Friday, November 29, 2013

My Top Ten Books of the Last Year

It's the time of year when I like to look back at the books I've read over the last twelve months and make a totally subjective choice as to which have been the ten best. It's sort of a useful exercise in so much as if I'm keeping a reading notebook (blog) I should check over it form time to time - and actually it's been a really helpful reminder of some excellent books. There was one year when this was really hard but this time I was surprised at how many really good books there were to choose from. I re-read 'Pride and Prejudice' this year but opted not to put it on the list because - well because I've read it so many times before that it didn't really feel like it should count again.

So in no particular order here are my top 10 books of the last 12 months starting with Sara Maitland's 'Gossip From The Forest'. Maitland was my introduction to feminist fiction and Virago books (many years ago) but this was the first one of hers I've picked up in a long time. It was inspirational. I've looked at trees and fairy tales differently since. As an older sister I was particularly taken with her theory that fairy tales were originally mostly told by older sisters but basically you can't beat a book that makes you look at something familiar with fresh eyes.

Amy Sackville's 'Orkney' got some mixed reviews but I loved her take on legend and folklore and the darker side of love. The older narrators obsession with one of his students becomes increasingly oppressive but also left me wondering if their marriage is imagined. The shifting light and landscape of Orkney is the perfect backdrop for Sackville's tale and I also thought she did an excellent job of catching something of the spirit of the place.

Rumer Godden's 'A Fugue In Time' is one of three of her books that I read this year, all of them wonderful and disconcerting in equal measure. I thought I knew Godden reasonably well but exploring the titles re-issued this year have made me reassess her. 'A Fugue In Time' is the least obviously shocking of the trio (no rape and no exotic Indian location) but still managed to unsettle me as a reader. It's the story of a family and their home through almost a century. For want of a better description the memories have an independent life within the house and document the small triumphs, tragedies, injustices, cruelties, and loves that go to make up a family history. It's the sort of book that begs discussion.

Helen Hull's 'Heat Lightning' was a book that far exceeded expectations, it also has a particularly good introduction. It's another multi generational look at family life (which as a description is exactly the sort of thing which will make me pass over a book) and marriage. Amy Norton's marriage has hit a rough patch and she's gone home to lick her wounds. It's the beginning of the great depression and whilst she's home her uncle and cousin come off the rails in a way that threatens to take the whole family with them, her grandmother also dies. It isn't a depressing book - Amy and her husband look like they'll be able to make things work and the family will manage to re group and carry on somehow. What's really stuck with me though is the rising sense of tension against a background of oppressive heat. This one is a real Persephone gem.

Lindsey Bareham's 'The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales' is still sitting in my books to be dealt with pile, I got nowhere near doing it justice when I wrote about it and still haven't spent much time looking at the recipes yet. One way or another (River Cottage Fruit, anything that Prospect ever choose to publish, and Fiona Cairns 'Seasonal Baking' are notable exceptions) I haven't found many really inspiring cookbooks this year. Maybe it's because I no longer have a good local bookshop to discover things in but far to many of the cookbooks I've seen this year have felt like more of the same. The Trifle Bowl stands out because it looked at equipment as much as recipes, I love my kitchen and all it's bits so a book that puts those bits front and centre really appeals to me. The kitchens we have define the way we cook, eat, and entertain, I don't like anybody else cooking in my kitchen (they do it wrong) but I loved reading about somebody else's kitchen.

Georgette Heyer's 'The Grand Sophy' probably shouldn't count in the same way that 'Pride and Prejudice' didn't count but re reading it was something of a revelation (as were all the Georgette Heyer's I re read this year). I knew she was entertaining but I'd forgotten what very positive female role models Heyer wrote. Sophy isn't conventionally beautiful, she has a temper, and she's prone to tears at inconvenient moments but she's also smart, capable, and independent. I'm very glad these were the books I was devouring when I was 14.

I'm half way through Trollope's Palliser series now and so far 'The Eustace Diamonds' is easily my favourite. Lizzie Eustace is by far the most interesting woman I've found in Trollope, had he sympathised with her just a little more the book would have been even better (in my opinion). I know it's not everybody's favourite Palliser but for once this was a moral dilemma that I could really sympathise with, one where doing the wrong thing would come very easily (I'm not to be trusted with valuable diamond necklaces) and so much happens that Trollope doesn't repeat himself as much as usual. Entertainment aside it also has a lot to say about the position of women in Victorian society and the attitude of decent but conservative men like Trollope.

