Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rafael Sabatini and the House of Stratus

I discovered House of Stratus publishers about seven years ago, attracted by the really poor cover design I picked up a Dornford Yates, found the back blurb intriguing and became hooked. After that I kept an eye out for House of Stratus who kindly pointed me in the direction of Edger Wallace, and from there to a whole host of other classic crime writers.

When I’m browsing in larger bookshops it’s my habit to look for publishers rather than authors, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a slightly lazy approach, but it seems to work in terms of turning up interesting bits and bobs and so it was with Sabatini. The covers were as unappealing as anything else from Stratus, but apparently that’s no way to judge a book. I have a soft spot for swash buckling adventures and for a long time was reliant on Georgette Heyer to provide them in easily digestible form for me. For some reason I find it hard to turn up books from this particular genre (any suggestions will be gratefully received) so the how could I resist this introduction:

“Italian-born Rafael Sabatini ranks among the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexandre Dumas for his tales of high adventure, swashbuckling antics and valiant heroes. He is perhaps best loved for his books, ‘Scaramouche’, ’Captain Blood’ and ‘The Sea Hawk’...”

Could it be possible to imagine better Sunday afternoon reading? Well I thought not anyway and can promise I wasn’t disappointed. House of Stratus is an odd concern, I’m never quite sure if they’re still in business or not, (although it looks like they are at the moment). I notice that a lot of their list seems to have been appropriated by other publishers; lush facsimile copies of Edger Wallace now abound, and Vintage seems to have taken over Sabatini. If Stratus has gone I’m sorry for it, they had a delightful quirky list equal parts nostalgia, classic and pulp which provided me with many hours reading pleasure.

Sabatini was writing from the 1890’s to the 1940’s and his attitudes reflect his times. I find it hard to read modern historical fiction after contemporary classics, current re-creations generally feel a little off to me, because of this I tend to avoid them, but old historic fiction is another matter altogether – Heyer, Orczy, Sabatini – all delight me. I think it has to be because their books are old enough now to bridge the gap between the present and the past they attempt to conjure.

I read Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ once, it’s a terrific story but I found it very heavy going and so I find it with a lot of 18th century fiction, however hard I try with it. 19th century writing on the other hand is far more accessible to me, 20 pages or so seems to be all it takes to get in the right frame of mind and find an ear for the dialogue. The details of Sabatini’s 17th century may not bear close scrutiny but the combination of pace, old fashioned manners and even old fashioned prejudice make it easy enough to suspend disbelief and enjoy a cracking good yarn.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I dithered a bit about writing on this because I know it’s a book that’s been widely discussed recently. On the other hand I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since I finished it, not least because I felt it had some of the same disturbing qualities as Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘Vera’ which remains one of the most disquieting novels I have ever read. ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ has been on my shelf for years in a semi read state, but the combined forces of Cornflower and Book Snob made finally made me pay it proper attention.

I found the breadth of opinion on this book taking me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. I must have acquired it in my early twenties, but it makes much more sense to me now. In brief this is an examination of the breakdown of a marriage explored from the point of view of an increasingly wronged wife. Imogen Gresham is fifteen years younger than her husband Evelyn. It’s explained that she was initially attracted to his personality, good looks, and passion for herself; he has demanded sympathy, usefulness and complete devotion.

After 12 years of marriage to a successful and above all forceful man, especially one so much older it’s hardly surprising that Imogen’s sense of self has become so wrapped up in pleasing her husband. It’s easy to read her behaviour as passive, but I don’t feel that it’s a fair assessment, or what Jenkins meant us to see. Evelyn Gresham is almost monstrous, entirely selfish and self absorbed in the importance of himself and his career. Having presumably chosen his bride for her ornamental and pliant qualities it seems hardly fair that he should later object to her lack of force, but this would be excusable if it wasn’t for the way he consistently undermines her.

Early on there is a reference which suggests married relations are not as satisfying for Imogen as they could be, something that Evelyn clearly resents far more then she. Later it becomes one of the most mortifying aspects of his defection – what could be more devastating to a wife’s self esteem then the realisation that her rival’s response is more flattering then her own.

Blanche Silcox at first seems such an unlikely rival, middle aged, physically unattractive, dogmatic in her opinions, solid in every way. It confuses me a little that she is constantly referred to as kind, thoughtful certainly, but as her consideration is mostly directed towards getting what she wants, kindness seems an odd description for it. Her attractions are based on her wealth, self assurance, and a lack of femininity; she is a jolly good sort. Imogen doesn’t blame her for annexing Evelyn, so neither will I; however questionable her behaviour it pales into insignificance compared to his. The insistence that wife and mistress should exist on terms of friendship, the amount of access Blanche is given to Imogen’s son and household affairs is outrageous, and yet so blatantly done it is hard for her to protest.

This is where the similarity with ‘Vera’ is most apparent. Evelyn refuses to acknowledge any fault in his actions, as the weaker personality Imogen is forced to conclude the fault lies with her, but because it doesn’t she can’t possibly fix the problem. I think towards the end there are hints that Blanche and Evelyn’s relationship will prove disappointing to both parties. Imogen’s almost unconscious revenge is to leave them with joint responsibility for sorting out her future; Evelyn has already started to impose his will on Blanche, who will clearly turn out to be his match. I think it unlikely they will be happy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Trying to Spend

  Tagging along with a teaching friend who was ostensibly looking for stationary a good chunk of Sunday afternoon was spent in our local branch of B*****s. After fortifying cups of coffee and associated gossip I hit the shelves in search of something excitingly shiny and new. A job interview on Saturday has made me optimistic about future budgeting, regardless of outcome the occasion seemed worth celebrating and I thought a book would be nice...

