Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Valley at the Centre of the World - Malachy Tallack

It took me a long time to read this book, and I've spent a few more weeks thinking about it since. The reason it took all that time was because I was so overwhelmed by what it was, that it took some catching up getting to what it was about.

The Valley at the Centre of the World is set in Shetland, specifically a single valley and looks at the lives of the people who live there. There's Maggie, who is old - and who's death (this isn't much of a spoiler, it's the first thing that happens in the book) is a sort of catalyst. Middle aged David and Mary, and Sandy who has stayed in the valley after splitting up with David and Mary's daughter, Emma who has left. Alice, an author who has settled there after the death of her husband, Terry who comes and goes, and Ryan and Jo.

There is an Amy Liptrot quote on the cover of my proof copy that describes it as "a moving, authentic novel of the Scottish Islands in the twenty-first century", which it is, though I think it's more specific than that. Broadly most of the issues that Tallack takes on apply to plenty of remote rural communities across the Highlands and Islands, but each island group, each island has its own character. Shetland is distinctly Shetland, it's close to my heart, and there's not a lot of contemporary literary novels that explore it. (Crime writing is a different matter, but the focus is neccesarily different.) The point I'm slowly getting to is that I hadn't quite realised see how much I wanted to be reading about the things Tallack is writing about, or how few and far books that look at these landscapes, and these people, are.

Not a great deal happens in 'The Valley at the Centre of the World' happens. People come and go, make decisions, or fall into them, and generally get on with there lives, but there's a huge question underlying the whole thing - what is the future of these communities?

It's another question close to my heart. Maggie represents a generation bound by tradition and a close relationship to place. David is bound by the same things, but his crofting is a lifestyle made possible by the jobs and prosperity of the oil years. It's more than a hobby, but it's no longer a neccesity. For the younger generation it's a world full of choices and possibilities, with far fewer ties to place and tradition.

What happens to communities like this as expectations and opportunities change has repercussions that spread far beyond the local. As old links are broken, and places empty, or new people move in, language and culture change, stories are lost, and other sorts of knowledge too. Is that good, or bad, or something inbetween? We get to draw our own conclusions here, but again, these are fundamental questions well worth asking, and they apply to any community of any sort.

I know from reading '60 Degrees North' that Tallack has a sometimes complicated relationship with Shetland, something which he explores thoroughly here, but particularly through Sandy, Emma (through her absence) and Ryan. Ryan especially seems to represent things he has the least affection for. And now I find I'm falling back down a rabbit hole of what aboutery as I consider other characters and aspects of the book.

In the end it was an immensely satisfactory book to read, regardless of personal connection to the subject matter there's a lot here for anybody to consider. If I had a criticism it might be that there are a few to many things covered, more than enough for a second or third novel (particularly Sandy's parents, they could easily have filled a book by themselves).

I sincerely hope that Tallack does write more Shetland based fiction, I also hope that a few more follow him in writing about life from the perspective of similar communities. There's a need for books like this, especially ones as good as this, that draw sensitive, un romanticised, portraits of rural life where nothing nasty happens in the woodshed/out on the moors and nobody is necessarily holding on to a devastating secret. I might not have known how much I wanted to read books like this before it came along, but now I do, and I'll be looking for them.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Christmas and Other Winter Feasts - Tom Parker Bowles

It's wet (and thankfully after the sticky weather of the last few days) cold outside, I'm feeling distinctly low, and am procrastinating. What I should be doing is hoovering, dealing with quinces, and writing book reviews - in no particular order. Not hoovering doesn't matter very much, but the quinces have a shelf life, and I've promised reviews to other people.

Instead I braved the elements, picked up a huge bag of newly wind fallen quinces - because despite not having done anything with the first lot, the idea of just leaving them to rot seemed wrong, and bought a book. The book was very much an impulse purchase, it's the Fortnum and Mason Christmas book, not officially published until next week, but Waterstones had a copy, and it's a such a mood lifter I couldn't resist.

