Monday, October 29, 2018

Literary Landscapes - John Sutherland general editor

Literary Landscapes: Charting the real life settings of the world's favourite fiction - I couldn't resist this book when I was offered it, in fact it sounded so good I was even willing to commit to a blog tour date to get my hands on it.

There were two reasons I thought it sounded to good to miss, one is that I'll look at anything with a John Sutherland's name on it, a policy which has never yet led to disappointment with a book. The other is that I love a story with a strong sense of place. Any book that explores the geography of classic literature is going to appeal to me.

In this case there are 73 different books, along with their landscapes, to take a close look at, divided into 4 sub sections. There's Romantic Prospects which starts with Jane Austen's 'Persuasion' (it's a shame nobody wanted to tackle Sir Walter Scott, or Maria Edgeworth, but you can't have everything) and goes up to 1914. Mapping Modernism covers 1915 to 1945, Postwar Panoramas takes us from 1946 to 1974, and Contemporary Geographies takes us up to 2017 - though it's interesting to note that a few of the books in this chapter are set in the past.

Four of the chosen books are set in New York ('The Age of Innocence', 'The Great Gatsby', 'Bright Lights, Big City', and Francis Spufford's 'Golden Hill), and a few in London, so there's the added interest of being able to examine different people's version of the same places.

It's definitely a book for dipping in and out of, I found I started with the books I knew, then the places, and then noticed that the contributiors are not mentioned at the end of each essay. Instead they and their contributions are listed at the end, which sent me back to see what specific writers had to say about their chosen books. Robert Macfarlane almost makes me want to read Hemingway. Almost - and there are other books I'm now far more interested, and am much more likely to read.

And that's the best thing about this book, it comes into its own when novels you're not particularly familiar with are being discussed. The average essay length is two pages, with a few notes and anecdotes added in the margins, some are a little longer. The whole thing is well illustrated with maps, photographs, and other images which help set the scene for the time and place of the work under discussion.

For the books you know and love it's not quite enough - I'd have been quite happy if the whole thing was dedicated to L. M. Montgomery's Prince Edward Island, and the other bits of Canada she happens to mention, or indeed to the landscapes of R. L. Stevenson's Scotland in 'Kidnapped'. For the books you don't already love it's more than enough space to spark a readers enthusiasm, and provide useful context and insight for whatever is under discussion.

It's a beautiful book, obviously perfect Christmas present material for the readers in your life, or as an indulgence to buy yourself. If it's the latter, it's easy to justify as a work of reference that will undoubtedly enrich your understanding of an eclectic range of authors and their novels. There are also a couple of days left to try and win a copy - and that's most definitely worth having a go at.

Follow @modernbooks and tweet your own favourite #LiteraryLandscape for a chance to win a copy of Literary Landscapes. Closes 31st October 2018. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Potemkin Cocktail: Some research

I found a copy of Caroline Eden's 'Black Sea Dispatches and Recipes' in Waterstones on Thursday, which was pay day, so it made the perfect treat to celebrate the brief moment of feeling flush. It's not officially out until next week, but there's a good chance it's already in your local bookshop - if it is, buy it, you won't regret it. It's a beautiful object, and I'm really enjoying reading it.

Everything I'm loving about it is distilled into the Potemkin Cocktail. It's a twist on the fireside Cocktail which I was unfamiliar with, looking it up hasn't left me much wiser, there are whisky and vodka versions about, both of which I plan to try as soon as I've written this, because research.

I like this recipe so much forvall sorts of reasons; because it's component parts are simple - you need fine salt to rim a glass with, 2 crushed ice cubes, 2.5 tablespoons of vodka, 3.5 tablespoons of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, pink is recommended, and a sprig of Rosemary - all I had to buy was a grapefruit. That makes it tempting to make.

The method is simple too. Lightly rim a tallish chilled glass with salt, add the ice pour over the vodka and grapefruit, mix well, take the rosemary sprig and run a lighted match (long matches are obviously best for this) along it's needles to boost the scent before adding it to the glass. Drink.

Good, easy to make, unfussy cocktails - you can't have enough of them in your repertoire. The advice to take a match to the rosemary is both a handy tip, and adds a bit of theatre to the process. I'm all for the theatre element, any drink from tea upwards is better for a bit of ceremony and ritual. It doesn't need to take long, or be elaborate, just enough to turn it into a treat to be savoured.

Then there are the measurements. This fitted into my juice glasses, which are quite small - and I really like small drinks, because again it's about something being a treat, rather than something that leaves you feeling like you've already had enough before you're half way through.

And most important of all, it tastes great. Fresh, fruity, pleasingly sour thanks to the grapefruit, with the salt and rosemary evoking sea brine, and an earthy forest note respectively. It's all really nicely balanced, with those simple components becoming much more than the sum of their parts. The name Eden has given it, along with her text over the preceding pages give the whole thing an air of romance. It's exactly this which is making me enjoy this book so very much.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World - James & Tom Morton

I've been putting off writing about this book because I was disappointed by it, and generally I only choose to write about things I'm enthusiastic about. Then it sparked a bit of local controversy, the Amazon reviews behaved accordingly, and I can no longer resist the urge to weigh in.

