Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shadow Dance – Angela Carter

I’ve really enjoyed paperback-reader Angela Carter month, and am rather hoping she does another one. I’ve been a fan of Carter for a few years now and whilst I’ve read most of the easy stuff there are still a few short stories and novellas I could be better acquainted with, plenty of nonfiction that’s unread, and still ‘The Passion of New Eve’ to get through. After my Dr Hoffmann experience New Eve can stay on the shelf for a while, but I did want to read at least two Carter’s whilst there was plenty of encouraging discussion going on around her work so my Oxfam purchase of ‘Shadow Dance' was very timely.

I was far more impressed with ‘Shadow Dance’ than I expected to be - until now I’ve not been so taken with the early novels, but this book felt perfect. Tense and chilling, it’s a very convincing sort of gothic horror written and set in the 1960’s. Essentially beauty becomes the beast – a pretty girl is badly scarred in a knife attack and returns an, at first silent, but always avenging fury to exact her pound of flesh. Her counterpart is the puckish Honeybuzzard – most likely responsible for her injuries he’s a lord of misrule and chaos. Whatever harm they bring to each other though is as nothing to the harm they bring on others.

The thing about the sixties that I don’t often remember is that it’s a generation of twenty and thirty somethings formed by one war and looking hard at the possibility of another. The narrator (Morris) remembers his mother dying in an air raid whilst having sex with a stranger against the outside of his bedroom door. At least he assumes she died – she’s certainly gone, but no identifiable body is forthcoming. In a world where things like that happen nothing can be terribly certain so Morris develops a dependency on Honeybuzzard who seems to be always certain, and always determined to do precisely what he wants.

Honeybuzzard is the sort of fairy who would spoil the milk and put the hens off laying not so much out of personal spite as sheer perversity – as is Ghislaine (the girl he scars). Both are too damaged and to damaging to fit into any sort of society, so all the way through as the expectation for some sort of cataclysmic dĂ©nouement built I was getting closer to the edge of my seat, and it’s the end which really shows Carter’s quality. The climax is satisfyingly dramatic but at the same time its woven in with something far more earthy and real than I expected; it’s a combination which reinforces the sense of not knowing what’s real and what’s prevarication on the narrators part all the way through. I’m still unsure of how complicit Morris really is in Honeybuzzard’s actions – even how much blood he may have got on his own hands.

I don’t feel I’ve got anywhere near doing this book justice, but I really do recommend it, which brings me back to my beginning. I’m never sure about traditional reading groups – I’m clearly not enough of a joiner in to find the idea attractive, and time’s a bit short to read books that don’t entirely grab me. Angela Carter month has really appealed to me though – and I’m looking forward to Persephone reading week for much the same reasons – the chance to read discussions on books I know I might be interested in, a good push to get something off the shelf I’ve meant to read for ages, and plenty of feedback about the books I am reading, all without any particular pressure. Heaven for the slightly disorganised and sometimes despairing (desperate) reader.

And the Winner is...

Simon at Stuck-In-A-Book is getting 'Andrina and other stories' - I'm on my way to the post office now. The loser today is me having left home in a fit of irritation with all technology and my laptop inparticular. It's been left on the naughty step and hopefuly when we're reunited this afternoon we'll be on speaking (and posting) terms again. This is coming to you from the library and should be about Angela Carter complete with lavish illustrations, except that a) can't upload pictures from my laptop to blogger at the moment, b) I left the data stick at home so I can't post from the library either. This is not the way to spend a day off, so I have decided to go shopping instead!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Buying into the dream

I saw swallows yesterday, and the Scottish one disappeared for quite a long time to look at pictures of boats on the internet – both sure signs of approaching summer and a combined desire on our parts to head north till we hit the coast. For my part I’d stay on the coast and admire the view, possibly paddle if it wasn’t too cold, but would venture onto the water for an hour or two if offered the chance of a bit of fishing and a beer. My Scottish friend would be gone until forced (possibly by pirates) to come back, but he wouldn’t say no to a freshly caught and cooked mackerel either so we’re both quite excited by the latest River Cottage handbook – Sea Fishing.