When I'm next inclined to damn Christmas and all the crap that comes with it I should remind myself of how many good books appear at this tome of year - there have been some beauties in the last few weeks for which I'm truly grateful. The most hotly anticipated (on my part at least) was John Wright's 'Booze', it didn't disappoint. Wright is a charming presence on the page and the book is packed with useful and interesting things to know.

Philip Hook's 'Breakfast at Sotheby's' is the funniest thing I've read in a long time. For anybody with an interest in art this book deserves serious consideration. Looking at the art world through the art market puts a slightly different slant on things, it certainly underlines why the great public collections are so important as well as being an interesting indicator of taste.

And finally Michael Alexander's 'The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles ('Micheal Alexander seductive is registering as a search term in my stats which I find slightly disconcerting). I expected this book to be interesting in a slightly dry sort of way so was mildly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. I really liked Alexander's translations of Anglo Saxon poems and other fragmentary bits - there's some beautiful pieces in here, things that I'll go back to over and over (especially 'The Dream of the Rood'), it's reignited a long dormant interest in poetry and will make sitting through the second instalment of 'The Hobbit' somewhat more bearable.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christmas at High Rising - Angela Thirkell

It had occurred to me to save this book as a Christmas eve treat but I've never been very good at waiting for treats so I just read it. 'Christmas at High Rising' is a collection of 8 short stories originally published in a variety of places (but mostly Harper's Bazaar and Cornhill Magazine) between 1928 and 1942 and is most definitely a treat for Thirkell fans though it might be a bit baffling for anyone completely unfamiliar with her Barsetshire novels. 

That said I think the stand out story is 'Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out' (worth the price for this alone) which is basically a catalogue of all the horrible diner parties in Shakespeare's plays along with the suggestion that it might have been nice for him if he'd gotten out more, particularly to reasonably well regulated households with well trained servants. Thirkell makes it considerably funnier than I describe it. After that I'm rather a fan of Tony Moreland, especially when he's a hideously confidant child. Happily for me he features in several of the stories her. I wonder who his original was (surely there was a real Tony?), he reminds me somewhat of my brother at a similar age (thoroughly irritating with occasional glimpses of charm). 

The joy of the Tony stories is that they'll bear plenty of re-reads, especially the ones that have George Knox in as well - a single read isn't enough to unravel all the details, but it is enough to give a sense of the fun that Thirkell seems to be having with these stories and for me as the reader it's been fun too. I am more enthusiastic than ever about Thirkell - so here's hoping for plenty more Virago reprints. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen? - John Mullan

John Sutherland's literary puzzle books (specifically 'Is Heathcliff a Murderer?' 'Can Jane Eyre be Happy?' and 'Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?') did two things for me - improved my bus journeys back in the day and ruined 'Jane Eyre' forever. Sutherland doesn't believe Jane can be happy, re-reading the book as an adult woman who prefers that would be love interests don't dress as mad old gypsy women (I find I could probably overlook the mad wife in the attic, though I would prefer that she didn't keep trying to burn the house down) I can't help but agree. It's just not the same if you can't believe in a happy ending. 

Jane Austen is rather better at providing romantic hero's who are basically decent human beings so her appeal is undiminished. Despite that I'm always a little bit surprised by just how popular she is and what an industry she has become. For the most part I find Jane's own novels more than enough to be going on with but then a book like this comes along. This however is the sort of book that I'm almost bound to pick up in some sort of multi buy offer as the second choice (that's exactly what happened), it attracted me because of the essay format. If I'm going to read literary criticism I like it in digestible and independent chunks.

I picked up 'What Matters In Jane Austen?' in January and have been dipping in and out of it ever since, it's lived in my bathroom, under my bed, and today I retrieved it from behind the sofa - this sort of migratory existence is a good sign - as is my compulsion to sit and re read chapters instead of writing this blog post. It's easy to forget about books I've had for a while amongst all the new books I bring into the place - I suppose it would be a good idea to cut down on the amount of books I acquire but that feels unrealistic - and there's something nice about unearthing those half forgotten treasures.

