Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday and Easter book plans.

One of the many downsides to working in retail (low pay is the biggest) is that bank holidays and weekends really aren't a thing - this is the first year in a long time when I've actually got two days off over Easter (Saturday and Sunday). I'm looking forward to going to my mother's, where all the drains work, tomorrow where I'll get the chance to be reasonably lazy*. Or at least get the chance to read a bit and catch up on a few things.

I've been reading 'A Woman in Berlin' which is excellent, but not an easy subject, so I've also started Eva Meijer's 'Bird Cottage'' and that's the book coming with me. The opening chapter begins with spring hedge cutting which seems particularly topical given the amount of hedges being netted this year to try and prevent nesting birds. Anyway, it hooked me in and I'm looking forward to reading more.

If anybody is looking for a last minute Easter present, especially for themselves, I'm still really enthusiastic about Sue Quinn's Cocoa. We don't go in for Easter eggs in a big way in our family, but should you have lots of left over chocolate there's no better place to look for some ideas about what to do with it. (Hot chocolate because it's still cold at night, and some really good cookies, are both calling to me).

Finally, the book I'm currently most anticipating for this summer is David Gange's 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge', even more so after skimming through the bibliography he's put together on his blog. There are quite a few favourite books and films mentioned, so I'm really looking forward to going through that list properly and making notes on what to search out.

*This is dog dependent, if it's warm enough she'll collapse in a heap under the hedge at the bottom of the garden and mostly leave us in peace. If it's not warm enough she will want to play an endless game of teasing us with a toy. We have to pretend we want the toy, she won't let us touch the toy, but if she thinks we're not sufficiently interested in the toy she gets very annoyed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Time: A Year & A Day in the Kitchen - Gill Meller

I bought 'Time' back in September when it came out, but there were a lot of really good cookbooks coming out last autumn, and for most of this year my kitchen has been more or less unusable because of the drain situation.*

Cooking is one of the things I like to do to cope with stress, but the inconvenience of having to use the bathroom sink for washing up is off putting. I'm eating a lot of sandwiches and takeaway, and not feeling great on it. Fortunately salad season is getting closer and whilst I'm not wild about washing lettuce in the bathroom either, it seems more manageable than pots and pans.

Meanwhile when my mother picked up the latest lot of washing from me (this is an upside, and she irons EVERYTHING, even tea towels) she bought me some rhubarb from the garden. It reminded me of the rhubarb with rose geranium leaves recipe in 'Time' (a baking tray lined with foil is easy to deal with) and thought I'd give it a go.

I bought a rose geranium about 5 years ago specifically to cook with, and never did (it's currently looking a bit sorry for itself and obviously needs a bigger pot) so this really was the perfect recipe. My rhubarb hasn't been forced so the finished result doesn't look anything like as pretty as the one in the book, but it tastes good, so I'm happy with it.

Rhubarb baked in an oven with light brown sugar, honey, and rose geranium leaves isn't precisely the healthy take on fruit and veg I'm craving, but it's delicious. I've never sweetened it with honey either and I like the flavour it brings - it makes the whole thing a little bit more complex and interesting.

Now that 'Time' is off the shelf I might keep it on the kitchen table for a while and try and use it more. I like Mellers food and philosophy, and I like the way the recipes in this book are arranged first by the time of day, and then by season, for the way it makes me think about food, although it would probably be easier to navigate if it was the other way around. Or at least, I'm used to navigating by season first and then meal - so this feels a bit like being in a supermarket that's had a re-arrange to make you look at everything afresh.

I also think this is a slightly more challenging book than 'Gather' was. I really loved 'Gather', specifically the way it was rooted in the landscape that Meller inhabits. It had a real sense of terroir. 'Time' is more about kitchens (which tell their own stories about how their users cook) and the mood is different. Maybe it's the difference between a guide and a host, I can't yet quite put my finger on it - another reason to spend more time actually making the food.

*Yep, the drain is still blocked. I'm currently waiting for a disclaimer form to arrive in the post so I can promise I won't get to upset about any damage to the floorboards that apparently need to come up for the current round of investigations to be finished. The problem is pressing for me, less so for my neighbour who is being evasive about the whole thing so I'm a bit worried that he might not sign.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

We Are Feminist - Foreword by Helen Pankhurst

'We Are Feminist: An Infographic History of the Women's Rights Movement' is a brief, easily digestible, overview of the fight for equality across the world. As Helen Pankhurst points out in her foreword it's by no means comprehensive, but it does try to give a sense of the central achievements of feminism.

Today is one of those days when I'm really feeling my age (a stinking cold with all the attendant aching joints is really sticking the knife in), a day when I have to take myself off Twitter, and remind myself why it's a bad idea to read BTL comments on Guardian articles. A day when it seems impossible to work out where I stand in the current culture and identity wars and everything seems hopelessly complicated. The sort of day when it feels like we're going backwards.

That's exactly the sort of day when it's helpful to have something that unashamedly celebrates the achievements of the 'strident' women this book focuses on. It's uplifting, and to quote Millicent Fawcett "Courage calls to courage everywhere" - there's nothing complicated about that.

Courage calls to courage everywhere is maybe the defining theme of this book. All of the women in it, however problematical some of them may now seem (it's hard to be a second wave feminist these days) are united by a thread of courage and determination. For me that's the most exciting thing here - learning a few names I haven't heard before, and can now research at more length, as well as being inspired again by figures I'm more familiar with.

There are statistics that demonstrate how far we have come, and there's a bit of political and historical context for each wave of feminism which is useful too. Altogether it might not be the most serious examination of the subject, but it's a good basic introduction - easy to follow, and with a lot of information packed into such a small format.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Tea House Detective - Baroness Orczy

The Tea House Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, is a book I've wanted to read for a while. Mostly because I'm generally interested in Baroness Orczy (due to a childhood obsession with The Scarlet Pimpernel), but also because she's one of the relatively early people writing in the detective fiction genre.

The Old Man in the Corner is probably the earliest arm chair detective (it's what the Ellery Queen quote on the cover says), and Orczy's foray into detective fiction must have been inspired by the success of Sherlock Holmes - the old man being something of a Holmes like character with Polly Burton, journalist, filling the Watson role.

The old man (we don't learn his name) parks himself at Polly's favourite table in her regular lunch time cafe and without much encouragement starts to explain to her just how hopeless the police are by giving her solutions for various notorious unsolved crimes. He is clearly one of the world's great mansplainers.

Polly seems to be as fascinated as she is irritated (it's never clear if she uses any of his insights in her journalistic career) but over time something of a friendship obviously builds up between the pair. This is really a collection of short stories with a particular thread running through them that makes sense in the final episode (where Polly finally gets the last word) so it's no surprise to read that they originally appeared in serial form before being collected into a book in 1908.

As short stories they're fun, the who done it element is more or less obvious from the beginning of each story (only one tripped me up) but they're pleasing enough mysteries for all that. Maybe more so because the culprits and clues are so easy to spot.

More interesting is how ambiguous the old mans morals are. He feels no need to take his insights to the police, and no duty to see justice meted out upon the guilty. He simply wants to demonstrate to somebody how clever he is. Polly seems to accept this, maybe because she doesn't always believe his explanations, but her own conclusion and reaction to the final crime is curious. It's not entirely clear where her sympathies lie at all and it's that little bit of ambiguity that in the end makes this book memorable.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Death Has Deep Roots - Michael Gilbert

After a month or so of struggling to read I've finally managed to finish some of the books I'd started, and find the enthusiasm for more. It feels good to not only want to lose myself in a book again, but to find the concentration to do it.

The British Library's latest crime classics have certainly helped that process along. I think I'd sort of heard of Michael Gilbert before, the name certainly feels familiar, but I hadn't read him. He may be my favourite discovery from this series - and I have really loved some of the BL books. 'Death Has Deep Roots' is from relatively early in his writing career (1951), which if the bibliography on Wikipedia is correct seems to have kicked off in 1947.

'Death Has Deep Roots' starts at the beginning of a murder trial. Victoria Lamartine is accused of killing Major Eric Thoseby and disatisfied with the direction her original defence was taking has engaged a new team. With only a few days to go a desperate search for new evidence begins. A search that goes all the way back to France and the war time activities of Lamartine and Thoseby.