Part of my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations, when I first heard about this book I was hoping for something that would be as rooted in place as Gill Meller's 'Gather' was in Dorset. That was unfair, because 'Gather' was, and is, a landmark sort of book in all sorts of ways, it's recipes a series of polished gems - a hard act to follow.

'Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World' is a self styled love story that has some food in it, specifically it's Tom and James Morton's memories and thoughts about their foody habits, preferences, and prejudices scattered amongst a lot of  memories, thoughts, and prejudices about Shetland generally. Which brings me to the controversial part of the book.

It centres on the island of Whalsay, and the black fish scandal. The fishing industry is a big deal in Shetland, the fish that's landed in Shetland a sizeable portion of the UK quota. In 2012 it emerged that around 47 million pounds worth of fish had been landed illegally. The fish processing plant in Shetland was fined for their part in this, and so were a group of Shetland skippers - the fines ran into the hundreds of thousands.

Its a thorny subject to tackle, and a sensitive one in a book like this. The least you could do is make sure you get the figures right. The Mortons don't do that. They over inflate them, and infer that the huge pelagic trawlers are paid for outright by the families who own them (my understanding is that bank loans are involved). Then there's a poem by James that refers to unscrupulous baby seal bludgeoners and what fuels 24 hour shifts at sea. It's not surprising that it caused offence, and it all seems so unnecessary. 5 minutes fact checking and steering clear of youthful poetic efforts would have gone a long way.

Whalsay is known as a rich island, but away from the trawlers in the harbour, and a general air of prosperity about the houses, it's certainly not in an obvious way. Thanks to oil money and low unemployment across the islands there's a general sense of prosperity everywhere, so again picking on one community feels misjudged.

The result was a spate of spiteful one star reviews on Amazon, and whilst their content can more or less be ignored the upset is genuine, and not unreasonable. A series of 5 star reviews followed which are just as meaninglessly partisan. The publicity has only helped book sales.

A bigger problem for me is a general lack of recipes, and the choice of some of the things included. In fairness traditional Shetland cooking is based on subsistence farming and the fish which wasn't sold off. A foody scene is slowly emerging, though neither of the Mortons approve of it. Bannocks, reestit mutton soup, and dried fish are traditional. Reestit mutton (smoked and salted) is iconic (and pretty good). So are bannocks. The image of fish pegged out to dry on clothes lines is still iconic, I'm not sure how widespread the practice actually is though. The bits about mutton, bannocks, and dried fish are excellent.

There's quite a bit about smoking and curing salmon (salmon farming is also big in Shetland) but nothing that hasn't been well covered elsewhere. There's a recipe for lentil soup that everybody should know - and which generations of Shetland children, including me, were taught to make in home economics - because it's both cheap and good, and quite a lot more along the same lines. The chances are you already have these recipes.

Shetland also has a sweet tooth, Sunday teas, and community cafés abound, and there are still a few local bakeries going. That coupled with James baking history (GBBO finalist in 2012) makes the baking chapter a particular disappointment - and here's my prejudice. I don't want, or need, another brownie recipe (nobody has beaten Nigella's, which this one has a close resemblance too) I would very much like some good tea loaf recipes. Tea loaf is the thing I most associate with Shetland, and can't find a satisfactory version of down here. (It's a fruited loaf, bread not cake, and comes in various forms, all of which I miss.) Again, there's just not much in it.

In the end it's just not a great Cookbook, though not a terrible one either. It is a fairly thorough look at the Morton's life in Shetland, and how they cook there, and the photography is wonderful. If you like the way they write (I veered between being engaged, and alienated depending on the anecdote) you'll enjoy reading this, but if you don't it probably won't offer you very much. As a souvenir, or introduction, to Shetland it's worth buying for the pictures alone.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

13 books for getting in the Halloween mood

I like hunting out books for lists like this, mostly because I find all sorts of things I forgot I had along with the stuff that I knew I was looking for. Really horrifying horror isn't my thing, I like to be able to turn the lights out when I'm done, but something a bit unsettling is fine. And whilst I think about it - when did Christmas stop being the season for ghost stories and everything become so Halloween specific.

My collection (which is somewhat larger than just these books) tends towards the Victorian, and is mostly short stories - though I have some Shirley Jackson novels which terrify me. This particular selection is a mix of things I've read and know are reliably good, am reading, and might read soon.

The British Library have been publishing an excellent selection of weird tales, including a Christmas themed one I'm very much looking forward to. 'The Haunted Library', which I have read is a perfectly judged collection of book related haunting and happenings. One or two of them made me distinctly nervous, all of them were excellent. It comes highly recommended.

I've had 'The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales' for a few years, shamefully unread, because I've really liked everything else I've read by Braddon. A new edition is due in February with a cover that ties it in to the rest of the weird series (and which is far creepier). I hope I'm going to read this soon, it looks very promising.