  Specifically I was looking for Barbara Pym’s ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, Muriel Spark’s ‘The Comforters’ or Frank Baker’s ‘Miss Hargreaves’, indeed almost any of the Bloomsbury Group range would have done. All new books, none present. Then I looked for ‘Tarka the Otter’, recently reissued by penguin modern classics, avoided in the past because I assumed the otter died, but apparently the ending is ambiguous enough to be hopeful - so it’s on my list, but was not in stock.

  Whilst nobody was looking I browsed along paranormal romance trying to remember when this became a genre that deserved its own section. I found myself in front of a book rejoicing in the title ‘Mr Darcy, Vampyre’ and decided I was very much in the wrong place. In the end I bought nothing, the whole experience was deeply disconcerting – if a major retailer fails to take the money I want to spend its doing something badly wrong.

  Fortunately I have plenty to read at home, I spent the evening very happily with ‘The Talisman Ring’ (for the umpteenth time) but I find it very hard to understand why nothing I wanted was available. Generally when I come away from a bookshop empty handed it’s because I want something very specific and possibly obscure, or have no clear idea of what I’m after, but not when I have a longish list of recently published titles from major houses.

  This experience illustrates everything that seems wrong to me about bookselling today. Mountains of unsold, heavily discounted Dan Brown and Jamie Oliver demonstrate just how much faith is placed in a few big names to turn a profit, but can they do it? It’s impossible to avoid either author at the moment; they’re in every supermarket never mind bookshop and cheap with it. By Thursday when the Christmas books come out finding a tempting paperback beyond the massed legions of celebrity biography will become even more of a challenge, but why?

  Of course if the customer wants these titles, and sometimes they do, they should be stocked, but surely not to the exclusion of so many other things. Deep discounting isn’t helping profit margin, and lack of choice is driving people like me who would rather support the high street to Amazon. Price is a factor but so is choice, I miss the days when I could walk around almost any bookshop and find something that excited me, now I only rarely find that level of variety and imagination, generally in independent and second hand stores. The frustrating thing is that the books I want to read are being published, and I know I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, so why are we being ignored by so many retailers?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

  I am a River Cottage convert, somewhere in the dim and distant past I vaguely remember sneering dismissively at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but those times are gone. I think it’s the get your hands dirty approach which won me over in the end - I really don’t want to own a pig, much less kill one, but should the situation arise and I prove equal to it, I think it would be only right to take the nose to tail attitude of waste not want not. I truly do enjoy making my own bread and preserves (although the mincemeat’s looking a bit disappointing at the moment) partly because people who don’t are fooled into thinking I’m doing something impressive, mostly because it’s deeply satisfying at some very basic level to produce this stuff.

  I discovered The River Cottage handbooks when I was given ‘Preserves’, and absolutely loved the Bread Book when it came out, so much so that I took it on holiday with me – but that’s another story. After that it was a foregone conclusion that I should have the full set, and at last I do after picking up a pristine second hand copy of handbook No1 - ‘Mushrooms’ by John Wright.

  Now is definitely the time to admit that I’m not that keen on mushrooms, I like the ordinary available in every supermarket safe kind, but can happily avoid the more exotic adventurous possibly killer variety. They are the wild food I am least likely to forage for, in truth if I can’t say with confidence that it’s a field mushroom I wouldn’t touch it, and all of this is why ‘Mushrooms’ was the last book to join my collection. Indeed if I hadn’t seen it second hand I still wouldn’t have it which would have been a huge loss because it’s a wonderful book.

  Even ignoring the excellent recipes at the back, the useful advice on fungi hunting and the law, or the useful guides to different methods of identification, and perhaps overlooking the excellent colour photos with guides to habitat, season, and distinguishing features this would be a wonderful book. It’s certainly a useful size and weight to slip into a jacket pocket, and seems to have all the necessary information to make it an excellent field guide, I am actually almost tempted to try mushroom hunting now, but the best thing, the very best thing about this book is the text.

  I was absolutely entranced by John Wright’s style and humour, so much so that this has become bedside reading. The tone is slightly deadpan, but not distractingly so. It’s fair to say there are bits which are intentionally humorous, but underlying that is a deep respect for how dangerous inedible mushrooms can be - In the section on poisonous fungi there are dire warnings about what will happen if you eat one, and exactly why it works on your system the way it does. I’m inclined to like any book which encourages me to look more closely at what’s growing around me, it’s a definite bonus that it could conceivably be a life saver.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Georgette Heyer

When I was eleven I was lucky enough to get a really excellent English teacher, she managed to make her subject come alive for me in a way that none of her successors ever did, and she introduced me to Georgette Heyer, for all of which I am very grateful.

Heyer became and has remained my favourite author, her books have been there to escape into whenever I’ve felt in need of a lift, and have never yet let me down. A quick check suggests I own about forty nine titles all but one of which I bought in my early teens. That one is ‘The Unfinished Clue’ which doesn’t seem to have been in print back then. I stumbled across it about a year ago in the new arrow editions and couldn’t quite believe I had found something unread from such a favourite writer, but so it was.

The Unfinished Clue’ turned out to be a nice cosy sort of murder mystery with the typical country house setting and Heyer cast of characters, it was thoroughly satisfying, and I loved every moment of it, but it’s not her very best work. A little bit of research revealed that there are a handful of titles that Heyer had repressed in her lifetime, either because she felt they were too personal or not up to scratch. I wondered if ‘The Unfinished Clue’ was originally one of these, I see that she intended to repress another crime novel ‘Footsteps in the Dark’ which is arguably a better book.

