Monday, March 31, 2014

Shiny New Books

Simon at Stuck-In-A-Book Annabel Harriet Devine and Victoria from Tales From The Reading Room have all been working on a new quarterly on-line magazine based around book recommendations. Shiny New Books goes properly live next week but they're on twitter @shinynewbooks and on facebook - look for shiny new books... Go and follow, sign up, like, and generally get excited by what looks like a great project.

I'm really looking forward to it all go properly live and can't wait to see what books they'll have to recommend in the first edition, these are all bloggers I follow with enthusiasm as it is, seeing who else they've got roped in and what they've found for our entertainment is going to be a treat.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Lake District Murder - John Bude

'The Lake District Murder' is the second title I've read from The British Library's crime classics series and it's proved to be every bit as enjoyable as the last one (The Santa Klaus Murder). The back blurb tells me that John Bude was the pen name of Ernest Elmore who wrote 30 crime novels, all of which are now rare and collectable - their rarity is doubtless one reason I'd never heard of him. Elmore was also a co-founder of the Crime Writer's Association.

Whilst I was reading this it occurred to me that the majority of golden age detective fiction I've read has been written by women - specifically Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers all of whom chose to distinctly aristocratic detectives and all of whom seemed to have rather fallen for their own creations. This is especially true of Sayers who definitely overdoes it in 'Busman's Honeymoon' with her descriptions of Peter and Harriet's wedding night. I think Agatha Christie is more sensible but it's a shamefully long time since I've read her. Anyway after that lot a book about a bunch of fairly ordinary chaps solving a crime perpetrated by a bunch of other fairly ordinary chaps was oddly refreshing. There are women in 'The Lake District Murder' but they exist to make tea for their husbands and clean things - clearly there were no femme fatales in Penrith in 1935.

It also occurred to me (again) how much I like it when a book has a very specific, real, geographical location. I'm not well acquainted with the lake district, and it's almost always blanketed in driving rain when I'm passing through it, but even so I've seen enough to roughly know what it would look like and there's just something about being able to follow a book on a map that brings it alive for me.

Plot wise a body is found in an isolated garage, at first glance it looks like suicide, but a very little investigation throws this into doubt; the dead man's tea is waiting for him with a kettle boiled dry and now slowly melting still on the hob, and further investigation confirms the theory that it's murder. Unfortunately for the police there is no obvious motive for either suicide or murder but a lot of cast iron alibi's. There is also an earlier case which was ruled as suicide but with some doubts hanging over how it was done - what's going on amongst the lakes?

Slowly the police begin to suspect there must be a criminal gang at work who have had good reasons to dispose of the dead men, but what sort of gang and what can they be up to? Effectively then we get two investigations; the murder mystery (which is fairly standard fare) and the efforts to uncover whatever scam is being perpetrated on an unsuspecting public and under the very nose of the police. Coincidentally it turned out to be a crime very much after my own heart - I found it both clever and entertaining. Inspector Meredith is a likable hero speeding around the lakes in, or on, the police motorcycle and sidecar combination, he makes mistakes, try's to bend the evidence to fit his theory's, forgets odd bits of evidence (before remembering them or their significance in the nick of time) and is generally thoroughly human. The feeling here is of solid police work executed with the aid of a good pipe of tobacco, there is no psychology or quoting of metaphysical poets, but the plot is ingenious and the whole thing is entertaining fun. I'm really excited about this series generally, the British Library must have access to some pretty cool stuff, and the idea that someone is poking around in a dusty stack somewhere unearthing treasures is delightful (it's probably not that romantic or hands on in real life but this is how I dream it). However the process actually works the result in this case is a book that's both entertaining to read and interesting to consider alongside more familiar Golden Age titles - so basically an all round winner!    

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Books, Books, Books

These are just some of the books I've acquired over the last couple of weeks - it's getting late, I have an early start tomorrow, and suddenly the task of trying to herd them all into one place felt like to big a job. These are the ones that formed a pile that finally toppled over in my bedroom, almost blocking the doorway, and constituting a definite health and safety risk. It wasn't the only pile in there, it was just the one that fell over. I feel like the books are getting a bit out of hand at the moment. Everywhere I look at home there are stacks of them and I want to read so many of them now (damn having to waste all that time working for a living). Happily I'm off this weekend so hopefully I'll manage to have a decent tidy up, resist buying any more books, and actually read a couple.

