Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bird Brain - Guy Kennaway

Pheasants are everywhere at the moment - in the fields, on the high street, and finally in paperback. I like pheasants, I even like them enough to risk a book about talking animals if there are pheasants in it. It was pheasants and the desire to read something quite different from anything else I've picked up recently that led me to 'Bird Brain'. 

It fitted the bill admirably. It starts with a shooting incident, Basil 'Banger' Peyton-Crumbe is found dead at his peg half way through a shoot - it looks like an accident,  but is it? The dogs know it isn't, Jam the Springer Spaniel was in the back of the Landrover when Banger's gun was taken out and fiddled with, he didn't see the culprit but he smelt them. Even if Jam could talk though he wouldn't that be that inclined to do much about it - he didn't like Banger very much. In fact nobody really liked Banger and the feeling was mutual it seems like his death, foully done or otherwise, won't be much regretted by anyone, especially not by his brother William who scoops the family estates complete with a premier shoot which should be the envy of his banking pals.

That this leaves Banger's daughter and grandson literally out in the cold is no concern of William's who doesn't hesitate to behave like a banker under these trying family circumstances, but William doesn't seem entirely at ease with the new situation - why could this be?

Banger himself isn't as dead as you might expect for a man who quite literally lost his head - he's been reincarnated as a pheasant and finally has a chance to put things right. It's still a bit of a problem that people can't understand animals, and that the other pheasants just aren't that bright, so can't really help Banger all that much in his quest. They're not impressed when they find that he was a notable shot in his day either, bagging some 40,000 of their fallen comrades.

What I liked about 'Bird Brain' is that underneath a mildly amusing who dunnit narrated by dogs and pheasants there are a few other things going on. Banger is slowly revealed to be more than an unpleasant old man. He loves the country and understands it's stewardship, he might be out of step with the world around him but it turns out to be a fairly questionable world. There is also a lot of stuff about pheasants and shooting.

How the countryside is managed is an interesting and always relevant topic. Kennaway makes it clear that the countryside we know, however wild it appears is definitely man made. Big shoots which provide huge numbers of slow, low flying birds which have to be pretty much kicked out of the trees come in for a gentle but definite drubbing. It's an emotive issue which Kennaway handles well. The argument here isn't about whether you should shoot or not, but how. Pheasants are low in the food chain, if someone isn't taking pot shots at them then there are plenty of other predators waiting to eat them. For the pheasant the end result is all the same, it doesn't help that they've been bred to be targets. 

It's an entertaining book with far more substance behind it than I expected. It's not everybody who manages to be funny and thought provoking at the same time but I think Kennaway pulls it off nicely.  

Friday, September 28, 2012

Tea with Diana Henry

Autumn with it's mists and mellow fruitfulness (though sadly this year it's more fruitless than otherwise) is when the lure of the kitchen really kicks back in, that there are so many tempting new cookbooks on the market is only further encouragement. My favourite new book of the season so far is Diana Henry's 'Salt Sugar Smoke' that I first wrote about last week. After that post Diana sent me an email - it was one of those rare occasions that feels like a daydream come true; she asked if I would like to come to afternoon tea at her house with about a dozen other bloggers. Would I? Yes indeed I would.

'Salt Sugar Smoke' is brilliant, Diana Henry is the sort of writer I love to read, her books are full of possibilities that go far beyond cooking; food is such a vivid way into other peoples lives and way of life. Books by chefs are all well and good but they are generally more concerned with the mechanics of cooking - I'm interested in the technical stuff, but it doesn't always feed the imagination in the same way that the likes of Claudia Roden and Jane Grigson do when they include all those bits of history, legend, and anecdote. I discovered those two at about the same time - my copies of their books are battered penguin paperbacks that I used to read on the bus. Before that it wouldn't have occurred to me that you could read recipes for fun. For me Diana Henry is very much in this tradition - I have no higher praise to bestow - she really is that good.

It could then have been terrifying to go to her house - I'm not good at meeting new people, especially ones I admire. I'm not to worried about saying anything stupid so much as being able to talk at all. Happily Diana was amazingly welcoming, I still can't quite believe she was willing to turn her kitchen over to a dozen bloggers, but she did and it was a treat. Food bloggers are a slightly different tribe to book bloggers - mostly they have better cameras and aren't afraid to use them. Everything was very well documented before it was eaten which felt mildly surreal from my point of view and makes me wonder if there's an etiquette to this kind of thing along the lines of kissing someone's cheek on greeting?  
I should probably have taken more pictures myself except that I was mesmerised not so much by the food as the books - hundreds of wonderful books, many of them in reassuring piles on chairs and the floor (just like mine) I could have spent hours browsing the titles looking to spot familiar spines. It was a wonderful collection - and apparently only the half of it - I have serious book envy.