I should have resisted because money is currently a bit tight and I've bought a lot of books, including cookbooks, this month already (those two things are not unrelated). Whatever, sometimes a bit of mild extravagance is good for the soul, which is why I love Fortnum and Mason so much in the first place.

I think I fell under its spell long before I ever saw the place, probably reading Dorothy L. Sayers, and anyone else who referred to hampers, hams, and other luxurious food stuffs. Something of that old fashioned glamour still exists, and that's exactly what Tom Parker Bowles captures in his books for them. They're big on nostalgia, but that works for me from a shop that always makes me feel like the Provincial Lady up in town for the day.

It's why in this book a shopping list of Christmas staples (which would bankrupt most of us) is charming rather than irritating. My Christmas won't feature caviar or foie gras, it will have marrons glacé and good coffee. I'm on the fence about pickled walnuts, but absolutely behind pork pies (from Melton Mowbray, obviously), and I'm enjoying reading about all of them. There's a lot to read about traditions in here too, as well as quite a bit of innovation - it's a book it's easy to get lost in when you have other jobs to avoid. It's also reminded me that I'm not very familiar with Tom Parker Bowles writing at all, which is clearly my loss, because he's a fun companion here.

As for recipes - well reader, until today I'd never drunk cocoa but a recipe for a sloe gin hot chcolate which used a ridiculous amount of it has changed that. I played about with it a bit - added a spoon of soft brown sugar to just take the bitter edge off, upped the amount of sloe gin for more of a kick, and stirred in single cream rather than topping with whipped double (wasn't going out again) and the results were delicious. Comforting and grown up, still pleasingly bitter, and definitely luxurious. I'm very happy with this. I'm looking at a recipe for a pineapple tarte tatin with vanilla, star anise, and cinnamon that looks great. A mulled wine cured salmon recipe sounds great too. The game section is good. There's a chestnut, almond, and Rum cake I like the sound of - and so on.

There's some excellent looking vegetarian and vegan recipes as well, and did I mention the Edward Bawden illustrations? It's a wonderfully indulgent sort of book that I think is going to brighten up the winter months considerably. It also looks more useful than the first Fortnums Cookbook - or at least there's more in here that I'll make. Finally, don't be put off by the Christmas label, other winter feasts make up the bulk of the book and there's a lot to love in here.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Rasputin and Other Ironies - Teffi

I've bought a few of the Pushkin editions of Teffi's books over the years because they all sound amazing, but until now I've never read any of them because Russian always makes me assume a thing will be vaguely depressing. I don't know if this was due to reading 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' (which I loved) at a formative age, or being hopelessly daunted by the length of 'War and Peace' at around the same time but I suspect that's at the root of it.

Fortunately the range of translated fiction available in the U.K. has improved immeasurably in the last couple of decades, so for me it's no longer about the books I feel I should read (but don't really fancy) it's about books that sound amazing. 

Teffi herself seems to still be something of an enigma. As far as I can gather she had an affluent sort of upbringing, married unhappily, abandoned her husband and son to return to St Petersburg to persue her career as a writer, was caught on the fringes of the revolutionary movement for a while, and then fled as a refugee with the White Russians. As I read more of her, I guess I'll read more about her too, and some of that history will become clearer.

Meanwhile 'Rasputin and Other Ironies' seems like as good a place as any to start. It's a collection of pieces that span her career, and although the tone of all of them is autobiographical some of it is basically fiction.

Her encounters with both Lenin and Rasputin are fascinating. I suppose her impressions of Lenin must to some extent be coloured by hindsight, but fleeting as those encounters are she has a lot to say about the atmosphere around him. The piece about Rasputin is excellent, again nothing more than a few encounters, but again they say a lot about the atmosphere he created.

For me though the most powerful story is 'Valya', about a mother and daughter. The mother is 21, the daughter 4, and in it as all the frustration of parenthood spread across a couple of pages. It's almost about nothing, but somehow is everything. The mother buys a Christmas decoration she thinks is particularly pretty, maybe to pretty to risk to childish hands. She risks it anyway and the child breaks it.