The small collection of John Suthertland's books in the middle deserve special mention. I have a definite thing for his books (for want of a better description he's my literary crush) but because they're the sort of thing that I dip in and out of they're seldom the books I write about here - which is an omission because they're brilliant. 'Love, Sex, Death & Words' is a collection of literary anecdotes tied to the days of the year and is compulsive reading (not to be read before bed because it's very hard to stop in time to get enough sleep). 'A Little History of Literature' was a Christmas present and is a series of essays, it is also a particularly beautiful book complete with charming woodcut illustrations (at least they look like wood or lino cuts - whatever they are they're very pleasing). I've only read a few so far but they're fascinating. The last one, and my most recent purchase is 'Curiosities of Literature' it's very funny and is, I think, best described as a series thoughts and speculations based on a lifetime spent in literature. It makes me laugh and want to read just about everything which I find very endearing in a book.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Change of Appetite - Diana Henry

I'm so enthusiastic about Diana Henry's books that I can't imagine my kitchen without them lined up on the shelf, they tend to be the first place I look for inspiration and because her influences come from far and wide it's rare not to find something to fit mood and available ingredients. In fact I'm so enthusiastic that it's hard to remember that I only really discovered her writing a couple of years ago (shame on me) with 'Salt Sugar Smoke', and that these books aren't the oldest of friends. Anyway I got there, even if it is a case of better late than never, so when I saw 'A Change of Appetite' appear as an amazon suggestion I was suitably excited, some months later I'm even more excited now I have the book.

I've never thought of the New Year as being a particularly good time to make resolutions, especially of the dietary kind - there are to many good things hanging around post Christmas, and the weather hardly discourages self indulgence, but Spring is a different matter altogether. 'A Change of Appetite' is all about exploring where healthy meets delicious and that's just what I need. I've never been a fan of dieting; neither discipline or denial are very appealing to me and I don't want to think about the things that I can't have or god forbid calorie count (miserable way to live). Regardless of how I feel about it though I've reached a point in my life where some change is necessary, foods that don't suit me really don't suit me anymore and I want more energy. To do this I need to change bad habits for better ones and Spring is a good time to start that process.

Recipe wise the first thing you notice about this book are the colours, it's full of really vibrant fruit and vegetables which are instantly appealing and the flavours match the colour. There are all sorts of salads, lots of Asian inspired dishes and just generally lots of things that look and sound great. Everything I've tried so far has been shared with other people and without exception has been enthusiastically received (especially Persian saffron and mint chicken with spring couscous which I keep making) which in turn feeds my enthusiasm for the book. I can also recommend an orange feta and fennel salad, a really good hot steak salad, and an absolutely brilliant pomegranate and orange cake (of which I'm enjoying a slice as I write) - oh and that black bread as well...

One of the many things I like so much about Henry's recipes are how flexible they can be - part of the orange feta and fennel salad are blanched almonds toasted in olive oil and then caramelised with honey, cumin, and smoked pa
prika. They're great, and will be great with other things too, I love the bits from a cookbook like this, bits which can be picked out magpie fashion - the bits which make me feel like I've learnt something useful. One of the other things I like about Henry is how she writes, this isn't just recipes, it's research (one thing that surprised me is how clear it becomes that even now we know relatively little about the food we eat) and philosophy - and quite a bit of common sense. This book feels like a conversation with a friend, or perhaps a particularly good teacher, the sort that inspires you to go and investigate all sorts of things (in my case with this book that's going to be Japanese cooking) but never leaves you feeling like you've been lectured to.

The common sense bit is that clearly if you're eating food you've made from raw ingredients rather than out of a packet the chances are it will be far better for you, I find this to be particularly true of bread - mass produced bread is pretty grotty - it's not even good for ducks, home made or good artisan bread is much better (though possibly still not the best thing for ducks). I find the high GI indexes in the mass produced stuff gives me the most appalling sugar crash within about half an hour of eating it, with home made bread that just doesn't happen. It's also reassuring to know exactly what it is you're eating.

Finally there's just something very attractive about the idea of being accidentally healthy which I can't quite manage to put into words. There is more about this on Henry's own website (she can put it into words) here which is excellent - the piece about writing 'A Change of Appetite' is fascinating but everything I've read on there is brilliant (read her on blood oranges - I tell you, the woman's a genius) and this book is a great way to greet the Spring.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Phineas Redux - Anthony Trollope

It's taken a while to get round to reading the fourth instalment of Trollope's Palliser series, mostly because I find that more than any other writer (with the possible exception of Scott) he dictates my reading pace. I cannot rush Trollope, theoretically I could skip the extended descriptions of hunting and skim through some of the frequent plot recaps and other general repetition's but then what would be the point of reading him? It's the detail that attracts me, that and his insistence on seeing an issue from everybody's point of view. I know this was first published as a serial over a 6 month period (I might try reading 'The Prime Minister' a chapter a week and see how it works) and I guess if you're doing that you don't really need to produce a page turner, I assume it also gives you licence to have a bit of fun from time to time describing something you're enthusiastic about which in Trollope's case is hunting. At any rate Trollope certainly doesn't miss an opportunity to describe a day out with the hounds (I find his enthusiasm infectious). But just because he isn't necessarily producing an action filled page turner it doesn't mean he isn't compelling - just that you don't always get instant gratification.

