and dependency. Bell warns about the dangers of becoming separated from our food source and advocates the value of recycling and reusing. He talks too of the value of knowing your limits - a well run allotment might do better for you than a more ambitious small holding. 

Those niche wine producers convinced me years ago that there really is a place for the small farmer. Small probably means you'll never make a fortune, but it doesn't mean you can't make a living, if you're lucky you can do it on your own terms and make it interesting for everyone. For me that's worth supporting. This is a lovely book and a timely reissue, Bell's philosophy is firmly on the agenda at the moment - the more people who think about it the better.  

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Galton Case - Ross MacDonald

I enjoyed 'The Underground Man' so much that I couldn't help but order the rest of the new Penguin Ross MacDonald's the moment I'd finished it. When I finish those there are plenty more, but published by a couple of different people which is vaguely annoying - a run of matching spines would be far more satisfying. Anyway that's hardly the biggest problem in my life and MacDonald is so good I won't be able to resist those books in whatever shape or state they come in.

'The Galton Case' has everything a good noir thriller needs - a brace of blondes, a hard boiled detective, a couple of bodies, a dodgy lawyer, a rich old lady, and more than a few twists along the way - but that's not nearly all. The premise of 'The Galton Case' is that the rich old lady has decided she wants her missing son back. Anthony Galton disappeared along with his pregnant wife some twenty years previously after his parents disinherited him. The widow Galton is now dying herself and hope it isn't to late for a reconciliation and though everyone else thinks Anthony is most likely dead Lew Archer is put on the case to humour her.

Lew himself is sure that Galton is dead but follows the leads anyway and sure enough a body soon turns up, unfortunately it's just the body - no head, and that makes it hard to identify after twenty years, added to that there's no sign of the mother and child - or is there. A boy who might be Galton's son also turns up but there's something about his story that doesn't quite sit right with Lew and when there's such a lot of money at stake no con would be too elaborate.

So far so good, but there are plenty of authors who could make something good from this particular mix. MacDonald's trick is to make me believe in why his characters behave the way they do; a little bit of psychology goes a long way, that and snappy dialogue. There are plenty of authors who can turn out a decent one liner too, but again MacDonald makes it feel natural - quite dry, somewhat cynical, and often somehow good natured. My only regret with this book was not chasing up a reference to Greek mythology - apparently a lot of MacDonald's plots were based on myths and knowing which one might have added another layer of meaning here, but that's not a huge problem either, it's just something to pay attention to next time I read it.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Crampton Hodnet - Barbara Pym

'Crampton Hodnet' has a curious history, Pym wrote it in the early days of the war and it was finished by spring 1940 - when she put it in ice. Louis De Bernieres speculates as to why in the introduction; it seems likely that work, love, and war all got in the way, and that when she looked at it again it felt dated, it may also have been that she didn't feel entirely satisfied with it.

Happily Pym kept the manuscript and Hazel Holt rescued it after her death, gave it a bit of a brush up, and it was finally posthumously published in 1985 and now again by Virago. It's a curious book, initially I assumed it had been written just before the war given that the central theme is how little some things change, but 1940 also makes sense and accounts just as well for the distinctly nostalgic edge to the book. After the war 'Crampton Hodnet' probably did feel out of kilter with the mood of the moment, but now it's an absolute delight.

This isn't quite classic Pym though all the ingredients are in place. There are a couple of outrageously camp young men who veer too far into caricature to be really satisfying and the general tone perhaps aims for a broader comedy than in some of her later books but this is a really lovely read. Miss Morrow is a wonderful creation; a thirty something spinster working as a ladies companion to a far more forceful spinster, the elderly, and perfectly foul, Miss Doggett. Miss Morrow's lot is hardly an enviable one but her sense of humour carries her through. The arrival of Mr Latimer a handsome, as well as eligible, curate in the Doggett household seems at first to offer a promise of change, maybe even romantic escape for Miss Morrow and if it wasn't for Crampton Hodnet maybe there would have been romance.