One of the things that makes this book so successful is that Gilbert is writing what he knows about - primarily the law (his profession), and the war. The feeling that what happens in court is more or less what would happen in court is compelling, but I found the war bits even more so.

The war might be over, but it's only 1951, it hasn't been over so very long and the scars are all still pretty fresh. Added to the network of men who were at school together, is a network of those who served together. The young solicitor, Nap, who heads off to France to gather information is convincing because it's easy to imagine that he's still as much soldier as he is solicitor, and that just maybe he misses some parts of his war work.

It also makes the various episodes of violence feel particularly threatening. They're not especially showy but there's no doubt that these characters hold the lives of others cheaply. A bit more death won't much matter to them.

The descriptions of life in the Loire under occupation are deliberately brutal too. They're used to remind the jury and other spectators in an English courtroom that the hardships of the blitz were quite different to those of running resistance under the nose of the gestapo. These are the details which give the plot credibility and in turn make this a particularly enjoyable thriller. Gilbert's humour also helps with that. It's very satisfying to know I've got two more waiting to be read.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Victoria - A ballet by Cathy Marston

The kitchen drain saga continues, and continues to be a demand on time, patience, and ingenuity. We're apparently waiting for news about insurance and access to some other part of the building this week.

I think Prince Albert probably worried more about drains than Victoria would have done, he seems the micro managing type. Happily it's not an issue the Cathy Marston worries about in 'Victoria'.

This theatre trip was to the altogether local Curve in Leicester. It's a theatre I'd like to go to more so I'm always pleased when something comes up that I actually want to see. Northern Ballet's shows are a definite draw, they've even started to convince my previously ballet ambivalent friend that it's an art worth paying £30+ a seat to see.

'Victoria' is brand new, as good as the reviews say, and absolutely worth catching if you can. It's told from the point of view of Victoria and Albert's youngest child, Beatrice, who Victoria intended to keep with her as a companion. It opens with Victoria as a demanding old woman on the edge of death. She leaves Beatrice with her diaries, which she begins to read.

The scene shifts to the early days of Victoria's widowhood and her growing relationship with John Brown, and becoming Empress of India, before shifting to Beatrice's own courtship with Prince Henry of Battenberg (Liko). Victoria is initially resistant to the idea of losing Beatrice, and though Liko wins her round, his allotted role isn't enough for him so he returns to the army. He dies in Africa.

The scenes that show the relationship between young Beatrice and Liko, with the older Beatrice literally clinging on to him at times, are particularly powerful with both her happiness and loss palpable. It finishes with her anger as she considers how her mothers demands have shaped her life.

The second half explores Victoria's early life, and marriage. The horrors of the Kensington system are alluded to, and so are the fights with Albert, as well as the passion, followed by the sheer grind of almost continuous pregnancy and childbirth. By the end Beatrice has made peace with her memories.

There's so much to enjoy about this - the score is perfect, the performances are excellent, but what I particularly appreciated was the both the focus on Beatrice and the acknowledgement of the complexity of Victoria's personality and relationships, especially how controlling Albert was.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Face in the Glass - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

'The Face in the Glass' from the British Library tales of the weird series is a collection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's gothic tales edited by Greg Buzwell.

'Lady Audley's Secret' has to be Braddon's best known book, I first read it about a decade ago (it was one of the first books I posted about on Here) after a lifetime of meaning to read it. It made quite an impression, and I still don't understand why it isn't as frequently adapted as 'The Woman in White' has been. Both published in the early 1860's and along with 'East Lynne' are the beginnings of Victorian sensation fiction.

I discovered Wilkie Collins novels, appropriately enough in my great great uncles dusty Edwardian library as a teenager. Any valuable books were long gone, but there were yards of slightly damp uncut Wilkie in cheap green covers. House and Library were sold together before I got to discover much more then those and bound editions of Punch which makes me wonder what other Victorian gems I might have missed out on discovering at that impressionable age.

Collins gave an inkling that the place of women in Victorian society might have been more interesting than I had assumed, Braddon more than confirms that, both in her own life and with her writing.

Reading the collection of her gothic tales I'm struck again by both how good she is, and the subtle but profound differences between her stories and those of male contemporaries that I'm familiar with. This collection opens with 'The Cold Embrace' in which a feckless art student is haunted by the ghost of his fiancé.

It's not entirely clear where Braddon's sympathies lie in this story, even if the young artist should have been more constant in his affections his fate seems like a harsh one, and there's a sense that the young woman could have made better choices. 'At Chrighton Abbey' is a good old fashioned ghost story, and as it begins I had assumed the narrator is a young man.

I think Braddon does this on purpose, re reading it she's careful not to mention gender for a good few pages, and when she does it comes as a surprise. Her narrator is the child of a Chrighton cousin, left more or less destitute when her father dies so she heads off first to Vienna, and then to St Petersburg where she earns good money as a teacher. Then in her 30's she goes home for Christmas where she's welcomed with open arms by her relations. This is not Brontë country, but rather a precursor of the independent new woman.

Indeed there are a few independent women in this collection who either set out to earn their own living, or are amply supplied with their own money. They are in stark contrast to the desperate creature in 'The Cold Embrace'. 'The Ghost's Name' is also interesting, both for its humour including a prosaic afternote to the main drama which is an excellent punchline, and the way it discusses  domestic violence.

Altogether this is a wonderful collection, getting just the right balance between being entertaining and providing something more to think about under the stories than just their entertainment value. It's also an excellent introduction to Braddon, why she's so interesting and how she can feel quite subversive.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cocoa - Sue Quinn

The problem with my kitchen drain continues, the consensus amongst the 7 men who have so far been to look at it being that it's complicated, and will probably be expensive to fix. It's work that should be covered by the building service charge and the management company that deals with that are in no particular hurry - though they do at least seem to be accepting that it comes under their remit.

Meanwhile I've been reminded that much worse things can happen, and am adjusting to the inconvenience (as is my mother, who is taking my laundry which is amazing of her, and readers - she irons everything. Even pyjama trousers, which I have never done). It also helps that I'm off work this week, having time on my hands makes everything better.

I've also got Sue Quinn's 'Cocoa' which is exactly the book I needed to cheer myself up with. I picked it up after seeing Diana Henry recommend it a couple of times, and fell in love on the spot. It bills itself as an exploration of chocolate with recipes - but has more recipes than I think that suggests, and they're good ones.

Is also worth saying that if you have a mother who enjoys cooking, or are looking for something more interesting than a supermarket Easter egg* to give this year, you want to look at this book.

The background information about chocolate and the industry is interesting. The explanation about quality and what to look for on labels is really useful, and the description of how to taste chocolate was illuminating. It's basically exactly the same process as for wine, which I hadn't fully appreciated.  The flavour descriptors are particularly similar, which makes sense now I've thought about it, I'm also thinking  this is something I can use as a training tool. There will be times when it'll be a lot easier to use different chocolates to teach a tasting skill set than it is wine.

If I needed that further underlining I got it in spades when I opened a bag of cocoa nibs and inhaled - it was almost intoxicating. Cocoa nibs feature a lot, which is good because they're both really versatile, but also the kind of thing I find I buy, use once, and then linger unloved at the back of a cupboard.

The recipes are the real hook for me with this book. Quinn explores the savoury end of the chocolate/cocoa flavour spectrum as well as the sweet, things like prosciutto with bitter leaves and a nib vinaigrette, or soft cheese salad with blackberries, mint, and nibs sound particularly good. That said it's sweet stuff I've made so far.

A delicious Jasmine infused 'Medici' hot chocolate inspired by Cosimo III Medici's favourite, and jaw droppingly extravagent, drink. Quinn's version mixes milk chocolate with milk and jasmine tea bags and makes something unusual (at least if for most of your life hot chocolate has meant Cadbury's sugary drinking chocolate powder) refreshing, and slightly addictive.

Just as addictive is a sweet dukkah, the sweetness mostly comes from honey and is subtle, nibs give a cocoa depth of flavour, pistachio and rose petals make it extraordinarily pretty, cumin and fennel add another dimension that increases its versatility - and that's only half the ingredients. It creates a minimum of washing up and is going to be a store cupboard staple.