My idea of a successful fishing trip has hitherto had more to do with getting back to land before the beer takes effect than focusing on an actual number of fish caught. Fortunately these sort of adventures normally take place with my father who gets impatient if nothing bites – it ensures a shortish but very pleasant time. Now all that might be about to change.

There are so many things I love about the River Cottage handbooks; they look great, they’re nice to handle, they fit in a pocket, they make for excellent reading (as well as being informative), and of course there’s recipe’s. Best of all they offer a window into the sort of AGA powered, Barbour wrapped idyll that seems so desirable when on a two week summer visit to the Shetlands or a cosy winter visit to the Borders. I will own up to the fact that I took the bread handbook with me on one Borders trip as light holiday reading – access to aforementioned AGA was too good a chance to miss. And yes my friends did mock me, but they also ate the bread with every sign of enjoyment.

It’s nice to daydream; wonderful to imagine a life and job which allowed the time for plenty of baking, jam making, foraging and fishing, but if that was all these books had to offer I wouldn’t be especially tempted. After all who wants to be reminded of the lifestyle they don’t have for 48 weeks of the year? What makes the format work so well (apart from engaging writing) is the mix of practical advice about how to do a thing – like fishing – and what to do with the fish later. I probably won’t be catching a squid anytime soon (ever) but I can purchase a squid...

I particularly like the gutting and filleting section (honestly it is safe to sit next to me on a bus, it really is) the pictures, which are photos (always a good thing), take you through each step in a way that makes it all look eminently do-able. It’s certainly encouraging me to be more adventurous next time I’m on the fish market. ‘Sea Fishing’ also has an excellent collection of charts (who doesn’t like a good chart?), my favourite is for sea fish cooking techniques; fish down one side, techniques down another, I’m geeky enough to be considering photo copying it for the wall, so handy. I also like that it’s not to chef-y, or to specialist, it really makes me want to do the whole action woman thing from hook to pot.

So come the summer – dad I hope your reading this – hopefully a fishing moment will arise, in which case I may be slightly prepared for it, but meantime I have a book full of fish based inspiration which I can take to the market with me (which is more than I can say for the otherwise excellent Leith’s Fish Bible).

Pictures hopefully tomorrow - half an hour trying to up load and I'm off to bed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

George Mackay Brown – a Give away...

Andrina and other Stories

I keep hearing that short stories are a dying format and that nobody wants to buy them, a viewpoint I’m particularly glad that Birlinn/Polygon aren’t listening to because I’m relying on them for a regular stream of George Mackay Brown shorts. I’ve said it before, and will be saying it again (and again) I think George Mackay Brown is at his best in short story form. So much so that every time I get a new collection I seriously consider re-tackling his novels and having a good hard look at his poetry.

My last foray into Brown was ‘The Masked Fisherman’ which was not perhaps the best collection that I’ve read, but the two just released – 'Andrina and Other Stories'and ‘The Sun’s Net’ (originally published by the Hogarth press and I would give anything apart from the money demanded – which I don’t have – for some of those original editions in their lovely jackets) are impressing me no end.

Andrina and Other Stories’ feels like a fairly loose collection – no particularly unifying theme but rather a gathering of all the themes that seem so dear to Brown’s heart, so wherever his tale is set be it Africa or Mongolia he’s still seeing it from an Orkney window. His concerns are time, tide, season, poetry, and faith – the things that shaped his life as an islander and story teller; equally his hero’s are fisherman, farmers, sailors and poets. He has little time for the laird or the minister, manse and hall being the traditional enemy of the crofter, but there is plenty of his (clearly deep and Catholic) faith here as well.
It’s hard to write about short stories, especially when some are only a few pages long; what can you say without giving too much away? I find this especially hard with a writer whose prose is as lean and succinct as Brown’s tends to be. He really doesn’t waste words, though he does make up some absolute corkers – at a slight tangent he doesn’t use much dialect either, odd bits and pieces nestled amongst the text but that’s it. Still, two from this collection really stood out for me – The Lost Boy; a Christmas eve miracle that I find as heart warming as it is brief, and The Feast at Paplay which enlarges on an event in the Orkneyinga saga (a major influence for Brown) it deals with the murder of Earl Magnus, later Saint Magnus, by his cousin Earl Hakon. Having killed his kinsman Hakon arrives at his aunt’s house for a feast meant to celebrate a peace between the two men. Thora is forced to treat her nephew as a son and to beg for her own son’s body to bury. These are the bare bones as laid out in the saga which Brown builds on, but oh how he builds; a pig is to be killed for the feast, but its death also doubles for the death of Magnus:

“John set the bewildered piglet on its feet in the yard. He took a knife out of his belt and pushed the blade into the pink throat. The beast squealed. It ran and staggered, and the blood welled out of it. It stood still then shook its head in a sad puzzled way. Blood spattered on the paving stones.”

There’s a stylistic echo of the sagas in that as well, but mostly I just find it a deeply affecting telling of death.

Anyway if you don’t want to just take my word for it and feel you want to read for yourself I’ve acquired a copy to give away. If you’re interested leave a comment (and if commenting on blogger proves difficult an email will do just fine – details are in the profile box) Always assuming that more than one person shows an interest (actually hoping that at least one person shows an interest because I’m very enthusiastic about this book and want to share it) then I will pick a name out of a hat next Wednesday and post on Thursday...

Apologies for the lack of a proper picture, blogger's just not having it tonight.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

And finally my Vintage moment arrives

I had planned a very luxurious (if sadly limited) spending moment when I was in London a couple of weeks ago but Waterstone’s let me down – they didn’t have the book I most wanted in all the world on that day, I couldn’t find more than two books on the three for two offers, and after that nothing would do, then it was time to catch the train.

Not prepared to remain thwarted in my book acquiring ambitions for long I spent some quality time on amazon and today all my books turned up, actually to be specific they turned up yesterday but spent the night languishing in the post office collection room until 7am this morning when I was waiting outside to pick them up. The post man in a coy mood left a note to say I had ‘a’ parcel, so picture my excitement when I found they meant four parcels held together by elastic bands, also picture me trying to fit all of these in a quite small bag whilst rushing for the bus and then hauling these things all the way to work where they had to stay locked up until lunch time before I could have a good look at the booty.

The best part of all of this was an unexpected package from Oxford University Press. I love the OUP for many reasons not the least of which is that I’ve got on their mailing list. Now I have no problem with soliciting a publisher for book favours; it gives me a terrific feeling of getting away with something when they send me a book (which I’m not given how long it takes to read, and then comment, but I like the feeling and don’t want to analyse it too much), but it really is like Christmas (only better) when something unexpected turns up. OUP books are beginning to warrant their own little corner – I think Oscar Wilde short stories, ‘Tarzan of the Apes’, and ‘The Private Memoires and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ sit especially well together.

My amazon spree is responsible for John Cheever’s ‘The Wapshot Scandal’, Compton Mackenzie’s ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ (which sounds a lot funnier than the tv version) Isherwood’s ‘A Single Man’ (slim volume which makes it look very tempting) and A S Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’ (not slim, not sure when I’ll read it, but wanted it since last year and very glad they stuck with the same super attractive cover design) and Muriel Spark’s ‘Symposium’ (I can’t have enough Spark).

The other books in the pile arrived late last week courtesy of Bloomsbury and Birlinn respectively, I’ll be talking about them soon, and will also have details of my very first book give away (also courtesy of Birlinn) so shall stop now before I get ahead of myself. The other contents of my post box today were an invitation from the city’s most exclusive jeweller (a mystery why I’m on their list) and a flyer from the socialist trade union party. It’s a combination that appeals to me almost as much as Tarzan and the justified sinner.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Shetland Diaries

I’ve had two killer whale experiences in my life – the first was with my dad in his boat and was both close and really quite scary. The whales were about 20 yards away and eyeing me up like I was a seal. Second time around I had spent a week driving around Shetland with a friend reassuring him all the time that it was quite likely that we would see them but... finally we did see them, in his last hour before catching the ferry south we were walking through town to get a coffee when we picked up on a ripple of excitement near the harbour wall. Killer whales swimming through town, not more than 100 yards from where we were standing. Impressive and altogether less intimidating when you’re standing on land.