Heyer’s first manuscript was written when she was 19, and since it was published in 1921 I don’t think she’s ever been entirely out of print. Still writing up to her death in 1974, she must have produced on average a book a year. Her earnings supported herself, her husband and her younger siblings so there would have been tremendous pressure to keep on publishing, despite this all her research is meticulous; people, places, things, events, slang, costume, it’s all spot on. The level of detail was criticised at the time, but I think it’s what makes the books live and breathe now.

A search on Amazon disclosed that all the repressed titles I found mentioned are available, expensive but not really outrageously so, and with fairly positive reviews. I am curious to read them, extremely so, but at the same time slightly uncomfortable about it. Having considered the books and by extension the author to be friends for such a long time I can’t help but feel like I should respect her wishes and leave well alone, even more so as I learn how private a person she was. Yet on the other hand she initially chose to publish these books, so at what point does an author get to choose their legacy? Can they choose to delete parts of their own canon? I think the answer is probably not, but for now I’m going to respect Heyer’s wishes, after all she’s done for me it seems the least I can do in return.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

Afternoon Tea Parties by Susannah Blake

  ‘Afternoon tea parties’ was the result of a holiday in the Scottish Borders; we had the use of an Aga and something that could fairly be described as a drawing room coupled with the sort of weather that encourages you to stay indoors. I found the book in a foray into Melrose, we had spent the morning at Abbotsford and where very much in the right mood for tea, so it felt like serendipity and had to be bought.

  My partner in tea is very much of the opinion that it’s an excellent institution sadly neglected in the modern age. I don’t quite share his evangelical passion for the scone, but on the whole agree with him. I definitely think tea has become an under used social occasion, my first thought on reading this book was how much more fun it would be to cook for a tea party then lunch or dinner, cake is a very acceptable left over and there’s such a lot of room for creativity.

  My passion for cookbooks was born from the realisation that I was falling into the trap of using the same key flavours in everything with the end result that regardless of the key ingredient it all tasted similar. It’s the same with menu planning – all too easy to fall back on old favourites, and that’s the pleasure of a book like this. Susannah Blake has outlined twenty different themed teas, mostly following the formula of three sweets and a savoury, with a different tea blend used each time. I don’t think there’s much that I couldn’t find amongst the many other cookbooks I share my kitchen with, but none of those other books have the same clarity of purpose.

  I have it on good authority that both the Russian and French teas are authentic. Suggestions for a Champagne tea, or a winter wonderland spread in frosty white and silver, or a floral garden tea (with subtle use of rosemary, lavender and rose flavours) enchant me. The gentleman’s tea that we made was perfect for the occasion (fortunately it included scones, but we would have had them anyway).

  It’s also a very pretty book, beautifully styled, which thoughtfully includes a directory of places to hunt for china and linen depending on how seriously you want to take the cause, I have long coveted a nice tea set and one of those tiered plate affairs and am hoping yet again that this will be the Christmas, but even if it isn’t afternoon tea is becoming a fixture.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Valley of the Dolls

I first picked up 'Valley of the Dolls' in a bookshop when I was about 6 attracted by the cover, and was promptly told to put it down. Checking when it was written this morning I realise it had already been around for 15 years by that time. Since then it’s a book I’ve been vaguely aware of, and associated with all things trashy. I don’t think I was alone in being slightly surprised that Virago had chosen to reprint it, but I notice it has run into several editions for them.

Having moved through dismissive I picked it up several times without buying before Virago published it again as one of their anniversary hardbacks after which I was firmly intrigued so when I found a second hand copy it had to be. When I mentioned it in my reading group reaction was almost universally negative, and this intrigued me more. What is it that makes a classic?

I enjoyed ‘Valley of the Dolls’, despite the quality of the writing, plotting, and characterisation, and also perhaps because of those same deficiencies – it was such an easy read, and okay, more than a little bit trashy, but that only made it more irresistible. The sex seems tame by 2009 standards which is a definite bonus when I consider what’s alluded to and then glossed over, and in some ways the drug taking seems tame too when held up against contemporary tabloid excess, but at the same time the whole thing seems very current. I feel like I should be saying it’s second rate, and yet somehow I can’t.

The hook for me is that it feels true. The relationships between the women, attitudes towards sex, physical attraction, fame, youth, the price of success, marriage treated as a financial safety net, I recognise all of it. All the disappointments, compromises, pain and desperation in these women’s lives is depressingly familiar, in our celebrity obsessed society this book reads as entirely relevant. I suppose the details might feel more commonplace after 40 odd years but the implicit criticisms of how women are treated, and treat each other have remained desperately powerful.

I read this book about the same time as ‘The Women’s Room’ and ‘Peyton Place’. Of the three of them it’s probably going to be ‘Valley of the Dolls’ which sticks with me, the one that notwithstanding its faults felt like it had most to say about how we live now. I do wonder how it will read in 40 years time; if it will still have a claim to being a classic? I think it might, which goes to show how hard it is to pick what will last and what won’t. I don’t imagine that back in 1966 it seemed likely that it would last in the way it has, the blockbusters that followed from the likes of Danielle Steel or Jackie Collins certainly show no sign of having the same longevity.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Under Employed

  Over the past year I’ve had altogether more time on my hand than I’m used to, the end result is that I’ve also had a lot less money then I’m used to. Not having money has been something of a mixed blessing (fortunately not a total disaster as yet) clearly there are a lot of things impossible without it, but mid recession my situation is not unusual. There are social obligations that I can say no to with a clear conscience which is a tremendous luxury, and time to read in a way I’ve missed since responsibility for bills took over my life. Definitely not all bad.