Chocolate, olive oil, almond, and Rosemary cookies also turned out to be every bit as good as they sound. Not to sweet, rich, and a brilliant flavour - worth washing up in the bathroom sink for.

All of those recipes feed back to the basic ethos of the book which centres on ethics and quality. Chocolate is a luxury, and we can all "choose chocolate for flavour, quality, and provenance not the cheapest price tag." That doesn't mean paying a fortune, just taking care to make sure something is at least fair trade, and taking the time to look at the label to see what it is we're actually eating.

*We love chocolate in my family but aren't big Easter egg fans. I dislike the packaging and the premium price for an ordinary product, mum can't resist the temptation of eating them before she's given them away, Dad hates anything he considers too commercial, my stepmother doesn't like cheap chocolate, and so it goes on.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Knitting Post

Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I've been knitting a hap for the last few weeks. It didn't start particularly well, for some reason everything went wrong and I had to rip it back a couple of times before the (simple) pattern clicked. When it did click progress was smooth enough to make me wonder why it started as such a struggle.

The starting point was Donna Smith's Brough shawl pattern. Her shawl looks beautiful, but it's knitted in a heavier weight yarn than I have in my stash, and I really need to use up some of the yarn I've got (because currently there is no space for more, and I can't possibly justify spending more money on more yarn until I've used some of the stuff I've got). Part of the appeal of Donna's design is the size of her shawl, and also how squishy it would be with that thicker yarn, so it's going to have to wait.

I liked the tessellating leafy motifs of the lace border though, and the thought of starting from a single stitch and working up - which I hadn't done before, and is presumably why it took me so long to work out the repeat (or maybe I hadn't drunk enough coffee, or shouldn't have been trying to listen to podcasts at the same time). I really wanted to use the 7 balls of Jamieson's 'Peat' (spindrift) I had, but didn't think that would be quite enough so decided on a second colour for the border.

There were a few contenders, and whilst I'm pleased with the smokey grey purple shade I went with (Jamieson and Smith, I forgot to make a note of the colour code) I think I could have gone bolder. Overall though I'm happy with the way this has turned out. The size is good, the colour is delicious, the pattern is pretty, and I might have learnt my lesson when it comes to swatching (don't really have the patience to do it, but I should have, because I ended up having to guess when to stop).

It's also the sort of thing that's really useful for this time of year when it's starting to get a bit warm for a coat, but you need something more than just a jumper, or a cardigan. I'm also torn between starting straight away on another one (and making a slightly better job of the edging) or finding something much smaller that will be quick,

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Vagina A Re-Education - Lynn Enright

This post is probably going to send the spam I get about gynaecology clinics in Hanoi into overdrive. So be it.

I've more or less read this book twice now, it's looking distinctly battered after weeks of being carted around, and the margins are full of notes. It's a long time since I read something that felt so important and life changing. Better yet, it looks like there are a few nooks about vaginas and vulvas in the offing.

I'm in my mid 40's,  have had pcos and period related issues since my late teens, and thought I was reasonably knowledgeable - turns out there's a lot I didn't know I didn't know. I really wish a book like this had been available 30 years ago, not even for the questions it answers, but for the ones it asks, the language it gives you, and the conversations it encourages.

The language is the first, and maybe most important, thing here. My family isn't noticibly prudish, neither are my friends but vagina or vulva are seldom used words - it's always euphemisms. But if you're not comfortable using the correct terms it makes it so much harder to have a conversation with your GP if something seems off, and so much easier to have concerns brushed aside. Enright normalises the vocabulary and that alone is a gift.

So is her repeated, and very sensible, advice to see a doctor if you have concerns about periods, pain, or changes - my experience is that women are not told this enough or generally given much idea of what might be a cause for concern. I had 20 years of being brushed off by GP's before being lucky enough to get an appointment with a gynaecologist who was so indignant on my behalf that thinking about it still makes me cry (mostly with gratitude, a bit of anger). I hope that things are getting better, but chances are they're not changing that quickly, and we need all the information we can get.

I also really appreciate how open Enright has been about her own experiences. There's a lot of personal information in here of the sort that people don't generally share even with the closest of friends, again maybe because we don't always have the language to do it. Not particularly wanting to talk about something is okay, but not knowing how to, or feeling you can't is another thing altogether. The discussions I've had about this book with friends have led to a ridiculous amount of penny dropping moments (a lot of people are going to get a copy as a present this year).

The amount of discussion reading this has sparked has been enlightening as well. The chapters cover biology and geography (for want of a better word), orgasms, appearances, periods, fertility,
menopause, pregnancy, and more. Feminism is central, but it's not an easily definable book. It's more or less an overview of a whole lot of things, and if it's specifically pitched at anyone I'd guess it's girls in their teens - who in many ways would be the demographic most in need of a lot of this information.

Really though a book like this should be a household staple, if you have a vagina, or know someone who does there's going to be useful stuff for you in here. It's not a perfect book - I think the chapter on fertility or the lack of it could have had something about women who choose not to have, or accept that they cannot have children, and how society views that. But then each chapter could be expanded into a book of its own, and at least this book is a conversation opener.

What it does brilliantly is underline the range of experience that falls under normal. Again, when I was hitting puberty the books available described periods as something easy that you would sail through (descriptions like The Curse, or A Woman's Monthly Duty, suggested differently) with no real acknowledgment of how painful or limiting they can be. It's the same when we talk about pregnancy, we don't talk about miscarriage much at all for something so common. It's only because I have a friend who has been vocal about it that I now know ante natal depression is a thing.

Menopause isn't mentioned much either apart from not very funny jokes. Maybe because to acknowledge it would be to admit that we ought to be making more effort, especially in the workplace, to accommodate women going through it. To be able to read about all of these things in a way that feels honest, and points you in the direction of more information, is huge.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Salt and Time - Alissa Timoshkina

My drain issues may not yet be resolved but I'm trying to not let it get to me, it is after all a small problem to have compared to some of the things that are happening in the world. I really need to concentrate and finish some of the books I'm reading too - I seem to have slipped back into the bad habit of starting 4 different things at once and not finishing any of them.

I had Waterstones vouchers to spend (happy making in itself) when I bought Salt & Time last week. I think more than anything else it's the title that attracted me to this book, 'Salt & Time' conjures so many images and associations both from the kitchen and beyond, that it was irresistible.

Alissa Timoshkina is specifically from Siberia, and explains that like many Siberians that means a mixed heritage, in her case including Jewish Ukrainian and the Russian Far East with the unifying experience of living under the soviet regime.

It was a British Library exhibition that bought home to me the vast scale of Russia and the Soviet Union, or at least some approximation of it. I find the idea of Siberia as a melting pot of culinary traditions easier to comprehend (food influences from Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Mongolia and Korea) even if Korea came as a surprise, because I did at least know something of the history of exile and resettlement - but does anything bring that into sharper focus than food?

Even if I can't taste the food (mostly because my cooking decisions are currently informed by how little washing up they will create) at least I can think about the flavours, and textures of Timoshkina's food. And also how it is specifically Timoshkina's food as well.

She notes in her introduction that she particularly wanted to celebrate Russian food outside of its conventional visual codes (no matryoshka shaped pepper grinders or colourful wooden spoons here) and that actually feels quite profound. This is food that honours a number of traditions and has a strong sense of place, but it's also food that has been adapted to suit a generation that has different resources and expectations. It's Russian heritage is central to everything, but much like Anja Dunk's 'Strudel, Noodles, and Dumplings' it's not totally bound by that heritage.

Something else that Timoshkina does that's interesting, because this dorsnt always happen, is include ingredients it's not going to be easy to source. I'm a little bit obsessed about finding some Bird Cherry  flour which it seems is very specific to Siberia (literally a flour ground from dried bird cherries, the flavour sounds incredible), unfortunately neither of the suggested suppliers seem currently able to oblige (is bird cherry flour a seasonal thing?) and despite a bit of searching online I haven't found anywhere else selling in the uk.

Once upon a time I'd have found that frustrating, but I've come to a point that I'd rather the recipe  was included even if I'm unlikely to ever be able to make it, because at least I can know about it, imagine it, and enjoy the thought of it. To leave it out because the ingredients are hard to find cuts of even the joy of imagining.