I’m very fond of Otters too, enjoy a good encounter with a Puffin, and could (indeed have) watched Gannets dive for hours. Simon King’s ‘Shetland Diaries’ – Otters, Orcas, Puffins and wonderful people is right up my street. In fact so promising did it sound that I was worried that it couldn’t possibly deliver all I hoped. Not least because publication has coincided with my annual bout of homesickness for Shetland (funnily enough I never feel so homesick in the winter) intensified this year because I didn’t manage a trip back last summer (which to add insult to injury was the best Shetland’s had for decades). I am going this summer though and only hope it doesn’t rain the whole time.

Now Simon King seems like an affable sort of chap when he’s on screen; happy, bouncy, smiley and desperately enthusiastic. I can report he’s the same on the page, and in some ways it would be easy to heartily dislike the man for having what looks like such a cracking good time all the time, It’s something which made me approach the book with a certain amount of caution. Still I wanted something different after my Angela Carter efforts so off I went.

I’m really pleased that I liked the book; King’s a much better writer than I expected him to be even with the jolly hockey sticks feel to some of the prose. This really does feel like a personal diary albeit one meant for publication, it mixes work, family life, and some socialising and philosophy with very finely judged balance. The work is interesting, I wasn’t so interested in the family stuff, but that’s just me, and it did contribute to a sense of story. I think he really does manage to create a sense of what Shetland can be like – definitely at its best, but not unrealistically so, if you want to know what it’s like at its worst I’m afraid you probably have to go and try it out to see how it fits. He certainly captures all the things I miss most about being part of a community in a fairly unique and special place.

When he talks about the wildlife the mix of passion and knowledge is truly infectious and certainly illuminating to the lay person, but more than anything this feels like a long thank you to Shetland. Plenty of people (and I’ll fess up now, this unexpectedly included my dad and step mum – page 56 – 57 if you’re interested) get very nice mentions, but he’s also careful to avoid any serious local controversy. The big debate in Shetland last year, and ongoing, is a massive wind farm which if it goes ahead would run down the spine of the Islands and for better or worse, depending on your point of view, will change things significantly. It’s the sort of thing I thought might come up but didn’t; that’s the sort of diplomacy which makes island life work.

Out and About

It has been a long, long, week and although I’m glad it’s over I wouldn’t have minded a slightly longer weekend – after a final marathon slog through today I get to look forward to being back for 8am on Monday morning, still that gives me a whole day to ignore housework in favour of reading. I’d better make the most of it.

The highlight of the week was Thursday off, which was also the blondes birthday so we set out for a day of our favourite sport; book hunting. We had heard there was a decent book shop out Northampton way, but when we got there it was to discover that it closed a couple of years ago (damn you internet and your faulty information). In fact Northampton turned out to be a bit of a wash out all round so we headed to Market Harborough. It’s one of those terribly middle class market towns which encourage book groups and consequently has well appointed charity shops. It also has the twin glories that are Christine’s Book Cabin, and Gilberts (it also has an all female fishmongers which I still find vaguely confounding – it feels like there should be a story in it somehow)

Christine’s book cabin is down a side street round a corner and through a car park until you find yourself in a shed full of books. There’s county stuff, nautical stuff, really seriously collectable, and correspondingly expensive, children’s stuff and then bits and bobs of the kind of thing Persephone reprint. It’s an experience.

Gilbert’s is not even slightly book related but It’s been there for 40 years and I’ve known it since I used to be taken to visit my Gran as a child and I think it’s heaven in shop form so I’m telling you about it anyway. It’s a hardware store/kitchen shop; they have everything you can imagine, and plenty of stuff that I for one would never have thought to imagine. The outside (as you can see) is festooned in wicker baskets, and inside is a tiny temple of Cornish wear, burleigh pottery, Le Creuset, and anything else handy. It’s also ridiculously cheap compared to department stores; in short the sort of shop it seems scarcely credible still exists.

