Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Perpetual Curate – Mrs Oliphant

Excepting eating and sleeping all of Easter weekend that I didn’t spend at work was devoted to ‘The Perpetual Curate’ in a combination of enjoyment and determination I managed to work through its 540 pages in a mere two and a half days (and make scones to sustain myself through this marathon read). The result is that I’m more enamoured than ever with Mrs Oliphant and have thrown myself straight into the final Carlingford Chronicle (Phoebe Junior) with only a slight sense of panic about where my next fix will come from.

Wuthering Expectations wrote at length about both ‘The Perpetual Curate’ and Oliphant last year – posts I keep going back to as I put my own thoughts about this particular book in order. Other Stories has also written enthusiastically about Oliphant, I hope more voices will join the chorus of definite enthusiasm for her work because she more than deserves another revival. Virago reissued the Carlingford novels in the 1980’s and its these that I’ve been working my way through, but considering that she wrote over 90 books of which the six and a half I’ve read are admirable it seems inexplicable that so few are in print or affordable (or for that matter available as ebooks). It’s quite likely that a good few of those 90+ are duffs but equally likely that a goodly percentage are Carlingford quality (which is excellent).

‘The Perpetual Curate’ is the first chronicle I’ve read that doesn’t focus truly around women. Even ‘Salem Chapel’ which was ostensibly about dissenting minister Arthur Vincent felt like it was actually all about the ladies. The perpetual curate in question – Frank Wentworth – has already made appearances in all the proceeding books, most notably ‘The Rector’ where as a very young man he shows himself to be the more able priest than the titular Rector who retires leaving him in undisputed if temporary possession of the field.

Arthur Hughes The Long Engagement

We pick up the action with the arrival of Mr Proctor’s successor in Carlingford starts to settle in. Mr Morgan is another middle aged clergyman who’s spent his youth in academia waiting for a chance to get out in the world and earn enough to marry, Mrs Morgan has had to wait ten long years for that particular honour and we find her trying to reconcile her dreams of married life with its realities – specifically in relation to a very unsatisfactory carpet.

Wentworth is an excellent priest, decorously in love with the charming and capable Lucy Wodehouse, intent on good works and not without expectations. In the interests of the plot though Wentworth is also distressingly High church and convinced that his principles allow for no compromise. The living that’s earmarked for him is in the gift of his aunts – evangelically Low Church ladies who cannot reconcile their nephew’s love of lilies on the Easter alter with their vision of what a good preacher should be.

The appearance of his aunts is only the beginning of young Frank’s troubles. He’s also at odds with Mr Morgan for setting up a mission on the man’s very doorstep and then there’s young Rosa Elsworthy the newsagent’s distractingly pretty niece. In short a sea of troubles that threaten to separate Frank from any chance of happiness with Lucy.

To add to these difficulties there is also a roguish older brother Jack, and a saintly but perhaps more troublesome brother Gerald. Gerald has turned to the Catholic Church in a breathtaking display of selfishness he declares he wants to remain as a priest – despite being married with 5 children and another on the way. His change in religion leaves him without an income and threatens to leave his wife not only without any material support but also without any status – not even that of a widow.

Hughes - April Love

But I digress. The real source of Franks problems are Rosa, she’s a forward little thing and has been lurking in the curates garden to flirt with a fellow lodger, but rumour links her name with the handsome young clergyman so when she disappears one night it’s at Franks door that the uncle knocks demanding justice and matrimony. Five years of blameless virtue are as nothing compared to the power of gossip especially with an enemy like Mr Morgan snapping at one’s heels and Frank finds his reputation literally on trial.

And that’s only a fraction of what goes on. In ‘The Perpetual Curate’ more than anywhere else so far Oliphant not only compares to Trollope, but in my loosely informed opinion exceeds him. The Carlingford Chronicles are clearly a response to the Barchester novels – I don’t know if they would be half so good if Barchester didn’t exist to be improved upon and refined, but it did, and she does. Her characters, especially the women are real creatures of flesh and blood, the situations they find themselves in are more mundane perhaps but they too are eminently believable and more than that every page breaths experience.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Seeking high and low – when life imitates Art

As a woman who’s fond of her Trollope’s (and even fonder of poor puns based on the Trollope family name) Oliphant’s, and Pym’s (and Pimm’s - there’s no stopping me tonight) I had an idea of what low and high church means. I like Trollope’s little joke about the high and dry church, everything I know about dissenting churches comes from reading Oliphant’s ‘Salem Chapel’ (which isn’t very much or very reliable because apparently she got little details wrong – but if it didn’t worry Mrs Oliphant it doesn’t worry me) and it’s Pym who made me wonder if the church was still a happy hunting ground for romantic complications.