It's a lovely book, and when I have a properly working kitchen to get back to making food in I'll be back to say more about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Lighthousekeeping - Jeanette Winterson

Drain men are here again, but it is not hoping well. They're not saying much to me, but from the swearing I gather the hole they've just knocked into the wall has not given access to the stack of drains as hoped, and is now just another expensive mess to clear up. I am feeling far from happy about it.

Apart from anything else, and this is running well into the third week of not being able to use my kitchen properly, all of it takes up so much time. Phone calls, emails, waiting for people to turn up, and all the rest of it. I've spent all of today answering calls and the doorbell to one man, if I even think about picking up a book something buzzes or rings, or starts being hammered. To be fair I don't think the drain guy is having a good day either, but he gets to go home to satisfactory plumbing.

Meanwhile it's been quite a long time since I finished 'Lighthousekeeping', and after much thought I'm still not sure what I want to say about it. I enjoyed it, a lot. I think I more or less understood what Winterson was trying to do (though that's possibly optimism on my part) but if ever a book begged to be discussed with a group, or at least one other enthusiastic reader who had some ideas about it, it's this one.

There's a fairy tale element of the fantastic, and a lot of interest in telling stories and the independent life they take on over time. There is Pew the blind lighthouse keeper who has always been at the lighthouse, but has he always been there, or has a Pew always been there. Stories and memories are something we inherit and recycle between generations and friends. Telling them makes them ours and creates memories and legends along the way.

Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson both inhabit this particular story, along with continuous metaphors about light and dark, or the flashes of light in the dark that can guide us. Mostly though, I just find myself enjoying Winterson's writing.

And now there are two holes in my kitchen wall, but the plumbing/drain issues are no nearer to being fixed. The current conclusion is that the floorboards need to come up. Nobody appears to have plans for the building that show where the pipes go - although they surely must exist somewhere, and I still can't use my washing machine. I've had better days.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Captain Marvel film

I don't normally talk about films here but the new Captain Marvel film felt like it complimented the gender flipped Taming of the Shrew at the RSC, so here we are.

The reviews I've read for Captain Marvel have all been solidly middle of the road which is fair enough. My expectations for a superhero film are that it'll provide solid entertainment, if it does more that's a bonus. They've also compared it to Wonder Woman and found it wanting, which I find much more surprising. I liked the Wonder Woman film more than I expected to (because DC films have so far been mostly disappointing) and Gal Gadot was excellent in it, but it didn't feel as groundbreaking to me as it obviously did to some.

Turns out that Carol Danvers is the hero I was waiting for, and Captain Marvel the film that would deliver such a thing. Given that Marvel haven't always made the best of their female characters (Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow has been particularly badly served) it's really good to see them crack it here.

Brie Larson looks more like an athlete than a swimwear model in this, and her costume looks fit for purpose - which is a pretty good start in itself because that's still all to rare. We liked her back story too - before she acquires her super powers she's already the sort of woman who persists in following her goals regardless of the setbacks.

We also liked that her key relationships are friendships, and female friendships at that, and also that Lashana Lynch who plays best friend Maria Rambeau turns out to just as amazing without any particular super powers, and that there's the space for her character to demonstrate just how amazing she is.

The link to Taming of the Shrew is that this felt like a genuine gender flip that quietly put women front and centre in the same way that almost every other superhero or action film has men. Unlike Wonder Woman where part of the joke is that she's a woman in a mans world. Because of that it felt genuinely fresh to watch, if not precisely groundbreaking (the Ghostbusters reboot was that film for me). I really hope a lot more things look like this in the future.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC

Back to Stratford upon Avon this week to see the gender swapped production of 'The Taming of the Shrew' which has just opened. We thought we'd seen this before, but when I got home and checked through my old programmes it turns out I hadn't, and that any familiarity with the plot was as much as could be picked up from common knowledge and '10 Things I Hate About You'.

The relationship between Katherine and Petruchio is theoretically a difficult one for modern audiences, but despite that it's put on frequently enough to suggest that people are quite happy to watch Katherine being forced into obedience. About the only homework I did before going to see it was read This article from The Guardian back in 2012 which raises a few interesting points.

I've at least read 'H is for Hawk' so the falconry references in the text were not lost on me, but they do nothing to make me think Shakespeare is any less misogynistic in this case. A woman is not a hawk after all, and the starving and sleep deprivation that Petruchio subjects Kate to isn't made better because he more or less shares the same deprivations - he's making the choice after all, she is not.

Thanks to tremendous performances from Joseph Arkley as Katherine, and Claire Price as Petruchia though, I can see this as a love story.

We were intrigued by the idea of a gender flipped production, where most of the men become women, and the women men, and the reality didn't disappoint. I don't think I had any clear idea of what changing the genders would make the play look and sound like, but the things that stood out where not necessarily the things I expected.

Hannah Clark's costume designs felt perfect - the women's gowns are sumptuous, in rich colours, swords or daggers at their waists, the men's more delicate and muted. They look like they've been lifted directly from Hilliard miniatures, but seem feminine in comparison to the block colours the women wear, and that's the first thing that felt different.

Seeing a stage full of women in a Shakespeare play feels different, and welcome, too, but the idea of a woman looking to sell of her sons to the highest bidder didn't feel particularly different to a father doing so with his daughters. Maybe because historically any well to do family would have been arranging their sons marriages as diligently as their daughters and for much the same reasons.

When Katherine becomes a man though the violent manifestations of his anger and frustration feel more threatening to me then if they were coming from a woman, and in turn Petruchia's casual violence towards her servant seem more shocking. Because Arkley is a physically imposing presence on stage the vulnerability of his position as a man in a woman's world is highlighted too. The way he holds the balance between making his temper really threatening to the status quo and displaying equally real vulnerability is brilliant.

Claire Price is the perfect counterfoil here too. Her Petruchia is vivid, attractive, and mercurial. The chemistry between the pair is what made me believe this could be a love story based on an instant mutual attraction. It doesn't deflect how horrible Petruchia/Petruchio's treatment of Katherine is, but by the Sun and Moon scene it's possible to believe that Katherine is consenting to play the same game as Petruchia. Once that choice is made the balance of power changes to something more equal - trust given has to be respected.

It's still a problematic play for me, but this production is brilliant. Sophie Stanton especially is a comedy genius, the way she glides across the stage as if on castors would have been worth the admission charge alone, but it is Price and Arkley who steal the show, making it a compelling mix of funny, challenging, and disturbing. It's shaping up to be a really good season at the RSC.

Friday, March 8, 2019

3 Books to celebrate on International Women's

The unsatisfactory situation regarding my kitchen drain is dragging on, and I'm not going to lie, it's getting me down, but it's my weekend off. I'm going to see The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC tomorrow, and whatever else is going badly at the moment I have an indecent amount of books to get excited about.

I've also been thinking all day about what kind of book list I might put together for International Women's Day. Or lists. There are so many avenues to explore. In the end though I don't know that I can do better than recommend the two books I'm reading and the one I bought on my way home. Between them they cover a lot of ground.

The book I bought is Melissa Harrison's 'All Among the Barley'. I've been waiting for this to come out in paperback (hardbacks take up to much space in an already overcrowded flat) and am really looking forward to reading it. Harrison is one of the relatively few contemporary writers I'm interested in. 'At Hawthorne Time' was spectacular, and I've enjoyed everything else I've read by her (Rain, and various articles) as well as the seasonal nature anthologies she edited. Everything about 'All Among the Barley' sounds good to me.

I've been reading 'The Old Man in the Corner' by Baroness Orczy slowly. It's a series of mysteries and solutions related to a young female journalist by an annoying old man - each one is spread over 2 or 3 chapters, and whilst I've had no problem spotting who done it so far it's a fun book. If I'd been making a list I'd have put Georgette Heyer on it at this point because I absolutely do think of her as a feminist icon (God alone knows what she'd have made of that, probably not much, but she's interesting if sometimes problematic, and I'll endlessly defend my high opinion of her).

Orczy does something similar to Heyer in that they both do a good line in independent heroines and demonstrate that there have always been successful women hidden more or less in plain sight. Because I'd read books by Orczy and Heyer as a child I knew that there was a history of commercially successful women writers which in turn meant that the handful of 'Classic', canonical authors weren't the anomalies they are sometimes still presented as, but part of a much wider tradition.