Miss Morrow is definitely an excellent woman so when she hears Mr Latimer tell a not very convincing lie it's a shock to her - curates should be above such things,, and after that I couldn't see Mr Latimer as deserving Miss Morrow at all. The other major strand in the plot concerns the marriage of Francis and Margaret Cleveland. Francis is a good looking middle aged Don, Margaret has reached a point where her husband is a thing to be taken for granted and not entirely seriously. Their marriage has basically been a success but the romance is a distant memory when an attractive young student threatens to upset everything.

Barbara Bird adores Francis but would far rather he stayed on a pedestal, when he starts to reciprocate her feelings in a classic mid life crisis it turns out to be not at all what she wanted all of which is rather hard on Francis and Margaret as they become the source of North Oxford gossip. It all becomes rather a mess, but to much change is unthinkable, life has a rhythm in a university city; the students come and go but are essentially always the same, escape may be possible for the Mr Latimer's of the world, but for the rest of them things will carry on much as they always have. I think this may be destined to be my favourite Pym. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sometimes Only Cake Will Do

I love baking and I love cake but made a conscious decision to indulge in less of both this year seeing as it's both an expensive and fattening hobby. Mostly it's been okay, though I'll make a birthday cake for anyone who'll accept one at the moment, but some days really demand cake. Yesterday was just such a day so seemed like the perfect time to use up some of the pre baking ban ingredients slowly passing their best in the cupboard. I was looking for something inspired to do with cherries and coconut but didn't really find anything, what I did find was an exciting chocolate cake recipe. Exciting because it involves marmalade and I've stopped buying bread too (not eating cake is pointless if you eat lots of toast with Nutella on it instead) so have a stock pile of jam and marmalade awaiting inspiration.

Marmalade brownies are a favourite but the beauty of this cake is all the same flavours with less ingredients and possibly a shade less trouble. It's a Nigella recipe from 'How To Be  A Domestic Goddess' because often when you want cake nobody else delivers quite like she does. This one is called Store-Cupboard Chocolate-Orange Cake - which is the worst thing about it (I'm sorry but it's a terrible name) because it's made with things you tend to have around. The name gives no indication of the lush rich chocolate and orange flavour, the yielding dampness, the aromatic splendour, and the all round gorgeousness of this cake which manages to be both decadently rich and very hard to stop eating.

Chocolate Marmalade Cake.
125g unsalted butter 
100g dark chocolate
150g caster sugar
300g good marmalade (Nigella says thin cut, I only had thick cut)
pinch of salt
2 large eggs (beaten)
150g self raising flour

Preheat the oven to gas 4 or 180 degrees C and put the butter in a heavy bottomed sauce pan on a low heat to melt. Butter and flour a 20 cm springform cake tin. When the butter is nearly done add the chocolate leave for a moment to soften and then remove from the heat and stir until all smooth and melted. Add the marmalade, sugar, salt, and beaten eggs. Stir until everything is coming together nicely and then add the flour and beat till smooth. Pour into the cake tin and bake for 50 mins or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool for a few minutes before releasing from the tin. Good warm as well as cold this is basically a well baked brownie with a bit of spring in it. 

The chocolate seems to do something to the marmalade, it loses its bitterness leaving an intense orange flavour, because I used thick cut there are chunks of peel that still have a marmalade hit though, I feel that this adds a certain sophistication and wouldn't change it. It isn't the prettiest looking cake but I have to say again - it's delicious. 

Nigella says you can substitute the marmalade for the jam of your choice, and most excitingly for purĂ©ed prunes, I'm looking for an excuse to bake this again soon. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lace - Shirley Conran

Back in our early teens my friend Rachel was my source of bonkbusters, well read copies of Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon were smuggled home in my school bag, read at break neck speed and returned to be giggled over - possibly before they were missed. Later I read a lot of Jilly Cooper and hotly defended her writing to the more sceptical of my acquaintance, I don't think I ever read or watched 'Lace' though. 