My own church going has been confined to midnight mass at Christmas and tourism but personal preference leans towards smells and bells – I like decoration, colour, and a bit of theatre – none of which featured much in the Methodist and Presbyterian churches of my childhood, but all of which are findable in Leicester. I’m within a few minutes of three cracking churches – Leicester Cathedral (last visited to see Nosferatu) St Nicholas’s (built from the remains of the Roman city) and just across the street St Mary de Castro where it’s just possible that Chaucer got married.

I really like St Mary’s – it has a very friendly looking steeple (sounds silly but it’s true) and it means I’m almost home whenever I see it. Tonight the bells were all ringing as I came back, presumably in preparation for the royal wedding tomorrow, which always makes me want to learn how to bell ring but until recently it’s been a hard church to get into. It now opens for a couple of hours each day and mum and I went to have a look a couple of weeks ago which was quite an illuminating experience.

St Mary’s is high – they have leaflets explaining why use incense, why genuflect, why pray to saints so I think they mean it. Leicester’s Bishop (Bishop Tim) however is low and it seems there are issues. Who knew this kind of thing still went on? Not a heathen such as myself at any rate, but fresh out of Oliphant’s ‘The Perpetual Curate’ and it could be a scene from the book. St Mary’s lacks a priest at present – they have the occasional use of a retired priest from not so very nearby Uppingham but it’s not much of an answer. Meanwhile the bishop (according to the man in St Mary’s) is stalling with the result that the Church is throwing itself into the community in a way I haven’t seen before in my almost 7 years as its neighbour.

I want all the gossip to the point that I might have to join the congregation and see if it really is like being in a Pym or an Oliphant novel but meanwhile they have book and plant sales and do cups of tea, so I imagine I’ll be in there a lot more.

Monday, April 25, 2011

All Men are Liars – Alberto Manguel

I had an email a few weeks back asking if I’d like a copy of this to read to which my first thought were – No, not really, but Manguel’s name rang a bell (I have a copy of ‘The Library at Night’ somewhere) and then the write ups were so good that I thought I might as well. After all it can’t be a bad thing to try and broaden my horizons and post ‘The Hurricane Party’ I felt in right frame of mind to tackle another contemporary (and translated) work.

The first two things I really liked about ‘All Men are Liars’ was that the translator – Miranda France gets a prominent billing (albeit on the back) cover and then again on the title page, this seems only fair because it’s partly her book I’m reading (I’m now vaguely interested in the novel she’s just published herself) and the feel of the book. Whilst the debate of paper versus ebook rumbles on picking up something like this is thought provoking. The cover is made to look slightly distressed and is a mix of something very glossy and something that has a rubberised matt feel. I wanted to read the book as soon as I touched it (and keep stroking it now whilst it’s beside me) simply because it was such a pleasant tactile experience. (The title is attention grabbing too and definitely attracted me.)

‘All Men are Liars’ is apparently an attempt by a journalist (Terradillos) to reconstruct the life of a South American author by the name of Alejandro Bevilacqua who died in mysterious circumstances some 30 years ago in Madrid just after the publication of his book ‘In Praise of Lying’. He interviews an academic called Alberto Manguel, an old girlfriend of Bevilacqua’s, and a cell mate from his time as a political prisoner. There’s also an illuminating bit of storytelling for the reader alone which Terradillos can’t be privy to.

It was hard to know exactly what I was reading to the point that I spent an inordinate amount of time googling characters to make sure that this was indeed entirely fiction. It is, but then again it might easily not be. The central premise seems to be that every account of the same man is significantly different so where is the true Bevilacqua to be found. The blurb on the back describes this as a “fascinating homage Alberto Manguel pays to literature and its shape shifting creations...” The Literary review is quoted as saying that it’s a “meticulously constructed and brilliantly exected discourse on the nature of truth and writing...” I always assumed that it was a given that each and any narrator’s view point is both biased and personal. I know how unreliable my memory is (and naturally how unreliable the memories of others are, especially when their version of events doesn’t tally with mine) it’s something I learnt giving statements to the police and then actually seeing what happened again on cctv (a career in retail...)

I thought this book was more about perception and love than truth or lies – in the end the truth doesn’t much matter, Bevilacqua doesn’t matter either – his death is too long ago for any real meaning, there are fabricated facts, assumed truths, and hoped for truths (whilst never forgetting it’s all fiction anyway) from which each narrator emerges as a clear enough character but the dead man remains in the shadows.

