Thursday, August 30, 2018

Dream Angus - Alexander McCall Smith

It's been a fruitful week for charity shop book finds, one of which was 'Dream Angus'. I went to Oxfam with the strict intention of only getting rid of things, not of buying anything new, but I ended up waiting for new gift aid tickets and the inevitable happened.

McCall Smiths books are the sort of cosy that doesn't particularly appeal to me so I didn't have much interest in this when it came out, and I think this might also have been true of its original owner. It had a Waterstones 3 for 2 sticker on the cover, but had quite obviously never been read, which makes me think it must have been that third book you end up choosing out of a mounting sense of desperation.

As I'm reading through a few of the Canongate myths at the moment though it seemed better to keep an open mind and give it a chance. I'm pleased I did, and kind of sorry for the unknown person who never got round to reading it. It's a short book so wouldn't have taken much of their time, and is a great example of what I like so much about this series.

In this case I was utterly unfamiliar with the story, I know very little about Celtic mythology at all, and next to nothing about it's gods. Angus is a god of love, youth, and beauty with the power to bestow dreams. In this telling his tale unfolds interspersed with fragmentary stories of other people and places that contain traces of him.

In the way of dreams, and myths, they can end abruptly without conclusion, or a clear idea of what's real, or otherwise, but all the time there are parallels with the central story and the eventual end of both strands seems more hopeful than not.

It's also a book that's a testament to McCall Smiths skill as a storyteller in the true Scheherazade tradition - I kept wanting just a bit more, hooked in almost despite myself. That's also what's so very good about this series. I suppose each book is more or less typical of its author but because the subject matter comes with such a long tradition behind it there's the chance to see both in a fresh light.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Traigh - a knitting post

when I was in Shetland this summer I made sure to buy enough yarn in a single shade to knit a jumper. I don't think I'm going to knit a jumper anytime soon, but the intention is there. I'm a slow knitter, and I like to see obvious progress to keep me motivated - I'm just not sure I have the patience.

Meanwhile just as the weathers turned cold I've finished Traigh, a Kate Davies design that's somewhere between a scarf and a shawl. I'm so pleased with it that I've already started another one which will be blue (after I got my father to bring emergency yarn supplies south with him) and hopefully free of the mistakes that I made in the first one.

Turns out it's fatal to watch antiques roadshow whilst knitting even the most basic lace pattern - a moments distraction is all it takes and I've lost count of where I am.

I particularly like the construction of this - you knit the lace border first in one long strip, and then pick up stitches from the middle of it to create the shallow curve of the shawl body. Easy enough even for my limited knitting skills, and very adaptable.

Before dressing 

And after.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Five Red Herrings - Dorothy L. Sayers

'Five Red Herrings' was mentioned on the Tea and Books podcast recently. I knew I had had it, but I couldn't remember anything about it, the Dumfries and Galloway setting appealed to me though, even more so when I saw it was specifically based around the artists community in Kircudbright.

I found Dorothy L. Sayers through the TVs adaptations of 'Strong Poison', 'Have His Carcase', and 'Gaudy Night' with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter in 1987. I was just in my teens so the romantic element of Peter and Harriet's relationship appealed to me. I bought the books and loved them. Then I collected the rest of Sayers books.

Looking at this one it was clear I never finished it - I gave up somewhere around two thirds of the way through (I know this because I dog ear pages to mark my place - do not judge me, it's a bad habit  with the one bonus of being able to record how I've read books in the past). Having finished it this time I think my teenage self was quite right to call it quits.

As far as I'm concerned age has withered Sayers to the point that I find her books quite problematic. It always surprises me how little Sayers is criticised for her high Tory politics, snobbery, anti semitism, and racism - especially considering just how much criticism some of her contemporaries recieve. To quote from the second page "Waters was an Englishman of good yeoman stock, and, like all Englishmen, was ready enough to admire and praise all foreigners except dagoes and n*****s..."

Quite apart from this not being a notable characteristic of the English it's a statement that seems unnecessarily offensive even for 1931. Moving in from the racism there's the disdain for anyone who isn't an aristocrat, intellectual, or artist - working class characters, when they appear, are charicatures.

The remaining female characters get short shrift too, there's a wife who might be a motive for murder, described as stupid and dangerous. Lord Peter occasionally descends to insult her at length, and everyone seems to bemoan the fact that her husband doesn't manage to escape her. Another woman provides a dodgy alibi, apparently for the purpose of trying to trap someone into marrying her (top tip - however desperate for a husband you might be, do try and make sure the prospective man isn't a murderer). The men gather around to discuss what a piece of work she is - giving the impression that Sayers really doesn't much like women at all (from memory this is fairly typical of her books).