It's amazing what a respectable publisher can do for a book - I would never have read 'Valley Of The Dolls' if Virago hadn't republished it yet it was an eye opener. The endorsement of Canongate releasing 'Lace' had the same effect, so when they sent me a copy I pounced on it with real enthusiasm and stormed through it in a weekend (I hear there was some sort of sporting event on but I was so immersed it totally passed me by). It's easy to remember that books like this are a bit trashy, that the writing often leaves something to be desired, and that the descriptions of sex are frequently more laughable than erotic. It's just as easy to forget how much fun these books are to read - and perhaps what I would hardly have realised at 14 - what a powerfully feminist message there can be behind the best of them.

'Lace' is undoubtedly a feminist book, and definitely amongst the best of those great 80's doorstops full of scandal, glamour, and dodgy shagging. It opens with a heart-rending description of a 13 year old girl undergoing a back street abortion, flips forward 15 years to four women being summoned to meet a notorious actress who has a bombshell to drop; one of them is her mother, but which one... After that we're pitched back almost 30 years to a Swiss finishing school where the 4 first met and from there on in explore their lives and fates.

A lot happens. Conran throws everything into this book so along with plot there's a whole lot of stuff about the fashion industry (strictly at the couture level), interior design, public relations, how Champagne is made, journalism, the magazine trade - anything I guess Conran had an inside track on or an interest in. Her women are held together by tight bonds of friendship which makes them infinitely stronger together than they would be apart. That's one good feminist message. She has them talk again and again about how women should have been taught how to earn money and what to do with it when they had it. All the characters are successful, all do it without the help of men to the point that when one is given a fortune by an elderly lover she's defrauded out of the lot by an unscrupulous lawyer - it doesn't matter, she soon makes her own fortune. That's another good feminist message. 

After that take your pick. I've seen this described as the book mothers didn't want their daughters to read. If I had a daughter I really would want her to read it. Yes, she tells us, losing your virginity can be disappointing  - but it will probably get better. If it doesn't than it's not good enough, you deserve better. She touches on rape and violence within marriage, as well as outside of it. One of the women becomes an alcoholic, a subject probably even more taboo than underwhelming marital performance. Another woman endures 3 years of infidelity whilst her friend has to settle for being the other woman for the man in her life. Eventually she will decide not to marry him on the basis that he's used to being unfaithful to his wife - and this way she gets to keep her identity and hard won independence. When Conran tackles the sexual exploitation of a young girl she's bang on the money describing how grooming works and how her character is manipulated first into a relationship, later into making porn films. All of this is still depressingly relevant. 

30 years on in a climate of economic gloom  it's been really encouraging to read a book that essentially tells you to pick yourself up and try again if things go wrong, and that absolutely insists the happy ending isn't a ring on your finger but having friends you can rely on. You can keep your fifty shades of impossibly rich and demanding men, I'll stick with sisters doing it for themselves.   

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mother Finds A Body - Gypsy Rose Lee

'Mother Finds A Body' was my most anticipated title of the year, I can't remember when I added it to my wish list but sat there a good long time waiting for its publication date to roll round. I finally got it last week and read it without delay and wasn't disappointed. I adored Gypsy Rose Lee's 'The G-String Murders' and if anything 'Mother Finds A Body' is even better. It has another cracking opening line:
 "A temperature of one hundred and ten, at night, isn't exactly the climate for asthma or murder, and Mother was suffering from a chronic case of both. She pushed the damp, tight curls off her forehead and tapped her foot impatiently on the trailer doorstep.
 'You either bury that body in the woods tonight, or you finish your honeymoon without your mother' "  
and doesn't let up until the end.