'Glimpses of the Unknown' is another British Library title, this time featuring lost ghost stories, and apart from an E. F. Benson, who writes brilliant horror, I don't think I'm familiar with any of the writers in it, never mind the stories. I will mostly be reading it in daylight, I don't particularly want the eyes staring out of the cover anywhere near me whilst I try and sleep.

'The Virago Book of Ghost Stories' edited by Richard Dalby is an old favourite it goes from Charlotte  Brontë through to Dorothy K. Haynes, taking in all sorts of interesting authors along the way. It's an absolute treasure trove and a great introduction to a whole range of women writers, it would be hard to choose between this one and 'The Haunted Library' for quality.

Richard Dalby's name on the cover is why I bought 'Dracula's Brethren'. I thought I had its companion volume, 'Dracula's Brood' somewhere, but didn't spot it earlier - I suppose I'll have to search for it now, despite the increasingly late hour - I can't have a rogue volume of vampire stories running feral around my flat. It would be to much like something out of 'The Haunted Library'. It's another excellent looking selection, which includes Louisa May Alcott's 'Lost in a Pyramid'.

'Dracula's Guest' is billed as a connoisseur's collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. It's edited by Michael Sims who has put together some frankly fabulous anthologies of Victorian detective fiction. As a testament to the richness of the vampire genre there is no overlap with the Dalby book.

Sims is also responsible for 'The Phantom Coach' (nicely atmospheric John Atkinson Grimshaw painting as a cover image). It might actually make for good Christmas reading - book collecting and reading are clearly worlds apart. This too looks like an interesting and varied collection of stories from mostly reasonably well known Victorian writers.

The cover of 'The Penguin Book of the Undead' is frankly terrifying, I am grateful to have been able to turn it over to read the blurb again. I think it was a bit of an impulse Halloween purchase last year, or the year before. Clever marketing aside it sounds genuinely interesting. Ghost stories as we know them are a 19th century convention, "but the restless dead haunted the premodern imagination in many forms". This book covers 15 hundred years from Hebrew Scriptures, the Roman Empire, Scandinavian sagas, medieval Europe, through to reformation and renaissance. How could I resist?

I couldn't resist 'The Penguin Book of Witches' either. If you're going to judge a book by its cover this one's a peach. I was a bit disappointed when I got this (via a large online retailer) to realise that it dealt predominantly with the Salem witch trials. It's basically an American book, it briefly looks at English antecedents in the 16th century, including James I & VI's peculiar ideas on the subject, before crossing the Atlantic. I had assumed it would be wider ranging. In the end it didn't much matter. The Salem trials and their aftermath deserve the space, and I'm pleased to have read more about them. It doesn't go amiss to have a reminder of what happens when supperstion, paranoia, and fear get out of hand.

Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Gothic Tales' are another Penguin publication (I'm unaccountably missing a collection of Edith Wharton in gothic or ghostly mood to round out my collection of spooky Victorian women. I should fix that). I haven't read this one either, although I've enjoyed her ghost stories in other anthologies. I want to read more Gaskell, so this might be the place to start.

It's not all about ghosts, vampires, and other ghouls. The long nights are a great time for fairy tales as well, especially at the moment when the trees are losing their leaves and everything seems to be transitioning. It makes it easier to imagine any number of strange things, and much easier for eye and mind to play tricks on you morning and evening. 'The Complete Fairy Tales' by George Macdonald underline the Victorian fascination with fairies. They're experimental, subversive, and worth a look.

I'm currently reading, and loving, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Kingdoms of Elfin' from Handheld press. Officially out on the 31st, they're as sly and enchanting as the blurb promises. These Fairies have an entirely inhuman morality, they're cruel and beguiling, and you need this book.

Which brings me to Westwood and Kingshill's 'The Lore of Scotland', a guide to Scottish legends. I've chosen this one because it's the most recent book on folklore that I've bought, and I've been really enjoying it as I dip in and out of it. There are all sorts of interesting rabbit holes to fall into in a book like this which makes it an excellent companion for either a stolen half hour, or an extended afternoon of research. And unlike some ghost stories, it's unlike to affect your sleep.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Books do furnish a Painting - Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro

Like many people I have a copy of Proust's 'Swann's Way', and like a good number of that demographic I've never made it past the first few pages. I never got as far as buying the rest of the series, and don't really see myself ever getting round to reading it. The one thing that might persuade me to make the effort is to search for the art, and artists, that Proust describes, something which is genuinely tempting.

Even more tempting is Eric Karpeles 'Paintings in Proust' which I've thought about getting a few times (but have resisted with heroic self restraint, because however tempting an exhaustive pictorial catalogue of every work of art Proust mentions is, I'm sticking to the rule that I can't have it until I start reading 'Swann's Way' in earnest). All of that is the reason that I was so excited when I saw 'Books do furnish a Painting'. There are no self imposed rules around this one.

Literature and art are two of my favourite things, so a book that sets out to explore the relationship between them in western art over the last 500 years - well quite apart from anything else, it's something I wish I'd thought of first.

There are 165 illustrations here to explore what the book might be used to mean in art arranged thematically. There's discussion of what a book is, and the symbiotic relationship between the development of books and the modern idea of an artist, before considering what books are being used to symbolise.