  Before this happened I liked second hand book shopping, but I was more inclined to buy new, pristine paperbacks straight off the shelf in Waterstone’s or Borders and order exciting packages of half a dozen volumes at a time from Amazon. New books are currently pretty much outside of my budget though, which has meant something of a readjustment in buying habits. Yes I miss being able to buy all the exciting new things amazon are so helpful as to bring to my attention - but they’ll keep. In the meantime a whole new world of second hand wonder has opened up.

  Despite an upwards trend even in charity shop pricing a book compares well with a weekend paper, and very well with a chain shop coffee, so should there be a spare fiver at the end of the week it’s a bit of a foregone conclusion where it will end up. I find it slightly ironic that despite being poorer than I’ve been since leaving university, I’m acquiring more books than ever. Ironic but deeply satisfying.

  Beyond the price second hand book shopping has other attractions; namely the fast vanishing pleasure of browsing with the real possibility of turning up treasure. I can’t say that it’s really extended my reading horizons, but my collection of Virago’s has expanded significantly, I’ve turned up a variety of books by authors I love long out of print, and It’s let me chase recommendations from likeminded readers that I might once have thought twice about.

  I think it’s also made me a much more discerning buyer, a totally inflexible budget means no room for mistakes, experiments and speculation certainly, but not outright mistakes. So I’ll take a chance on ‘Lady into Fox’ despite mixed reports, or 6 different E. H. Youngs confident that I can put my trust in Virago, but will pass up dozens of other titles that only half tempt. If I come out of this experience with nothing else I will at least have a larger, better chosen collection of books – the beginnings of a library with a coherent theme to it - and know that I’m much better read on those themes, in short the time will not have been wasted, and that’s very comforting some days.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Loving Without Tears

  This is the Molly Keane book I was so obsessed about not having on the shelf. A nice well cared for copy arrived from amazon late last week, and I spent yesterday reading it. The first thing that I thought of was Verity’s post in The B Files because the book has a neat little address sticker in the front complete with a rather old looking phone number. Clearly this book started off as a keeper, well read, well treated, returnable if lost and tagged against unauthorised borrowing, so what train of events led it to me I wonder?

  Having read the introduction - by Russell Harty (which seems slightly incongruous somehow) the book sounded desperately unfamiliar. When I started reading the book proper it placed my rereading/book hoarding dilemma in a new light. I discovered and read Molly Keane in my very early 20’s and the best part of 15 years have passed since she first came my way, the only thing from this book that had stuck with me was one very specific description of a window, but it was enough to make me sure I had read it before. That said it might as well have been an entirely new book to me, I realise it’s certainly a different person reading and judging it. Doubts about taking the time to reread have been significantly diminished.

  A sense of familiarity was compounded by similarities with Noel Cowards ‘Easy Virtue’, I only know the play from last years film, but the plot of Loving without tears is roughly the same. Most of the action is crammed into a single day, the final few chapters play out in an hour or two on a quayside 3 weeks later, the whole thing reads like a play complete with stage instructions, the dialogue is very slangy and dramatic, with an embarrassment of snappy one liners. Spoken it would work as a drawing room farce, written it strikes a false note.

  Molly had a successful career in the 1950’s as a playwright, so I’m guessing that this 1951 novel is probably an adaptation of something originally done for the stage. I can’t say that I feel it’s her greatest work; it lacks the corrosively acidic element that makes her best comedies so black, or the pitiless insight that make many of her novels so compelling, but on the other hand a definitely happy ending is no bad thing. Angel, the villain of the piece is a wonderful portrait of selfish motherhood, and a lot of the one liners are very funny. There is a sense of Elizabethan romp about plot and subplot, Angel herself is a sort of virgin queen, Finn her half tamed butler definitely has a puckish quality, neither can be trusted an inch - even the house of Owlbeg seems an unlikely place, a sort of fairy tale castle perched on a cliff and wreathed in enchantments.

  All in all a fun read which has made me want to re-explore Keane, and now I’m more than happy to spend the time on it, unread Trollope be damned.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Best Laid Plans...

  I had a plan for today which partially involved being witty and insightful about Elizabeth Bowen, but by this point in the afternoon it’s fair to say that all my plans have come to naught and on the whole the last 24 hours have been a real stinker. In need of a moment of calm I went for a browse round Waterstone’s and things started to look better almost immediately when I spotted Tim Dee’s ‘The Running Sky’.

  I’ve been waiting for this book to come out since the spring when I first read about it in a Guardian review of 'Archipelago' (a yearly journal for Islomaniacs). Amazon has been reminding me gently that it’s now available ahead of Thursday’s official publication date but I held back. ‘The Running Sky’ is ostensibly about bird watching, and my interest in it stemmed from an article Dee had written for Archipelago about Shetland. I knew there was to be more in the book, and having flipped through it I had to get it. (Brand new and in hardback as well - fortunately a combination of discounting and loyalty card points saved my budget for the week.)

  Once upon a time I was a reasonably keen birdwatcher, Shetland has a lot of them, and as anyone who’s lived near Tern or Skua colonies will appreciate apart from anything else it’s nice to know what’s attacking you. I can’t say that I’ve kept on top of trends in natural history, but as a keen book spotter I have noticed a certain type of nature writing emerge over the last few years. Starting perhaps with Adam Nicholson’s success with ‘Sea Room’ there is a definite type emerging – rugged but sensitive accounts of sleeping under the stars and being at one with nature.