Gypsy has married her man - Biff Brannigan (the same love interest as in 'The G-String Murders') in a romantic ceremony aboard a water taxi with a stranger they pick up on the way to act as best man. The honeymoon is a trailer trip back across America to another theatre engagement but has come rather unstuck in Ysleta, Texas. Gypsy's mother isn't the only travelling companion the couple have picked up, there's also a monkey, some dogs, and a guinea pig, two strippers by the names of Gee Gee and Dimples a couple of comics; Cliff (Corny) Cobb, a man called Mandy, and a corpse. The corpse is not a pretty corpse, worse it turns out to be the best man, and inconveniently they're going to have to try and explain how they didn't find it for a week after temperatures of one hundred and ten, at night. 

Gypsy's mother has her own ideas about what to do with corpses and when Biff won't listen to her she sets a  fire in the scrub land behind the trailer park and sets out to bury it whilst everyone is distracted. Which might have worked if she wasn't seen and another body didn't come to light in the woods. After that the body count rises until it almost matches the list of suspects and the one liners. There's a bit of blackmail, a dope ring, some stray heroine, and a sheriff with eyes only for Gypsy's mother. 

The plot is a bit silly but a lot of fun, the characters are fabulous, as is the slang, and Gypsy is a dab hand with the one liners, certainly in the same league as Mae West. Her mother in the book is apparently based on her actual mother, who must have been a bit of a handful, in real life - she sued her daughter over this book, not according to her grandson because she objected to the way she was portrayed, but rather because she felt she was owed for providing so much inspiration.

It's a huge shame that Gypsy wrote so few books, she was clearly one hell of a woman. It's also a shame that the typesetting here isn't a little better. There are quite a few annoying errors, I have a high tolerance for this kind of thing compared to most of my friends who have a distinct zero tolerance policy (which is what comes of hanging out with English teachers, language students, and other grammar nuts) but I still found it distracting. It won't stop me reading the book again, doesn't stop me from recommending it either - but I can't not mention it. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Underground Man - Ross MacDonald

There are few pleasures in life for the reader that beat the feeling you get when you find a promising looking author who is not only new to you but has a sizeable back catalogue to work through. This has been a good reading year for me so far with plenty of happy discoveries but I have a feeling that Ross MacDonald is going to be the most satisfying of the lot. He was a chance discovery that came about after seeing 'The Underground Man' mentioned in a couple of different places, just enough to raise interest and make the name stick so when I found myself with the book in my hand the obvious thing to do was read it immediately.

The tale end of summer, beginning of autumn, has never been my favourite time of year and the older I get the less I like it. My coping strategy is generally shopping or book based and as I'm depressingly broke post holiday (and to make matters worse I accidentally put my camera through the washing machine today - it died in just the way you might expect) so it's strictly books at the moment. Classic hard boiled noire hits the spot for some reason and that's why I'm so pleased with the MacDonald (and okay there may have been a little bit of a book splurge in the last few days).

'The Underground Man' comes late from MacDonald's career, and by extension that of his decidedly world weary private eye Lew Archer. His first book came out in 1949 but this one is from 1971 - another thing to look forward to is going back through some of the older books in the series and seeing how the character of Archer develops along with MacDonald's style as a writer - a quick google suggests this will be interesting.

The action all takes place across a couple of days in a hot Californian September. A forest fire threatens the city and everyone seems hot bothered and angry. Lew meets a neighbours young son whilst feeding the birds, minutes later he becomes a reluctant witness to a row between the boys parents which ends in a likely abduction by the father. There is a mysterious blond in the best tradition who becomes the catalyst for everything unravelling. 

There are a couple of bodies, suitably hard boiled one liners, and yet more mystery women. There is also some vintage cold war paranoia and more complicated family relationships than I could shake a stick at. MacDonald brings a Freudian sensibility to the plot, all his characters are paying the price for earlier traumas as the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children but what at first seems exceptionally bleak also has a distinctly hopeful edge to it.