Some of that is obvious - education, religious piety, social status, professional achievement, scientific discovery. Changing patterns of transport, gender roles, romance, sex, friendship, aids to rest, dangerous or subversive behaviour - these things are maybe less clear to the inexpert eye. The painting isn't shown in this book but Augustus Leopold Egg's 'Past and Present, No. 1' is mentioned. It seems the house of cards the young girls are building is based on a book by Balzac. Moralizers of the day considered it a corrupting influence. Ruskin apparently suggested in a letter that the errant wife's likely reading would have been historical romance, and she'd have been incapable of understanding Balzac's subtlety.

It's the message in every detail that makes this particular sort of Victorian painting appeal to me so much, but Ruskin's waspish comment will also add to my enjoyment of it.

There are whole worlds of meaning and possibility to explore here, and either as a book to dip in and out of, or one to sit down and read, it's fascinating.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday's Child - Georgette Heyer 1944 book club

For everything I've ever read about, or from, the Second World War nothing has ever made more of an impact than a great aunt quietly mentioning that her first husband was shot down and killed the day after they got married. They must have known that was a possibility, maybe even a likelihood, I can only try and imagine what it does to your outlook on life to think in those terms.

One of the things I really like about Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs are the way they give me an excuse to revisit Georgette Heyer novels, and then the way it makes me consider whatever I'm reading in relation to when it was written.

When I first read Heyer back some 30 odd years ago the image I had in mind was more or less pure Gainsborough, they felt old fashioned enough and I hadn't read particularly widely. Reading 'Friday's Child' now my image is more Gainsborough studios - this one feels like it's a more or less contemporary novel in fancy dress.

I think the reason for this is the youth of the characters. Her heroine is not quite 17, her hero a hardly less youthful 23, the latter especially is unusual for Heyer. The book opens with lord Sherringham making a proposal to the beautiful Isabella Milborne - who with perfect good sense turns him down flat. He goes home, argues with his mother, and swears to marry the first woman he sees.

The first woman he sees is almost 17 year old Hero Wantage, a penniless orphan, who has had a crush on him for years - and so they get married. Just like that. His friends all adore her, but she can't help but get herself into all sorts of trouble that could lead to social ruin. The responsibility is more than anybody is quite prepared for, and inevitably that puts pressure on the marriage. The question is can a relationship entered into with so little thought turn out happily? It's a romance, so the answer isn't in doubt.

Something I have to mention, because it stands out now, is the number of times Sherry threatens to slap Hero, and the couple of times he actually does. I think the intention is to underline how child like both of them are at the outset. It's the sort of physical end you might expect to a children's fight. It's also a reflection of an era when smacking children was not particularly frowned upon, but it's a detail that's ages really badly.

This one had never been a particular favourite of mine, the instant wedding had always seemed a bit far fetched, but in a wartime context it makes sense. Sherry and his friends would also make as much sense, maybe more, pictured in uniform (they would be quite at home in an Angela Thirkell, and not infrequently stray into P. G. Wodehouse territory).

The descriptions of food and clothes mean something else considered against a back drop of rationing as well. Less like filler, and more the kind of details that people might particularly like to imagine. And now I'm not seeing those young people as just tiresomely selfish, instead I'm wondering if Heyer is lamenting the responsibility placed on the younger generation in front of her. All of her young characters rise to the occasion here, it's the older ones who consistently let them down.

I always enjoy reading Heyer, and the more I do the more interesting I consider her. She does a couple of other interesting things in this book regarding the way she presents marriage and the choices around it. She may be famous for her romances, but they're oddly subversive when it comes to the actual romance.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Valley at the Centre of the World - Malachy Tallack

It took me a long time to read this book, and I've spent a few more weeks thinking about it since. The reason it took all that time was because I was so overwhelmed by what it was, that it took some catching up getting to what it was about.

The Valley at the Centre of the World is set in Shetland, specifically a single valley and looks at the lives of the people who live there. There's Maggie, who is old - and who's death (this isn't much of a spoiler, it's the first thing that happens in the book) is a sort of catalyst. Middle aged David and Mary, and Sandy who has stayed in the valley after splitting up with David and Mary's daughter, Emma who has left. Alice, an author who has settled there after the death of her husband, Terry who comes and goes, and Ryan and Jo.

There is an Amy Liptrot quote on the cover of my proof copy that describes it as "a moving, authentic novel of the Scottish Islands in the twenty-first century", which it is, though I think it's more specific than that. Broadly most of the issues that Tallack takes on apply to plenty of remote rural communities across the Highlands and Islands, but each island group, each island has its own character. Shetland is distinctly Shetland, it's close to my heart, and there's not a lot of contemporary literary novels that explore it. (Crime writing is a different matter, but the focus is neccesarily different.) The point I'm slowly getting to is that I hadn't quite realised see how much I wanted to be reading about the things Tallack is writing about, or how few and far books that look at these landscapes, and these people, are.

Not a great deal happens in 'The Valley at the Centre of the World' happens. People come and go, make decisions, or fall into them, and generally get on with there lives, but there's a huge question underlying the whole thing - what is the future of these communities?