Anyway, for the few people who might read this who aren't already familiar with 'What Matters In Jane Austen?' it's excellent. Reading it won't ruin any of her novels but it might give a deeper appreciation of some of the details and for when I don't quite feel like reading Jane again it sometimes fills a gap to read about her.   

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Seasonal Baking - Fiona Cairns

My birthday is getting close so I've been buying myself treats. I had half intended to wait and hope that I got 'Seasonal Baking' as a present, but then I couldn't resist it (always on the cards) and got it anyway telling myself that I would need it for a birthday cake recipe, or instead of a birthday cake, or something along those general lines... I really liked Fiona Cairns first book, 'Bake and Decorate', the second one has some amazing looking things in it but isn't really my style so I was really curious to know what this one would be like.

I think it's excellent. It's easy to forget that five or so years ago we weren't anything like as baking crazy as we are now but I do remember how eye catching the first Fiona Cairns cakes I saw were, I now get to some of see them every day at work and am still impressed (as she's local I also sometimes see the woman herself shopping - she's very polite) partly because so much of it is really quite simple, the sort of thing that's realistically achievable with a bit of time and patience, and the sort of thing where most of the decorative bits are easily obtainable in any decent sized supermarket or cook shop. Things like hundreds and thousands, smarties, nuts, fresh fruit, and dribbled icing or chocolate are reassuringly familiar and a good collection of biscuit cutters and those plunger stamp things for icing won't break the bank. I've amassed a few over the years and like finding ideas that make me use the bits I've got rather than sending me searching for yet more new stuff. 

My favourite decorative inspiration in this book though is a cake with a rose design painted on it. I've thought about painting directly onto icing for a while but had never done it before - I have now and was quite pleased with the results. Painting with food colouring, especially the very thick paste kind is a combination of using water colour and what I imagine printers ink would be like, you have to dilute it quite a lot or it just doesn't want to dry which means you need to be careful about how you build up colour for shading but otherwise opens up some very intriguing decorative possibilities.

The seasonal aspect of the book is rather nice too, I like the use of fresh and crystallised flowers and fruit, and also the use of exotic fruits in their proper seasons (there are plenty of things to do with mangos in here), again it's encouragement to use what's around which is always going to be more cost effective and help get the best out of ingredients too .

Altogether it's a thoroughly inspiring, practical, book which delivers on both substance and style. There are savoury bits in here too, cordial recipes, and a very good sounding mincemeat (fig and almond). I'm pleased with my present to myself, it's certainly a rather better reflection of how I want to bake than a lot of the books I've seen recently.   


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pomfret Towers - Angela Thirkell

Some books (like this one) finish far to soon. I'm having a definite pre Christmas wobble (will I have the energy, patience, and enough sticking plasters to get through the next 5 weeks in something approaching one piece?) so it was wonderfully calming to spend Sunday immersed in Thirkell's pre war house party world, I wouldn't have complained if it had been twice as long.

I don't know if I started with some ropey Angela Thirkell titles, or if it helps to have read a few more to have a feel for the Barchester she creates, or if it's that her books really do get better and better (I haven't read any of the late ones which I hear really aren't as good), or if it's my taste that's shifted slightly. Whatever the reason my opinion of her goes up with every book I read. On reflection I don't think that the number of her books read makes too much difference because 'Pomfret Towers' works very well as a stand alone book, and perhaps it helps that since reading Trollope's Barchester books I understand a few of the references and jokes she makes that would have been lost on me before.

Alice Barton is the very shy daughter of a successful local architect and his equally successful authoress wife, she was a sickly child so has always lived at home which makes her first grown up invitation to the house party of an elderly and irascible earl utterly terrifying but her parents are determined she should get out in the world and so she duly heads off. Also on the guest list are her brother Guy, and her great friends Sally and Roddy Wicklow, another brother and sister, Roddy is also the earls junior land agent. The cast of young people is completed by Julian and Phoebe Rivers (also brother and sister) relatives of the earl, and Gillie - heir to the title. The Countess has an eye out for a wife for Gillie and a fondness for Alice's mother, Hermoine Rivers a successful but trying novelist wants Gillie for her daughter Phoebe. Phoebe wants someone to get her away from her family, but not Gillie much as she likes him. Julian is far to selfish to think of anybody but himself, Roddy wants Alice, though Alice becomes rather smitten with Julian, and Guy is very taken with Phoebe. Gillie seems to like both Alice and Sally, Sally likes dogs and horses. How will it all work out?