Book wise I managed to find Angela Carter’s ‘Shadow Dance’, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘After the Death of Don Juan’, and Robertson Davies ‘Murther & Walking Spirits' – all despite promising (and honouring my promise) to let the birthday celebrant into the shops first and at the shelves first. I had a great day, and I hope she did too, I also had some exciting post when I got home, but more of that later!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Well it’s taken me a week and more to do battle with Carter on this one and I’m wondering where to start. Had I any knowledge of Freud, more than a passing acquaintance with Jung, and had I read more than a couple of De Sade short stories many years ago then I might have a better idea of what else I might need to know to really get to grips with this.

I have read Hoffmann, quite a bit of Carter, and many, many, fairy tales and myths all of which rang bells whilst I was reading, but even so I think I’ve got only the haziest idea of what Carter was trying to do with this book. It didn’t help that it felt quite dated/ very much of its time depending on your point of view, and also like relatively young work. I was surprised to find that it came if not quite mid career, then certainly well into it. It’s far more experimental than any other Carter I’m acquainted with, and altogether more explicit as well – the whole book is soaked in blood, sweat, semen, tears and urine. It should perhaps be more shocking, maybe back in 1972 it was, but it’s also somehow cold in a way which makes it really very easy to accept actually quite horrible things, which raises some questions for me about what I’m prepared to entertain in my imagination.

Perhaps it helps that the descriptions are wrapped up not just in words, but also in the most impeccable art historical traditions; Brueghel and Poussin are specifically mentioned but there are whole sequences that feel like reading a Hieronymus Bosch, or walking through a Henri Rousseau forest, and certainly like being part of any surrealist painting you care to think of. There are moments of Cubism and suggestions of Delacroix and the romantics, all I think quite deliberate. The central premise of the book (as far as I can work it out) is that anything that can be imagined can be, that nothing once imagined can be destroyed, and that it’s all powered by our desires.

The action takes place across time; or more precisely in nebulous time, sometimes it’s the present, sometimes the past and sometimes somewhere in-between. It starts in a city at war – Dr Hoffmann is laying siege to reality and things have reached such a state that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not, or even to define what real is. I found it a tough but basically rewarding book, it made me think about it all the way through, and basically I enjoyed the ride, although it was far from comfortable bed time reading and I’m looking for a couple of quick light reads to come next.

Carter was a woman with a remarkable (and slightly intimidating) breadth of knowledge; it’s a huge shame that she died so young. The richness and texture she brings to any story is rare enough but the way she twins it with a blood spattered brutality really gets under my skin. There were certainly moments when I was reading this book that I felt the boundary between page and experience was being broken down – that it would be very easy to be swallowed up by the general sense of anarchy.

I’m very much looking forward to paperback-reader's review of this; I want to know what others make of it, especially anyone with a more formal education in English Lit than I have, so Claire – I’m relying on you for some proper insights!

The Wolf print is one I bought because it put me in mind of  'The Company of Wolves' - thats how much of a geeky fan I am.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Simon Savidge was talking about Classic v Contemporary reading recently – he’s worried about reading too much contemporary fiction and missing out on some older gems. I worry about reading too much older stuff and missing out on what’s going on now, I also worry that my reading habits are to set – I mean there are only so many books by middle class English women out there, and although I’ve barely scratched the surface it wouldn’t do to entirely ignore books by a) Men, and b) anyone who isn’t from the UK.

Still life is too short to worry much about things like this. I keep up with the contemporary stuff vicariously and otherwise mooch along picking up whatever captures my imagination – and really what other way is there to read? This is all a very long preamble for an upcoming review of Angela Carter’s ‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann’, because it was via Carter that I discovered Hoffmann, and Hoffmann which led me to buy the Carter.