'Phineas Redux' re-introduces Phineas Finn, the wife he acquired at the end of 'Phineas Finn' has died and his job in Dublin despite supplying for all his material wants isn't providing him with much interest and nor is local society. Finn still craves the excitement of Parliament so when the call from his party comes through he decides to risk everything and return to London with the hope that he'll be given a chance to earn his living. Back in England he begins by picking up old friendships and renewing a couple of old grudges. At the end of 'Phineas Finn' Madam Max had turned down a proposal from the Duke of Omnium and in turn had her own proposal turned down by Finn. Meanwhile she's remained a good friend to the old Duke whose imminent death is about to shake up the shadow cabinet (Plantagenet Palliser is in line to inherit which means he will be ineligible to be chancellor of the exchequer again) and the current government is on it's way out. Everything should be looking good for Finn, his friends are pleased to have him back, he gets into parliament without bankrupting himself, and a useful life in office surely beckons.

And then it starts to go wrong. Scandal erupts over his relationship with Lady Laura Kennedy who has fled to the continent to escape her unsympathetic husband (Robert Kennedy is an exceptionally good argument for sensible divorce laws). Lady Laura's situation is extremely unpleasant, if she returns to England it seems her husband could compel her return to his home, as he's done nothing specifically wrong she has no grounds for divorce, and as her property is rightfully his she has no independent income. She and her father beg Phineas to visit them in Dresden which he does, but he also visits Kennedy who makes it clear that he blames Finn for the break up of his home. It's increasingly clear that Kennedy isn't entirely sane but he can still do a lot of damage to our hero's reputation - which he does by going to the press with accusations which just verge on libel. It's enough for Finn's political enemies to latch onto and things get worse from there on in. His greatest foe is Mr Bonteen - next in line for the chancellors job, he's determined there will be no office for Finn, in turn Finn's friends led by Lady Glencora plot and gossip in such a way that Bonteen is kept from high office as well. After a public argument between the two men Bonteen is found dead and circumstantial evidence points squarely at Finn.

Now we know Finn and Trollope makes it reasonably clear that he's not the man so we can believe in his innocence, but it's not easy for the rest of the cast. There are those who do believe in him but it's blind faith in the man rather than because of concrete evidence of his innocence and he's got enemies in the tabloid press who are determined to blacken his name as far as they possibly can as well. Poor Finn.

I hope it isn't to much of a spoiler to say that it turns out well enough for him in the end, although Trollope makes clear the toll events take on him. I think what marks a book out as a true classic is a certain timeless quality. There are plenty of parallels to draw with contemporary society - the nature of celebrity, the power of the press, public faith (or lack thereof ) in politicians, even the sexual politics at play as the women go into battle for Finn, but what's really interesting are the observations about human nature underneath the action.

Trollope is most definitely a Victorian and not an especially progressive one either; he's clearly anti-Semitic, and just as clearly thinks a woman should know her limitations and place (which oddly doesn't stop him from writing some really interesting and independently minded women). These aren't facets of his character that I find endearing, but he's also a wonderful observer of human nature and he doesn't tie things up to neatly either. Finn's sufferings don't go away when he's declared innocent - they're all the worse because he is innocent, and at the end of the book he's a broken man. Lady Laura doesn't get a happy ending either, but even if Trollope wanted one for her - though I think he believes she deserves a certain amount of punishment for her actions - it wouldn't ring true. The parallels with todays society are interesting but it's the characters that make it live and breath.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why haven't I read that yet?

Jam and Idleness and Wuthering Expectations have been making lists of authors they haven't read yet, authors they feel they should have read. Wuthering Expectations takes it a step further and includes the authors he read instead. I find that an intriguing idea, I've never been aware of making a conscious decision to read one writer rather than another. I think of my reading following a path with one book leading to another, and collect books like a squirrel hoarding nuts for winter. I'm also in the habit of assuming I'll get round to reading through my book store - though as it grows obviously there's clearly a greater chance of byways left unexplored. Anyway I thought I'd have a quick look and see what books I had on the shelves that I probably should have read by now.