Robert Chandler, in his introduction picks out the Gaderene Swine as particularly worthy of note, it certainly dispenses with any pretence of humour or lightness, and is a powerful record of the exiles lot - but the whole book is a collection of gems. I'm only sorry it's taken me so long to get round to reading her, although the good news is there's plenty more to look forward to.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Principles of Knitting - June Hemmons Hiatt

There are so many books that I want to write about at the moment, but yet again the day has run away from me, and as I probably have less to say about this one (we'll see how that goes) than some of the others it's up first.

This doorstop of a thing was a book I hinted heavily for, and got, as a Christmas present a couple of years ago after seeing it recommended somewhere as a classic. I duly cleared out the much less comprehensive How To guide I'd initially used to try and re learn to knit from. There have been moments since, especially when I've just wanted to check something really simple, when I've wondered if I was a bit hasty.

On reflection it was the right decision. One of the reasons I got rid of that first book was that I couldn't make any sense out of a couple of stitch patterns it described - and if that was a problem I'm not convinced I'd have got much out of any of its patterns or projects. It was also the case that I wouldn't have willingly given House room to any of the projects in it, so however useful they might have been for learning from there was no inspiration to make them.

Meanwhile this year I've finally found myself turning to 'The Principles of Knitting' more and more often. It's certainly comprehensive - so far I've only scratched the surface, but it's proving very useful, and as reference books go it feels pretty definitive. I certainly don't imagine I'll ever need another general guide.

It's true that you can find all of this stuff online, with added video tutorials for good measure, but I learn best by trying something (sometimes over and over until it makes sense) rather than watching -so I find a book easier to follow than a screen which turns itself off at critical moments. Nor does a book throw irritating adverts at you midway between instructions.

An unexpected advantage to the size and weight of this particular volume is that it tends to stay open at the page I want too, which makes it much easier to keep referring back whilst trying to memorise some particular technique (making things lean left or right is my current example).

I like the way that June Hemmons Hiatt writes as well. She's admirably clear in her general explanations, easy going about you finding the technique that best suits you, and thorough when she gives instructions. Knitting language is baffling at times, so deciphering what's meant isn't always as straightforward as I might hope. This book hasn't let me down yet which is extremely encouraging when it's something that doesn't come particularly naturally to me (I really have to work at some of this stuff) it certainly gives me confidence in what I might go on to make in the future.

In short it deserves its classic of the genre status, and I can add my voice in recommendation. Want a comprehensive guide to the methods and techniques of hand knitting - look no further. It's genuinely useful and a worthwhile investment even for relative novices who wonder why there need to be so very many cast on or cast off techniques...

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Belting Inheritance- Julian Symons

I've been dog sitting for the last couple of days, back to work in the morning, and very nice it's been too, though perhaps not quite as productive as I might have hoped.

There had been plans to tackle a new knitting project - fingerless mitts - but I stuck the wrong size needles in my bag so couldn't get any further than the ribbing stage. It's probably for the best, the dog was very much of the opinion that I wanted to play with her, not waste my time reading or knitting - and who am I to argue with that.

Inbetween walks, throwing balls, and general fussing (tummy rubs and ear scratches being particularly appreciated) I did get time to read 'The Belting Inheritance' by Julian Symons. It's one of the most recent British Library Crime Classics, and I particularly enjoyed it.

I hadn't come across Symons before these current reprints, and it seems that for a while he was dissatisfied with 'The Belting Inheritance', happily he came back found to it. I think it's one of the most enjoyable bits of detective fiction I've read.

Written in 1965, but set in 1955, the narrator and sort of detective is 18. Christopher Barrington is taken to Belting to live with distant relatives after his parents are killed. The house is a Victorian gothic survival, dominated by the personality of old Lady Wainwright, perpetually mourning the two sons she lost in the war, and not much liking the two sons she has left and insists live with her.