The thing I like most about this book though was that I enjoyed reading it so much – far more than I anticipated (which isn’t very flattering but there is a very particular pleasure in finding a book that smashes through all your expectations). It may be that some of the subtler meditations on truth and writing passed over my head – or that because this isn’t one of my literary preoccupations I found other things to focus on. It’s definitely a book I imagine reading again (my first read was driven by plot, the second will more likely focus on philosophy, and who knows by then I may know a little bit more about South American literature). I hope too that ‘All Men are Liars’ does the round of blogs I’m likely to find because this is a book I want to discuss...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Hurricane Party – Klas Östergren

The Hurricane Party’ was a penny purchase from amazon – and even if it turns out not to be a book to cherish you can’t go wrong at a penny (even including the £2.80 postage and packing where I assume, and hope, the bookseller manages to make a few more pence). Having easy and affordable access to almost any book I chance to hear of (in print or otherwise) is something that fills me with delight to the point that it feels like one of the privileges of modern life. I think I mentioned before that I’ve dithered over ‘The Hurricane Party’ for a while now; attracted to it because it was part of the Canongate myth series but put off because it seemed a little adrift of my usual fare and because it was pricey for a paperback.

As I definitely already mentioned I realised as soon as I read the back blurb (which is a bit different to the amazon description and one of the many reasons I miss finding books like this in real shops) that it probably wasn’t for me. Having read and digested I know it wasn’t for me, I’m just not suited to fiction of this sort – it seems that books set in the past (as opposed to written in the past) or set in the future bring out my most pedantic streak. All the time I read I found myself questioning the possibility of the world that Östergren had created and too often found myself picking holes in it to the point that I’m pretty sure I missed the point of the book. This is no reflection on ‘The Hurricane Party’ there are plenty of readers out there who will find it hits the spot exactly.

The basic premise of a man looking for answers after being told that his son has died of a heart attack was promising, the idea that a mafia style clan bearing a striking resemblance to the pantheon of old Norse gods is pulling the strings was attractive, but I don’t understand why it needed to be set in the future. I’m not sure either if the clan were indeed the gods themselves or not, or what was meant to be real and what was a drug induced hallucination on the part of the main character. Despite my reservations I never struggled to find the motivation to carry on reading, Hanck’s love for his son is compelling as is the retelling of the Edda but I’m more than ever resolved to stay away from anything bearing the description ‘set in a dystopian future’...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gifts (for myself) from the Kitchen

I’m not sure that this even counts as a recipe but I’m quite pleased with the results so am sharing it anyway. The cover of Annie Rigg’s ‘Gifts from the Kitchen’ has a box of rose and raspberry chocolate wafers on the cover (which I think are exactly the same thing as mendiants and which sounds more sophisticated to me than wafer despite meaning beggar). Freeze dried raspberries are impossible to find in Leicester at the moment but the vegetarian shop (Current Affairs) has promised to source some for me which I call excellent customer services.

Thwarted in my desire to follow the recipe faithfully I had to fall back on a collection of nuts, candied petals, and some vanilla finishing salt I got cheap at work because the label explaining what you do with it had fallen off. I still don’t know what to do with Vanilla finishing salt but I won’t add it to chocolate wafers/mendiants again, far too damn salty.

Anyway all you need to do to turn a large bar of top quality chocolate into a lot of small pieces of chocolate and some melted chocolate is heat it very gently ideally in a bowl over barely simmering water stirring it until it’s smooth and then let it cool slightly. Meanwhile get a baking sheet and cover it in grease proof paper then poor small spoonfuls of the chocolate onto the paper and sprinkle stuff on them. Leave the lot to solidify and store in the fridge in an air tight container where they should be happy for about five days. (I can’t see why they shouldn’t keep for longer but that’s what the book and the website’s all say, and as mine probably won’t last that long I have to believe it.)

They would make perfect fillers for Easter eggs and a dark chocolate Brazil nut combo would undoubtedly make my father a very happy man – but will it be possible to share...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A sweeping family saga set against the background of a dystopian future...

And other things that make me not want to read a book. I’m currently trying to read Klas Östergren’s ‘The Hurricane Party’ part of Canongate’s myth series. It’s a good book but I’m struggling with it just a bit, I knew I would the moment I read those dread words “Set in a dystopian future”. I was sucked in by the promise of Norse Gods and ordered a copy via amazon after dithering for about a year, had I actually seen the book in a shop I almost certainly wouldn’t have bought it and as it is I probably won’t keep it (although I still have about a quarter left to read and might change my mind yet) simply because the future (dystopian or utopian) doesn’t appeal to me.