That list is obviously much longer than 10 books (much, much, longer) and there are plenty of books on it that I should have read - Moby Dick is somewhere near the top. It came as a highly recommended gift and every time I walk past it I feel guilty about not having read it yet. But the list of individual books would be very long indeed, almost as long as the list of books I don't have (or have any particular interest in which includes just about anything Russian) that you might imagine anybody reasonably well read would have managed to get through...

Here then is a list of authors that I seem to have acquired plenty by, without ever having read a word of. They represent books bought with an earnest intention of reading them, as well as ever so many conversations in second hand bookshops which go like this - friend 'Do you have this one?', self 'oh yes...' friend, 'Is it any good?', self 'Who knows?'. I'm sure we all know that conversation.

My Virago collection has everything they've ever published by Kate O'Brien who not only have I failed to read, I even failed to listen to a radio adaptation of one of her books. This isn't really good enough.

The same collection has a whole lot of Mary Webb in it. 'Precious Bane' is one of those books I really don't want to read but the others all sound much better, so over the years I've bought them, lots of them, still not read any. If anybody can recommend a place to start I'd appreciate it - if anybody strongly recommends that I take the lot back to a charity shop I might also be inclined to listen.

It's Virago which is responsible for the Christina Stead's as well. Lots of them. All still waiting to be read. I must have been attracted to them when I picked them up but when I had a quick look at the shelves earlier I was surprised by how many there were and how little I know about her.

I've never read Vera Brittain either (guess who published all the copies of her book I have) which is at odds with a very definite interest I have in the first world war. Maybe this year is a good time to tackle her - although as she's waited this long for me it might be that 2018 will be soon enough.

I have John Cowper Powys on the shelf too, only 'Wolf Solent' but that's long enough to count as several books anyway. I really wanted it when I bought it, I occasionally read something that mentions Powys and think about how much I want to pick it up, an yet somehow never have. Frankly I'm intimidated by how long it is.

George Gissing feels like a real gap in my reading, but there it is, I almost bought another title at the weekend but decided I had to read one of those I already had before I could reasonably get another. It seems crazy not to have read any of his work as it so clearly sounds like exactly my sort of thing. How has the path not lead there yet?

It's not lead me to Thomas Love Peacock either. I went to the Astley Book farm yesterday with friends, it's been an unusually long time since the last visit when I got a lovely two volume set of his novels (hard back and very nice). I was really excited by those books when I got them home but they're still sitting unopened (next to Moby Dick) on the shelf. I really feel I should have read him.

Stefan Zweig is another omission, I have a couple of his book - bought because they sound brilliant, but I've yet to actually open one. However we went to see the excellent 'Grand Budapest Hotel' today so maybe that'll be the necessary push.

Somerset Maughan is an omission that's about to be corrected - slightly unwillingly if I'm honest, I fear it's going to be a struggle because whenever I've actually picked up one of his books I've had no trouble putting it down again, but he's another writer I feel I should have read and be able to go on reading. The sort who comes recommended by plenty of people who's taste normally coincides with mine and the sort who's books I have bought.

I'm going to make Henry Green the last on this list. I found him when I briefly worked in a bookshop not long after graduating. For almost 20 years I've thought I should read him and still haven't - which is one of the wonderful things about books; they wait for you, more or less without reproach (damn you Moby Dick) until no other book will fit the moment.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Perfect Stranger - P.J. Kavanagh

I'm not a disciplined reader, actually I'm not really a disciplined anything, but just because I know this about myself it doesn't mean I particularly like having it highlighted. 'The Perfect Stranger' was a postal book group book that (moment of shame) I was late reading and late sending on. Now I love that postal group, I'm committed to the idea of it, I've discovered some great books through it, and there was a sneaking feeling that a bit of reading discipline would be a good idea. Regardless I'm consistently late in getting to the book and this one was no exception, the reason is the same every time - whilst it may be a book I want to read sometime it's almost never the book I want to read next.

The book before 'The Perfect Stranger' was Trollope's 'Phineas Redux' and what I wanted to read next was possibly more Trollope definitely something 19th century so I found myself distinctly out of sympathy with Kavanagh all the way through which in turn has coloured my opinion of the book most unfairly. Basically I couldn't get to grips with this one, in another mood I might have been able to understand the enthusiasm for this memoir, and I did enjoy the first part of it but on the whole it left me cold.