It's another question close to my heart. Maggie represents a generation bound by tradition and a close relationship to place. David is bound by the same things, but his crofting is a lifestyle made possible by the jobs and prosperity of the oil years. It's more than a hobby, but it's no longer a neccesity. For the younger generation it's a world full of choices and possibilities, with far fewer ties to place and tradition.

What happens to communities like this as expectations and opportunities change has repercussions that spread far beyond the local. As old links are broken, and places empty, or new people move in, language and culture change, stories are lost, and other sorts of knowledge too. Is that good, or bad, or something inbetween? We get to draw our own conclusions here, but again, these are fundamental questions well worth asking, and they apply to any community of any sort.

I know from reading '60 Degrees North' that Tallack has a sometimes complicated relationship with Shetland, something which he explores thoroughly here, but particularly through Sandy, Emma (through her absence) and Ryan. Ryan especially seems to represent things he has the least affection for. And now I find I'm falling back down a rabbit hole of what aboutery as I consider other characters and aspects of the book.

In the end it was an immensely satisfactory book to read, regardless of personal connection to the subject matter there's a lot here for anybody to consider. If I had a criticism it might be that there are a few to many things covered, more than enough for a second or third novel (particularly Sandy's parents, they could easily have filled a book by themselves).

I sincerely hope that Tallack does write more Shetland based fiction, I also hope that a few more follow him in writing about life from the perspective of similar communities. There's a need for books like this, especially ones as good as this, that draw sensitive, un romanticised, portraits of rural life where nothing nasty happens in the woodshed/out on the moors and nobody is necessarily holding on to a devastating secret. I might not have known how much I wanted to read books like this before it came along, but now I do, and I'll be looking for them.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Christmas and Other Winter Feasts - Tom Parker Bowles

It's wet (and thankfully after the sticky weather of the last few days) cold outside, I'm feeling distinctly low, and am procrastinating. What I should be doing is hoovering, dealing with quinces, and writing book reviews - in no particular order. Not hoovering doesn't matter very much, but the quinces have a shelf life, and I've promised reviews to other people.

Instead I braved the elements, picked up a huge bag of newly wind fallen quinces - because despite not having done anything with the first lot, the idea of just leaving them to rot seemed wrong, and bought a book. The book was very much an impulse purchase, it's the Fortnum and Mason Christmas book, not officially published until next week, but Waterstones had a copy, and it's a such a mood lifter I couldn't resist.

I should have resisted because money is currently a bit tight and I've bought a lot of books, including cookbooks, this month already (those two things are not unrelated). Whatever, sometimes a bit of mild extravagance is good for the soul, which is why I love Fortnum and Mason so much in the first place.

I think I fell under its spell long before I ever saw the place, probably reading Dorothy L. Sayers, and anyone else who referred to hampers, hams, and other luxurious food stuffs. Something of that old fashioned glamour still exists, and that's exactly what Tom Parker Bowles captures in his books for them. They're big on nostalgia, but that works for me from a shop that always makes me feel like the Provincial Lady up in town for the day.

It's why in this book a shopping list of Christmas staples (which would bankrupt most of us) is charming rather than irritating. My Christmas won't feature caviar or foie gras, it will have marrons glacé and good coffee. I'm on the fence about pickled walnuts, but absolutely behind pork pies (from Melton Mowbray, obviously), and I'm enjoying reading about all of them. There's a lot to read about traditions in here too, as well as quite a bit of innovation - it's a book it's easy to get lost in when you have other jobs to avoid. It's also reminded me that I'm not very familiar with Tom Parker Bowles writing at all, which is clearly my loss, because he's a fun companion here.

As for recipes - well reader, until today I'd never drunk cocoa but a recipe for a sloe gin hot chcolate which used a ridiculous amount of it has changed that. I played about with it a bit - added a spoon of soft brown sugar to just take the bitter edge off, upped the amount of sloe gin for more of a kick, and stirred in single cream rather than topping with whipped double (wasn't going out again) and the results were delicious. Comforting and grown up, still pleasingly bitter, and definitely luxurious. I'm very happy with this. I'm looking at a recipe for a pineapple tarte tatin with vanilla, star anise, and cinnamon that looks great. A mulled wine cured salmon recipe sounds great too. The game section is good. There's a chestnut, almond, and Rum cake I like the sound of - and so on.

There's some excellent looking vegetarian and vegan recipes as well, and did I mention the Edward Bawden illustrations? It's a wonderfully indulgent sort of book that I think is going to brighten up the winter months considerably. It also looks more useful than the first Fortnums Cookbook - or at least there's more in here that I'll make. Finally, don't be put off by the Christmas label, other winter feasts make up the bulk of the book and there's a lot to love in here.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Rasputin and Other Ironies - Teffi

I've bought a few of the Pushkin editions of Teffi's books over the years because they all sound amazing, but until now I've never read any of them because Russian always makes me assume a thing will be vaguely depressing. I don't know if this was due to reading 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' (which I loved) at a formative age, or being hopelessly daunted by the length of 'War and Peace' at around the same time but I suspect that's at the root of it.