The food was excellent, a selection of things from the book which has confirmed my desire to make the fig and pomegranate jam without delay as well as to acquire a suitable bit of salmon to turn into gravlax. Whilst in London I managed to pick up some Quinces as well - they've proved even more elusive than usual here in Leicester - so I also have the very agreeable prospect of deciding what to do with them, it's a bit of a toss up between jelly or a liquor at the moment. Altogether it was a fun and very inspiring afternoon - definitely a privilege to have taken part in, and you can probably guess what most people will be getting from me for Christmas this year.   

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mae West

After reading the books it seemed like a plan to watch the films, especially after I found a very reasonably priced box set in HMV. Reading about Mae West here was an education in itself. She would be years ahead of her time now never mind 80 years ago. 

I've watched a couple of the films - She Done Him Wrong and Belle of the Nineties which has a lot in common with 'The Constant Sinner' though in a considerably cleaned up way. Mae was 38 when she made her Hollywood debut, the collection I have will take her well into her 40's - she looks damn good but she also looks mature, she's not skinny, and her clothes cover her from neck to floor - though figure hugging hardly begins to describe it, and everybody is wild about her.

I can't imagine an actress being allowed to pull that off today but in Mae's films the men are falling over themselves to get to her - and rightly so. She's glamorous, intelligent, ruthless, independent, knows what she wants, and is exceptionally confidant, nobody's taking advantage of her (when someone tries it in Belle of the Nineties one ends up dead another in prison). Again - you just don't get heroines like that these days. 

It looks like there are a few wet afternoons and cold dark nights around the corner, time could be much worse spent than in watching these films or reading her books. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Miss Hope's Teatime Treats - Hope and Greenwood

Tea and cakes aren't going away... Of all the vaguely retro traditions and fashions doing the rounds the institution of afternoon tea is the one I can most get behind. I know it never really went away but I truly believe it's something that should be encouraged at every opportunity - and the more elaborate the better - which is one reason why I'm always so pleased to see another tea book.

It's such a civilised way of entertaining; lots of nice things to eat as well as the fun of making them, child friendly, and doesn't swallow up the whole day like lunch can, or the whole night like dinner will (both of which I enjoy. Tea is also an excuse for pretty crockery - if I had the storage space I'd have a nice collection of vintage cups and saucers but currently every available flat space (including much of the floor) is taken up with books, booze, and cooking pots, also I'm not desperate to have more things to dust. Happily tea is a meal that can accommodate a bit of mismatched china and a lack of formality as well as all out show stopping effort.

I have mixed feelings about the jolly hockey sticks and gin tone of the Hope and Greenwood books; a little can go a long way when you're not in the right mood for it, though much like gin it's also something that can really hit the spot when you are in the mood. I'm fond of gin and a devotee of the fudge recipe in the first Hope and Greenwood book 'Life is Sweet' (great fudge; the perfect texture, lovely flavour, makes enough to eat plenty and share plenty) and since I first made that I regularly turn to these books for inspiration. 'Miss Hope's Chocolate Box' was the book that gave me the confidence to have a go at making my own chocolates - something that's great fun if a little bit fiddly.

That fudge recipe meant I came to this book with high expectations and I don't think I'm going to be disappointed. There are two things that I'm initially quite excited about, the first being small cakes - not fairy cakes, proper cakes, only smaller - 5 inches to be precise. So that's a cake small enough for two to easily get through without totally overdoing it, big enough to share around a little further, small enough to justify making a couple for the tea table, big enough to hopefully leave a left over slice for the next day. 5 inch tins aren't the easiest size to find but they're out there and I now own one which I look forward to trying out soon. I'm also assuming that now I have a couple of recipes which give times, quantities, and temperatures I can adapt other fruit cakes - a whole world of little cakes.

The second source of excitement is the drinks section; a really good mix of cold, hot alcoholic and alcohol free beverages. There is a recipe for Russian tea that calls for oranges, lemons, cloves, and sugar which sounds wonderfully exotic and warming - something between a cup of tea and mulled wine. Darjeeling gin fizz also sounds good, but nothing sounds better than the fireside rum tea with it's cinnamon, maple syrup, tea, and rum. There's a lot of god stuff here - maybe even enough to persuade me to clean up and invite people into my home for some sort of entertainment. Maybe. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cups of tea and slices of cake

When I get to work on Monday morning Christmas will have officially begun, I would say it's to early but the stock has been an unwelcome reality for a few weeks now and it's going to be such a relief to have it out on the shelf rather than in a solid wall between me and anything I want to get to, also I've seen pfeffernusse. Still it's hard work and I'm sitting here at the end of the week wondering if I can put off dealing with laundry until tomorrow, and what would be more relaxing - bed with Mae West (on film) or a bath with Mae West (book). Most likely is falling asleep on the sofa until I get woken by cramp or cold half way through the night...