When I started exploring down this particular track my whole perception of women's place in history changed. Our voices are woven all through it if you have the patience to look for them. The question is who keeps silencing those voices, and why?

And last but not least is Lynn Enright's amazing 'Vagina A Re-Education'. This is an overdue, important, book. I've had to stop reading it at night because it gives me to much to think about and I can't sleep. I'll be writing a lot more about this very soon, but my god I wish I could have read something like this 30 years ago - it would have made a huge difference to my life if I'd had some of these words and knowledge a bit earlier. It is quite possibly the most empowering thing I've ever read.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

More plumbing woes and New Books

Not even 3 weeks since the plumbers and drain people were last poking about my kitchen drain is blocked again. Not completely, but it's taking 5 minutes for about 1/4 of a sink full of water to drain (I timed it). I can't politely express how frustrating this is.

On the back of that I've bought 2 plungers in the last 24 hours. From this I've learnt that A) size matters, measure your plug arrangement if you need a plunger. The first one I bought was to small to be any use.

 B) Not many places sell plungers anymore. Supermarkets certainly don't seem to, local hardware shops are more or less a thing of the past, pound shops had nothing, and Wilko's offerings are not great (I think they're to flimsy to be really effective).

C) Find some instructions on how to use the plunger, probably before you but one because you might want to get some sort of tape to cover the overflow pipe at the same time. Blocking that pipe isn't particularly easy. The wet rag the Internet suggested proved impossible to stuff down the small holes, when I unscrewed the covering the pipe behind it fell back from the sink. Dad suggested bunging it with a cork. Good luck finding a suitably sized cork. After I mopped out the cupboard under the sink and screwed everything back together I ended up using some decorative Angela Harding parcel tape. It wasn't altogether effective, but it sort of did the job.

D) The advice to use petroleum jelly to get a better seal between plunger and surface just means that you end up with a blocked sink covered in Vaseline (not easy to clean). Wilko's plunger cups are quite soft, no amount of Vaseline is going to stop them bending so that air escapes. It also means you can't return the useless plunger because it's covered in bloody Vaseline.

E) All of this takes a surprisingly long time and covers you in an entirely unsurprising amount of water. I would have done better to spend the money on books or biscuits and stuck to my current knitting project where the technical difficulties have proved much easier to resolve.

And if nothing else, at least it's been a good book week with these 3 beauties from the British Library crime classics series and Meike Ziervogel's latest Novella turning up in the post, along with the latest edition of Slightly Foxed, and sufficient Waterstones vouchers to make buying 'Salt & Time' guilt free (because clearly I'm going to need all the money for proper plumbers, though god knows if they fix the problem they're worth every penny).

Thursday, February 28, 2019

As You Like It at the RSC

We hadn't particularly planned to see As You Like It this season, but rush tickets were to much of a bargain to resist so we made an impromptu trip last night (as a non driver I'm inexpressibly grateful to have a friend who is even keener to go to the theatre than I am and happy to do the driving).

Those rush tickets were more of a bargain than we could have hoped, it's a delightful production that we would have been sorry to miss. I've always been a little bit ambivalent about Shakespeare's plays, too often they leave me cold. Something that I've learnt over the last few years is that I find the work of some of his contemporaries or immediate successors far more interesting, even when they're not technically as good. Shakespeare casts a long shadow but he's not the only playwright of his era worth listening to. This 'As You Like It' pulled us both in though and felt genuinely delightful.

Something else that it took me a long time to realise is that the same play can be so very different from production to production so it's only relatively recently that I've become really interested in seeing the same play again and appreciating the shifts in interpretation (I know this should have been obvious, but outside of London you have to take the theatre you can get, and the opportunities are limited).

This production is directed by Kimberley Sykes (her Dido, Queen of Carthage was also excellent a couple of years ago) has a 50/50 gender balance for the cast (more about that Here) and the character of Audrey is played by Charlotte Arrowsmith who is deaf. The casting is colour blind too, but that feels normal now (as it should).

To get that 50/50 balance some of the characters have had their genders flipped, so Jacques (who has a lot of the most famous lines) is played by Sophie Stanton, and the clergyman Oliver Martext becomes Olivia. Coming to the play without any of the preconceptions of familiarity I just know that Sophie Stanton was good in the role, in both cases gender didn't feel relevant.

More difficult is changing Silvius the shepherd to Silvia the shepherdess. Silvius is in love with Phoebe, who has fallen for Rosalind disguised as Ganymede. Rosalind/Ganymede promises she will marry no woman but Phoebe, but if Phoebe will not have Ganymede she must agree to marry Silvius. When Ganymede is shown to be Rosalind, Phoebe concedes the impossibility of any union, but if she then marries Silvia why should she have rejected Rosalind? That union isn't impossible in this scenario at all. Having a woman play Silvius would work perfectly well, changing Silvius to Silvia feels clumsy.

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Audrey is excellent. I'm a fan of Sandy Grierson who plays Touchstone anyway (and love this performance which brings a feral touch of menace to the fool) and they play beautifully off each other. It's the character of William, also in love with Audrey, who signs for her until Touchstone runs him off changing this from potentially tedious low comedy to something that's much more finely nuanced - and still really funny.

David Ajao is an endearing Orlando, but what really made this for us are the performances of Lucy Phelps as Rosalind and Sophie Khan Levy as her cousin, Celia. The reviews I've seen all praise Phelps' Rosalind, deservedly - she's very good, but so is Sophie Khan Levy. The relationship between the two on stage radiates affection, it's the warm heart of the playand it's that pair of performances that made it such a joyful experience.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Lemon and Vanilla marmalade (Cocktails)

There's so much news at the moment that I'm finding it hard to concentrate on much beyond current affairs. I don't want to think about Brexit here, because it's everywhere else all day, every day - Leicester voted to remain and my customers are for the most part as unhappy about it as I am - and it's all a bit exhausting. I'm certainly not managing to concentrate on reading books.

It's my weekend off though, the weather has been glorious, today I saw what's thought to be Emmeline Pankhurst's personal cosh (her great grandson is our head of police) which was unexpected, and I've made marmalade.

The marmalade is the Leafy Lemon and Vanilla from Lillie O'Brien's 'Five Seasons of Jam'. It's a while since I opened this book, but I was after something inspiring to do with some Sorrento lemons (I knew I wanted marmalade) and it's just the place to look for that. It's also made me think I need to plan ahead a bit for other things as they come into season.

One thing I really like about this book is the relatively modest quantities of preserve you end up with,  this batch made 5 jars, which is enough. The Seville recipe I have left me with 14 jars; daunting if you don't have much cupboard space.

Most of the batch is still cooling in its jars as I write this, but there were a couple of spoons left and so we made some Marmalade cocktails with it. The results were extremely encouraging. To make enough for two you want the juice of a large lemon, a couple of dessert spoons of marmalade, and enough gin for both of you and plenty of ice. Shake everything together, check you like it, adjust proportions if necessary, strain and drink.

Because both the lemon juice and marmalade are throwing their weight around in this the trick is to find the right balance for your palate rather than being precise about measurements. I like a small cocktail that I can drink in good time, whilst it's cold, without having to gulp it, plenty of lemon because I love the sour flavour, and lighter on the marmalade than some recipes I've seen. The type of marmalade you use will make a difference too. Fortunately experimenting to get it right is fun.

The lemon and Vanilla marmalade made for an almost sherbety edge to begin with, and then a subtle, but distinct, Vanilla hit on the back palate - a really nice combination that I think we'll enjoy again. Definitely worth the effort of making the marmalade for on its own, never mind the toast possibilities tomorrow morning.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Lateral Cooking - Niki Segnit

It's been a busy week at work - Valentine's Day being the first big booze pushing opportunity of the year, but inbetween stacking shelves with ever more cheap pink fizz (D, and I bless him for this, knows better, he turned up with Pol Roger which is absolutely the way to my heart - a proper treat) and pink gin (left over stock to be recycled for Mother's Day) I've been catching up with podcasts.