  I’m aware that my tone is slightly dismissive, but I do enjoy these books, I was bought up though on the likes of Gavin Maxwell (officer, gentleman explorer, interior decorator). He wrote about the environment around him with the sensibility of a hunter and a farmer, Nicholson in ‘Sea Room’ writes as an owner, the tone is slightly different and more in akin to the countryside I recognised.

  What has attracted me to ‘The Running Sky’ so strongly is that at first glance it seems to be a combination of a lot of highly satisfactory elements. There is plenty of beautifully observed detail in really rather nice, almost poetic prose, there’s also actual poetry which looks well chosen, a bit of science for balance, and chapters laid out by month which makes me think I’ll return to this book again and again. Anyway finding it turned my day around so for that I’m very grateful, and if it turns out not to be as good as I hoped for me I know an excellent home it can go to...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Reading and Rereading

     I’ve been collecting books for as long as I can remember, but once upon a time my horizons didn’t stretch much beyond Enid Blyton, even then I had a definite preference for anything set on an Island, regularly rereading my favourites. When I was 11 I discovered ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ and read it 17 times (not kidding) in a row. A year later I had moved on to Dorothy L. Sayers and Georgette Heyer, both of whose books have had repeated readings. By the time I was 13 it was Gavin Maxwell, and now my original copy of ‘Ring of Bright Water’ has fallen apart with wear.

    Heyer encouraged me to engage with the classics. Her books didn’t read like the other historical romances I tried, possibly because by the time I was reading them, they where already 60 years old, and felt more period then the 80’s bodice rippers I came across, better written too. Thanks to Heyer I read Austen, various Bronte’s, Elliot and Mrs Gaskell, all more or less as I bought them, but at some point around this period things started to get out of control...

     This is when I started to buy more books then I could keep up with reading, and as the year’s progress the problem has only got worse. I’m not apologising for it; not really, I know I will eventually read all these books. Actually it’s more the case that eventually I will probably read most of these books, but you know what I mean. It strikes me as pure common sense (and in no way self indulgent, oh no) to collect for the future like a book obsessed squirrel.

    What has become something of an issue is the guilt that I feel when I pick up an old favourite to reread. There are so many new books to get through - what am I doing? A month or so ago I reread all the Harry Potters, it felt like going on holiday, I enjoyed it tremendously, and arguably got a deeper appreciation of the collected works of J K Rowling. What I didn’t get was started on Trollope; something I’ve had in mind to do since the spring.

    Increasingly I make the effort to resist the lure of old favourites and go on to something new. Sympathetic reading groups, and the discovery of so many likeminded bloggers out there have made the list of books I want to read, and have waiting to be read longer then I could ever once have imagined. My dilemma such as it is, is this – do I carry on keeping books I read once, and probably won’t read again? Space is short, shouldn’t I release them to a second hand shop for others to enjoy? The fact is I wouldn’t let go without a fight, the sort of buying ban that might let me catch up seems inconceivable, but increasingly I find myself paralysed with indecision between the book I want to read, and the one I know I should read next.

    It’s by no means the biggest problem I have in my life, but it’s taking some thought.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fairy Tales

The fairy tales that stick with me are the ones that end badly. Any Cinderella story worth its salt works out well these days; satisfying - but not for long. The genuinely disturbing never quiet disappears though. I still find it unpleasant to dwell on Hans Christian Anderson for too long.
Alice Thomas Ellis never fails to disturb; everything I have read by her has a mythic quality about it. Occasionally it’s a sense of other worldliness as in ‘Fairy Tale’, but mostly it’s an awareness of shadows and rage. I first discovered her as a fiction writer when I picked up a title because it was published by Virago. The book was the ‘Sin Eater’- equal parts troubling and compelling. My second was ‘The Summer House Trilogy’ (also Virago) had the same disturbing qualities, and then a dead end – no more titles in print.
No real problem to round up the rest of her work, but in some ways it surprises me that obscurity is looming for her - Booker shortlisted in 1982 (that feels like it’s becoming a bit of a mantra), some of her novels adapted for television, and pitch black humour. Why is it that so many women writers answering this description seem destined to hover on the margins of our literary awareness? What is it that makes Angela Carter so fashionable, and Alice Thomas Ellis, who is not so very different, so difficult to find?
‘Fairy Tale’ is on my mind because I just got it back yesterday; it’s a book I desperately want others to read, desperately want to talk about. Unfortunately I can’t say very much about it without spoiling the plot, but I’ll give it my best shot. High summer, isolated country, and a sense of something wild, untamed and ancient combine to create a vaguely hostile, definitely uncomfortable world where the trappings of humanity are pathetic vulnerable things offering no protection. There are three women to fill maiden, mother, and hag roles, and a sort of virgin birth, and the whole thing is held together by a remarkable lightness of touch.
Hovering all the time on horror, inviting the reader’s active repulsion, events are leavened with an element of the ridiculous that maintains a knife edge balance right to the very end. What really stayed with me from this book is the suggestion that though the woods are full of nasty things, nothing can be as nasty as the woods themselves. The brothers Grimm would approve.
By way of a postscript my mincemeat is still behaving itself and the male has bought not only a copy of my errant Molly Keane, but also a Sarah Caudwell, which to read first is the sort of dilemma I can enjoy, and certainly takes the sting out of having nothing better to do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Distraction Tactics

Well the mincemeat is made and I am viewing it with a degree of suspicion normally reserved for spiders. The quantities involved turned out to be so vast that they wouldn’t all fit in a bowl, had to be decanted into the largest pan I own, and still threatened to escape. Slightly disturbingly it all disappeared into a very few pots, where squish it as I might there still seem to be little pockets for air (bad) and all I can see is suet and apple (unappetizing). It will be a few weeks until I know if it’s worked or if it’s the pickled herring all over again.
In the meantime I will be reading and trying not to stare. The perfect book would have been Sarah Caudwell’s ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’ which I have sadly just finished. Sarah Caudwell was my Slightly Foxed discovery of last week, and ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’ the cheapest on amazon. I liked the sound of Caudwell not least because we shared a university, although she went on to do a lot, and I went on to make Jam. Sadly she died from cancer in 2000 aged only 60, and having written only 4 books.

‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’ is the last of these, so I really started at the wrong end, but two more are on their way, and I get the feeling chronology isn’t going to matter to much. Caudwell is a relatively contemporary writer for me, I would think this book was written in 1998/99, and she worked on international tax planning for a major bank whilst she was writing, so presumably well into the 1990’s, but none of her young barristers have a mobile phone, there is no mention of computers, and they communicate by letter rather than email. Ironic how long ago the near past can feel.
Billed as a legal whodunit, the murder mystery aspect is satisfying in a vaguely Agatha Christie way, but it’s not as a crime novel that this book really works. The characters are sketched in quick light lines, they are easy to imagine but without any real substance, and the plot relies on the device of unfeasibly long letters to explain everything, but none of this matters compared to the sheer glorious wordiness of it all. The characters exist to say clever, funny things. Not jokes as such, just delightful, complicated sentences which made me laugh, but with the sort of elusive quality which makes quotation pointless – if I started a quote it would last for pages.
Caudwell is destined to join the select ranks of authors who I will read and reread whenever I want cheering up. Her combination of elitism, classical allusions (so glad I have a dictionary of Saints), lightness of touch, and humour all make for particularly satisfying reading.
The post has failed to deliver today, I hope tomorrow brings the next book - until then I will be trying not to prod the mincemeat and looking for another book to suit my mood.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Frances Bissell – The Scented Kitchen

Cooking With Flowers

There seem to be two schools of thought on using flowers in food. There’s the camp I belong to which finds the idea intriguing and attractive, and then those who react with a level of suspicion that suggest your trying to poison them. Sadly my partner falls into the latter category which calls for a certain level of ingenuity on my part if I’m to change his mind.
You could ask why bother? I like to use edible plants, partly because it looks pretty (and sounds charming) but also because of the long history of using herbs we’re now inclined to ignore in the kitchen, and this certainly includes a lot of flower flavours. The great thing about this book is that it’s not about making things look pretty; it’s about flavour - perfect for converting the unconvinced.
This book is the result of many years of research and experiment, there really is nothing gimmicky about it. Instead plenty of information on flavour extraction methods – sugars, vinegars, oils, butters and more, and a contents page that reads like an Elizabethan garden. Carnations, gilly flowers, elderflower, lavender, marigolds, jasmine, roses, and pansies all feature as do others.
I can personally recommend the white peach and elderflower jam - enjoyed by the most sceptical of testers. A little bit of lavender made a huge difference to apricot jam, adding a whole new dimension of smoky sophistication, and the macaroon recipe is brilliant, my macaroons slightly lacked the elegant appearance of Laduree, but otherwise where spot on, not a bad achievement. (It seems the secret is to let them dry out slightly before cooking.)
The only downside, if it can be called that, is that there are no colour pictures, just a few black and white petals scattered across the pages, but for anyone with an interest in food history, or experimenting with what’s in the garden and hedgerow, it’s indispensible and irrisistable in turns.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Domestic Bliss

Last birthday I became the proud owner of River Cottage handbook No2 (Preserves, by Pam Corbin) which reinvigorated a never very distant interest in Jam making specifically, and preserving generally. It gave me the idea that I would like to make my own mincemeat, but being December already it was too late. My partner’s garden is currently full of sloes and apples, and our plan for this weekend involved doing something with both. Checking the method for sloe gin (that one didn’t take any thinking about) reminded me about the mincemeat.
I clearly remembered finding a recipe last year that sounded lovely and would take care of a handy amount of apple so I set out to look it up. Hindsight suggests it would have been wise to make a note; too many cookbooks confuse the cook.
Despite being very apple-y I rejected the River Cottage version for not being traditional enough. Same thing with Nigella’s vegetarian Cranberry adaptation, which I did make last year, it’s excellent, particularly as a condiment with roast meat or cheese, but come Christmas it’s not saying mince pie to me.
Next port of call was Florence White’s ‘Good Things In England’ (lovely Persephone cookbook which I’ve yet to use) A Mrs Brewitt of The Priory, Melton Mowbray is credited with a very nice sounding concoction which comes with absolutely no instructions except ‘Do not let any flour of any kind touch the suet, or the mincemeat will ferment.’ It sounds like excellent advice, but I can’t see how flour would touch it. Mrs Brewitt makes me suspicious; I don’t think this will be the moment for Good Things.
And so I turned to Elizabeth David –‘Spices, salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen’ to be precise, now published by Grub Street. (I love Grub Street, not least because they specialise in Cookery and Military Aviation History, delightfully unexpected.) David tells me that I ought to know a good recipe already, before conceding that she’s asked a lot for mincemeat methods so perhaps a good mix isn’t that common. She also assures me that pre shredded suet is fine, which is nice to have confirmed, because I believe her when she says shredding it is a horrible job. She is, however, a little vague on a few points I want to be clear about, so I’m putting her on hold for now.
In situations like this I always end up turning to Jane Grigson, and so it is today. In ‘Jane Grigson’s English Food’ I find two versions. One involving steak sounds a bit too authentic, vegetarians will not approve. One for orange mincemeat sounds perfect. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Missing In Action