By the end of the book the fire is under control, the boy is returned to his mother, and there is always the slim chance of learning from the mistakes of the past. All the secrets have been revealed, there's nowhere left to hide and everybody left standing is standing together. It is by turns funny, clever, dark, and startling - I can't wait to read more.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Diary of a Nose - Jean-Claude Ellena

I've loved perfume ever since my first bottle of grown up scent (Yves St Laurent's Paris) was complemented though that was by no means the beginning of my fascination with things that smelled good. Smell matters in my line of work - to really know about, understand, and taste wine you have to be able to smell it and decode what it is you smell, most of what we taste is dictated by smell, and then there is it's evocative, mood changing powers... It's a sense that shouldn't be underestimated. 

Jean-Claude Ellena is a parfumeur or nose, in perfume circles it he's a celebrity though before I heard about this book I'd never heard of him. What I had heard of was a surprising number of the scents he's created (list here ) it's an impressive CV and puts into context the general tone of the book, which feels at times like a sort of legacy being passed on to the next generation. 

The Diary follows Jean-Claude through a year as he works on various projects, gathers inspiration from chance encounters, and muses upon what his work means to him, how he sees himself, and his philosophy about perfume in general. The man is an artist and sees himself as such, he certainly doesn't lack confidence which sometimes makes him sound somewhat pompous but he's earned the right to do that; I always found him interesting, his statements worth serious consideration.

I wanted to read this book because of my mildly obsessive and very expensive perfume habit, I expected it to be interesting, it far exceeded expectation. My copy is now full of scribbled notes and questions, not something I normally do to books. I could have read it in a day - it is after all only a short book - but ended up taking a few weeks over it which better suited the diary format and the concentration of ideas.

This book has turned into one that I'll dip into a lot in the future but nowhere did I find it more interesting than when he talks about meeting a top end sommelier. They both feel that a wine should reflect the man who made it least it only responds to market demands that fail to express anything very much. Some wines, and some perfumes undoubtedly do this - a simple set of components designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. However I would expect a Frenchman to want a wine to reflect it's terroir, a sense of place rather than person, it's more usual to find a cult for the winemaker in new world wines. Whisky is built on the myth that the liquid in the bottle represents terroir, but has in fact far more to do with the master blender who can manipulate his product in numberless ways - which is just what the parfumeur does.

Whilst this is most likely not the book to read if you don't have at least a passing interest in perfume it has plenty to offer those who do. I say look out for it. 



Saturday, August 4, 2012

Challenge - Vita Sackville-West


I've probably mentioned before how attractive a personality I find Vita Sackville-West, particularly the older, gardening Vita, and the Vita that inspired Woolf's 'Orlando'. I've probably also mentioned that I find her novels a slog to read, so much so that I've generally failed to finish them ('The Heir' is a notable exception but it's only a novella so perhaps doesn't really count. Her garden writing is excellent). I was absolutely determined that 'Challenge' wouldn't join the list of half read books on the shelf so made a real effort to see it through, I'm glad I did. 

'Challenge' was Vita's second novel, written between 1918 and 1919 at the height of her affair with Violet Trefusis, it was published in America in 1924 but pulled at the last moment from publication in the UK because of fears that it would reignite scandal. With hindsight this seems like locking the stable door long after the horse had bolted but in the 1920's perhaps showed a belated consideration for her family. Violet herself had no such consideration and felt the book should have been published as planned. Eventually 'Challenge' did get a UK release, but not until 1974 when Vita's son Nigel wrote an introduction for it reflecting that it could no longer do any harm (it could conceivably have done him a lot of good, following as it did his 'Portrait of a Marriage'). 

Virago are now giving 'Challenge' another outing with the 1974 Nicholson introduction as well as one by Stella Duffy, both are useful. 'Challenge' is a curious book -  the love story between Eve and Julian is thinly veiled biography with a bit of fantasy thrown in; Julian is clearly the sort of boy that Vita wished to be, the depiction of Eve chimes well with other descriptions of Violet and is just as clearly the sort of woman she believed herself to be - and most likely was. The rest of it is a blend of satire aimed at life in diplomatic backwaters, and an adventure based on the romance of bloody revolution. Most of the action takes place in the imaginary Herakleion, a break away state from Greece, which has an uneasy relationship with an outlying archipelago - the islanders want there independence from Herakleion and have turned to the nineteen year old Julian as a suitable leader.