A bright spot in all this is cake. I had been on a bit of a self imposed baking ban over the summer but after I found some very elderly cans and jars at the back of a cupboard there was a bit of a tidy up and a ready made excuse to use up some of the many half full bags of sugar, nuts, dried fruits, and all the rest of the stuff with best before dates looming. A superabundance of elderly nicely matured marmalade and dessicated coconut has made Dan Lepard's 'Short and Sweet' the inspiration for most of my recent baking - Lepard seems to like both and it's been fun working through quite a bit more of this book.

From being a book I wasn't going to bother with 'Short and Sweet' has become almost indispensable, it's even close to usurping Nigella's 'How To Be A Domestic Goddess' as the go to cake book - close but not quite there, not until I find the equivalent of Nigella's Brownies which have been providing an unequalled sugar and chocolate hit for more than a decade now.

Cakes baked have been the brown sugar chocolate loaf cake - this one was a disaster after most of it escaped from the tin and landed on a baking tray that I'd thoughtfully placed under it against just such a possibility - I don't have a lot of luck with loaf cakes. More successful was a marmalade and vanilla cream layer cake but it all got eaten before I could take a picture - there were guests, it wasn't just me and a fork. Had I actually used the fine cut marmalade specified rather than the chunky home made sort it would have been even better.

Most successful however was an Orange Macaroon cake, this is the one I'd make again. Nice texture, good flavour, and just the right amount of coconut. Now all I need is another cup of tea. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Salt Sugar Smoke - Diana Henry

Years ago I got a really good book about preserving called, of all things, 'Preserved' by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton. It's a fantastic book with instructions on how to do everything I could imagine including building your own hot smoker, cold smoker, thing for slow drying stuff, and other stuff I can't even remember. It also had the best recipe for candied oranges I've ever found. However there comes a point in life when you have to admit to yourself that you'll never build a smoker (hot or cold), I reached that point at about the same time a friend started building his so I copied out the orange recipe and passed on the book.

Since then I've been on the look out for something that would take it's place and perhaps be better suited to my actual cooking habits. 'Salt Sugar Smoke' is without doubt that book. Diana Henry's 'Roast Figs Sugar Snow' was an impressive if belated introduction to my newest kitchen heroine but 'Salt Sugar Smoke' is the title that confirms that this is love - the real thing and not just a summer romance. 

As with 'Roast Figs Sugar Snow' the inspiration for recipes come from across the globe and that's always exciting; all those things available on every supermarket shelf that I'm never quite sure what to do with suddenly taking on a world of possibility - it's heady stuff. September is jam month for me, lots of foragable stuff is available in hedgerows or gardens and what I can't find for free is often obtainable at farmers markets so it's fitting that Jam is the subject of the first chapter. There have been no shortage of Jam books published over the last couple of year so I wasn't sure I'd find anything new here, I was wrong. There is a legendary French Jam maker - Christine Ferber; Greengage and Gew├╝rztraminer, Pear and Chestnut, and Blackberry and Pinot Noir jams are all pure Ferber (her inspiration is credited) which saves me having to pay a fortune for her books in translation. I have made the Damson and Gin jam, it's excellent and it's sod's law that this is such a bad year for fruit trees because I could have made gallons of it. 
On the immanent to do list is Fig and Pomegranate jam which I think should be exotic enough to make memorable presents. There is also a Lime and Rum marmalade, and it occurs to me that if I add a bit of mint I'll basically have a Mojito I can put on toast...

After that there are various tempting things that can be preserved in vinegar and oil, and a chapter on hot smoking. Henry uses a wok and recommends stove top smokers which are apparently quite affordable, I might research this, and also how it's likely to react with my smoke detector, I like the idea but don't want the neighbours to hate me. There's also a good section on brining which I've heard about but never done, as all I really need to do with that is plan ahead it's got to be worth trying. I have other long held ambitions regarding successfully curing herring (I've already done it unsuccessfully) and making my own gravlax - there are recipes for both which look good.

After the jams though the real draw for me in this collection comes in the chapter on 'Cordials, Alcohols, Fruits and Spoon Sweets' specifically Alcohols. It's not to late to make sloes in apple brandy (liqueur de blosses) which sounds wonderful - more mellow than gin or vodka, and if it's more expensive, well it will be correspondingly special. This is also the best possible time for making Russian Plum Liqueur - both would be ready in time for Christmas but that's not nearly all... 

There are a handful of recipes that constitute the absolute last word in luxury preserving - prunes in armagnac with vanilla, prunes in a mix of rum, eau de vie and monbazillac, and perhaps best of all apricots in muscat; I can picture them now; glowing dried apricots plumped up in luscious, golden, sticky wine. They take about a month to be ready and will keep for a year. Some times food columnists talk about how handy it is to have crumble ingredients or the like prepped in the freezer for those times when unexpected guests come round and you simply must have an emergency pudding. I've never found myself with that problem but if I did I'd rather whip out some apricots in muscat and a decent pot of yoghurt than defrost something nameless from the back of the freezer. Seriously this has to be a contender for best cookbook of the year. 


