Monday, December 31, 2012

Scandinavian Christmas - Trine Hahnemann

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas Cake - Was it a Success?

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 28, 2012

Patience - John Coates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Boxing Day

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

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

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

Books tomorrow. And maybe more mulled wine.   


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happy Christmas

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Making of a Marchioness - Frances Hodgson Burnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christmas Cake

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sugar and Spice Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

High Rising - Angela Thirkell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Qualified to Criticise a Classic or Not?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Black Spider - Jeremias Gotthelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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