She is kind to Christopher though, who finds he switches pretty much effortlessly from middle class life in Woking, to the country house and private school trappings of the upper classes. When we meet him he's an intelligent 18 year old with a taste for poetry and Japanese prints - and there's something about his youth and affectations that are particularly endearing. This is a changing world, full of possibility, and not one that looks back with any particular nostalgia to a pre war order.

For Christopher, fresh from school, there are a whole lot of shocks in store, the first being the reappearance of one of those supposed dead uncles. The second is a murdered body in the shrubbery, but from there on it's a rollercoaster ride of drink, drugs, sex, and the realisation that not everybody sees his family the way he does.

I loved the drinking bits, where poor Christopher, who has only just started to be allowed to drink a single glass of port after dinner, is introduced to whisky, Armagnac, Pastis, and really awful hangovers in short order. His total failure to cope with hard liquor is both accurate and funny. His not really understanding the significance of a syringe and spoon he finds, or that particular characters are gay means he makes no judgement about them either, and that works well too. It certainly feels particularly modern.

Meanwhile there are lots of literary jokes to enjoy along with the tongue in cheek portrait of Christopher, which nicely balances the darker side of the story. Lady Wainwright is dying, and nobody else really believes that the newly returned David Wainwright is who he claims to be, so her last days are being dragged out in a positively poisonous atmosphere. Old scandals are being revealed in all their sordid details, but in the end the Belting way of life is going to end with a whimper, not a bang.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

How To Eat - Nigella Lawson

I've had a copy of 'How to Eat' for a long time, but I didn't get it when it first came out, and one way or another have never really paid it much attention, so it's twentieth anniversary has given me a welcome second chance.

As a longstanding Nigella fan it should have been a book that was a kitchen staple and I wondered for a bit why it hadn't been, which in turn was a reminder of the unique place cookbooks hold in a personal library, and how they hold memories.

In 1998 I was being paid £3.50 an hour (as a cook in a nursery) and my then boyfriend was a vegetarian, so the cookbooks I was buying were all about trying to expand a vegetarian repertoire beyond pasta bakes. Cookbooks were comparatively more expensive then too (taking inflation into account the average cover price was the equivalent of £50, and not nearly as much deep discounting) they were considered rather than impulse purchases.

My first, and very much loved, Nigella book was 'How to be a Domestic Goddess'. It came before baking was as fashionable as it is now, and at the time was a reminder that making time to be creative  -in this case in the kitchen- is a precious and wonderful thing. Cooking is one way to impose a bit of order and control on a difficult day, and 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' added comfort and a bit of healthy self indulgence to that.

The tone of it also felt fresh, I've never been much of a fan of Nigella's TV persona, but on the page she's a different woman. Funnier, smarter, and all round better company. Everything felt like stuff I could and would make. I bought and used the following books with equal enthusiasm as they came out over the next few years (Nigella bites, Forever Summer, Feast, and Nigella's Christmas' are all favourites) and at some point was given 'How to Eat'.

I know I've used it, there's a beef and prune stew which I go back to over and again, and enough stains to show it's been off the shelf a few times, but it doesn't spark the memories that some of those others do, there's nothing tucked between the pages. It was only when I picked it up the other day that I realised how underused it had been. My loss.

Reading through it, the current wave of enthusiasm and love for this book makes perfect sense. It's a classic - it feels fresh in the way that classics do. It still reflects the way we shop, cook, and want to eat - wellness and clean eating fads aside (Nigella doesn't do that shit). The lack of pictures make it feel like it belongs to an older tradition, but the acknowledgment that people want very specific instructions is contemporary. Mostly though it's the love of good food that shines through it that makes this such a brilliant book, and god, am I grateful for the prompt to take a better look at it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Knitting Post

I've just pinned out Kate Davies Observatory shawl. Mine has come out a little smaller than hers looks to be, probably because the Jamieson and Smith heritage yarn (natural colour range in dark fawn) isn't as close a match to the yarn she used as I thought. The J&S yarn is lovely though, great for the openwork bit, and beautifully soft so I don't mind that I have more of a scarf than a shawl.