Monday, September 17, 2012

Death on a Longship by Marsali Taylor - The Guest Post

'But what do you find to do up there?'
Plenty, says Marsali Taylor, author of newly-published Shetland-set detective novel Death on a Longship.

Every time I go south of Shetland, someone always asks me:  But what do you find to do up there?

Sometimes, when I first went up, and my daughter was only three, they'd add, 'Is it fair taking her so far away from civilisation?'

Like most Shetland children, she had a wonderful time. Cass, the heroine of my Death on a Longship, has been away from Shetland for fourteen years, and when she returns to her childhood home, she finds memories stirring: 'I’d paddled in that burn spreading across the sand, caught little fish in my lime-green net, and scooped up jam-jars of frogspawn, which Maman had made me pour back. Inga, Martin and I had made housies in the roofless walls of the old croft, and lit fires on the beach with purloined matches. We’d gone swimming on summer days, teeth chattering after three minutes in the water, and skimmed the flat beach stones to try to beat Martin’s record of nine bounces.'

The Desperate Reader will recognise that.

As for adults...well, if the weather's fine, which is most of the summer, I get out on the water. Like me, Cass is a keen sailor, and there's no better place to be for that.  Shetland is a sailor's paradise: an all-tides marina in every small village (thanks to oil money), stunningly beautiful countryside to watch as you sail up the deserted voe (sea inlet), and floating pontoons to moor up alongside for a night under the stars, either alone, so that you can wake up to watch the heron fishing and the seal basking on his rock, or with  group of like-minded sailors, which means the fun of rafting up together, building a bonfire on the beach and, when it gets too cold to be outside, sitting telling stories in someone's cabin till the small hours. My beloved Karima S is the baby of the fleet, and the original of the boat Cass lives on, with her engineer friend Anders and his black and white pet rat, imaginatively named Rat. She's like a very small caravan with a table, a cooker, a long settee and a double berth in the pointy end - have a look at my website, for photos.

The sailing episodes in the book are all in my 'back garden'. The replica Viking longship that Cass is skippering is being used for a Hollywood film and they do close-up shots at anchor in Brae voe, where I teach sailing to youngsters. The big 'landing' scene in the book (when Cass brings the longship in to shore) is set round at one of our barbeque spots, the Hams of Roe. That's where the saboteur's first attempt at disrupting the film takes place...or is it actually an attack on the star, Favelle?

Summer can't last forever, though. Around late September, the nights start to darken, the winds rise... so it must be drama time of year. My local group, the Westside Players, puts on a pantomime every second year.  Rehearsals begin in October for a January performance.  It's just for the village, so it doesn't matter if people forget their lines or the scenery falls down - that makes it funnier.  I've played every part: the Prince, his friend, the Wicked Stepmother / Witch, the incredibly stupid Baddie's henchman, the Good Fairy...and, at last, at the age of forty-eight, the Princess.  It's not true that I choose my part on how sparkly the costume is! My favourite part ever was as the witch in Sleeping Beauty - I was flown across the stage on a broomstick, in eighteenth century dress with hoop (and sequins, and an imitation ruby necklace), cackling wildly, while the pianist played 'The Ride of the Valkyries'.

My Cass is not an actor.  I can't imagine her on a stage at all - but I wanted to use that side of me, so I invented Maman, her mother.  Maman is an opera singer, specializing in the Court of the Sun King composer Rameau, and a Luvvie of the most flamboyant sort. She dresses in black and white only, wears Callas eyeliner and sweeps about in a waft of 'Je reviens'.  She's incredibly snooty about magazines like Hello, and speaks English as a great concession. Cass reckons that if anyone was brave enough to ask Maman to sing Andrew Lloyd Webber, she'd behave like a captain being asked to scrub the decks. She walked out on Cass and her father years ago - but she comes back like a shot when they're suspected of murder...

Nothing to do in Shetland?  There isn't time to fit it all in!

Death on a Longship Blurb
When she talks her way into a job skippering a Viking longship for a Hollywood film, Cass Lynch thinks her big break has finally arrived - even though it means returning home to the Shetland Islands, a place she hasn't set foot on since she ran away as a teenager to pursue her dreams of sailing. When a dead woman turns up on the boat’s deck, Cass, her past and her family come under suspicion from the disturbingly shrewd Detective Inspector Macrae.

Cass must call on all her local knowledge of Shetland, the wisdom gained from years of sailing, and her glamorous, French opera singer mother to clear herself and her family of suspicion - and to catch the killer before Cass becomes the next victim.