Fortunately the range of translated fiction available in the U.K. has improved immeasurably in the last couple of decades, so for me it's no longer about the books I feel I should read (but don't really fancy) it's about books that sound amazing. 

Teffi herself seems to still be something of an enigma. As far as I can gather she had an affluent sort of upbringing, married unhappily, abandoned her husband and son to return to St Petersburg to persue her career as a writer, was caught on the fringes of the revolutionary movement for a while, and then fled as a refugee with the White Russians. As I read more of her, I guess I'll read more about her too, and some of that history will become clearer.

Meanwhile 'Rasputin and Other Ironies' seems like as good a place as any to start. It's a collection of pieces that span her career, and although the tone of all of them is autobiographical some of it is basically fiction.

Her encounters with both Lenin and Rasputin are fascinating. I suppose her impressions of Lenin must to some extent be coloured by hindsight, but fleeting as those encounters are she has a lot to say about the atmosphere around him. The piece about Rasputin is excellent, again nothing more than a few encounters, but again they say a lot about the atmosphere he created.

For me though the most powerful story is 'Valya', about a mother and daughter. The mother is 21, the daughter 4, and in it as all the frustration of parenthood spread across a couple of pages. It's almost about nothing, but somehow is everything. The mother buys a Christmas decoration she thinks is particularly pretty, maybe to pretty to risk to childish hands. She risks it anyway and the child breaks it.

Robert Chandler, in his introduction picks out the Gaderene Swine as particularly worthy of note, it certainly dispenses with any pretence of humour or lightness, and is a powerful record of the exiles lot - but the whole book is a collection of gems. I'm only sorry it's taken me so long to get round to reading her, although the good news is there's plenty more to look forward to.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Principles of Knitting - June Hemmons Hiatt

There are so many books that I want to write about at the moment, but yet again the day has run away from me, and as I probably have less to say about this one (we'll see how that goes) than some of the others it's up first.

This doorstop of a thing was a book I hinted heavily for, and got, as a Christmas present a couple of years ago after seeing it recommended somewhere as a classic. I duly cleared out the much less comprehensive How To guide I'd initially used to try and re learn to knit from. There have been moments since, especially when I've just wanted to check something really simple, when I've wondered if I was a bit hasty.

On reflection it was the right decision. One of the reasons I got rid of that first book was that I couldn't make any sense out of a couple of stitch patterns it described - and if that was a problem I'm not convinced I'd have got much out of any of its patterns or projects. It was also the case that I wouldn't have willingly given House room to any of the projects in it, so however useful they might have been for learning from there was no inspiration to make them.

Meanwhile this year I've finally found myself turning to 'The Principles of Knitting' more and more often. It's certainly comprehensive - so far I've only scratched the surface, but it's proving very useful, and as reference books go it feels pretty definitive. I certainly don't imagine I'll ever need another general guide.

It's true that you can find all of this stuff online, with added video tutorials for good measure, but I learn best by trying something (sometimes over and over until it makes sense) rather than watching -so I find a book easier to follow than a screen which turns itself off at critical moments. Nor does a book throw irritating adverts at you midway between instructions.

An unexpected advantage to the size and weight of this particular volume is that it tends to stay open at the page I want too, which makes it much easier to keep referring back whilst trying to memorise some particular technique (making things lean left or right is my current example).

I like the way that June Hemmons Hiatt writes as well. She's admirably clear in her general explanations, easy going about you finding the technique that best suits you, and thorough when she gives instructions. Knitting language is baffling at times, so deciphering what's meant isn't always as straightforward as I might hope. This book hasn't let me down yet which is extremely encouraging when it's something that doesn't come particularly naturally to me (I really have to work at some of this stuff) it certainly gives me confidence in what I might go on to make in the future.

In short it deserves its classic of the genre status, and I can add my voice in recommendation. Want a comprehensive guide to the methods and techniques of hand knitting - look no further. It's genuinely useful and a worthwhile investment even for relative novices who wonder why there need to be so very many cast on or cast off techniques...

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Belting Inheritance- Julian Symons

I've been dog sitting for the last couple of days, back to work in the morning, and very nice it's been too, though perhaps not quite as productive as I might have hoped.

There had been plans to tackle a new knitting project - fingerless mitts - but I stuck the wrong size needles in my bag so couldn't get any further than the ribbing stage. It's probably for the best, the dog was very much of the opinion that I wanted to play with her, not waste my time reading or knitting - and who am I to argue with that.

Inbetween walks, throwing balls, and general fussing (tummy rubs and ear scratches being particularly appreciated) I did get time to read 'The Belting Inheritance' by Julian Symons. It's one of the most recent British Library Crime Classics, and I particularly enjoyed it.

I hadn't come across Symons before these current reprints, and it seems that for a while he was dissatisfied with 'The Belting Inheritance', happily he came back found to it. I think it's one of the most enjoyable bits of detective fiction I've read.

Written in 1965, but set in 1955, the narrator and sort of detective is 18. Christopher Barrington is taken to Belting to live with distant relatives after his parents are killed. The house is a Victorian gothic survival, dominated by the personality of old Lady Wainwright, perpetually mourning the two sons she lost in the war, and not much liking the two sons she has left and insists live with her.