Entirely by the by but Canongate commissioned this book and presumably commissioned a translator at the same time, but I see from the blurb that Klas Östergren is himself a respected translator which makes me wonder – if he can take a book in English and turn it into Swedish is there a reason why he wouldn’t write in English for a British market? I don’t doubt that the two processes are very different but I’m curious about it.

Now back to things I inexplicably just don’t like. I can’t be bothered with books that are set in Australia (with the possible exception of ‘The Thorn Birds’ which I think I’m going to love.) The non fictional Australia looks and sounds like an incredible place that I dream of visiting, Australia in films (especially that one where Hugh Jackman spent a lot of time without a shirt for seemingly purely decorative reasons) and in television looks great. Make the book into a film and I’d almost certainly watch it with enthusiasm, put the book in front of me and it’s like trying to give pills to a cat.

Sweeping family saga’s, especially if they’re multi generational are another genre I just won’t do – it’s a description that fills me heart with dread, no idea why, it’s not like I’ve had any bad experience – I was never buried in an avalanche of family saga’s as a child forced to read my way out to safety and food, nobody I love has ever been hurt by a tale of multi generational love and struggle but the books might as well be made out of Stilton (which I’m not fond of) for all the enthusiasm I can muster for them.

Despite a youthful flirtation with Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, and of course Douglas Adams, I don’t really ‘do’ science fiction either - I can’t rule out a return, but again if it’s going to be sci-fi it’s normally the filmed version which appeals.

But far stranger than the things that repel me are the books that attract; Catholics, alcoholics, lesbians – in any combination seem to be a recurring theme. I’m not (yet) any of those things, nor especially likely to be. Books about or by women, books written before 1950, books with a Scottish connection, depressing books about surplus women, old romances (as opposed to historical fiction), genteel murders, books about Otters, epic chronicles that take in generations of a family in love and strife and which are written by Margaret Oliphant or Anthony Trollope (hmm nothing if not consistent...) all things I like.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Camomile – Catherine Carswell

I bought this book just over a year ago on a day out with the blond, only getting round to reading it now is actually pretty good going for me. I know I only picked this book up because I fell in love with the cover although Carswell’s name was already familiar from a previous occasion when I’d picked up ‘Open the Door’ because I liked the cover and because it was apparently a semi autobiographical account of Carswell’s own life set against the background of Glasgow School of Art. The back cover says it’s a roman à clef and based on the cover illustration ‘Ill Omen’ by Frances MacDonald (sister in law of Charles Rennie Mackintosh) I’m hopeful that the Glasgow four (Mackintosh, Margaret MacDonald – later Mackintosh – Frances, and Herbert MacNair who she married) will be in there somewhere. It’s the MacDonald sisters I really want to find some trace of; but all this is in a book to come so back to ‘The Camomile’.

Apparently D.H. Lawrence was a fan and also a great friend of Carswell’s, which almost put me off – a bad ‘A’ level experience has instilled in me a concentrated dislike of Lawrence, it’s not rational and it’s not going away but I managed to overcome my prejudice and read on. Despite that hoary old chestnut about not judging a book by its cover I couldn’t have done better any other way. Carswell’s fiction seems to be mostly either still in print, agreeably cheap second hand, or available for kindles etc so in theory she should be easy enough to discover, in reality it’s harder than it should be. I only picked this book up because of its green spine but I’ve yet to see another copy in any of my many trawls of charity shops and the like, amazon have never suggested her books to me, and my local Waterstone’s certainly isn’t stocking them. It’s a shame because this is a terrific book which deserves an audience.

It’s written in the form of letters and journals sent by Ellen Carstairs to her friend Ruby. Both girls have just returned from Germany where they have spent three years studying music, Ruby to her mother’s house in London and Ellen to her aunts flat in Glasgow. Everything we read comes from Ellen who’s struggling with the curtailment of her freedom. Aunt Harry is a hard line evangelical who takes exception to almost everything – there are scenes when Ellen takes part in a play, attends the theatre, reads Thomas Hardy, or spends too much (of the money that she’s earning herself) on cloths.

The first half of the book is Ellen working out what her life is to be, she has already realised long before that she’s a competent musician but no more – what she really wants to do is write but there are reasons, slowly revealed, why this is such a difficult path to tread. Never the less art and life have to be obeyed and Ellen gets herself a room to work in because:
“Don’t you agree that there must be something radically wrong with a civilisation, society, theory of life - call it what you like - in which a hard-working, serious young woman like myself cannot obtain, without enormous difficulty, expense, or infliction of pain on others, a quiet, clean, pleasant room in which she can work, dream her dreams, write out her thoughts, and keep her few treasures in peace?”