Then there's the witness who's Jewish, I think he's meant to provide a comic turn, I can think of no
other reason why he's given an almost incomprehensible lisp, but it makes tedious reading as well as offensive caricature. I'm not keen on the very broad Scottish accents she writes either, but by now I'm in the mood to be annoyed.

Plot wise a really objectionable artist, drunk and set in committing acts of grevious bodily harm on everybody he meets, is found dead in a river, a half finished canvas in the bank above. It looks like an accident, but there's something missing that makes Lord Peter suspect murder. The doctor's report bears out his suspicions, but there are 6 possible suspects - 5 of them red herrings. Quite a long time, and a lot of train timetables later all is revealed. There are some ingenious clues, and bits that are fun, but such a lot that's not.

This definitely isn't Sayers best work (I'm beginning to think her best work is her book reviews, which are great) and I'm rather wishing I hadn't read it. It's going to cast a long shadow over the rest of her books for me from now on.

Rather more enjoyable was searching for Kircudbright related artists, who's work more or less corresponds to Sayers descriptions. There are a lot more to choose from, it's worth a google.
E A Hornel 

Samuel Peploe

Charles Oppenheimer 

William Hanna Clarke

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Weight - Jeanette Winterson

'Weight' is my first proper introduction to Jeanette Winterson (I think I've read a short story before) which is long overdue. I've always enjoyed reading or listening to her being interviewed, and genuinely have no idea why I've avoided her books for so long. It's also the first of the myth series I've read where I wasn't specifically interested in the story beforehand - the ones I've read have generally been picked up because I'm interested in the myth, the author has been more or less irrelevant.

I think because of this I hadn't really considered how much of a personal choice each myth is to it's author. My interest in the ones I'd read made them seem like obvious choices for anyone to take on, but the story of Atlas is one that I wasn't especially familiar with, or that had any particular resonance. It does for Winterson though, who knew immediately that this was the myth she wanted to retell, and has done so in a way that incorporates autobiography from time to time.

Like 'The Penelopiad' this is a short book, something that can easily be read in an afternoon, but which has more in it than seems possible for the word count. The retelling of the familiar bits - the story of Atlas, and Heracles, who takes on his burden in return for a job he needs doing, before tricking Atlas into taking the world back onto his shoulders again before he's quite ready - are earthy and funny. Bawdy, even, but all the time there's the question why?

Why accept limits, why accept these tasks, why accept this punishment, why not walk away? For Winterson personally there's also the question of why Atlas. The ending isn't traditional, or what I might have expected but it made me happy.

I'm torn here about giving the ending away, the book's been out for years so spoilers don't seem unreasonable, and yet for once I feel that giving away the ending would spoil things, at least for the next reader like me.

Perhaps better just to say that I really loved this book, and everything about it, and that I'm really looking forward to reading more Winterson.

Monday, August 20, 2018

An Untouched House - Willem Frederik Hermans

Translated by David Colmer

I saw this mentioned in a couple of places, and ended up buying an E version of it without realising it was a novella. It was a happy discovery because as it stands the book lasts just as long as my stomach for it's violence did. Much more and it would have started to lose its impact but as it is it's disturbing, haunting, and brilliant.

It opens with the narrator, a Dutchman in a mixed troop of partisans somewhere towards the end of the Second World War, waiting with some comrades on a sunken road, desperate for some water. Most of the men don't speak the same languages as each other, or of their commanding officers, so when our narrator finds himself in a recently deserted and particularly elegant house he decides his orders were probably to stay put.

When the Germans turn up soon after he's no longer in uniform so decides to say the house is his - unsure of how long he can maintain the pretence.

After 4 years cut lose from home and its social conventions though shrugging off the war isn't a simple matter, and however much our narrator might want to be left alone to sleep he's still in the middle of a war zone.

A British, and sometimes American, view of the Second World War was part and parcel of my childhood - it was the films that we watched on weekend afternoons (because there was nothing else) the memories of our grandparents and a chunk of the stories they told, staple fare in comics still. You couldn't help but absorb it. Since then I've read countless books and diaries from the period - so I think it's history I'm familiar with.