This had a slightly more complicated looking lace pattern than I'm used to, but after the first sequence I realised it had a really nice symmetry to it which made it far easier than I had thought it would be to knit. It's a really lovely old Shetland lace pattern that I'm keen to use again. And actually I'll knit this hap again, but I'll make it bigger next time - both a little bit longer and somewhat deeper, and possibly a larger gauge needle too (knitting seems to be a lot about planning the next project).

Regardless of all the things I want to change I'm pleased with how this one has turned out, and the things I've learnt making it, though I still haven't learnt to love the process of pinning things out. It's hard on the knees and back, and has to be done with more care than I always have patience for. It really is my least favourite part of the process of making something, but as it's also one of the most important for the finished result there's no avoiding it - especially with Shetland wool which stretches considerably once it's been soaked.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Books I Bought Home

My holiday book shopping was quite restrained, not least because it would have been very tempting just to buy a ton of cookbooks (it didn't seem very sensible, but it was tempting), restraint aside I'm really pleased with my finds.

I've already mentioned the Elementum journal I found in the Borders (happily the Mainstreet trading company was a sensible comfort stop for us, their cake is as good as the book selection. Go if you can). I'm still delighted with it and looking forward to collecting the back issues.

The Scottish section of Inverness Waterstones yielded Hugh Trevor-Roper's 'The Invention of Scotland'. He's a historian I find fun to read (which certainly made him stand out when I first came across his work during A levels). This was written in the 70's when a devolved parliament was being mooted (Trevor-Roper apparently not a fan) but was left unfinished when it became clear it wasn't going to happen. The blurb suggests it's provocative so that's something to look forward to.

'Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation' is published by Historic Environment Scotland. It should be an interesting companion to the Trevor-Roper book as it looks to be much more about myth making than myth busting. It's also an interesting mix of buildings and places, but I really bought it because Kathleen Jamie is one of the contributors and she's always worth reading. Alistair Moffat is another and I like his writing too. The cover is an absolutely awful watercolour of Mousa Broch in Shetland, so bad I almost didn't buy the book.

'Who Built Scotland' was buy one get one half price so when I overcame my dislike of the cover I picked up 'Tales From The Dead of Night', a collection of 13 classic ghost stories. It has a great cover, and a decent looking selection of stories. I have a weakness for anthologies like this and being half price clinched the deal.

I saw High Albania by Edith Durham in Leakey's in Inverness last time I was up there. I couldn't make up my mind so left it, but it was still there so this time I got it. It's probably more for my Virago collection than for reading but it feels like a nice find either way.

The book I'm really pleased with though is 'The Journal of Sir Walter Scott'. I found this in Ullapool, looking a bit battered and on sale. I've kind of wanted it for a while but it's never been a priority. I love Scott to the point that I don't really understand why he's so unfashionable. Not all of his later work might stand up to scrutiny, you have to slow down and read him at the pace he dictates, and he does like to go on a bit (though I'm coming to see that as a joke he plays with the reader). I know too that his unionist politics possibly don't help him - but when he's good he's great.

The journal, which covers the last 5 years of his life, even in edited form covers more than 800 pages, but even a quick look suggests this is good Scott. It's full of interesting details about day to day life in the 1820's, it's also funny, and charming. This is a man you'd want to meet at a dinner party and count as a friend. God only knows where this doorstop of a thing is going to live though.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Books I came home to

This last week away has been such an oasis of calm and contentment in an otherwise not great year (nothing dramatically awful, but months of it being all cloud and precious little silver lining) that I really wasn't looking forward to going back to work today and being dragged back into all that stress again.

Happily life isn't all work, and just before I left a couple of really good looking review books had turned up - I didn't have much time to look at them properly before I went so I knew they were something to look forward to. A couple more arrived whilst I was away, and then (almost as if the universe, Thames & Hudson, Pushkin, and Little Toller, knew when I would most need a boost) today some real gems. I feel like I've won the book lottery here - and that's before I even start looking at the books I bought in Scotland.