Of course the lack of a room of one’s own to work in is not the only enemy to art and Ellen badly wants to be married, or perhaps more specifically she wants love with all its bodily expressions – she decides at a friend’s wedding that “it is a disgrace for a woman never to lose her virginity. Not a disgrace because of what people say, but for her inmost self. I couldn’t bear not to get married!” And this is the second part of the book – before long a suitable man makes an appearance and pretty quickly the pair are engaged. The problem is that Duncan is a deeply conventional man who quite clearly intends to mould Ellen into the wife he wants instead of accepting the woman she is. He won’t forbid her to write but one way or another he’ll manage to make it increasingly impossible. The question is will Ellen realise this in time, and if she does what decision will she make? To leave Duncan will be to burn her bridges forever, accepting him will give her the physical experience she craves but at a remarkably high price.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Unbearable Bassington – “Saki” (H. H. Munro)

I’ve enjoyed the short stories of Saki for a long time without really knowing much about him beyond the Wikipedia basics and I hadn’t really associated him with novels until I saw Capuchin Classics were publishing ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ last year. As luck would have it (but not perhaps for Capuchin’s coffers) I found this penguin edition at exactly the same time but it’s taken until now for me to read it.

I have no shortage of unread books to hand but it’s been a struggle to find something to suit my mood for the last week or two so the reason I picked this up was because it was short. It turned out to be an excellent choice, Saki has the gift of being both very funny and almost unbearably sad at the same time (the ending had me in bits) although now I want more of the same which might be a problem.

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ in question is (presumably) a youth called Comus who is more force of nature than boy, a fated lord of misrule who sails through his school days care of good looks, undeniable charm, and sufficient sporting prowess. Post school and the world isn’t quite so kind to Comus; there are no shortage of charming young men on the town and neither he or his long suffering mother have any money, Comus needs to contract a decent marriage as the chances of him making any sort of hand at a career are slim. Unfortunately he blows it in the marriage stakes through sheer perversity which leaves him with but one option – he’s exported to West Africa in the traditional manner of black sheep in the age of empire.

The other Bassington is Francesca a woman who is commonly held to have no soul – instead she has a drawing room – an ordered peaceful place where all her household gods are laid out. The affection between Francesca and her son is real, neither is much given to loving others but both care deeply for each other despite the barrier that’s grown up between them. This coldness is due almost entirely to the nature that Comus can’t help but have: “Fate played him with loaded dice; he would lose always.”

‘The Unbearable Bassington” was first published in 1912 and reads as both an attack on and an elegy for the society it portrays. Saki must I think have known war was coming (He wrote ‘When William Came’ – an imagining of London occupied by the Germans a year later) with hindsight it certainly reads as if he realises that this particular society is all but done with. There are constant pokes both at the vapid nature of society gossip and the patronising futility of good works (my favourite being this: “No one has ever said it,’ observed Lady Caroline ‘but how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them.”). Perhaps there is a sense of frustration too at a society that produces boys like Comus who have no conceivable use in the world (except they are destined to become cannon fodder very soon) and no means to live on.

If the plot is a little depressing the one liner’s that litter every page are perfectly polished gems sparkling like nobody’s business making the book a joy to read. Capuchin have done us all a favour bringing this back into print, it’s a remarkable little book that deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Friday, April 8, 2011

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This book lurked on the periphery of my consciousness for a while, I kept seeing it out of the corner of my eye but could never quite catch it to buy (mostly because I couldn’t remember Petrushevskaya’s name or the title of the book neither of which trip off the tongue for me). It was Novel Insights review of Petrushevskaya’s mini modern classics outing that made me really want to read this collection and last month’s trip to London which gave me the chance to pick up a copy whilst all things penguin were on my mind. (Not for sale in Leicester, or at least not anywhere were I looked, and that’s a shame.)

Petrushevskaya is billed as one of Russia’s best living writers (which I’m not qualified to comment on, but on the evidence of this collection she’s certainly very good in translation) and apparently Penguin put this straight into the modern classics range. I’m always on the lookout for something that fits the Angela Carter shaped hole in my life and Petrushevskaya certainly does that – there’s a darkness as well as a stripped back to the bone quality that they both share. I don’t think its coincidence that my favourite section of the book was ‘Fairy tales’ and that within those ‘Marilena’s Secret’ (about a tremendously fat woman who is really two ballerina sisters trapped in a single body) really stood out, it’s definitely the most Carter-esque.