This being Thirkell the reader can take it for granted that there will be happy couples by the end of the book - it's one of the reasons it's such a good winters afternoon read. What you can't take for granted in a book this age is political correctness, but on this occasion I didn't notice any of the casually anti-Semitic remarks that can be so distracting however much you tell yourself to judge by the value of the times - but that was very much an after thought.

What makes 'Pomfret Towers' interesting beyond it's entertainment value is primarily the description of a fairly grand country house party from the days when people still talked of Saturday to Mondays rather than weekends, that it was published in 1938 when that world really was on it's last legs adds an extra pathos. There's the sort of service that will be familiar to anyone who watches Downton Abbey along with Alice's worries about how (and how much) precisely one is meant to tip the housemaid and if will she despise your nightdress. In fact even without the changes war made that Thirkell couldn't have known about there are indications that this way of life is coming to an end including the presence of the Bartons and the Wicklows which suggests a relaxing of social hierarchies.

The two very different authoresses are interesting too, Mrs Rivers writes a succession of very successful novels about women of a certain age (her age) who go off somewhere exotic, almost have an affair with a younger man and then reconcile with newly aware husbands. Her publishers refer to her as the Baedeker bitch for her habit of writing like a guidebook and generally being an unpleasant person to deal with. Mrs Barton writes extremely learned novels about the more obscure papal bastards from the 15th and 16th centuries, a time she's apt to loose herself in. Although she's generally much liked there are hints that her absorption in her work, though fully supported by her husband puts something of a strain on their marriage. His solace is their house, an architectural gem which is his pride and joy. It's leased from the earl, Mr Barton's satisfaction at the end of the book that the lease will see him out left me wondering just what would have happened to a house like his post war. (I think it looks bleak myself.)

I've been delighted that Virago are reprinting Thirkell purely because I enjoy her books and they aren't always easy to find cheaply (luscious covers for this series too) this is the first one that I hadn't read before and it's been a real treat. I can't wait for the next lot coming out in May next year.      

Monday, November 18, 2013

Traditional Recipes of Laos - Phia Sing

Prospect Books asked me if I would like a copy of this as Laos is now the place to go in South East Asia, I would unhesitatingly say yes to anything from Prospect because their books are excellent - they cover 'food, cookery, food history, foodways, ingredients, and anything else concerning our diet'. They happily publish books I can't imagine anybody else taking on and some of which can't make much money (any money?) but all of which deserve to find an audience. the world at large and book lovers specifically need publishers like this.

My travels have never taken me out of Europe and whilst paying a mortgage is my primary concern I don't suppose that's very likely to change. I sometimes wonder if I should have made more effort to go further afield when I was younger and didn't have so many bills to pay but on the whole I don't really regret not having travelled more (yet). Meanwhile I can explore from the comfort of my own home through recipes. 'Traditional Recipes of Laos' is a perfect exploring book.

Phia Sing was the master of ceremonies and chef in the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang. Towards the end of his life (some 70 years ago) he wrote down a collection of traditional recipes at a time when written sources where almost non existent and oral accounts not as precise as could be wished for. Alan Davidson (who originally founded Prospect Books) was a career diplomat as well as being one of the great food writers, he was posted to Laos in the 1970's just before the country became communist. It was a lucky conversational chance with the then Crown Prince that led to Davidson getting his hands on the original notebooks. They had been talking about fishing when he mentioned how hard it was proving to get authentic recipes, the Crown prince produced the notebooks and happily Davidson got them Xeroxed and translated.

In this edition there are facsimiles of the original notebooks on one page translations on the next. There are also excellent sections on Loa eating habits and attitudes to food, culinary terms and equipment, and ingredients and other practical information for the cook. There are 124 original and authentic recipes from Phia Sing's notebooks - as I write this I keep thinking about how easily these might have been lost - and also a chapter on desserts which come from the Davidson's own research, Phia Sing's notebook's didn't contain any and his family considered it unlikely that he would have written any down.