And I am, right up until I find myself reading something from a French, a German, a Russian, a Dutch, perspective and am disoriented by that different viewpoint. 'An Untouched House' has no heroics or nobility, just ugly, destructive, brutality. Things are broken, people die - horribly and pointlessly - the difference between sides is blurred and it's bleakly honest about the brutalising effect of prolonged warfare. Its also an excellent antidote to misty eyed nostalgia for blitz or Dunkirk spirit, and the other stories the victorious like to tell. I thoroughly recommend it.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Tamburlaine at the RSC

It's been a busy week one way or another, including a Stratford trip to see the opening preview performance of Tamburlaine at The Swan. Preview performances are a bit of a mixed bag, especially the first one - the atmosphere is generally really good, with a theatre full of people willing to be pleased, and appreciative of the lower prices. The down side is that there are sometimes wrinkles to be ironed out, and hesitations over dialogue - although I think the atmosphere more than balances any occasional hiccup.

We were both totally unfamiliar with Tamburlaine, and made a conscious decision not to read up on it before we got the programme on Thursday night, so beyond knowing that I generally love Christopher Marlowe, but that this isn't one of his best plays, it was all unknown territory.

It isn't his best work, if I understand correctly part 2 (the second half) was originally a sequel. The 2 parts together take a good 3 hours to get through, and I wonder if they wouldn't be better as separate plays which would give everybody, but mostly the audience, more energy for the second half. There are also a lot of characters, with a significant part of the cast taking on 2 or 3 roles each which isn't as confusing as it might sound, but does mean you really need to concentrate.

For Marlowes purposes Tamburlaine started as a shepherd, although the historical character he's based on was a warlord who seized power in the vacuum created by the death of Genghis Khan. Whichever way you look at it the empire he built was impressive.

Jude Owusu has more than enough charisma and presence on stage to make the character convincing,     both as the ruthless warlord capable of the greatest brutality to achieve his ambitions, but also as a man who might inspire loyalty by more than fear. He's softened by his love for Zenocrate (played by Rosy McEwen who was excellent, I very much hope to see her in more things in the future because I thought she was brilliant) and by his friendship with his followers.

It's a beautiful looking production too, with some gorgeous costumes, and a host of golden crowns that gleam against muted backgrounds in a particularly pleasing way. After the extremely bloody 'Duchess of Malfi' it was also noticible that less can be more. This is still a bloody play, there's still a lot of blood on the stage, but it's relative economy of use has much more emotional impact (watching the cast literally wallow around on a stage covered in gore was more distracting than anything else in the Duchess).

The reason I love Marlowe so much is that I always recognise his characters in a way that I don't with   Shakespeare. In this case Tamburlaines ambition, confidence, and focus on his ends all make sense. His relationship with Zenocrate feels of a piece with that, as does his extravagant grief at her death, and his awful reaction to it (in contrast to a sub plot between his follower, Theridamas, and Olympia, a widow he briefly has a passion for). Zenocrate, at least the way she's played here, also feels like a real woman with a complex set of emotions. Every thing me I see a Marlowe play I wonder exactly how much we lost by his early death. Imagine if he'd written as much as Shakespeare.

Basically, this is well worth seeing. There are some fantastic performances, it's an interesting play, and I came out of it with a lot to think about - and also buzzing with enthusiasm which in the end is what I really want from live theatre.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Nusstorte Von Hammerstein (From Classic German Baking)

It's a while since I've cooked properly, even before the oppressive heat of this summer the I've been struggling to find the enthusiasm or energy to really get stuck into new recipes. This might be somewhat age related - I've reached a point where I need to think far more carefully about cholesterol and sugar intake, as has D. The need to be sensible isn't always the best spur for imagination, it's also means baking cakes is a bad idea unless there's a proper crowd of people to eat it.

Last night I did have a proper crowd though - 8 of us from a food family, with my youngest sister who is a tremendous baker, so something special was called for.

The whole night sent me back to the cookbooks, and was a stark reminder of how long it's been since I really thought about a whole meal and how it should work. Because it was really hot when I started planning this I'd already settled on a collection of salads and dips, some decent bread (which I could buy, because I had to be at work in the day) plenty of fruit and cheese (family loves cheese) and initially the plan was for Diana Henry's super boozy chocolate and px Ice cream, but the weather cooled and it felt out of balance with the other things I was leaning towards.