Some of the very Russian allegories and the ‘Songs of the Eastern Slavs’ were probably a bit beyond me, I enjoyed the writing but was essentially unmoved by them. ‘There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby’ (the title story not the whole book) just baffled me although perhaps if I read it enough times something will fall into place – which is one of the great things about shorts; any time I have twenty minutes to spare I can have another go. Mind you I could have been a whole lot more baffled and not have minded a bit thanks to that last section of ‘Fairy tales’ all of which got through to me one way or another – perhaps because they came closer to having conventionally happy endings.

In fact the only fly in the ointment was that this was an obviously American translation which shouldn’t really matter but I found (of all things) the use of the word Mom really annoying, perhaps because it just felt so un European and in this context that seems at odds with the general mood, or perhaps because in my head it always reads like a spelling mistake. It’s also maybe a quirk of reading books in translation – English English translations generally fool me into thinking I’m reading the original authors words, this American English version made me far more aware that I was reading a translators interpretation – or maybe I’m thinking about it far too much.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cakes – Pam Corbin

This is the latest river cottage handbook and today it’s had a proper outing from the shelf. I’ve been stuck indoors waiting for a courier to deliver my new passport (photo marginally less hideous than the last one which is quite exciting) and to make being housebound on that British rarity, a sunny day off, I thought baking might be in order. (I should have done housework and could have read but baking and looking for stuff on the internet has been more appealing.)

I wasn’t sure how much I needed this book but wanted it (so was very pleased when Bloomsbury let me have a copy rendering it entirely guilt free). I already have enough baking related material to see me through any conceivable situation or occasion but I do like these handbooks and for the past few months ‘River Cottage Everyday’ has been the source for a fair bit of excellent cake, more of the same sort of thing can’t be a bad idea.

A couple of weeks ago I really wanted rock cakes only to find that I didn’t have a recipe in any of the many books to hand which shocked me a bit, perhaps the assumption is that people just know how to make them and judging by the tweeted and facebooked instructions I got the moment I started complaining about this lack in my life most people I know do know. Anyway ‘Cakes’ has a rock cake recipe in it so that’s a mark in its favour already. In fact it’s an excellent book for the basics and something that I find interesting is that everything actually looks homemade with all the minor imperfections that implies, after Fiona Cairns and Annie Rigg this is actually quite a relief. Don’t get me wrong, Corbin’s cakes look brilliant it’s just that she makes it look easy and uncomplicated (although this is slightly deceptive.)

The cake I’ve wanted to make since I first saw it is the toffee apple cake which I tried today, (The caramel topping refered to is one tin of boiled condensed milk, but you can buy it pre made now which saves hours and electricity) I won’t show you a picture because it transpires that flipping a delicate cake covered in squidgy caramelised apples onto a toffee topped equally apple-y base is really flipping difficult to do without sending toffee spread everywhere and cracking the top of the cake. No prizes for guessing what happened to me, my cake tins were also possibly a bit shallow so the cake developed a muffin top. It’s a delicious cake but the way I made it, it isn’t a pretty cake. (The apples for the base are coated in brown sugar and are amazing but the dulce de leche filling was too much for me. I’m making this again but as a plain apple cake, or possibly the marmalade variation that Corbin gives.)

I’m not sure how many more River Cottage handbooks are in the pipeline, I know one on fruit is coming later this year and I’m hopeful for a Game related one in the future, cheese making would be fun too (I have no idea how practical home cheese making is but I’d love to give it a go). The more I see of them the more I like them and the more indispensable they seem, several titles have gone away with me as holiday reading before, and ‘Cakes’ will be just the thing to take with me the next time I head to the Borders (or any other self catering destination). It would also have been a brilliant book to have had at university when I finally got a flat with more than a toaster in the kitchen. Big glossy cookbooks are fine but it’s nice to have something you can throw in a pocket or bag to browse through at odd moments (It can’t just be me who likes to read cook books like this.) it’s also good to have a book that really looks like it’s meant to be used and won’t object to getting a bit dirty, ‘Cakes’ is also a worthy stable mate for ‘Preserves’ (where my River Cottage handbook obsession began) and I can’t think of any higher praise for it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stormy Petrel – Mary Stewart

My second Mary Stewart and I remain intrigued. This one was first published in 1991. I’m a bit obsessive about when books are published and when they’re set. According to Wikipedia Mary Stewart was born in 1916 which would have made her about 74 when she was writing this so although on the surface the action is early nineties mood wise it feels a decade or two earlier. This is probably only important to me but it plays on my mind and I felt a lot happier when I’d worked out to my own satisfaction ‘when’ I was.