I've already mentioned these, but didn't end up taking them away with me, so I'm going to share the excitement again - it's the latest offerings from British Library Tales of Weird series. There short story compilations are always good value, but these look really good. I might be looking forward to 'Spirits of the Season' just a little bit more, but only because everything in it is completely new to me. I've read a couple of the stories in 'Mortal Echos' elsewhere (the Dickens and the Saki) but as one of them (the Saki) is an absolute all time favourite that's only an indicator of quality.

Also from the British Library there's Kate Jackson's collection of puzzles, 'The Pocket Detective'. This looks like it's going to be fun, and (I know it's early, but...) would make a great stocking filler for fans of classic crime generally, and the British Library crime classics particularly. 

Something else from the British Library that would make a nice present for the bibliophile in your life (no other British institution has bought me half as much pleasure in the last few years) is Alex Johnson's 'Shelf Life' which contains the thoughts of various writers on books and reading. The charm of this one is that the writers are mostly Victorian or Edwardian figures, but also have Francis Bacon writing in 1601, and Charles Lamb in 1822. It looks like a really nice little collection. 

Tim Dee's 'Landfill' arrived today, it's one of Little Tollers monograph series, so is obviously a beautiful object in itself (these little books are very pleasing to look upon, picking one up is a treat). 'Landfill' is about the rubbish we've created, the gull's that have learnt to exploit it, and our uneasy relationship with them - at least that's what the blurb is making me think. It'll report back with more detail in due course.

Margaret Millar's 'Vanish in an Instant' was a glorious surprise. It's out on the 25th of this month, and is part of the Pushkin Vertigo series. Everything I've read in this series has been spectacular so far, I loved every a bit of noir, and adore rediscovering forgotten female authors so this book ticks all the boxes as far as I'm concerned. The back blurb tells me that: "Virginia Berkeley is a nice, well bought up girl. So what is she doing wandering through a snow storm in the middle of the night, blind drunk and covered in someone else's blood?" This wasn't even on my radar so you can imagine my excitement. 

And then there's Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro's 'Books do furnish a Painting'. A book that explores the books in art appeals to both the art historian and the bibliophile in me. Can I just keep repeating that this is a book about two of my favourite things? Probably not, but it looks as good as it sounds (it sounds so awesome doesn't it) and is another real treat. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

In Scotland

I'm really enjoying being away from work, and being in Scotland. There's been a complete absence of pressure to do anything particular for the last few days that's been blissful. I've had time to knit a bit, read a bit, potter about a bit, and today I got to catch up with a very dear friend I hadn't seen for decades. I've also bought some books - so I'm feeling pretty good about life at the moment.

This week is also Shetland wool week, which I have not yet ever been to, despite this being the second time I've had the right week off. For the second time by the time I realised that the cost of travel was prohibitive. A shame (for me) because it looks like it's been a lot of fun, and the makers market at the end of the week sounds particularly tempting. The pictures I've been seeing on Instagram have also got me really interested in natural dyes. Maybe a project for the future.

I haven't seen much yarn in my travels, but I've seen a lot of tweed and find myself more and more intrigued by it. There was a sort of eureka moment when I correctly identified a Lovet mill fabric in Campbell's of Beauly, and began to see house styles emerge from different mills. There's clearly a lot to learn here, and in an ideal world it would be the sort of thing the V&A in Dundee would be exploring.

Meanwhile the book-shopping has been fun too. Something I notice more every time I get north of the border is how Scotland feels increasingly different to England. Books are one way that visibly manifests itself. Every bookshop has a Scottish section, which is nothing new, but the range of titles is ever more interesting. It means Scottish fiction, both classic and contemporary, is front and centre along with every other aspect of Scottish culture.

It makes walking into a Waterstones here very different from any branch in England, where local interest books are much more local. It means Scotland's favourite booklist looks like This. There are some great books on that list, and real variety. I don't know what an English one would look like but I'm betting not quite as varied or interesting. Maybe it's just that I'm getting a glimpse of what things look like when they're not so London centric.

When I've finished bookshopping and got back home I'll share the list of my spoils.