How interesting (I imagine you saying) please, tell us more – well okay then it was like this... With books to return to Waterstones (it’s happened) a couple of years ago, and wandering what to exchange for I found ‘Tales of Hoffman’. It rang a Carter bell so I bought it as Christmas reading, he turned out not to be the most festive writer I’ve ever read, but creepy enough to suit winter very well, and as he’s a he, and also German I feel like I made a gesture to diversity as well.

The first tale I read in the collection, ‘The Sandman’ was unexpectedly familiar, the ballet Coppelia is based on it. Hoffmann’s like that, he creeps into things (like your subconscious) and jumps out unexpectedly. He writes romance with a twist of the freakishly weird and grotesque; plenty of demons and devils along with a shifting sense of what’s real and what’s not. I’m finding ‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman’ a challenging read but all the better, and sort of clearer, for having encountered Hoffmann in person, he and Carter have a lot in common.

Friday, April 9, 2010

It’s April so it must be Angela Carter

This is basically a roundup of things I’ve been reading on other blogs, so apologies if that seems lazy, but after my final and resounding victory over the sink (okay so my mum came and helped, but still it’s washing up free, and looks like it means to stay that way) I can take it.

Paperback Reader is having an Angela Carter month, and as a bit of a Carter fan I thought this would be a good opportunity to read some of the titles I’ve found a little bit less than tempting in the past (I feel vaguely sacrilegious saying that but there you have it).

My love affair with Carter started with ‘Nights at the Circus’ continued with ‘Wise Children’ and the ‘Bloody Chamber’, took in ‘The Magic Toyshop’ and more collected short stories then sort of stalled with ‘Several Perceptions’ which I found less appealing. After hunting high and low for ‘The Passions of New Eve’ I never read it, I also have ‘The Sadeian Woman’ (destined to remain unread for a while longer) and ‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman’ which I am currently struggling through. I do wish that I’d started reading her a good bit earlier in my life, and that I hadn’t started with ‘Nights at the Circus’ – it’s by far my favourite, and I think by far her best book; nothing after has ever quite lived up to it for me – but that’s only a reflection on how good I think ‘Nights at the Circus’ is. Anyway if you like all things Carter and you haven’t had a look yet do check out Paperback Reader...

Who is also hosting a Persephone reading week with Verity from Virago Ventures and the The B Files in May. I’m looking forward to this too, I have a couple of Persephone titles that have been hanging around unread for a while so this is just the encouragement I need, hopefully there will be a good deal of Persephone based conversation going on with insights aplenty to take advantage of.

Finally Simon Savidge has followed up a really interesting post about blogging ethics (okay really, really, interesting to bloggers and perhaps mildly interesting to non bloggers) with questions about what sort of reviews people want to read – contemporary v classic. Both have raised some really interesting debates in the comments and assuming anyone who reads this hasn’t already looked at and commented upon Simons thoughts...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Just because you're paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you...

Sitting here eating the last of my Easter egg stash for dinner after a particularly trying sort of a day, and doing my best to avoid eye contact with the washing up creeping out of the sink, I’m wondering (again) why life can’t have more in the way of wandering around London and rather less in the way of battling with delivery companies for my own post.

It’s quite possible if I leave it alone for another day the contents of the sink will have evolved to the point it could answer my question, but I want a cup of tea before bed and I think the tea pot’s probably in there so I’m going to have to go after it. Tea bags you say? Well yes ideally I would have a tea bag, but sadly the last one went a week ago and now all I have is a massive collection of leaf tea’s which mock me with my own aspirations.

Ah the come down after a visit to the capital. Yesterday I was swanning around Liberty's discovering things I’d never even imagined I might want, and now I’m not. Though I have just remembered that I forgot to buy those scrubby sponge things again, and washing up liquid. Again. Holiday over – oh but it was fun whilst it lasted and I have finally seen the bank of England.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A vintage moment

I have a day in London tomorrow; work sponsored no less (I’m en route to training on Wednesday). I’m pretty chuffed about it as it’s rare to find myself alone in London and with time to make whatever plans I like so I’m going to make the most of it, which will inevitably involve some book shopping, but for a change I have a few other places I want to explore – foody sightseeing and a hunt for cake decorating accessories (very inspired by ‘Bake and Decorate’). I’m also very excited at the prospect of meeting a book group friend for the first time – jobs really aren’t all bad after all.