My frame of reference for Mary Stewart is ‘Wildfire at Midnight’ (although on the strength of these two books I’ve bought more) ‘Stormy Petrel’ is quite a different proposition. Rose Fenemore is looking for a bolt hole at the end of term (she’s a Cambridge don, science fiction writer, and minor poet so deserves a holiday albeit a working one), her brother Crispin is looking for some bird watching so they both settle happily on a cottage in the western isles. Rose arrives safely and settles in but Crispin is delayed but the natives seem friendly and she has plenty of writing to do so even a rising storm doesn’t seem like a problem – until that is Rose wakes up to find a strange man in her kitchen closely followed by a second strange man who definitely isn’t who he says he is... (This has actually happened to me – in a student flat, we were woken up at 2am by the sound of hoovering, we knew something was wrong because we rarely hoovered, 3 drunken men from somewhere had managed to open our door and thought a bit of housework was in order. It was disconcerting.)

I digress. Rose isn’t best pleased especially as it becomes clear that things don’t add up and it all becomes a bit menacing. What I particularly liked about ‘Stormy Petrel’ is that instead of a murder and a hero suspected of the crime there’s a bit of suspected smuggling and fraud which feels very believable and makes the romance a bit less worrying. There is also an excellent sub plot about the eventual fate of the island and the question of Rose’s future as a single lady. The other thing I liked about this later book was that instead of a whirlwind entanglement with a swarthy dangerous charmer there’s a slow getting to know a nice geologist.

I can think of no better way of putting it than to say this was a thoroughly nice, thoroughly enjoyable book. It hasn’t changed my life but I’m pretty sure I’ll read it again and the Scottish one is eyeing it up too. The descriptions of the islands scenery and wildlife are really wonderful, the plot maintains an agreeable tension throughout and it’s an excellent comfort read which is just what I’ve been in the mood for, the only question remaining is this – will I have the self control to save some of those unread Stewart’s for my holiday next month?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Captain’s Wife – Kirsten McKenzie

This is one from the guilty pile and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself for striking it off the list. I really liked McKenzie’s first book ‘The Chapel at the Edge of the World’ (heavily featuring the Italian Chapel in Orkney) so had high hopes for book number two which also has an Orkney connection but goes back a little further than the second world war.

The Captain’s Wife’ is a multi stranded tale which follows the life of John Fullerton, Orkney boy and eventual pirate, and also Mary Jones a young woman sent off into the world to marry Captain Jones, a much older and previously married man who needs a male heir to secure his uncles estate. Unfortunately Captain Jones (as well as being a laudanum addicted drunk with a violent streak) seems incapable of fathering his own child so he gets his best friend and possible lover Robert to do the job for him. From there on in it gets complicated.

John’s story is also complicated, the illegitimate son of a poor crofter who acknowledges him enough to give him a good beating when he asks for more for his mother. He seems to be mostly motivated by greed (with a good dose of paranoia) his fate is set when he joins ship after running away from home. He’s picked up by an older man who wants him for his body rather than his sailing skills, but from him John develops a taste for finer living and eventually a ship of his own. Merchant life doesn’t provide enough money and he turns first to smuggling and eventually as mentioned to piracy, he also turns to brandy and gambling – from where – well it gets complicated.

As long as I was reading I was totally caught up in the tale but as soon as I put the book down I found myself picking holes in it. I think McKenzie is a gifted story teller – otherwise I wouldn’t have finished this book, never mind found myself enjoying it, but I also think, and hope that she’s got much better to come. There were just too many holes in ‘The Captain’s Wife’, little things that didn’t quite add up in the plot; descriptions of emotions that felt wrong for the eighteenth century setting and possibly too many drunken gay sailors. I was doubtful about Mary’s life on board ship as well though cursory research suggests that this was quite common, but this brings problems of its own because apart from Mary it’s an exclusively male world.

In fact it needs to be an entirely male world to make sense of all the same sex relationships – the suggestion initially seems to be that a boy is a necessary adjunct to an officer’s life and that the boy will get used to it in return for better food, better clothes, and a better bed (the boys in the book seem to be happy enough with the terms). Still the male relationships are entirely convincing, which is a bit more than I felt about the ménage a trois between Mary, her husband, and their lover.