She is kind to Christopher though, who finds he switches pretty much effortlessly from middle class life in Woking, to the country house and private school trappings of the upper classes. When we meet him he's an intelligent 18 year old with a taste for poetry and Japanese prints - and there's something about his youth and affectations that are particularly endearing. This is a changing world, full of possibility, and not one that looks back with any particular nostalgia to a pre war order.

For Christopher, fresh from school, there are a whole lot of shocks in store, the first being the reappearance of one of those supposed dead uncles. The second is a murdered body in the shrubbery, but from there on it's a rollercoaster ride of drink, drugs, sex, and the realisation that not everybody sees his family the way he does.

I loved the drinking bits, where poor Christopher, who has only just started to be allowed to drink a single glass of port after dinner, is introduced to whisky, Armagnac, Pastis, and really awful hangovers in short order. His total failure to cope with hard liquor is both accurate and funny. His not really understanding the significance of a syringe and spoon he finds, or that particular characters are gay means he makes no judgement about them either, and that works well too. It certainly feels particularly modern.

Meanwhile there are lots of literary jokes to enjoy along with the tongue in cheek portrait of Christopher, which nicely balances the darker side of the story. Lady Wainwright is dying, and nobody else really believes that the newly returned David Wainwright is who he claims to be, so her last days are being dragged out in a positively poisonous atmosphere. Old scandals are being revealed in all their sordid details, but in the end the Belting way of life is going to end with a whimper, not a bang.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

How To Eat - Nigella Lawson

I've had a copy of 'How to Eat' for a long time, but I didn't get it when it first came out, and one way or another have never really paid it much attention, so it's twentieth anniversary has given me a welcome second chance.

As a longstanding Nigella fan it should have been a book that was a kitchen staple and I wondered for a bit why it hadn't been, which in turn was a reminder of the unique place cookbooks hold in a personal library, and how they hold memories.

In 1998 I was being paid £3.50 an hour (as a cook in a nursery) and my then boyfriend was a vegetarian, so the cookbooks I was buying were all about trying to expand a vegetarian repertoire beyond pasta bakes. Cookbooks were comparatively more expensive then too (taking inflation into account the average cover price was the equivalent of £50, and not nearly as much deep discounting) they were considered rather than impulse purchases.

My first, and very much loved, Nigella book was 'How to be a Domestic Goddess'. It came before baking was as fashionable as it is now, and at the time was a reminder that making time to be creative  -in this case in the kitchen- is a precious and wonderful thing. Cooking is one way to impose a bit of order and control on a difficult day, and 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' added comfort and a bit of healthy self indulgence to that.

The tone of it also felt fresh, I've never been much of a fan of Nigella's TV persona, but on the page she's a different woman. Funnier, smarter, and all round better company. Everything felt like stuff I could and would make. I bought and used the following books with equal enthusiasm as they came out over the next few years (Nigella bites, Forever Summer, Feast, and Nigella's Christmas' are all favourites) and at some point was given 'How to Eat'.

I know I've used it, there's a beef and prune stew which I go back to over and again, and enough stains to show it's been off the shelf a few times, but it doesn't spark the memories that some of those others do, there's nothing tucked between the pages. It was only when I picked it up the other day that I realised how underused it had been. My loss.

Reading through it, the current wave of enthusiasm and love for this book makes perfect sense. It's a classic - it feels fresh in the way that classics do. It still reflects the way we shop, cook, and want to eat - wellness and clean eating fads aside (Nigella doesn't do that shit). The lack of pictures make it feel like it belongs to an older tradition, but the acknowledgment that people want very specific instructions is contemporary. Mostly though it's the love of good food that shines through it that makes this such a brilliant book, and god, am I grateful for the prompt to take a better look at it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Knitting Post

I've just pinned out Kate Davies Observatory shawl. Mine has come out a little smaller than hers looks to be, probably because the Jamieson and Smith heritage yarn (natural colour range in dark fawn) isn't as close a match to the yarn she used as I thought. The J&S yarn is lovely though, great for the openwork bit, and beautifully soft so I don't mind that I have more of a scarf than a shawl.

This had a slightly more complicated looking lace pattern than I'm used to, but after the first sequence I realised it had a really nice symmetry to it which made it far easier than I had thought it would be to knit. It's a really lovely old Shetland lace pattern that I'm keen to use again. And actually I'll knit this hap again, but I'll make it bigger next time - both a little bit longer and somewhat deeper, and possibly a larger gauge needle too (knitting seems to be a lot about planning the next project).

Regardless of all the things I want to change I'm pleased with how this one has turned out, and the things I've learnt making it, though I still haven't learnt to love the process of pinning things out. It's hard on the knees and back, and has to be done with more care than I always have patience for. It really is my least favourite part of the process of making something, but as it's also one of the most important for the finished result there's no avoiding it - especially with Shetland wool which stretches considerably once it's been soaked.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Books I Bought Home

My holiday book shopping was quite restrained, not least because it would have been very tempting just to buy a ton of cookbooks (it didn't seem very sensible, but it was tempting), restraint aside I'm really pleased with my finds.