Kavanagh skates over his early youth, briefly describes school (fairly horrible) and stint working in Butlins (fairly horrible), a year at a boys version of finishing school in Switzerland (much better), and then time bumming around in Paris trying to find life (a lot of drinking) before national service in Korea. Korea was the turning point for me, the initial descriptions of national service are amusing and of a piece with the first third of the book - an account of a young man trying to find his way in the world told with humour and intelligence. Kavanagh is shot in Korea, the account he includes in 'The Perfect Stranger' is the one that he wrote near the time aged about 20, it's appropriate but extremely mannered (and nothing at all like the 19th century fiction I'm craving) and then he heads off to Oxford. Whilst there he meets his perfect stranger - Sally Lehmann (Rosamond Lehmann's daughter) it's love but one that's destined to end in tragedy. Sally and Patrick marry and things seem to come together well for them, after a stint in London they move to Java and are building a pretty good life when Sally contracts Polio and very quickly dies. That's where the book ends.

The thing is I can't believe in Sally, in Kavanagh's memory she's far to perfect to be true, she's more saint than living woman and all Kavanagh's talk of overwhelming love made me impatient. As he went on to remarry and have a couple of children it also made me wonder what life was like for the wife who had to live with his memories of this incomparable woman. As I say, in another mood I would have enjoyed this book far more, appreciated the insights Kavanagh had to offer, and felt more indulgent to what I saw as youthful hyperbole but this time round I couldn't quite connect with him.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Gospel of Loki - Joanne M. Harris

Years ago I read 'Chocolat', probably attracted to it because it was called 'Chocolat' - such is the power of a well chosen title. I enjoyed it whilst I was reading but in the end found it quite a throw away sort of book, I think I might have read at least one Harris title since then but if I did I can't remember it. I saw 'The Gospel of Loki' recommended on amazon and then on twitter and thought it might be a fun read pre Viking exhibition, and because I can't resist a retelling of the Norse myths.

'The Gospel of Loki' is another fun read but I'm not as enthusiastic about it as some of the reviewers I've seen. Harris takes the Norse myths and retells them from the point of view of the villain of the piece. They're great stories to start off with, I think it's a combination of the mortality of the Norse gods along with the really cool accessories they have (lots of weapons and jewellery) and maybe the shape shifting - and definitely the monsters - that make these tales grip the imagination. Ages ago I read 'The Hurricane Party' at the time I wasn't very enthusiastic about it but what I remember of the book now is a particular section where the Loki character lays into the rest of the gods (portrayed as a sort of crime family) and which comes straight out of the standard mythology. Re-reading my review of it I'd forgotten everything else about the book apart from the traditional bit which remains wonderful and vivid. Something the same happens here.

Harris is a good story teller, her Loki is a charmer, not trustworthy, but possible to sympathise with. Here he is wildfire personified and is lured from chaos by Odin who then traps him in a human aspect. Unable to return to his original element Loki has to make a deal with the god, this rocky start is further complicated by the evident distrust the other gods feel towards Loki. Disaster is inevitable. She also explicitly links Loki with Lucifer, referring to him as the father of lies and the bringer of light. It's not a parallel I'd considered before but it's an interesting comparison and I like the blurring of boundaries between different stories and traditions.

The myths themselves are re told with energy and humour and prove that a really good story remains good however many times you hear it, and in fact can be better for knowing the ending as it leaves you free to enjoy the details. Probably the only thing I can specifically say I didn't like was the choice to use a fairly slangy modern speech, it sometimes jarred a bit and at other times felt somewhat old fashioned which makes me wonder how it'll read in a couple of years time.

Overall this was fun, a well told version of a favourite, but there's something missing, whatever that vital spark is between a reader and a book they fall in love with isn't here for me. It is for other readers and I can almost see why but in the end, much as I enjoyed it, I just didn't lose myself in this one.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Vikings at the British Museum and Georgians at the British Library

The Vikings have finally arrived at the British Museum (this is an exhibition I've been anticipating for a while now) and so today we headed down (or should that be up) to London to see them. The reviews I've read for this (in The Telegraph and The Guardian) have both been a bit negative so I went along with suitably managed expectations. I don't think I've ever seen an exhibition at the British Museum before so can't comment on the difference between the old exhibition space and the new Sainsbury galleries but you can't go  to far wrong with rectangular boxes.