I ended up feeling quite lukewarm about ‘The Captain’s Wife’ but the Scottish one who read it almost as soon as I got it really enjoyed it although he’s failed to take to ‘The Chapel at the Edge of the World’ so it seems there’s no accounting for taste and if you can suspend your disbelief sufficiently it’s certainly a gripping yarn.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Do all good things have to come to an end?

Back in 1999 I was working in a bookshop with a woman who really didn’t like me very much (sample conversational openers ran like this “I have a special power you know – people I don’t like DIE”. Last time I saw her she walked into a lamp post whilst trying to avoid me, clearly disappointed I was still breathing.) It wasn’t the best job I’ve ever had, but it was in that bookshop I picked up and read Jancis Robinson’s ‘Confessions of a Wine Lover’ which pretty much changed my life. I decided I was going to learn about wine and the obvious place to start was in Oddbins just around the corner.

Even by then Oddbins glory days were probably behind them but it was still to my mind the most exciting shop on the high street (with the possible exception of Dillons and Waterstone’s) and one happy day they asked if I wanted a job. I did and that was me until 2008. Oddbins turned out to be not just a job; it was a way of life, it was also known as a graduate graveyard - there’s clearly something about the combination of learning about booze and abundant opportunities to drink it that seduces and distracts the unwary... I didn’t always love working there and should have left long before I did (in fact I left twice – once to go somewhere that sounded better but wasn’t, and from which I returned for a brief few months before my branch was closed forever). The news that Oddbins is going into administration isn’t really surprising, the signs have been there for a while, but it’s still more than a little depressing to see the end of something that once felt so special.

I suppose anywhere you spend much of your twenties and thirties will be an education but I’m pretty sure this was something else; I learnt more about wine than I remember now, found a passion for whisky, confirmed my love of gin, met some great people, and some not so great people. I can’t for example imagine coming into work at my current job to find that the guy closing up the night before had stayed back to smoke heroin. Or for that matter my current line manager taking the news with exemplary sangfroid merely asking if I would like to dismiss the miscreant myself or prefer that she should do it.

(Me, “I need to have a chat to you about this.”
Him “Oh, that shouldn’t be there should it”.
Me “No”.
Him “I suppose I’ll get sacked for this.”
Me “Yes”.
Him “Oh well, I was going to hand my notice in today anyway, I’ve got another job.”
Me “....”)

But then my current job doesn’t have the space to spend time really talking to the people that you spend up to 12 hours a day with, or anyone to really share a passion for all things winey with, it’s all very professional and slick (which is a good thing) but lacks the grubby though delightful personality of old school Oddbins. I’m not sorry that I’ll never have another boss that spends a day lying on the floor behind the counter groaning through a hangover, or one who constructs a working cross bow out of bamboo skewers and elastic bands before inadvertently spraying me with warm lager when he shot a can of Stella. I do however miss the huge amount of knowledge that used to be found in any given branch and the room for individuality (although I prefer it to manifest itself in quirky artwork rather than the ability to construct small arms out of office detritus).

When I started each shop was run like an independent under one umbrella brand. We had to stock a core range of lines but otherwise we were free to choose from a comprehensive list of eclectic goodies based mostly on what we fancied drinking ourselves, decoration was based on the artistic talent of the staff and old Ralph Steadman posters, and underlying all of it you had to know your stuff. It sort of worked in that the company apparently didn’t lose money and some branches turned a pretty convincing profit, but it’s not an approach that appeals to accountants or anyone who wants to be reasonably sure their staff won’t be arrested on drunk and disorderly charges, or for indecent exposure, or on a few near legendary occasions for quite serious fraud.

On the other hand basically employing your customers was an approach that gathered together staff who loved their jobs enough to work for peanuts and wine, and who were ridiculously loyal to the company. I can’t believe that there isn’t enough custom to make high street wine selling, or for that matter bookselling viable. It’s easy to blame the internet and supermarkets for the hard times but the relative success of independent wine shops shows that if you can get it right you can do well, or at least well enough. I work for a supermarket now and we’re good at what we do, but there are limits to our position that leave plenty of room for other operators and plenty of customers (including me) who are prepared to pay a little bit more for something that captures the imagination.

I hope, but doubt, that Oddbins as a brand has a future. The press fell out of love with them a long time ago and in my last few years there I saw the company lose its way and reputation bit by bit. The good news is that the wine trade is full people who experienced the best that Oddbins had to offer and who have taken that on to an entirely different level. When I go to work tomorrow I’ll see a range of wines as good as can be found anywhere and which I don’t believe would be available to us if it hadn’t been for the work Oddbins did. It’s poor consolation for the people who will lose their jobs, but it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.