One of the unexpected results of cataloguing my books is the growing number of things I Know I once had, but which have disappeared. I don’t mean the ones that I thought better of and quietly disposed with (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), or the ones I outgrew and passed on (goodbye Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, and Lillian Beckwith – unlikely stable mates that you are). Nor the books that I wasn’t precisely ashamed off, but who’s presence on the shelves jarred a little with the general tone (yes I can be that shallow) so most of Jilly Cooper went, though nothing is going to separate me from ‘Riders’ and I don’t care who knows it. Douglas Adams went too when I moved house once and felt I had to seriously rationalise, I think it was the right thing to do but sometimes I wonder? Tom Holt’s Mapp and Lucia sequels went at the same time with no regrets. Good but not E F Benson.
No, I mean the books I would never willingly have parted from. Books I cherished. Books I would really avoid lending because I wasn’t prepared to lose them. I’m still slightly mortified by the memory of my 8 year old self neglecting to return a famous five book to its rightful owner. He eventually forgot he’d ever had it and got a new copy, I however remember my guilt.
The thing is that although Amazon has made it easy to replace lost and out of print books I find the replacement is not the same thing at all. I love new books; clean smell, crease free pages, unbroken spines - all unsullied and perfect, they are a joy to handle. I love books which have aged with me, I can live with the occasional tea stain, the carrot cake recipe scribbled in the back of ‘To The Lighthouse’, even dog eared pages because it’s what makes them my books. Books given as presents – a battered copy of Angela Carter’s ‘Nights at the Circus’ is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Books from school prize giving’s, the reference books, still used, that chart my formal education. The books who’s lending build friendships. The title which strikes me as just what I’ve been looking for, and the title I see out the corner of my eye – the one I’ve been after for a while – and can’t quite believe I’ve found, can touch, and now read. Books are more than just what is in them.
I love hunting out second hand books, one man’s rubbish being another woman’s treasure, okay the book might come with a bit of baggage and no longer look its best, but there’s a connection. Second hand replacement books however I find strangely unsatisfactory. They look read, but not by me, ridiculously they strike me as imposters. None the less common sense has prevailed, the book I minded most about not having is already on its way, used. I have put aside the dark suspicions I harboured regarding book based kleptomaniacs, and am beginning to feel a touch of anticipation; there is always just the faintest possibility that I’m wrong, and that this will be an unread title by a favourite author...

Friday, September 11, 2009


George Mackay Brown

By way of a change from unjustly neglected female writers a justly remembered male writer- George Mackay Brown. In the 13 years since his death this Orkney poet and storytellers reputation has grown to the point where it is possible to find him represented in high street book chains. Not always, but sometimes, beyond the yards of Dan Brown he’s sitting there. I cannot express how comforting I find it when I come across such a book it feels to me like a little beacon of hope for choice and diversity within bookselling – not qualities the high street often encourages, so thank you Birlinn and Scottish Arts Council.
Critically acclaimed, prolific, Booker short listed, winner of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Short Story Prize, winner of the Saltire Book of the Year, and honoured by Dundee and Glasgow universities it shouldn’t be surprising to find GMB on any shelf. I do find it slightly unexpected though because he writes almost exclusively about Orkney and with an obsession for the islands past, and whilst this is what draws me to him, in my case it is in the spirit of an exile desperate for a glimpse of home.
GMB described his task as poet and storyteller “to rescue the centuries’ treasure before it is too late. It is as though the past is a great ship that has gone ashore, and archivist and writer must gather as much of the rich squandered cargo as they can.” Living on a small island in the middle of a vast Sea has a profound effect on every aspect of life. Weather and Tide are inescapable facts, the long summer days of never quite dark, long winter nights lit occasionally by the northern lights, even the possibility of seeing a pod of killer whales roll through town chasing harbour seals; it all contributes to a sense of other, of something more, of something bigger.
In Orkney the past feels like a living thing, it is certainly something that everybody lives with. ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’ is the novel GMB was booker shortlisted for, it’s a gorgeously evocative title, but I have a preference for his short stories. They are perfect, utterly complete, wonderfully economical and efficient evocations of the Islands. Generally about small things, the ordinary events that make up life, there is still a sense of something extraordinary, something more. I think it’s a sense of belonging to a history, a tradition and a place.
I’ve read Mackay Brown for years, but only discovered a few weeks ago when I finally got a copy of ‘Northern Lights’ how narrowly I missed meeting him myself. He describes a boat trip with my father in Shetland, a fortnight before I would have come back home for the summer. My 13 year old self didn’t read his work and clearly didn’t take in this parental anecdote, so reading about it 20 years later is an odd experience. I’m far to middle class for GMB. His words make it clear that my sort are a stain on his Islands history, incapable of understanding or feeling the rhythms he describes. I wish I could have told him he was wrong.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Good Behaviour - Molly Keane

Good Behaviour

Along with every other lover of vintage fiction I have a list of pet authors whose work has slipped out of print for no reason I can comprehend. I understand why Virago can’t keep every modern classic they once rescued from obscurity in print, but there is something particularly poignant about the ones that have fallen by the wayside again, the jaunty little sentence in the introduction brightly proclaiming that this book is about to reclaim its rightful position in the cannon leaves me mourning over lost hopes.

I am relieved that this fate hasn’t entirely overtaken Molly Keane who is definitely one of my pet causes, but she is still under read, and definitely under appreciated. (Molly is one of the authors by whom I judge the quality of a bookshop – if she’s on the shelf I consider it a good one.) I wonder if it’s because she writes from the point of view of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and writes about a time that’s still remarkably sensitive? Sympathy for the landed classes is often problematical, no matter how evil the times they have fallen on.