This is so much more than a simple collection of recipes; it's a glimpse into a different time as well as a different place. There is a lot of chopping, pounding, simmering, and steaming so it's a world where cooking is the main business of the day and where the kitchen is the centre of the world - full of ingredients and preparations that lead into one another, it's a fascinating world to explore.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Breakfast at Sotheby's - Philip Hook

As far as November and books goes it's the month that keeps on giving, so many good things have hit the shelves in the last couple of weeks and Philip Hook's 'Breakfast at Sotheby's' is most definitely one of them. 'Breakfast at Sotheby's An A-Z of the Art World'  is part dictionary in that the main chapters are broken down into alphabetical subheadings, part memoir, Hook has been an Antiques Roadshow expert, a director for Christie's, and is currently a director at Sotheby's where he's also the senior specialist in impressionism and modern art so is well qualified to guide the reader around the art world, and more especially the bits where money changes hands.

As Hook himself puts it this is 'a book that investigates in prurient detail the guilty but ever fascinating relationship between art and money'. Given that without money to pay for it most of the canon of Art History as we know it wouldn't exist it's curious that we don't always like to acknowledge the relationship. This years excellent Reith lectures delivered by Grayson Perry coincidentally covers some of the same ground that Hook does in 'Breakfast at Sotheby's', Perry came across as a man quite comfortable with his commercial success, his audience somewhat less so - the idea that you might become an artist specifically to make money clearly isn't romantic or high minded enough. Conversely everybody's favourite bit of the Antiques Roadshow is finding out how much something is worth. We're a strange lot.

The first thing that struck me here was how very, very, good a salesman Hook must be, he's utterly charming, knows the importance of a good story and how to make it just a little bit racy from time to time, and absolutely knows how to make the reader laugh (I laughed a lot throughout this book) these are gifts which deserve to be celebrated. The bonus of it being a very amusing book aside there are other excellent reasons for reading, I have a lot of books about art - shelves of them even - but this is the only one that concerns itself with market forces. They would all be snotty about 'Middlebrow' artists like Jack Vettriano, but as long as people are prepared to pay good money for his work - and they are - then auction houses and commercial galleries have to take him seriously.

Looking at art in terms of money raises all sorts of questions about public taste and tastemakers. Auction houses get to see things that students generally don't - as a student you get shown only the good stuff, not the things that great artists did on off days, or that competent but not great artists spent a lifetime making a living out of. Art history (in my day at least) was taught as a succession of movements and isms all neatly following each other in a nice chronological order and each underlining the last, we didn't spend a lot of time on genre paintings of winsome looking children and animals, and none at all on humorous depictions of cardinals. The first time I saw really second rate painting in a gallery context was in Leicester where they have a lumpy looking Victorian nude - at least she was meant to be nude but for modesty's sake someone had stuck a piece of painted net around her middle, the gallery displayed it as an amusing curiosity. It isn't always obvious that precisely that sort of thing is far more common than relative masterpieces because who seeks out what they consider to be rubbish?

I don't know why I find it so hard to write about books that I think are this brilliant and useful but so it is - it's taken me 5 hours so far to write this post and I'm far from happy with it. Basically this is a very funny thought provoking read that anybody with an interest in art should look out for. It would make a fantastic Christmas present for anybody you know with a vague interest in art (and is likely to make several people I know just such Christmas presents). It will easily make my top ten books of the year list and should you happen to see a copy do please at least read a page or two.    

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles - Michael Alexander

As part of my degree I took a module on Insular Art in the mistaken belief that because the artefacts are stunning I'd like studying them. I didn't, for whatever reason very few of those objects ever took a real hold on my imagination, but in other respects the course was great - we spent a lot of time driving around the wilds of Aberdeenshire looking at Pictish stones and I had my first introduction to Anglo Saxon poetry in the form of 'The Dream of the Rood' - it made a lasting impression. Frustratingly I've never managed to find that first translation again but Michael Alexander's version in 'The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles' is also wonderful, so much so that when I got a friend to read it, it reduced her to tears.