The biggest problem with these headlining exhibitions is how many people want to go along to them, given the so so reviews it might be slightly less crowded in a few weeks but today was sold out and even timed entry slots can only do so much. We didn't opt for an audio guide (£16.50 for a ticket, none of those leaflet things which run you through the exhibition like a mini guide that EVERYONE else gives you, an extra £4.50 for the audio guide, and then straight into a gift shop, and frankly the BM could have better toilet facilities - they have great stuff but it's never been my favourite museum) but a lot of people did which meant there were bottle necks all the way along where everybody who'd gone in at the same time tried to look at the same thing. Because there were so many people it was also quite difficult to see the little boards that identify what you're looking at (which without an audio guide you really want to do) and nobody should be allowed into a busy exhibition wearing a bulky rucksack.

Downside disposed of it's an exhibition that was worth the wait. I liked the dark grey boxy space, I loved that as you walk into the first room you hear (what The Guardian article tells me are) sagas in old Norse. The Guardian critic thought that they would have been better in translation but I think that would be distracting, you can't stop and listen very easily, and in a room full of people having quite reasonable conversations about what they're looking at you wouldn't hear much anyway, as it is it's pleasingly evocative without being intrusive. I liked the fairly stark presentation of the objects as well, heaps of silver and gold, brooches that ranged from the practical to the impractically ostentatious, swords - including killed swords that had been deliberately bent out of shape before being buried with their owners, axe heads, spear tips, scales and weights - all inviting you to look at them and consider them. The killed swords were oddly affecting, they seemed much more personal than most of the rest of the things on display, some were simply bent, but one had been coiled round in a spiral which must have taken some doing.

One thing that I theoretically knew but was still surprised by was the sheer scale of Viking trade and influence. Nearly identical objects turning up all over Europe, materials from even further afield ending up back in the Viking heartlands, hack silver which demonstrates a very practical attitude towards currency exchange, things which have Viking and Celtic motifs, and a few things clearly pinched from original owners and considered too attractive to be hacked up for currency all demonstrate a trading empire of truly impressive scale.

All of this was made possible by the boats and Roskilde 6 - the largest Viking ship found is absolutely the star of the show, as you enter the hall (which is almost to small for the boat - it's that big) it's to the sound of waves, once you're in there it's the sound of a Shetland man talking about tradition Shetland boats (this was a nice surprise for me but proved the point about something you understand but can only half hear being distracting) which are near descendants of the Viking boats. Seeing that ship was everything I hoped it might be - there isn't an awful lot left of it but the cradle it sits in fills in the blanks. I will say it again - it's huge, and very, very, impressive (I was impressed). I'm assuming this was a meant for a warship rather than for trade - even as a ghost it had an air of threat to it. It also held an echo of all those epics and sagas the Vikings have left behind for us.

The reason for going to The Vikings on a Sunday at the beginning of it's run (which was never going to be the best time to try and avoid crowds) was so that we could also catch the end of The Georgians at the British Library. This was also the first time I'd been to a BL exhibition and very impressive it was too. I wish I'd seen it earlier, it's a much quieter affair than the Vikings but full of enjoyable details including a suggested walk through surrounding London on the back of the (free) brochure that came with the ticket and just generally helps bring the Georgian city come alive in my imagination.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Black Bread

I have a new cookbook and I'm very, very, happy with it indeed. It's Diana Henry's 'A Change of Appetite - Where Delicious Meets Healthy' and will likely feature heavily here over the next few weeks, delicious and healthy is a hard to beat combination and undoubtedly the way to greet spring.

As I had a day off yesterday and people coming round it seemed like a good opportunity to bake some bread, specifically the black bread recipe that closes the book. It's a slightly modified version of Dan Lepard's recipe that can be found in 'Short and Sweet', Diana Henry's take on it is here, I think the main differences are that she's more specific about ingredients but the carrot and caraway combination is a winner and the instructions suit me just a little bit better (they're more descriptive and I like that).

There's something special about making bread, I love the slow pace of it which encourages a few hours of gentle pottering and tea drinking whilst it proves, rises, and generally does it's thing. I also love the tactile pleasure of kneading the dough (why use a bread machine? the hands on bit is the fun bit) and the sense of the dough being a living thing attracts me too. It's also very gratifying to find that the more bread you make the better you get at it, having a new bread to add to my repertoire is a good thing. Better yet though was the reaction to this one.

Now whenever you cook something for others naturally you want a positive reaction to it, generally my friends and family are polite enough to oblige with one but there are times when their enthusiasm is genuinely whole hearted (I can tell by the slight air of surprise...). My mother was the first person to try it, she said it smelt nice, took a bite and then her whole face changed and she declared 'but this is delicious' and then she asked for the recipe. I told her I had though of giving her a copy of  'A Change of Appetite' for mothers day, to which she replied that she could just take my copy, which would be helpful because she's now planning on making the black bread at the weekend. She got the book, I went out and bought myself another copy.