Violet, now in the possession of the National trust
Vita does a convincing job of pinning down the romantic pull of islands and patriotism, Julian's presidential role also serves to invest him with a duty and something to lose - eventually he'll have to make a choice, but otherwise it isn't very convincing. She does young love well too - a point that Stella Duffy makes, and that's worth examining, the couple in this book are very young, far younger than Vita and Violet. The depth and intensity of Julian and Eve's passion is the sort that belongs to youth, and that along with Julian's doubts about Eve's trustworthiness suggest to me that even at the height of the affair Vita not only had doubts about her lover, but clearly saw the future. 

Eve/ Violet is a different matter, I don't believe I've ever come across such a woman - mysterious, eternal, secretive, infinitely diverse, a woman who exists only to love and be desired. She isn't very likeable, although it's possible to pity her, easy to imagine someone falling in love with her, harder to picture a happy ending for any affair she was involved in.

For all it's faults I feel like this is one of Vita's better books, the autobiographical element guarantees a certain interest, the caricature of diplomatic life is amusing, and as a tale of doomed love it's convincing. Despite previous experience I didn't find it a struggle to finish, and that in itself is an endorsement.  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Old Mortality - Sir Walter Scott

I had carefully sort of planned holiday reading (Trollope and Macfarlane) but on my way out of the flat en route to the airport changed my mind and opted for Walter Scott's 'Old Mortality' (and I bet you were all fascinated to read that...) I am an almost evangelical convert to the idea of taking one big fat classic on holiday and virtually nothing else, 'Old Mortality' was positive reinforcement. 


In one of his novels Robertson Davies has a character make a joke about Scott claiming that he's no longer an 'author' but an 'influence'. I can't judge how accurate that is but there's no doubt that his fame and popularity have suffered a reversal in fortune. It's hard to grasp now just how big a deal Scott was in his day, an author with an international reputation, a train station named after him, and arguably the man responsible for tartan as we know it and all that goes with that - and yet how many people read him for pleasure these days? 

If you are going to read Scott (and he's worth the effort) 'Old Mortality' is a good place to start. I read and enjoyed 'The Bride of Lammermoor' a while back but found 'Old Mortality' even more accessible - due in part to the excellent introduction (my copy is the Oxford World Classics edition) which among other things gives guidelines about how to read the text; basically skip the introductions, get into the action proper, don't be distracted by the explanatory notes, don't worry about the dialect sections (go with it, they soon make sense) and be aware of Scott's perspective. It's good advice, Scott was a 19th century tory intent on presenting a 17th century situation in a way that suited him (I'm relying on the introduction for my information here) historical accuracy isn't always the top of his agenda. I knew nothing about the covenanter's or the killing time beforehand so didn't find the double perspective much of an issue, though as with all good history writing I'm now keen to learn more.

The action opens at a sort of latter day jousting tournament (wappenshaw) where young Henry Morton is taking all the honours - much to the secret delight of Edith Bellenden, but on his way home he falls into company with a man who knew his father. These are dangerous times; Scotland and it's whiggish covenanter's are not popular with the king (Charles the second) to the extent that the army is imposed on the countryside to keep order- a situation they're happy to exploit, the mood is volatile, and the stranger Henry meets turns out to be a murderous fanatic whose company endangers our hero's life. Henry Morton is forced by circumstance into taking arms against the king and eventually into exile. Meanwhile Edith's family also find themselves in dire straights with Edith convinced her lover is a traitor to everything she holds dear.

It's an exciting, fast paced read, Scott was rightly proud of this book. He throws in a bit of comedy which is both welcome and funny, and plenty of drama, but the main thing is the pace, sometimes it can be a struggle to keep momentum reading books this old as the action gets bogged down in pages and pages of words that feel like they're going nowhere. Scott doesn't do that here and I wonder if this is the key to why he was such a phenomenon in his day.