'The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles' is part of Penguins Legends of the Ancient North series which are being sold as the books that inspired Tolkien. I can take or leave Tolkien (more likely to leave) but the ancient North is another matter entirely (a hangover from my Shetland childhood - Shetland is proud of it's Scandinavian links and encourages you to look North for inspiration) so I couldn't resist these books.

It turns out that I find Michael Alexander hard to resist as well, when he talks about 'The Dream of the Rood' he describes how it has come down to us - there are three sources for it, they are 'inscribed by hand in stone, on skin, and in silver' - the poems very survival has an epic quality to it. He also talks of how when we read these old poems 'we ascend to the source of the English language, where words are rooted in things and full of meaning - perhaps more fully meant'. I find this a very seductive view point even if I'm reading in translation, although as these poems came from an oral tradition where presumably they would have changed slightly with each telling and teller interpretation feels like a better word than translation.

Alexander also says that 'The excuse, ultimately, for a book of this sort is a conviction on the part of the author that some early English poems deserve to be read by those who do not make their living out of the subject, that what is excellent should be made current.' I don't make a living out of the subject and haven't had to read anything like this for any reason but fun since 1994, the last few days with this book have been a lot of fun. I've read quite a lot of it aloud to myself (I had to stop taking the book to work with me) because you really need to hear some of this stuff, I've tested D on some of the riddles - we both agreed that there are much worse ways to spend an evening than puzzling over what they might mean (especially if a few whiskies are involved) and there have been a few late night calls to share odd lines because they were too good not to (we are not generally the sort of couple who feel the need to quote poetry to each other). If a love of 'The Hobbit' helps people discover this book that's fine with me just as long as it's discovered, read, shared, and generally enjoyed.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fred's War - Andrew Davidson

A couple of weeks ago I had an email from Short Books asking if I'd like a copy of a book about a doctor in the first world war, it would be full of previously unpublished photographs and promised to be an illuminating look at the first months of the war. I gave it some thought and said yes, it duly turned up about 10 days ago, since when I've been so busy that I've not had much time to pick it up - but today feels like the right time to talk about it even if I've only skimmed through the book so far.

The first world war might be drifting further into history but it shows no sign of losing it's grip on our collective imaginations, perhaps this is precisely because we can see it in photographs and on film as well as the very real possibility of there being letters and memento's still around peoples houses. (A digression here, but one of the most moving things I ever found was a newspaper clipping from The Times announcing victory at Waterloo, it was in an old tin box which was mostly full of social reports about village fetes and weddings, it's more than 20 years since I saw that piece of paper but I still wonder who it was so important to and why.)

The Fred of the title was Fred Davidson, a 25 year old doctor from Montrose who set off for France with the 1st Cameronians in 1914, he was Andrew Davidson's grandfather. The two never knew each other, Fred died two days after Andrew was born, but he left behind 3 photographic albums comprising some 250 pictures taken by himself and his friends. These are all the more remarkable given that photography was strictly forbidden in case anything useful fell into enemy hands, it seems that rules weren't something the Cameronians felt particularly strongly about though as several of them took cameras out with them and kept diaries (also forbidden).

The book is a reconstruction of Fred's time at the front put together (I'm partly assuming here because I haven't read much of the book yet) from letters, diaries, reports, and any other eye witness accounts available. As Andrew Davidson points out one of the reasons the pictures are so interesting is because these are the things that Fred and his comrades wanted to remember and thought worth marking. There are a lot of pictures of people playing golf.

For anyone with an interest in the first world war this is undoubtedly a book worth looking out for, I'm curious to see how my impression of the pictures - which I've spent quite a bit of time leafing through - matches with the text which I've only skimmed.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Day Out