Next up my friend R tried it, she doesn't much enjoy cooking but she too is determined to bake it this weekend and has also indicated that a copy of the book would be well received as a birthday present (happily, as the shops had closed by then, her birthday is still far enough away for my replacement copy to be safe). My partner just settled for telling me I could make it again. Clearly a winning recipe.

When I think of black bread I always picture the really dense (like a brick) stuff but this is a soft, if pleasingly chewy, loaf with a 'dark' sweet flavour - the colour comes from a combination of rye flour, treacle, coffee, muscovado sugar, and cocoa. It's great on it's own but would be spectacular with pickled fish.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Has amazon fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value?

Two of my favourite ways to lose time online are amazon and twitter so it's something of a bonanza when twitter points me to an article about amazon... In this case from The New Yorker. Amongst other things it argues that "amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimum value". I'm not sure it's a statement I entirely agree with but it's certainly a question worth considering. The subtitle is "Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?" I'm not sure I agree with that either.

I'm old enough to remember the net book agreement in the U.K. It was great for independent bookshops - no one could under sell them, and I suspect better for publishers and accountants too, and as the U.K. is a reasonably cheap place to buy books (no vat on the paper sort) customers probably didn't suffer unduly under the old system either. Now of course the retailer with the greatest buying power, and those able to sell either at cost or at a loss have a definite advantage over there competitors, long term I don't believe that's in anyone's best interest, not even the customer who feels like they're getting a bargain. When margins are squeezed like that all our choices are diminished.

As far as amazon goes I'm basically a fan, although their plans for world domination are undoubtedly a worry, for every bad news story there's generally a positive one as well and I very much like being able to get cut price cookbooks. The thing is when you get away from the big name titles the discounts aren't actually that huge, many, if not most of the fiction paperbacks I look at are within a pound or so of what I would pay on the high street (if I could find them on the high street) and balanced against that saving is the hassle of dealing with couriers. In this country at least I would be tempted to say that supermarkets have done as much to alter the perceived value of a book as amazon has, although I guess it's amazon who now set the benchmark as to price as anyone with a smart phone (and a signal) can check and judge cost accordingly.

What I'm still coming to terms with however is the idea of ebooks. I've only very recently stuck a toe in the water with these. My phone has a kindle app and from time to time I've found it useful. When trying to sell me on e-readers (it's a losing battle people, I'm never going to be a convert) the main argument used is always for the amount of classics available free or at very low cost. I notice there's also a murky underworld of free or very cheap fiction most of which I take to be self published (after ordering a few Viking saga's I was recommended some really odd 'romance' titles).

Free is a seductive sort of price for the hard up but it definitely devalues books as a whole. Another thing I've noticed over the last couple of days are a number of one star reviews for otherwise well received titles based purely on the kindle price. This seems really unfair for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that it clearly has nothing to do with the content of the book. Authors, publishers, and even electronic booksellers have to make a living, and e-books attract vat which does it's bit to push prices up. Part of me feels a little bit smug when I read howls of protest from someone who has just shelled out £100 or more on a shiny new device only to discover that they still have to pay a reasonable amount for content for it. They seem to feel so cheated, but then it's hard to really understand where the money is going, or even why you have to pay it when you don't get an actual object to hold in return.

I don't believe that amazon is responsible for fostering the idea that books are of minimal value anymore than Penguin were in the 1930's when they introduced those orange paperbacks. Paperbacks that can still be picked up for pence in any number of second hand and charity shops. It's a good thing to live in a world where books are basically affordable and easily available, it's a great thing to have a market place in which small independent publishers catering for a niche audience can easily reach that audience. It's an interesting thing to have a retailer so all reaching that they get to set the perceived value of a book but I think that in the end responsibility basically stays with the customer and buying cheap now might not be best for us in the long term.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A great bookish weekend

This is more a quality than a quantity Phineas Redux' (I love reading Trollope, but it does sometimes feel like a battle to make serious progress with him), the latest 'Slightly Foxed' also turned up on Friday which is always a treat and most definitely a nice way to spend a grey and wet Sunday.
thing, but whatever saint keeps an eye on readers (the internet suggests that it's likely St Jerome) deserves my thanks for this weekend. I've got more than half way through '

Best of all though on my way home I stopped in Waterstones (because I can't help myself) they had copies of Diana Henry's 'A Change of Appetite' and now so do I. It's officially published tomorrow but I know when the boxes arrive in Waterstones so went along specifically in the hope that it might be on the shelf. Henry's books have all been brilliant, I've browsed through most of this one over the weekend and it's no exception. This one is basically about healthy eating, it makes for excellent reading without feeling in the least bit worthy or preachy. I can't wait to start cooking from it and now I'm back home I don't have to.