Giveaway Info
Marsali is giving away THREE prizes; a copy of Death on a Longship at each blog stop on her tour, a 1st place grand prize giveaway at the end of the tour of some silver Viking-inspired jewelry from the Shetland Islands, and a 2nd place $15 Amazon gift card.
1)      To win a book: leave a comment on this blog post to be entered to win a book (open internationally for ebook or the US, UK, and Canada for a print book). Be sure to leave your email address in the comments so we can contact you if you’re the lucky winner. This giveaway ends five days after the post goes live.
2)      To win Viking-inspired Jewelry OR a $15 Amazon gift card: Click the link to go to the contest’s website and enter the Rafflecopter at the bottom of the post. A first and second place lucky winner will be selected on October 1st. First place person gets to choose which grand prize he/she wants. The second place person gets the remaining grand prize. Open to every country.

Marsali’s Bio

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.                   

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Death On A Longship - Marsali Taylor

My stock of prohibition era American novels has all but run out leaving me a little bit bereft, so it was a timely visit from the postman when he dropped off a parcel containing 'Death On A Longship' which I've been anticipating for a while and which has broken my gangster obsession.

Marsali Taylor was my English teacher in junior high school, she also taught us French, Drama, and was the woman responsible for my Georgette Heyer habit. I had absolutely no aptitude for French despite her best efforts but she had a definite - and much more effective - influence on my reading life so it's really interesting to see what her own book is like. 

This is also only the second time I've had my hands on a novel written by somebody I know and it definitely has an effect on how I approach a book - I find it makes me much more critical, there's also a nagging fear that I won't like what I have in front of me and whilst with most books that's not something I worry about this time I really wanted to enjoy it. Happily for me I did which makes writing this blog a whole lot easier.

As the title suggests 'Death On A Longship' is a murder mystery, and as it's the first in a series I'll start with the heroine. Cass Lynch is almost 30 and sailing obsessed. She ran away to see at the age of 16 and has never really looked back. Originally from Shetland a job skippering a replica Viking longship for a film crew takes her back home for the first time in almost 15 years. There is a past to come to terms with so it's something of a fraught return further complicated by Cass's father having started a new relationship with a girl her own age who isn't necessarily delighted to have Cass back in the picture. Bridges are being built when Cass finds a corpse which at first she takes to be the girlfriend before realising it's her film star sister. Everything gets very personal very quickly and isn't looking good for Cass or her family.

Cass is an easy character to like. She's a sailing obsessed loner which means that she has to be resourceful, observant, well able to sum up a character that she might get stuck on a boat with, and cool in a crisis - all handy characteristics when you find yourself with a dead body at 4 in the morning. I liked that Cass is almost 30 - it feels like the right time for her to be building bridges between her past and possible future and the way that's done is a real strength in this book - as it's part of a series it'll also be really interesting to see how that develops.

Shetland is itself a significant character in the book. The landscape is always present and that's another thing I liked - books with a strong sense of place generally do appeal to me. There's also quite a bit about current local issues, especially wind farms, which made me wonder if they were going to feature in future books, it also makes me think as someone with local connections that it'll be interesting to come back to 'Death On A Longship' in a few years time and assess what's happened since. It's a very vivid snapshot of Island life as it is now.

The boats in the book are significant too, and rightly so. The Scottish one took me to Islay early in our relationship where quite by chance we saw Sea Stallion on  her way from Norway to Ireland. Watching that square sail on the horizon swept away a thousand years of history leaving stories about Viking invaders up-most in my mind, it was a real surprise when later in the day that's almost exactly what it turned out to be. Those boats invite stories in much the same way as haunted houses do - they just feel built for them.  

The murder mystery element is entirely satisfactory with a few twists along the way that kept me guessing as to who and why. There's only one victim which I also really approve of, I don't much care for a huge body count, this murder is made quite horrible enough by the realisation that a life has been taken for no good reason - always worth remembering when it comes to murder. 'Death On A Longship' has been published by @ttica, primarily I think as an ebook although hard copies are available here. I recommend it for anyone who likes an atmospheric, character based mystery - I'm already looking forward to the next in the series.  

Marsali will be doing a guest post here tomorrow with a chance to win prizes so please do come and have a look.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

She Done Him Wrong - Mae West

Mae West must have been a hell of a woman to know if 'She Done Him Wrong' and 'The Constant Sinner'  are anything to judge by - the heroines in both are physically dead ringers for Mae, and I'm guessing share some of the same principles as well as her gift for memorable one liners. I still have her autobiography 'Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It' to read but I suspect it will only confirm my suspicions.

Of the two novels I preferred 'The Constant Sinner' to read, or at least I remember it being better paced, but 'She Done Him Wrong' is a shade less disturbing. Babe Gordon in 'The Constant Sinner' had to much experience and to few morals to be an easy heroine to care for, Diamond Lil is a shade less troublesome. She reads as a little older than Babe and not quite as damaged but she's still "a beautiful short course to Hell". 