I made it down to London this week (or as my grandfather would have had it - I went up to town), the day had a few of highlights; it didn't rain, I finally made it to the The Soane Museum (I look forward to going again when further refurbishments have been completed and more than ever of it is open) it's an extraordinary place with an unbelievable amount of stuff attached to the walls - one visit is nothing like enough to take it in. There was also time to stop at a couple of bookshops - all the more necessary now that Leicester lacks for a decent bookshop at all. After staring through the window of Foyles in St Pancras (already better than the sorry excuse for a Waterstones I have locally) getting thoroughly over excited in the British Library shop (a camera full of pictures of books to go on my wish list) and a calm browse around Piccadilly Waterstones I felt somewhat revived. I really, really, miss having a decent bookshop within walking distance (I mean what's the bloody point of living in a city centre otherwise?).
My book buying was quite restrained (only 5 books) and all old fashioned crime/thrillers. Just as I didn't know that E. F. Benson wrote horror stories before I found a collection of them, I had no idea that he'd written crime until I found 'The Luck of the Vails' prominently displayed in the British Library (and then again in Waterstones) I expect someone has written a book about all the things I don't know about E.F. Benson and his output. I should probably read it and avoid this sort of shock.
Hammond Innes looked like he might have produced the sort of thing that both myself and D will enjoy if we manage to get snowed in anywhere this winter hence 'Wreckers Must Breathe'. What I'm really excited by though are the British Library Crime Classics. Specifically both the idea that the British Library is rummaging around and re-printing things - the first 3 books in the series are the first 3 books to feature female detectives. A couple of these lady detectives and their authors are familiar to me from 'The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime' so I have high hopes.
 There's a Christmas themed mystery available 'The Santa Klaus Murder' which I definitely want and some intriguing looking titles coming out next year (I'm looking at 'Death on the Cherwell' ..."For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behaviour among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cosy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe. The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar's death - and the clues that point to a fellow student. This classic mystery novel, with its evocative setting in an Oxford women's college, is now republished for the first time since the 1930s."). Annoyingly it isn't that easy to find out much about this series (by which I mean when I google British Library Crime Classics nothing especially informative comes up on the first page) but just a moments thought about what they have access to - well just imagine it...

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Booze - John Wright

A new River Cottage handbook is, as far as I'm concerned, a cause for celebration. A new River Cottage handbook from John Wright is most certainly cause for a double celebration (he's brilliant). I've almost certainly mentioned this every time I've written about a River Cottage book but the thing I like most about the brand is the number of people involved in it - all of them clearly talented, passionate, individuals - it'a all very inspiring.

'Booze' is a subject dear to my heart, basically because it's also my job - at least selling it is and with that comes the expectation that I know what I'm talking about. Generally I do, though one of the really exciting things about wine is that there is always more to learn (sometimes it's irresistible just to make stuff up). Where I'm going with this is that I know a lot about the theory of making wine, beers, spirits, and cider but reading this makes me realise that's not quite the same as knowing how to actually make it.

My home made booze has been confined to infusions - I'm quite conservative in my drinking preferences so it's a definite yes to sloe or damson gin or vodka, general approval for blackberry whisky, and a marked ambivalence to the thing I think I made out of rhubarb which smelled like cabbage and ended up down the sink (I have learnt since then to label bottles). The sink also ended up claiming the virulent red poppy liquor I once bought and should claim the holly eau de vie that was really quite expensive (presumably not easy to make as holly is poisonous) and  is - well lets just say probably an acquired taste.

All the ordinary safe infusions are in here along with useful information about fruit sugar and alcohol (one early experiment on my part with brandy and plums went badly wrong because I didn't use enough alcohol) and then Wright starts to explore the more colourful. Lulled by talk of pomegranate rum (Wright doesn't care for pomegranates in the ordinary way) he leads the reader through making their own absinthe (by infusion, not distillation - it's illegal to distil your own alcohol in the UK without a licence) and from there to the oldest drink in the world  - vodka infused with amber, a romantic and beguiling idea. The good thing about infusions is that they're basically simple to make requiring only something to stick them in and somewhere suitable to mature them, and the base ingredients don't have to be the most expensive - even people in small flats can tackle this sort of thing.

Wine, cider, and beer production demand more equipment and space. If I had the space to make any of them it would be beer, mostly because it used to be one of those basic housewifely skills that any country based woman would have had a handle on. I don't have the space but I'm filling some embarrassing gaps in my knowledge from this book. The cider bit is fascinating too, we have a lovely local supplier for cider (Rob of the Bottle Kicking Cider Company) who has shown me around his cider making operation (all done in the shed at the bottom of his garden) it started as a hobby and has turned into a business which is something else I find inspiring (also it's good cider, as well as drinking it I like to cook with it - it's great with mussels and pheasants). This is another romantic and beguiling idea - that you can start with the knowledge in a book like this and end up living the good life.