Last but not least I've been looking up Leicester Book Festival so this year there's a good chance I'll actually get along to some of it (expect to hear a lot more about now that I'm aware of it) most exciting from my point of view is that Meike Ziervogel will be there. This is a timely spur to read a couple of lurking Peirene books and the chance to hear what a woman who is something of a publishing/literary heroine to me has to say about what she does. Basically it's been a very good start to Spring.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gretel and the Dark - Eliza Granville

I was offered a review copy of 'Gretel and the Dark' and said yes because of the fairy tale connection (an easy sell with me). It came with a black and white lollipop that looked like it had been pinched
from Tim Burton's personal stash which further endeared me towards the book, but even so when I started reading I was a little ambivalent about it. Granville touches on the reason for my ambivalence in the last few pages when she has her heroine acknowledge that the world grows weary of others pain and grief. It's a sad truth but there does come a point when compassion and outrage dwindle into something like weariness with the whole awfulness of something you can't actually do anything about. In the end Granville put paid to my cynicism and won me over completely, which I honestly didn't expect to happen when I started the book.

Initially there are two stories being told, one is set in Vienna in 1899 and centres around a young woman called Lilie, she's been found naked and battered on some wasteland, claims to have no name, no memory, no feelings - she is a machine (Granville references Hoffman's "Der Sandmann" early in Lilie's story, it's a while since I read it but I remember it being terrifying, mention of it sets a definite tone for the book that follows). Lilie has been taken to the home of Dr Josef Breuer; Breuer was an early mentor of Freud (although the two later fell out and Freud did his best to discredit the older man) much of what Granville writes about Breuer is based on his actual life and this too is an interesting decision for the book. Fictional is Breuer's young servant Benjamin, it's Benjamin who brings Lilie into the house and Benjamin who is sent out to learn more about the mysterious girl despite an ever growing danger to his person. Vienna it seems is undergoing one of it's anti-Semitic convulsions.

Inbetween the story of Lilie, Josef, and Benjamin there is the story of Krysta. Krysta is a young girl who's father works in the infirmary with 'animal people'. Krysta isn't a particularly likable child, her mother has died, she's horribly spoilt, both she and her father clearly have issues to deal with, and before long things are about to get worse for her. Krysta's father dies and it seems a concentration camp is no place to expect compassion for a difficult child so she ends up on the inside.

The housekeeper in Krysta's childhood home was a teller of fairy tales. Dark un-bowdlerised versions of the brothers Grimm, or at least Grimm like tales. Krysta is damaged, first by her mother's suicide, then by the odd life she's living on the edge of the camp and a growing awareness of what's going on around her, and finally by all the things that happen when she's on the other side of the fence. She's a deeply flawed character, extremely hard to like. To deal with her surroundings she tells stories over and over again, they change a little with each telling. Hansel and Gretel is a favourite, with hindsight it took me longer than I would have thought to get the whole point of that story and to question why Krysta keeps telling it - there's a different reason every time but after a few telling's it made me question how much she knows of the nature of the place from the very beginning, but then there's a lot about Krysta which is unclear.

It's clear from the beginning that there must be a link between the two narratives and slowly Granville reveals what it is. It's not entirely what I was expecting but it is the point where I was completely sold on the book. I've seen it reviewed as a children's/young adult read which surprised me a bit, it didn't feel like a book for younger readers despite the youngish protagonists (although Krysta's age is never made especially clear, and neither is the time span of the action, I'm assuming she's no older than 12 or 13 by the end, if as much). I can't quite put my finger on why it seems like an adult book, I want to say it's because of the way story telling and fairy tales are used, as well perhaps as the factual elements from Breuer's life, I also want to say it's to subtle but in the end the more people who read it the better. It's a great book so why worry about those kinds of labels.

It was the fairy tale element that attracted me in the first place, and it's the use of fairy tales that make this something special. Granville takes her stories and repeats them, twisting them each time in a way that pulled me further into to her world. Each repetition adds another layer of meaning and throws up a new set of questions. The fairy tales are organic here, even written down they don't feel pinned down which in turn is absolutely in tune with their origins.  There's so much good stuff going on in this book but I don't want to litter this piece with to many spoilers so I'm just going to say again that I loved it and that it's absolutely worth a read.