The book wish list at the moment seems to be sponsored by Vintage; I don’t have A.S Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’ yet, I’ve been meaning to get Isherwood’s ‘A Single Man’ for months and most of all I’ve just discovered John Cheever and want more. I came across John Cheever when I was browsing Waterstone’s for John O’Hara, they had no O’Hara but the red backed books started to jump out (visually not actually) at me and I ended up intrigued by a Cheever. Further browsing on amazon increased my interest and since then I’ve acquired and read ‘The Wapshot Chronicle’.

Male American writers, even from the fifties, are normally right on the edge of my comfort zone but so far Vintage have come up trumps for me every time. I think I was sold on ‘The Wapshot Chronicle’ from the first line of blurb “Meet the Wapshots of St Botolphs. There is Captain Leander Wapshot, venerable sea-dog and would be suicide...” but if that hadn’t done it I really fell in love on page 11 with this description
“The attic was a fitting place for these papers, for this barny summit of the house – as big as a hayloft – with its trunks and oars and tillers and torn sails and broken furniture and crooked chimneys and hornets and wasps and obsolete lamps spread out at one’s feet like the ruins of a vanished civilisation and with an extraordinary spiciness in the air as if some eighteenth century Wapshot, drinking Madeira and eating nuts on a sunny beach and thinking about the passing of the season, had tried to capture the heat and light in a flask or hamper and had released his treasure in the attic...”

What Cheever does which feels new to me, and I suspect that this is a fundamental difference between the sort of women writers I read and male writers generally, is describe the world around his characters. I’m used to reading about what women think and see, but here I’m reading about what men feel, and physically feel. How things smell, the way that sand crunches underfoot, or grass feels against skin, the taste of a storm in the air – it’s all on the page and every time it’s something I recognise it takes me there. Plot wise it’s a family chronicle along suitably eccentric and gothic New England lines – I was strongly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’ in places, but it’s not so much about what happens as the people it happens to and the way they experience the world.

It’s a great feeling to know I’m one book in to Cheever with plenty more to come as well as journals and letters. I’m also particularly pleased to have started with his first book – I rarely manage to do that and it’s pure serendipity this time. If I’m organised (big if) I can follow how his writing develops, which as he won a Pulitzer for it should be a project worth following.

For a first novel it’s a really remarkable bit of writing. Partly based on his own youth in New England, which also inspires me to find out more about Cheever, it’s just so wonderfully rich; characters who should be ridiculous are made real by detail and affection, every landscape and room as real to me as anything as I can remember. The whole affect is almost intoxicating; so perfectly tempered with a sense of loneliness pathos and loss that any danger of nostalgic self indulgence or over indulgence in eccentricity is well and truly avoided. Really good stuff.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Tart

Recently Simon at stuck-in-a-book was asking people what their favourite book titles are; well one of mine is ‘The Art Of The Tart’, Tamasin Day-Lewis’ book about, well, tarts. I know it’s a fairly ropey joke but I found it funny when I got the book, and it still amuses me now so shall just have to live with the fact that I’m not as sophisticated as I’d sometimes like to think.

I know Tamasin Day-Lewis wrote in the Telegraph, but it’s not been my weekend paper of choice so I don’t know how she comes across when you build up a weekly relationship with her, but in her books she certainly seems somewhat uncompromising, bossy, and a huge name dropper. Still I can’t help but enjoy her books because the recipe’s always make me seem terribly competent (and definitely restore my pretensions to sophistication). I made the rhubarb and lemon cream tart for lunch today to the general approval of the Scottish one so am going to share it with you. (This version is with all my adjustments for flan case size, to do it, and many other delights proper justice see ‘The Art Of The Tart’).