Lil's ex lover, Chick Clark, has found himself in jail due in part to stealing diamonds to keep her happy. Lil not being a girl to let the grass grow under her feet has skipped town and taken up with rising politician and white slave trader Gus Jordan. She doesn't know about the sideline in selling women into the brothels of Rio and wouldn't be happy if she knew that's where the money that buys her diamonds was coming from. Lil's funny like that. Gus's partner in crime Rita has arrived from Rio with a handsome young bull fighter in tow - Jaurez - who's making eyes at Lil, and Rita who didn't like her much in the first place really isn't happy about it. Neither is Gus - but Lil likes a bit of variety. Meanwhile Chick Clark has escaped from prison and is after Lil, intent on revenge and Gus is being watched by a mysterious policeman known only as 'The Hawk', oh and Lil has spotted a handsome salvation army Captain and she's never wanted a man more... 

What's really interesting about 'She Done Him Wrong' though is Mae's attitude to sex. Published as a book in 1932, 'She Done Him Wrong' is based on Mae's 1927 play of the same name, it's not particularly graphic but it's very frank. Lil enjoys sex but her passion is diamonds, they're her career and her only real love. She likes the men she sleeps with, but she's never been in love. She's smart, tough, and quite capable of taking care of herself. She has no particular problem with prostitution believing that a smart woman will make the best of herself and her opportunities such as they are, and in an age when the most respectable career option for a woman was still marriage she makes a sly point. Is it more honest to have fun with a man whilst having an eye on the bottom line or to marry him for bottom line? 

Mae's underlining of the point that Lil doesn't love the men she takes to bed but loves what she does there still feels a little bit unusual for a woman to be admitting to - Lil is a liberated woman by any standards and one who commands respect. Even at the end of the book when it looks like she might get her love story Mae   has Lil ask herself  "Is this love? Really love? Or something just for the winter season?" which is admirably honest as is the last line - the rather splendid 'I always knew you could be had'. Inner goddesses be damned, I want to discover my inner Diamond Lil, she'd give me better advice.

Monday, September 10, 2012

In Memoriam

Last week I heard the very sad news that my A level history teacher had passed away. Today there was a memorial service for him which I regret to say I couldn't make, but I can at least share a bit of my appreciation for him here. 

Mr Ward was one of those handful of teachers you have who you never forget for all the right reasons. He could be devastatingly sarcastic when he chose - so like every good teacher you wouldn't want to cross him but he was also very funny, approachable, kind, and must have had patience in spades, I also realise now what a gifted teacher he was.

He made 16th century European history come alive - even the economics. He wasn't the sort of teacher who would give you an answer when you asked a question, but would instead make you go and work it out or look it up for yourself, it was an excellent preparation for both university and life. He also encouraged us to look at a subject in a broader sort of way. I left school and went off to read History because he's inspired me so much, I ended up with a degree in History of Art because in the end that was the department that  lived up to the expectations that Mr Ward had given me.

His son is absolutely right when he says his father will be sorely missed by all who knew him. He was a remarkable man.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

New Hope For The Dead - Charles Willeford

When it comes to contemporary fiction I generally feel that if it's worth reading it'll be worth reading in 30 years and I'll wait to see what makes the cut. It's a personal prejudice and probably shouldn't be encouraged  but there you have it, I also feel that now as probably never before there is such a market for reissued books  there's actually a really good chance on not missing out on the good stuff. I've also had a couple of chances to test that theory this summer - first with 'Lace' having it's 30th anniversary re print, and which I thought had aged well being possibly more interesting for coming with a bit of historical perspective.

Charles Willeford is my second opportunity - he sounds like a hell of a character with a career that spanned tank commander, horse trainer, boxer, painter, writer, and radio announcer. He probably did other things too, he seems to have been that sort of man. His Hoke Moseley series (which I've started out of sequence) is set in Miami and written at the end of his life in the mid 1980's, Willeford died in 1988 when he was just shy of 70 and I think his age is worth bearing in mind when considering some of his attitudes.

I wanted to read Willeford because Penguin Modern Classics had decided to re-print him and I've been enjoying Ross MacDonald so much (also discovered through Penguin Modern Classics). The blurb on the back sounded promising without giving much away, but I had read that Quentin Tarantino was a fan, citing Willeford as something of an influence for Pulp Fiction - that probably gives as good an indication of what to expect from him as anything will; if you don't care for Tarantino I doubt the books would appeal either. I like both.

Willeford's detective Hoke Moseley is an ambiguous character. He's balding, a little over weight (though dieting in 'New Hope For The Dead') and somewhere in middle age. He's also flat broke and near homeless thanks to the demands of an ex wife and he's just been landed with his first female partner at work. Ellita Sanchez is 32, attractive, Cuban, and in trouble (the old fashioned kind of trouble that nice girls get in to) quite a bit of the book is about Hoke's attempts to settle into a working relationship with Ellita such as when he tries to work out if he should let her drive... He's been driving because he's the man and the man always does, but then he remembers that his previous, male, partner generally drove because he was better at it and it's always possible that Ellita will be a better driver too - so he decides he should let her have a go. I like this because it's the way we do think about work issue's when the balance changes, and also because Hoke is keen to make the partnership work.