Regardless of intention to infuse ferment or brew this book is also a damn good read. John Wright is an engaging writer, he has a wonderful talent for relating funny anecdotes along with all the technical detail. His instructions are clear and thorough - another thing I really like about the River Cottage Handbooks is how well they explain not just how to do things but why you have to do them, it makes all the difference. This book will be bed time reading for quite some time to come, it will also likely form the basis of my Christmas shopping - everyone's getting a copy!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Miss or Mrs - Wilkie Collins

A big part of my fascination with Wilkie Collins stems from his fascination with the law regarding marriage and women (I also like his sensationalist plots and dashes of humour) 'Miss or Mrs?' delivers on all counts, but for a modern reader it has a decidedly disturbing element.

Briefly the plot concerns 15 year old Natalie and her two suitors - the definitely middle aged Richard Turlington who is 38 and Launcelot Linzie 15 years his junior (I make that 23). Launcelot is a cousin of Natalie's as well as acting in the capacity of family medical advisor whilst she, her father, and aunt, are cruising on Turlington's yacht to help Natalie recover her vitality after the transition from child to woman. 'Miss or Mrs?' was published at the end of 1871 when the age of consent for girls was still 12 (in 1875 it was raised to 13, it wasn't for another decade that it became 16) the plot demands that Natalie be 15 because at 15 she can be married, but if she's removed from her father's home before she's 16 without his consent it's abduction regardless of whether it's her husband doing the removing or not.

I assume that most current readers will share my distaste at Natalie's youth, Collins makes it clear that she's physically mature with the thoughts and desires of an adult woman, and of course legally she is above the age of consent (she's also mixed race which is another kind of interesting) but she's still only 15 and caught between the unwelcome attentions of Turlington who's determined to wed her, and the far more welcome attentions of Launcelot who is also determined to wed her. Now Turlington is very much the villain of this piece and a thoroughly Bad Man who puts considerable pressure both on Natalie and her father to get his own way. Launcelot is clearly a much better thing but he still puts considerable pressure on Natalie to fall in with his wishes regarding a clandestine marriage between the two of them and it made me uncomfortable.

I don't know if it should given the context of the times (it also turns out that Collins was caught up in just such a clandestine marriage in 1848 when he helped a 33 year old friend marry a girl not quite 16 so he very clearly had no qualms about young brides) but I can't help but read this as the story of a girl who is the property of her father being forced to become the property of someone else. It doesn't help that it's not a choice she's altogether willing to make.

Otherwise it's a thoroughly exciting and amusing story, Launcelot proves himself to be more than worthy of Natalie (and not a sexual predator) Turlington is a horrible villain, and the Father and Aunt are by turns comic and appalling. Natalie's sexual maturity and racial background are unique in my limited experience of Victorian literature, both challenge my preconceptions of Victorian society.

'Miss or Mrs?' is available free as an e-book (though quite apart from preferring paper copies I think it's worth paying for the introductions in my Oxford edition) and well worth reading - at just over 80 pages it doesn't take long. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Autumn - fruit and baking

The clocks have gone back, the Summer mugs have been packed away and the Winter ones are out, my flat still smells of fruit cake and today I got some bargain quinces. They should have been a pound each which felt like a lot because these aren't the biggest quinces I've ever seen (though quite possibly they are the smallest) but I was prepared to bite the bullet and pay out to keep my friend R supplied with quince jelly (Diana Henry has a lot to answer for Sugar Salt Smoke is still my favourite cookbook, her quince and star anise jelly is fantastic) when happily they were reduced to 19p a piece. Much better. It seems Leicestershire cooks are indifferent to quinces (Waitrose's loss is my gain) I'm slowly coming round to them but they've always been to expensive to really go crazy with so my experiments are mostly jelly based. I planted a quince this year but it refused to put out so much as a leaf so they remain as elusive as ever which is a shame because just the smell of the fruit is enough to make me want to have it around.

It's a smell that pales by comparison to fruit cakes though - all that citrus and spice is heady stuff, and I love the way the fruity and syrupy ingredients look, it's part of what makes baking such a pleasure - which is why this is basically going to be a picture post. Maybe autumn isn't so grim after all.