Rhubarb and Lemon Cream Tart

Make a rich shortcrust pastry from 6oz white flour, 3oz unsalted butter, the grated rind of a lemon, an egg, and a generous tablespoon of icing sugar – blitz altogether in a food mixer and put aside to chill in the fridge for an hour.

400/500g of Rhubarb

200g/8oz vanilla castor sugar

2 tablespoons of water

1 egg and 3 egg yolks

100g/3oz castor sugar

Grated zest and juice of a lemon

300ml of double cream

60g/2oz crumbled sponge or boudoir biscuits

Icing sugar.

Heat the oven to 200°c/gas 6. Roll out the pastry and blind bake for 10 mins covered in greaseproof paper and suitably weighed down with beans or similar. Remove the beans, prick the base with a fork and blind bake for a further 5 mins then turn the oven down to 160°/gas 3.

Whilst the pastry has been doing it’s thing chop the rhubarb into 1 -2 cm chunks and heat with the sugar and water until soft but not mush, drain over a bowl and keep the syrup aside.

Put the eggs, lemon juice and rind, cream and sugar in a bowl and combine before transferring to a jug.

Crumble up the sponge and put it in the base of the pastry case, put the flan dish on an oven tray (excellent advice from Tamasin because it does indeed save me from slopping custard all over the oven) add the rhubarb and then cover with the lemony custard and put in the oven for about 30 – 35mins or until the custard is just set.

When it comes out and has cooled a bit then sprinkle a little icing sugar over the top and toast it with a handy blow torch or under a very hot grill until lightly browned, allow to cool and serve with the Rhubarb syrup. (The syrup is the most amazing lovely pink)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tea Time Luxury

Bake and Decorate Tea Time Luxury – Fiona Cairns

This book was a case of love at first sight – I got it a week ago as an early Easter present (any excuse) after a rotten day, and after another rotten day I have turned to it again to be cheered up. I had meant to bake something from it as a treat for the Scottish one but the afternoon is passing fast so I'm going to write about it instead (hopefully he’ll be happy with a cream egg).

It is a truly lovely book to look at even with the addition of the sort of sparkly lettering that I normally view askance, and is full of pretty, pretty, cakes. I’m a fan of the concept of tea time even if it’s the sort of thing that I never get round to doing quite as formally as I would like. We (me, my Scottish friend and my mother) like a bit of ceremony around the place, especially if it involves well pressed linen and some spiffy china (my mother really likes her china and we’we've spent many a January day in Stoke-on-Trent to prove the point).

Cook books are a weak spot for me, not I think a surprise for any regular readers here, but even I've got to the point where I have to seriously question if I need another one – it has to offer something special, and honestly I think this one does. As it's all sparkly I couldn't help but notice Fiona Cairns name on the front and she sort of interests me as she’s vaguely local; I knew she’d started a business baking cakes at her kitchen table, and now sells to Fortnum and Mason’s and Waitrose amongst others which seems impressively industrious and inspirational to me. That’s what made me pick the book up.

I kept dropping heavy hints about it because of the contents (not just the pictures either). The recipe’s look good (not tried any yet but there’s nothing there to raise the suspicions of the regular baker, or to put them off either) white chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge anyone? And that’s not even the best looking cake in there... I wouldn't say there’s anything ground breaking, but rather a really good repertoire of usable things, the tips and hints section strikes me as particularly good, but again probably all stuff I could find elsewhere. What I like is the structure of the book; hints followed by the bake part, and then the decorate section. Decorating is broken up, like the recipes into large cakes, small, and biscuits.

All manner of impressively cool but simple things are shown; pretty things with crystallised flowers and ribbon, child friendly (not perhaps if it’s your own child that’s going to be hopped up on sugar) things heaped with candy's, decadently expensive looking things involving gold leaf (which I might one day use – but not before a pay rise or two). It’s all very inspiring, and really appeals to the magpie instinct within. I am adding a square cake tin to my kitchen wish list, where it will join the long desired aspic cutters, and I'm after some black viola’s for candying purposes to make something very sophisticated in the birthday cake line.