Ellita is an interesting character - she's a feminine woman who's clearly sexually attractive - though there is no will they won't they vibe between her and Hoke - their relationship is strictly platonic, she's also very good at her job, and Willeford has made her successful in her career. There shouldn't be anything remarkable about that but it's somehow surprising to find such a well rounded female character in what is otherwise a very masculine book, and it's one of the things that gives 'New Hope For The Dead' some real class.

The other thing that sets Willeford apart from many authors I read is his trick of throwing in something really shocking from time to time. Shocking as in deliberately disgusting - it will be interesting to see if he continues to mess with taboo's through the rest of the series (I would quote here but am afraid of the spam it might attract). It's effective because it's occasional; just enough to seriously unsettle the unwary reader and set them up for an unexpected sort of ending, not enough to make you feel like you're in Irvine Welsh territory.    


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Guys And Dolls - Damon Runyon

Some time ago, presumably after enjoying something set in jazz age New York, I ordered 'Guys And Dolls' since when it's sat and gathered dust on the shelf but after 'Mother Finds A Body' I remembered I had it, located it, and as is the way of these things wish I'd read it months ago - if not years because as is also the way of these things the rest of Runyon's collected works seem to be hovering on the verge of being out of print. They're available, but they don't seem to be cheap.
I knew there was a musical version of 'Guys And Dolls' but not being a fan of the genre have never seen it so came to the book with no preconceptions and no idea of what to expect from Runyon generally. It was a good way to come to 'Guys And Dolls' and Runyon's very distinctive style. It's a collection of twenty short stories about some of the gamblers, bootleggers, and mobsters who congregated on Broadway. Their women (dolls) feature too, but this is basically a male world. The stories follow on from each other, all told by a nameless narrator but with the definite impression that it's the same voice each time. Many of the characters recur - like Dave the Dude and Miss Missouri Martin which helps link the collection into something that feels like a continuous narrative though actually these are all stand alone pieces - the danger of reading the lot together is that you find yourself picking up Runyon's style and risk sounding like a bad pastiche of an old gangster film in the process. 'More than somewhat' is the phrase I've had to fight using most often, it's not been easy.

Books in dialect aren't always appealing, and what Runyon uses is a sort of dialect - an elaborate concoction  of elaborately formal English mixed with slang. He also writes pretty much exclusively in the present tense. For about half a page I wondered what I'd let myself in for after which it was clear I was going to love it. Runyon's style already had a familiarity about it from any number of old films but this is where the penny dropped for me. It's a common language for characters who aren't always long off the boat - it brings New York to life as a melting pot of nationalities - that and it's funny. 

Generally all the stories are funny with a strong, if slightly skewed moral code behind them, but just when the reader is getting complacent about the company they're keeping Runyon will throw in a couple of corpses. It's quietly done and very effective - just enough to knock a bit of the glamour off of gangster life. 

In a stand out collection the story that really struck me was Dark Dolores - there is a radio play version here which isn't a patch on the book but interesting nonetheless. Dolores turns out to be a proper femme fatale and nowhere in this collection is Runyon better, or darker.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Scandilicious Baking - Signe Johansen

The Jam pan emerges
I've been at home all day waiting on plumbers, I had offered to hold keys for some of my neighbours so had the whole day around the flat which has been a real treat. The plumbers were polite, timely, tidy, and generally charming - so much for stereotypes - all that remains is to see how good a job they did... 
Not ripe, but cheap, fruit

It had briefly occurred to me that I could spend the time at home cleaning and doing paperwork, but I opted instead for experimenting with 'Scandilicious Baking' and chose to make greengage and vanilla jam, there are also Santa Lucia buns hopefully proving in the now reclaimed airing cupboard. 

Still looking pretty
It really has been a case of experimenting because I've been using what I had to hand rather than strictly following the recipe. The jam recipe is an interesting one and sometime I'll try Signe's version. For 2 kilos of fruit it calls for 350g of fructose which I just didn't have so I used ordinary sugar - and in ordinary quantities which meant 1.5 kilos of sugar. I'm curious about how a jam with so little sugar would set - does fructose do different things I wonder? Annoyingly someone turned up at just the wrong moment (not the perfect plumbers, but a friend of a neighbour looking for keys) and the greengages started to catch on the bottom of the pan, and though I thought I'd got setting point I'm not so sure now so will probably have to reboil the lot tomorrow. Also I have jam in my hair. Taste wise though the vanilla is wonderful with the greengages and it might be quite nice to have it runny enough to go well in yoghurt.
Not so pretty but almost ready

I've wanted to make Lucia buns for about 25 years now, and you may well ask why it's taken me so long. They are traditionally eaten on the 13th December, which just happens to be my birthday, and ever since an aunt with a Swedish boyfriend told me about them I've wanted to try them, now I have a recipe I'm not waiting till December. I must admit to being a bit nervous about these buns, they should be 'S' shaped with currant - or in this case sour cherry - eyes and I've always struggled with shaping dough. I want them to look pretty, know practice is the answer, but lack technique. 