Maybe I just really wanted to bake a cake. After some searching (I do love a good rummage through cookbooks) I found the Nusstorte Von Hammerstein (glazed hazelnut torte) in Luisa Weiss' 'Classic German Baking'. The name alone was irrisistable, and after Vienna and Zurich I find this kind of baking more appealing than ever.

Something else appealing about this one is that it's better made at least a day in advance (apparently it's essential), and keeps well. It's a torte that takes a little time to make but it's worth the effort because it's beautifully light.

Toast, cool, and finely grind 275g of hazelnuts. They need to be properly cool before they're ground or you get a paste. Mix 70g of plain flour through the ground nuts.

Line the bottom of a 23cm springform tin and butter it's sides. Set oven to 180°C. Separate 7 eggs.

Mix 170g of unsalted butter with 270g of caster sugar until light and fluffy (this torte is a lot easier to make if you have a stand mixer), add the yolks one at a time mixing all the time. When all the yolks are in whip the mixture for another 7 minutes, then beat in 30 mills of lemon juice and half a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Add the hazelnut and flour mix, beat until just combined.

In a separate bowl whip the egg whites until large bubbles form, add quarterbof a spoon of salt, then continue beating until you have stiff peaks. Fold one third of the egg whites into the yolk mix to lighten it, then fold in the 2nd third, and the last third until no trace of egg white is left.

Put the batter in the tin, and bake for 50-55 mins or until it's golden brown and a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin on a rack for half an hour, then remove from the tin and leave to cool completely.

Heat 150g of jam (raspberry/red current, or something else with some acidity to it - I used some quite tart apricot jam I had) to loosen it. Cut the torte in half horizontally, spread the jam in the middle, and put the top back on. Make a glaze with  200g of icing sugar lemon juice and rum (the Rum is optional) and spread it over the torte. Decorate with a few hazelnuts, and spend the next 24 hours wondering what it will be like (or a little longer, you can make it a good 3 days before you want it).

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Circe - Madeline Miller

As mentioned in the previous post I bought 'Circe' with no particular expectations because I was short of something to read (I don't like Kindles but I'm not ungrateful for the kindle app on my phone). Finding it was every bit as good as it's good reviews (I've only read good reviews, but I assume there are some negative ones around, there always are) was a total bonus.

Circe is probably best known from the Odyssey (she's the one who turns the sailors into pigs, and with whom Odysseus stops for a year), but she appears in other myth cycles too, some more or less lost - which raises all sorts of tantalising possibilities. Miller has gathered them altogether and filled in the gaps to create this feminist version of her life - and it's brilliant.

Circe is the eldest daughter of the Titan sun god, Helios, and the nymph Perse, and in this version at least, the most unsatisfactory. The least attractive ambitious, diplomatic, or clever, although all of these things are relative, she sits on the sidelines until she discovers her gift for witchcraft. It's something that brings down the wrath of both her father and Zeus, so it's off into exile she goes.

For a lonely and unhappy girl this really isn't the worst thing that could happen, it gives her the chance to hone her magic and for a while find peace. Islands attract visitors though, so whilst Circe might more or less be trapped, it's hard to stop visitors, and male visitors finding a lone woman aren't always very well behaved. Which makes turning them into pigs a reasonable course of action.

When Odysseus turns up however he's a welcome diversion from a growing boredom, and he also provides a son, Telegonus. Whilst reading 'Circe' I spent quite a lot of time googling characters who's names I knew, but who I didn't particularly remember, and more who I had never heard of - which provided some spoilers. Telegonus is one of those.

A postscript to the story of Odysseus is that he's destined to be killed by his son, he assumes that this means Telemachus, but it doesn't. It's an interesting postscript to the story of Penelope as well, and I'm curious as to why Margaret Atwood doesn't persue it in 'The Penelopiad'.

One of the things I really liked about this book is Millers treatment of Penelope, here she's a very clever woman, set on keeping her own council. It's a shared intelligence that ties her to Odysseus- which makes sense of their relationship. Her version of an Odysseus who returns to Ithaca as a paranoid, brutalised, survivor no longer fit for civilian life makes sense too. It certainly makes sense of his order to kill the maids that so bothers Atwood (and bothers Circe too).

The most intriguing thing about this book though for me was the question of all those lost stories. The ones that have survived were written by men, and focus on men, but they came from an oral tradition - so what stories did women tell each other?