I might already have said this, but podcasts are this winter's big discovery. There's a couple, most by friends or acquaintances, that I've listened to for the last few years, but I hadn't bothered to look for anything on subjects I'm interested in rather than just by people I like. It's been a bit of a revelation.  Catching up on the Honey & Co one has been a particular joy given that they've interviewed so many food writers I really like.

It's also been a reminder that I have a big pile of cookbooks that I've been meaning to write about, including Niki Segnit's 'Lateral Cooking'. I loved 'The Flavour Thesaurus' when it came out, so was always going to be interested in whatever she wrote next. 'Lateral Cooking' more than lived up to any expectations I had for it - it'll be interesting to see if it gains the same sort of classic status as the first book.

What I hadn't realised before listening to the podcast is that Segnit doesn't have a food industry background. Less surprising is that she had done some W.S.E.T courses. Flavour wheels are popular in wine, beers, and spirits education (because they're really useful) and one of the things that really appealed to me about the thesaurus was how much sense it made from a wine perspective (both in terms of how you think about flavours, and how you match wine and food). Both books have been things she looked to buy, but couldn't find so wrote herself, and both are slightly mind blowing in their scope.

'Lateral Cooking' is the perfect book for everybody from the beginner upwards. Even if you're so expert that it doesn't have much to teach you about technique it's still a likely source of inspiration, and it's still going to be an absolute pleasure to read. Segnit is brilliant at mixing anecdote with instruction which makes this one hell of a rabbit hole to fall down. Open it at any page and you soon get sucked in - either by the technical detail or it's general joy de vivre.

I armed myself with a copy of Delia Smith when I first left home, at the time it was the best bet I could find to answer any questions I might have had. This is the book I probably wanted. It takes a set of starting points and builds on them; so flatbreads take you to scones and soda bread, to yeasted breads, to buns, to brioche, to babas and savarins with any number of variations or modifications along the way.

Master the basic templates and the world is your oyster is the essential philosophy here, the how being more important than the what. But if you know how, or can easily find out, then it's a relatively simple matter to work out what you can do with what you've got, or can easily find. Except none of that gives much sense of the scale or variety of this book. Or it's charm. Or how you might well forget to cook anything at all because you've got so engrossed in reading it.

On which note I'm going to retire to bed with it, it's been a long week, we drank the champagne already, and I can't think of a better treat than this right now.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl - Kay Plunkett - Hogge

A memoir of food, family, film and fashion.

I found Kay Plunkett - Hogge's books fairly late when I bought a copy of 'Aperitivo' about 18 months ago. It was one of those things that doesn't look like it's for you (I have never developed a taste for Campari, or any real enthusiasm for Aperol - I do not care for Negroni's, and I have strong opinions about Martini's that are diametrically opposed to Kay's*) but you end up loving and finding really useful.

There was a good bit about vermouth in it - an underwritten drink - and it's an enjoyable book to read.  The Sherry and Tapas book remains on my wish list, and from what I've seen of 'Make Mine a Martini' it's full of excellent drinks advice too - but space is short, and so is money. I can't buy all the books, however much I want to.

I did get 'Adventures of a Terribly Greedy Girl' after a twitter exchange on Thursday evening though, and its seen me happily through the weekend. It's a sort of memoir with a couple of relevant recipes to round off each chapter. Kay Plunkett - Hogge has had an interesting life, early years in Thailand, and a varied career in food, fashion, and film. She's funny, opinionated, and has some excellent advice to impart.

This book is a light skim through her life, concentrating on the stories and memories she wants to share and I more or less read it in two sittings. Somewhere about half way through I went from thinking that it was fun but light to feeling it was something more than that. Her thoughts on clean eating where one turning point. It's a short and pithy section that makes the point that if the would be clean eating guru isn't photogenic they're not going to have much of a career.

Of all the things you can say about Clean Eating as a fashion what better highlights the underlying problems with it than that observation? The chapters 'An English Cook in a California Kitchen' and "It's All Fusion, Stupid!" are really worth reading at a moment where perceived authenticity is so highly valued, and just after the stramash about M&S's inauthentic vegan Biryani wrap with its attendant accusations of cultural appropriation.

There's also excellent advice about throwing parties, how to party through a coup (a stiff whisky and soda is part of the answer), the horror of finding a (live) rat in the toilet, or a snake in the bath. Many useful reminders that if a job isn't right you can change it, and so much more - and all with recipes to match. She's also absolutely right about cupcakes, and pretty much every thing else she writes about.

More than anything though it's the feeling of being in really excellent company when you read this book that's made it such a delight. Kay talks about thinking 'What would Martha (Stewart) do?' in the midst of various domestic mishaps. I think my mantra might well be what would Kay do? I'm pretty sure the answer would be to mix an excellent Martini and make the best of it which is advice I can follow.

*The perfect Martini described here is very dry, with just a dash of Noilly Prat vermouth in it. My preference is roughly a third vermouth, to two thirds gin.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Norman Ackroyd: The Furthest Lands

It turns out that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park doesn't take as long to get to from Leicestershire as I had assumed it might - it's straight up the M1 from here and about an hour and twenty minutes away. Which is good news, because it made going to see the Norman Ackroyd exhibition there much easier than we expected.

I've been a fan of Ackroyd's work since I first actively noticed it in an edition of the Archipelago journal about a decade ago. Mostly I've bought the occasional facsimile sketch books since then, and one very beautiful etching of Scarborough when money wasn't quite so tight. That came from the Zillah Bell gallery in Thirsk where I spent an interesting quarter of an hour in a small room with a lot of Ackroyds. But I was there to look at something specific and there was only limited time to yearn after things I couldn't have.

This current exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (on until the 24th of February) has been the best opportunity for us to go and look, not only at more, but at lots more together in a way that shows the work evolving over a couple of decades. Ackroyd is an absolute master of his medium, this exhibition has 77 etchings and 6 watercolours (all from his Shetland sketchbook) which explore the western edge of Britain and Ireland.

Another print was outside of my current budget, but I've got the exhibition catalogue and a tea towel and I'm happy with that. We got to the YSP early, which was ideal because most of the Ackroyd exhibition is displayed going up the stairs, and along a narrow corridor, before ending up in a small room. You want to be able to look at it when it's quiet, otherwise you're stuck in a very narrow corridor, or busy staircase being jostled by people heading to the cafe.

Every time I've been to the YSP it's rained. With conviction. Today was no exception so there's still a lot of exploring to do should we ever manage to hit it on a dry day, but we did manage to see quite a bit of Giuseppe Penone's 'A Tree in the Wood', or at least I did. D spent most of his time looking at the architecture of the underground gallery and admiring the quality of the concrete. We were both happy though.

Lightning Struck Tree (bronze and gold) was the piece that sucked me in, with a split and hollowed fir tree taking up most of the interior galleries a close second. Altogether it was a very good day out (the cafe is excellent, and so is the gift shop which is a nice bonus) and it's very handy to have been reminded that the YSP is a perfectly feasible day trip.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

On Drinking

Dry January is done for another year, I don't join in with it but as someone who makes their living selling alcohol I'm very aware of it. One noticible thing this time has been that whilst more people tell me they're doing it, our sales have been unusually buoyant for January which suggests that those who haven't, have been buying more than usual.

Because it's how I make my living I've also got a whole lot of opinions on drinking and now seems like as good a time as any to share them - not so much because people haven't been drinking, but because of the number of often judgemental articles about not drinking that January throws up. Like This one about Anne Hathaway which I find particularly troubling. Hathaway says she doesn't like the person she is when she's had a few, so has made the perfectly reasonable decision to avoid alcohol whilst her son is under age so he doesn't witness that.

An increasing, and enjoyable, part of my job is helping customers find alcohol free alternatives to their normal choices. There are some really good de alcoholised beers around (worth experimenting to find your own preference but the easily available range of these is increasing all the time), and excellent soft drinks aimed at adults. It's possible to find reasonably good de alcoholised wine (the Torres range is worth looking for, slightly more expensive than some, but it gets the best feedback by a mile). I'm not a fan of the alcohol free 'spirits' (distilled water with botanicals) they're expensive, and I've yet to find one that pulls its weight in a drink - but if you like them that's great.