Almost good enough for a nice buns pun
'Scandilicious Baking' is a lovely book with plenty to inspire in it. The recipes are a good mix of the  traditional from all over Scandinavia - though generally with a Signe twist, things which reflect contemporary trends in baking, though again with a Signe/Scandinavian twist, and things like Brownies that no baking book seems to be complete without. What I really enjoy about it though is the view North; there's nothing new about a seasonal approach to ingredients but the flavour combinations are just a little different, and so is the presentation. It's no surprise that Scandinavian food is finally having it's moment, just a wonder it's taken so long. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Scandilicious Sunday

Any serious plans I had for today got off to a bad start after getting plastered with my mother in a car park this morning. We had a bottle of chilled champagne and it was raining so it seemed logical to drink it, of course once it was open we realised we had to finish it because wouldn't it have been a shame to waste it? So we did finish it. In twenty minutes. Neither of us are used to doing that for breakfast so when the rain stopped and we got out of the car we were - well we were very giggly. The rest of the morning passed in a happy haze.

Back home, and after a restorative nap, I really wanted to bake another cake - after last weeks below par effort my pride needed rescuing, also I have a copy of 'Scandilicious Baking' to play with, and my poor kitchen aid hasn't had the exercise it deserves recently. Because I haven't been baking much recently my cupboard and fridge both have a collection of things that need using up which was yet another reason to make cake (it's amazing how many half full bags of different sugars one woman can collect). The recipes which really attract me in 'Scandilicious Baking' are the bread based ones, both sweet and savoury, I really look forward to trying them at some stage, but the things I had to hand suggested the Flourless hazelnut and whisky chocolate cake - except with almonds because that's what I had. 

The flourless chocolate cakes I've made before have all involved melted chocolate and whisked egg whites, this one doesn't which makes it much less trouble to throw together and significantly reduces the washing up. The whisky gives the batter a real kick, and as I type smells pretty good, the cake also looks to be behaving and better yet flourless batters are meant to sink a bit in the middle. I have high hopes. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Life Among The Savages - Shirley Jackson

There is a sense of gearing up for Christmas at work, nothing significant as yet, but just as the leaves will start to turn soon, so winter lines are beginning to appear on the shelves. Two particularly hard weeks at work have been a not entirely pleasant indication of what's to come and done nothing for my ability to concentrate. Fortunately I still have some of last years Christmas presents to play with including a copy of Shirley Jackson's 'Life Among the Savages' which is exactly the sort of book required at times like this. 

My acquaintance with Jackson's work came courtesy of an article written by Elaine Showalter  back when 'A Jury of Her Peers' was published by Virago. It was something along the lines of the ten best books by American women you wouldn't have heard of and had 'We Have Always Lived In The Castle' on it. I read and loved it, since then Penguin have reprinted 'The Lottery and Other Stories' and 'The Haunting of Hill House' in the U.K. but all of these basically fall into the horror camp, 'Life Among the Savages' is something quite different - although part if it does appear in 'The Lottery and Other Stories'.

Basically this autobiography but filtered through a series of articles for various magazines and then put together again as a book. Jackson talks about her husband, the old house they find themselves renting in Vermont, her growing family of children, the difficulty of finding a reliable mothers help, learning to drive, and how to accommodate the personalities of her offspring into the general scheme of things.

The books beginnings make themselves felt in an occasional disjointedness - passages start or finish rather abruptly sometimes, but all things considered the book comes together remarkably well. Jackson is funny about her children without being sentimental or overly exploitative which is as well because they take up most the book and I'm not generally well disposed to the children say the funniest things type of anecdote. Jackson makes it work because she maintains an edge of something in her voice - possibly a sense that she's unleashed something beyond her control on the world. 

There is nothing horrible about this book, but when she describes the house as having a personality, of how it chooses where it's furniture will go, you find the seeds of 'The Haunting of Hill House'. In other moments there are glimpses of 'We Have Always Lived In The Castle' as well as the germs of ideas that re-appear in 'The Lottery and Other Stories'. It's certainly a book to deepen your appreciation of Jackson's art. 

There is a companion volume called 'Raising Demons' which is sadly and inexplicably out of print as I still want more. I realise writing this that of all the books I've read from 50's America this is the first one that seems to have a basically happy account of functional family life - there's never a drunk to be seen and nobody has a break down, I realise that this probably says more about my reading choices than it does mid century America but it was a nice change of pace.