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Penelopiad- Margaret Atwood

I read Madeline Miller's 'Circe' recently. It was an impulse kindle app buy when I was staying with my mother and didn't fancy the book I'd bought with me. I must have seen somebody be enthusiastic about it, and it had a list of excellent reviews so it seemed like a good bet. It was. It also made me think of Atwood's Penelopiad, and as I had that to hand it made sense to read it again as well.

Penelope has a significant presence in Miller's book too so it was interesting to compare the two versions of her, and I'm always interested in the Odyssey. I remember being read a child friendly version of it at primary school which was more than enough to hook me into the Greek myths, and make me want to read as much as I could. There was a cartoon set in space but based on the Odyssey at about the same time, which left less of an impression but reinforced the power of the story.

I read E. V. Rieu's translation published by Penguin classics when I was 17, an earnest A level student, and still very impressionable, also long before I understood that translations are interpretations. It's times like this when I think I could quite happily spend the rest of my reading life concentrating on a close reading of different translations and versions of the same story cycle.

I first read 'The Penelopiad' not long after it came out (2005), and after decades of accepting Penelope as the dutiful wife at home, and never really questioning the fate of the maids it was a jolt out of complacency. It still has the same affect on me.

The thing about encountering something like the Odyssey at a young enough age is that you don't really question any of it. Atwood's book is all questions, most of them uncomfortable. Who was Penelope, what motivated her, who did she care about, what lies did she tell, what kind of wife was she, what other versions of her are there, what did she know? And here there's the question of how complicit she was in the murder of her 12 maids, who form an angry chorus throughout the book.

This Penelope is unreliable, at least as a narrator, ever changing, jealous of her cousin Helen, cynical, capable, clever, frustrated - a real woman with all the imperfections that implies, and all the interest too.

There's a quote on the cover from The New York Times which says Determinedly irreverent- which seems about right. That irreverence is a useful thing to bring to The Odyssey, it also leaves me with more questions about Penelope than answers, which again seems right - it's a reminder that this story is still a living changing thing, and to not stop questioning it.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Canongate Myth series

I've been a fan of the Canongate myth series pretty much since it launched - which I think was around 2005, so when Canongate were offering a bundle to review a month or so ago I jumped at the chance. They arrived whilst I was on holiday - I can think of few nicer things to be waiting for you when you get home then a good sized parcel of books - and here they are...

I need to go through the books I have, and get a comprehensive list of the series. I know I've written about some of them on here in the past (definitely Baba Yaga Laid an Egg and A.S. Byatt's Ragnarok) and read a few more pre blogging days but it's been a while.

Out of the six sent to me there are a couple I've already read and am keen to read again - Ali Smith's 'Girl Meets Boy' which I don't remember much about and don't think I really got first time, and Margaret Atwood's 'The Penelopiad' which I loved when I first read it, and is an excellent companion to Madelaine Miller's 'Circe' which I've recently finished.

There are a couple I haven't read but am quite excited about - Karen Armstrong's 'A Short Histort of Myth' and Jeanette Winterson's 'Weight'. Winterson is forever on my list of authors I feel I should read but somehow haven't. There's no particular reason for not having read her, this book is a timely push to get on with it.

And then there's a couple I'd never have picked up, which makes them an excellent opportunity. David Grossman's 'Lion's Honey' and Philip Pullman's 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ'. With the Pullman it's partly a relative lack of interest in biblical myths, partly a lack of interest in Pullman after losing patience with 'The Amber Spyglass'. The Grossman is reminding me how few books I read by men. I'm looking forward to all of them.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Oliver's Hat from A Shetland Story

Despite the heat cranking up to almost unbearable temperatures (I'm really not much of a fan of anything over 20 degrees), all I really want to do is knit. Maybe it's because it reminds me of cooler days, but mostly I think it's because I find it easier to concentrate on knitting than reading when it's like this.

 It's also distracting me from the sad fact that every local supermarket has sold out of Rowntrees Fruit pastille lollies - less local shops might have them but they'd be melted by the time I got home. They're     clearly not just my favourite, and I'm feeling their absence today.

What I've knitted is the Oliver's Hat pattern from 'A Shetland Story'. It was the crown of this hat that made me want to buy the book - I really liked it. The hat itself was mostly fun to knit - quick and simple. It also made finally learn how to do a long tail cast on - which is useful.

The tricky bit (for me) was the last 9 rows. I'm not sure what I did wrong, but I had to rip it back 3 times and then improvise to make the pattern line up properly. I'm still not entirely happy - I can't work out what I was misreading which is bothersome. Overall I'm pleased with the hat though, which I suppose is what matters.