For my money if I'm looking for a gin and tonic substitute I'll stick with just the tonic - I particularly like the fever tree aromatic tonic with angostura bark for this - plenty of ice, and a good garnish which might include a couple of crushed juniper berries. If it doesn't have to be 100% alcohol free a couple of drops of bitters will add variety to your normal mixer. Otherwise sparkling water mixed with all sorts of cordials or fruit juices remain an under rated option.

It's also true that when the drains got fixed yesterday I celebrated with a gin cocktail rather than a cup of tea. Getting the use of my kitchen sink and washing machine back made me positively giddy with joy. The perfect moment to enjoy one of those gins I keep collecting, but it was the relatively elaborate process of building the drink (and thevwashing up that created) that made it special.

And this is a key thing for me. I like a drink, any drink that isn't tap water, to be a treat made with a certain amount of ceremony and ritual. That's what makes a cup of tea, especially if it's loose leaf, or coffee (always freshly ground beans, never instant) something to anticipate for hours. I don't drink wine alone - there's not much fun in it for me if I can't talk about it, and I want wine that gives me something to think and talk about.

I hate feeling even slightly drunk - even more than I dislike hangovers, so I firmly believe in moderation. I also hate dealing with drunks - especially at work. It’s much easier to deal with junkies than drunks. Drunks are horribly unpredictable. So whilst I don’t personally hold with dry January I’m happy to support anyone who is doing it whatever their reasons. If you’ve been seriously overdoing it in December it should certainly be an easy way to drop weight and improve your sleep.

For me though this is the time of year when I have all the nice things I’ve been given for birthday or Christmas, and more leisure at home to enjoy them in (in a moderate and responsible manner). This is also why I’ve come to believe that the best way for a more or less single person to enjoy alcohol in moderation is through spirits.

The small effort of finding the right glass, and whatever other paraphernalia mixing a cocktail calls for is enough to give it a sense of occasion, or to put me off if I’m feeling lazy. A single drink is enough, and with long lived spirits there’s no pressure to finish the bottle before it oxidises as there is with wine. I can’t always find the enthusiasm for solo cooking, but pausing to mix a drink well is also a small act of self care.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Black Sea - Caroline Eden

 'Black Sea, Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light'. I grabbed this book the moment I saw it in my local Waterstones, pausing only for a lengthy conversation about how beautiful it is, before carrying it home in triumph late last autumn. I've mentioned it in passing a few times since but not written about it in detail, partly because I'm still reading it.

It won the James Avery special commendation award at the André Simon awards last night though and that's spurred me on to write this post because I'm going to be still reading this book for quite a long time. It lives by my bed for handy end of the day reading - first the recipes, then the chapters in no particular order, and soon back to the beginning to go from start to finish.

It's a remarkable book, and not quite like anything else I've read. I have plenty of food book which are part memoir or travelogue, or memoirs which talk a lot about food, or books that in some way mix food with a particular philosophy, but nothing that strikes the particular balance that Eden finds for this book.

I bought it assuming it was primarily a cook book, but it isn't - and although you could use it for nothing else but the recipes, if you did that you'd be seriously missing out. Thanks to Annis for pointing me towards the Honey & Co podcast (it's only really in the last couple of months that I've started really exploring podcasts so I'm late to discovering a lot of good stuff, but catching up is a delight) I caught up with Eden's episode about 'Black Sea' at the weekend which builds on the introduction.

Both explain that 'Black Sea' is meant as much as a travel book as anything else, and I think it's really the travel section that it belongs in (although it in food that you'll find it in any bookshop). The recipes give you the some of the flavour and aroma of the places that Eden is talking about, both through the traditional recipes that look to be a mix between home cooking and cafe or simple restaurant food, and those inspired by particular moments, like the Potemkin Cocktail, or other things which have caught her imagination.

Mark Twain's Debauched Ice Cream is just such a recipe, Twain wrote about eating ice cream in Odessa, he doesn't give specific details but the supposition that it would "...have been something simple but decadent." seems reasonable. What we get is an easy no churn recipe based on condensed milk with a generous shot of rum. I will be trying it just as soon as the weather turns warm enough, it's a combination which sounds as seductive as it does simple to make. The Potemkin is brilliant, and rather better than the Fireside cocktails it's based on. (At least that's true of the way I've made them).

Overall the book is structured on a journey around the Black Sea focusing on the three cities of Odessa, Istanbul, and Trabzon, with some stops along the way. Each chapter works well as a stand alone essay, full of stories, history, and Eden's own experience. It's meant to be read cover to cover like a travel book, and because it's a travel book I'm really enjoying the photographs that illustrate it, instead of finding them a distraction from the food. (Cookbooks with page after page of arty non food related images are a pet hate).

It's an overview as seductive as that ice cream recipe, of a region that I knew next to nothing about before I started reading. I cannot overstate how much I love this book, or how beautiful it is - the cover is particularly stunning - or how much I enjoy Eden's authorial voice which has a pitch perfect blend of erudition, warmth, and charm. She is the ideal guide, or maybe I mean host - always ready with a cocktail, a snack, a story, the suggestion of a book to read, and somewhere to explore.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Selected Stories - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Around about ten years ago I was collecting old Virago Modern Classics as diligently as I could in charity and second hand shops. I probably have something like 400 of them now - I'll make a proper list one day - but it was a good time for collecting. Plenty turned up and they were cheap, and now I have an excellent library of things just waiting for me.

One of the authors I got quite a bit of was Sylvia Townsend Warner, mostly because I thought I should like her, although I didn't really get on with the only one I tried to read (Lolly Willows) and haven't picked them up since. I'll give Lolly Willows another go sometime, but for now I'm particularly grateful to find I had a collection of her short stories.

It was the Handheld edition of 'Kingdoms of Elfin' that encouraged me to explore again, and more short stories seemed like a good place to start. My copy is in danger of falling apart - I'll replace it with a more robust one if I get the chance - because is it ever full of treasures.

There are some of the 'Kingdoms of Elfin' stories in here, along with things from I guess more or less every collection she wrote - more to list and consider tracking down. I started at the end of her writing life when I read 'Kingdoms of Elfin', which I understood to be a departure in subject matter for her. Using fairies as subjects might well be a departure but the themes and tone turn out to be more universal to her work.

There's a gentle melancholy that runs through these stories that gives them a particularly haunting quality. There's also a streak of humour for balance, it's a seductive combination - the sort of thing that has you thinking just one more, and kept me up reading far to late every time I picked this book up. Add to that her perception and sympathy, along with her willingness to tackle taboos and throw in startling images and the appeal deepens.

I can't really pick favourites from so many, I just feel I've found a book that's an absolute treasure by an author who offers far more than I had imagined from that half hearted attempt at Lolly Willows. Maybe it helps that I particularly like short stories, especially when they feel complete in themselves - as these do. Each one feels like a masterpiece, as well as a masterclass in the genre, to me - and I have all the enthusiasm of the late convert.*

*I'm still waiting for the plumbing issues to be resolved. The current plumber is not being especially communicative - he was meant to tell me when he was coming round today, he didn't, although apparently he has inspected the drains. After I called and emailed him he's asked when I can give the drain people access, but has not so far indicated when will work for them. Or if he's asking any of the affected neighbors for the same access. So it might be tomorrow, it might be Wednesday, I might have to mess work around, I might not. I won't sleep well because I'll spend half the night worrying about it, and I'd like to think I could have written rather better about this book if I wasn't so distracted by blocked bloody drains,

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Domestic Woes

I had planned to write about Sylvia Townsend Warner's collected short stories today, but domestic upsets are proving to much of a distraction to do her justice, so I'm falling back on what's bothering me instead. If nothing else I'll feel a bit better for writing it down.

On Thursday both the bath tap (quickly fixed) and the kitchen drainage gave up in me. With no obvious local blockage in the pipes the plumber tried a drain cleaner. Which didn't work. I live in a flat so the next step was to approach the management company because access to communal areas might well be necessary, and it's not altogether clear who bears responsibility once the pipes leave my property.

On Friday they promised a plumber would be in touch, he was, on Saturday, to say that I probably didn't need a plumber but a drain specialist- but that they wouldn't be at work over the weekend (I was) so he'd pass my details on, on Monday. Why we couldn't have had this conversation on Friday beats me, but never mind. At that point it looked like my flat was the only one with a problem.