Good Behaviour’ is from Molly’s later career, first published in 1981, and short listed for the booker, it is a black and bleak comedy of manners. Written with acid rather than ink, not a single character appears in a flattering light. The St Charles family living beyond their means behind the gates of Temple Alice utterly unwilling, and unable to conceive of a different way of life slip further into poverty and decay. Told by the unlovely and unloved daughter of the house Aroon, mistress of self deception, good behaviour – behaving according to the rules of caste - is a mask that slowly slips revealing the deficiencies and desires just under the surface.

The world Aroon inhabits makes the Mitford set look positively socialist and liberal in its attitudes, her parents have sufficient charm in manner and person to carry this off, not Aroon unpopular with servants and peer group alike, she is forced resentfully to accept her “...powerless status as daughter at home – a child of the house living in the grace and favour of unexplored obedience.” Apparently Molly had an exceptionally poor relationship with her own mother, and every mother she creates is monstrous. Mrs St Charles is no exception, her unconcealed dislike, often spilling over into open contempt, for her daughter poisons both their futures.
It’s not a happy book, but I find the coldly dispassionate tone robs events of the potential to be viewed as tragedy; it could almost be a horror story but that it’s too deft and subtle to be so easily categorized. What this book does feel is true, which is why I hope people carry on reading it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Sweet and Twenties

Arlen v Nichols
My fascination with the interwar period started young with the colourful (and with hindsight carefully edited) tales of my grandfathers youth, we grew up with the legends of shipwreck, near disaster in a bi-plane on the way to a funeral, trips to the Paris Ritz, country house parties, hunt balls, and so much more.
Since discovering Waugh and Wodehouse my search for twenties and thirties literature has never looked back, sometimes I’ve struck gold as with Dornford Yates, or Beverley Nichols (who’s title I have borrowed for this, and who's picture you are currantly admiring) and sometimes not so much, as with Michael Arlen. (Cecil Beaton image below)
Ah, it all seemed so promising.'The Green Hat' was one of the first titles from Capuchin Classics; a book to keep alive – the promise of a dashing young heroine who races around Europe in her yellow Hispano-Suiza, verbal smartness, youthful Cynicism... But it’s not a style that’s aged well in my mind. I found it almost impossible to read – prose that made me feel like I was wading through metaphorical treacle.
Arlen with his European background, yellow rolls, immaculate clothes, and fascination with high society was the sort of man that my grandfather would have described as “Not Quite Quite”, a sentiment Beverley Nichols clearly shared. Arlen gets a dig in every one of his books I’ve read. Nichols is a curious character in his own right, and I think might be about to have a moment as his name seems to keep cropping up. I’m bringing him up because he manages to elegantly sum up an issue I’ve expended a lot of time trying to work out thus; “whether we are discussing personalities or works of art, the second–rate dates, the first-rate doesn’t.” I’m inclined to agree with this sentiment, and coincidently it’s just the beginning of an attack on Arlen’s ‘The Green Hat’ which I’m going to copy out faithfully here because it sums up my feelings entirely.
    “Iris Storm, the palely promiscuous heroine, is speaking:
‘I am a house of men,’ she begins, ‘of their desires and defeat and death.’ Which, one would have thought, was enough to go on with. But no. She continues: ‘You laid your foot down on the soil of kindness, but where your foot fell there leapt up a dandelion...and in the heart of the dandelion a tiny little rose, but what, my friend, is just one little rose surrounded to suffocation by a huge dandelion?’
    My own answer to this question would be just one little lemon; one just has to rub one’s little eyes after reading such stuff.”
I’m glad I stuck with ‘The Green Hat’, If I want to get a real feel for the period I can’t ignore it’s best sellers, but I don’t think I’ll read Arlen again, however I will cherish the image of a slim, dark, young man driving round town in a yellow rolls, that’s the stuff that legends should be made of.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Confessions of a collector...

Having spent the evening with a friend who’s been known to buy a book or two herself, and conversation having drifted round to where we might find the ultimate promised land of reasonably priced, well stocked, second hand bookshops I am ready to admit that I might be more of a collector then a reader. Ever since I was a child I've wanted my own Library, and have gathered books accordingly. I often wonder how many volumes I need before my shelves can claim their true title?

I do read, and I'm obsessive about having a book with me. I'm the woman who won’t leave the house without a book in her bag, even if it’s just to browse round town – or visit a friend. Most of the time I'm not sure that one book is enough, if a journey is in the offing it will indeed be more than one book, no holiday is complete without a small library in attendance. My preferred coat is a Barbour because of the number of excellent book carrying pockets it carries, yet I probably only read a couple of books a week.

Nothing to be ashamed of in that until I consider how many books I buy in the same time, a number that often reaches double figures in seven days. If it was just about reading I would use public libraries, but it’s very rare that I do – I hate to give the books back. Often I buy things knowing I won’t pick them up again for months, maybe years, but I want to know they’re sitting on the shelf waiting for me. Some books – I'm looking at a stack almost a foot high made up of six Everyman volumes of Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – I’m sure I will never read, but they where a pound each in Oxfam. How could I resist? After all it’s the sort of thing any well furnished library needs...

I find the book as an object is as important to me as its contents, not more important, but definitely as important. I'm not a fan of hard backs or special editions, though I have both, paperbacks; lovely, light, compact, cheap paperbacks are my first and true love, and I can’t get enough of them.