Saturday's plumber, who I've very much taken against, suggested that it might be an ice issue - which it could be for all I know - because I was on the ground floor and all my neighbors are higher up and therefore warmer. I'm not on the ground floor, there are another 7 flats on this level, it's been colder, but whatever. The agents happily pointed out that if it was just me I'd be paying all the bills.

Because misery loves company, and doesn't like having tradesmens bills for undisclosed sums hanging over her (if the tradesmen ever appear) it was a relief to discover that both next door and upstairs are suffering in the same way. Meanwhile upstairs efforts to unblock the drain started coming through my sink. A trouble shared will at least be an expense divided, and knowing it's not just he has taken the edge off the 'why does this always happen to Me' paranoia that was brewing.

It could be worse, the bathroom is fine, and plenty of people have offered to do a load of washing for me if necessary. Which doesn't stop it being inconvenient. I don't like dirty washing hanging around on the floor, I hate having to wash up in the bathroom sink (there's nowhere to put anything so everything needs to go straight back to the kitchen as it's washed - it takes ages), it changes what I feel I can cook (the less washing up the better) and it's surprising how hard it is to remember not to use the sink.

Everything from under the sink is all over the place as well against the probability that someone is going to want access to the pipes. My kitchen doesn't feel like mine, something I find very dispiriting.   Hand washing is a pain too, and the amount of extra time being spent in normally simple chores eats away at reading time. The background stress of not knowing when it will be fixed isn't helping me sleep either.

After a bit of time on twitter you can bet I'm seeing this as a Brexit metaphor too. It doesn't take much of a disruption from the domestic norm to have a profound effect on your everyday life. Losing easy access to a washing machine is showing me that.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Vanish in an Instant - Margaret Miller

Today has not been a particularly good day. The hot water tap on my bath stopped working, the washing machine stopped working mid cycle, and the kitchen sink won't drain. The last two are certainly related in some way, but it's not clear if that's because of a blockage further down in the drain pipes or something else to do with the washing machine itself. Either way it's expensive. A plumber has been, fixed the bath tap, poured gunk down the sink (it's not drained away yet), told me to let him know what happens, and taken all my money. I like the plumber, but I'd rather not see him again too soon (I can't bloody afford it) and I'm not confident this will be the case.

At least there are books to cheer me up, and I've finally read Margaret Miller's 'Vanish in an Instant', which is every bit as good as everybody has been saying. I got so excited by this book (a more or less forgotten noir classic, written by a woman, published by Pushkin Vertigo - that's ticking a lot of boxes) that I half expected that it couldn't possibly live up to my expectations and so avoided actually reading it for a bit (which is silly, but not totally unusual).

I don't know much about Margaret Miller beyond that she was married to Ross Macdonald, who also wrote noir, mostly set in Southern California. I read a few of his books around 6-7 years ago when Penguin reissued them as modern classics. My posts on them suggest that I enjoyed them, but they haven't proved particularly memorable - but it's been a while and at least I remembered that I had definitely read him.

It feels like a curious thing to find a husband and wife both writing in the same genre and both being very good at it though. This might happen more often than I realise, but I can't offhand think of any other examples. Maybe it's a good thing I don't remember Macdonald particularly clearly, at least I'm not tempted to try and compare or contrast the two of them.

'Vanish in an Instant' opens in a midwestern airport with a vague sense of unease. Mrs Hamilton and her companion have just arrived, they're not sure if they're being met, we're not sure why they're there, but something is obviously wrong.

The wrong turns out to be that Mrs Hamiltons nicely bought up married daughter has been found wandering through a snow storm, blind drunk, and covered in blood. She's promptly arrested for the murder of Claude Margolis, who she's been running around with, and who's been stabbed multiple times.

Virginia can't remember anything, her husband doesn't know quite what to think, Mrs Hamilton is determined to handle everything, and Meecham, the lawyer hired as her defence is having trouble believing in any of it, more so when a dying man steps forward to say he did it. Is it all going to be that simple?

The answer is no, and the final twist is a clever one, but what really makes this book is the characterisation of the minor players. A caretaker and his wife, a hospital orderly, the alcoholic mother of another character, Mrs Hamilton - they're all more or less peripheral, but the attention they and many others get gives the whole thing a life and atmosphere that gives the book real depth.

Nothing feels simple, or black and white, there's a whole community here of ordinary complex people. Actions all have consequences, and by the end I shared both Meechams cynicism and his occasional compassion as he slowly unravels the truth.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Wicked King - Holly Black

I read, and enjoyed, Holly Black's 'The Cruel Prince' last year. It's young adult fiction which is a category that didn't exist when I was a young adult, and isn't one I'm particularly familiar with now, but that's no reason not to make the occasional investigation.

What I find particularly attractive about Black is the way she uses fairies that feel like they're straight out of a Richard Dadd painting with all the unsettling darkness that suggests. When I read 'The Cruel Prince' I was new to her work, since then I've picked up a few of her books so have a much better idea of the themes that interest her. She's a much better writer than I first appreciated.

Being the first part of a trilogy 'The Cruel Prince' did a lot of scene setting, and the main characters felt more young than adult (I think they're about 17). 'The Wicked King' starts 5 months after the end of the first book and now they feel like they're really at that stage where you have to take on adult responsibilities ready or not.

It turns out that Black explores damaged and damaging families quite a lot. Her books are full of bad parents and the effects that has on their children. Not necessarily abusive parents, but neglectful, selfish, careless, uninterested parents, as well as foster families, step parents, and adopted families who are equally imperfect. This is worthwhile territory to explore especially with the relatively light touch that Black brings to it.

Twin sisters, Jude and Taryn, have had a crappy childhood and it shows. They're both a mess, making bad decisions and getting a lot of things wrong. The window dressing of fairy land aside, making poor relationship decisions, trust issues, a desire to take control, and not be powerless, and a capacity for self harm are universal issues.

Black doesn't fix things easily for her characters either, Jude (the main focus) remains emotionally immature. Constantly reacting with anger and a lack of foresight, and not at all good at understanding what motivates other people  or able to open up to them, she lurches from crisis to crisis and it all makes sense. How else could she behave under the circumstances? The question is, will she be able to gain the self awareness deal with her issues so that they don't come to define her?

The answer to that is probably yes, I'm expecting a more or less happy ending for book 3, but it will be interesting to see how Black gets there.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Grimm Tales for Young and Old - Philip Pullman

This book has been a fairly constant bedside companion for the last couple of months and has served as a helpful reminder that it's a good idea to question my prejudices every now again.

I'm not particularly a Philip Pullman fan, I read the Norther Lights trilogy when it came out along with my youngest sister who was firmly in the intended age bracket at the time. She loved them, I thought they were okay but nothing more than that, and I find his name in something more off putting than not. Still, I'd look at any version of the Grimm tales so I bought this, and now I've read it will happily admit I was wrong to be on the fence about Pullman.

With that in mind I'm writing this whilst willingly eating brussel sprouts for the first time in my life. They've never been a favourite, but I thought I'd give Anja Dunk's take on them (in sour cream with nutmeg and lemon zest) a go. Turns out they're pretty good too (though not as good as Pullman's take on the Grimm's), I'm doing well here.

'Grimm Tales for Young and Old' was the Sunday Times fiction book of the year when it came out back in 2012 so I'm a bit late to the party on this one (even when I bought this copy it sat around unread for a while) but it's now easily my favourite of the 3 versions I have.

It's a selection of fifty tales, and special because I think it would genuinely work for young(ish) and old. It's not as cleaned up as the picture book versions for children are now, or as pared back as the collections aimed at adults tend to be. Pullman adds his own embellishments as every proper story teller should - and this is the thing that I think every successful retelling of a myth or fairy tale should have - they feel as if they're meant to be spoken.

The other thing that makes this collection so good is that every story is followed by its type, source, similar stories from a variety of sources and traditions, and Pullman's own thoughts and notes about what he's done to them. It's the perfect mix of entertainment and scholarship.

It's a book that I bought ought of curiosity to add to a collection, but it's become a favourite that I've turned to again and again this winter when I couldn't settle on anything longer to read, or had a few minutes to fill, wanted to be reminded of favourite childhood stories, and more. It's also gently pushing me towards tackling some more of the collections I've gathered together.