I've already mentioned the Elementum journal I found in the Borders (happily the Mainstreet trading company was a sensible comfort stop for us, their cake is as good as the book selection. Go if you can). I'm still delighted with it and looking forward to collecting the back issues.

The Scottish section of Inverness Waterstones yielded Hugh Trevor-Roper's 'The Invention of Scotland'. He's a historian I find fun to read (which certainly made him stand out when I first came across his work during A levels). This was written in the 70's when a devolved parliament was being mooted (Trevor-Roper apparently not a fan) but was left unfinished when it became clear it wasn't going to happen. The blurb suggests it's provocative so that's something to look forward to.

'Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation' is published by Historic Environment Scotland. It should be an interesting companion to the Trevor-Roper book as it looks to be much more about myth making than myth busting. It's also an interesting mix of buildings and places, but I really bought it because Kathleen Jamie is one of the contributors and she's always worth reading. Alistair Moffat is another and I like his writing too. The cover is an absolutely awful watercolour of Mousa Broch in Shetland, so bad I almost didn't buy the book.

'Who Built Scotland' was buy one get one half price so when I overcame my dislike of the cover I picked up 'Tales From The Dead of Night', a collection of 13 classic ghost stories. It has a great cover, and a decent looking selection of stories. I have a weakness for anthologies like this and being half price clinched the deal.

I saw High Albania by Edith Durham in Leakey's in Inverness last time I was up there. I couldn't make up my mind so left it, but it was still there so this time I got it. It's probably more for my Virago collection than for reading but it feels like a nice find either way.

The book I'm really pleased with though is 'The Journal of Sir Walter Scott'. I found this in Ullapool, looking a bit battered and on sale. I've kind of wanted it for a while but it's never been a priority. I love Scott to the point that I don't really understand why he's so unfashionable. Not all of his later work might stand up to scrutiny, you have to slow down and read him at the pace he dictates, and he does like to go on a bit (though I'm coming to see that as a joke he plays with the reader). I know too that his unionist politics possibly don't help him - but when he's good he's great.

The journal, which covers the last 5 years of his life, even in edited form covers more than 800 pages, but even a quick look suggests this is good Scott. It's full of interesting details about day to day life in the 1820's, it's also funny, and charming. This is a man you'd want to meet at a dinner party and count as a friend. God only knows where this doorstop of a thing is going to live though.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Books I came home to

This last week away has been such an oasis of calm and contentment in an otherwise not great year (nothing dramatically awful, but months of it being all cloud and precious little silver lining) that I really wasn't looking forward to going back to work today and being dragged back into all that stress again.

Happily life isn't all work, and just before I left a couple of really good looking review books had turned up - I didn't have much time to look at them properly before I went so I knew they were something to look forward to. A couple more arrived whilst I was away, and then (almost as if the universe, Thames & Hudson, Pushkin, and Little Toller, knew when I would most need a boost) today some real gems. I feel like I've won the book lottery here - and that's before I even start looking at the books I bought in Scotland.

I've already mentioned these, but didn't end up taking them away with me, so I'm going to share the excitement again - it's the latest offerings from British Library Tales of Weird series. There short story compilations are always good value, but these look really good. I might be looking forward to 'Spirits of the Season' just a little bit more, but only because everything in it is completely new to me. I've read a couple of the stories in 'Mortal Echos' elsewhere (the Dickens and the Saki) but as one of them (the Saki) is an absolute all time favourite that's only an indicator of quality.

Also from the British Library there's Kate Jackson's collection of puzzles, 'The Pocket Detective'. This looks like it's going to be fun, and (I know it's early, but...) would make a great stocking filler for fans of classic crime generally, and the British Library crime classics particularly. 

Something else from the British Library that would make a nice present for the bibliophile in your life (no other British institution has bought me half as much pleasure in the last few years) is Alex Johnson's 'Shelf Life' which contains the thoughts of various writers on books and reading. The charm of this one is that the writers are mostly Victorian or Edwardian figures, but also have Francis Bacon writing in 1601, and Charles Lamb in 1822. It looks like a really nice little collection. 

Tim Dee's 'Landfill' arrived today, it's one of Little Tollers monograph series, so is obviously a beautiful object in itself (these little books are very pleasing to look upon, picking one up is a treat). 'Landfill' is about the rubbish we've created, the gull's that have learnt to exploit it, and our uneasy relationship with them - at least that's what the blurb is making me think. It'll report back with more detail in due course.

Margaret Millar's 'Vanish in an Instant' was a glorious surprise. It's out on the 25th of this month, and is part of the Pushkin Vertigo series. Everything I've read in this series has been spectacular so far, I loved every a bit of noir, and adore rediscovering forgotten female authors so this book ticks all the boxes as far as I'm concerned. The back blurb tells me that: "Virginia Berkeley is a nice, well bought up girl. So what is she doing wandering through a snow storm in the middle of the night, blind drunk and covered in someone else's blood?" This wasn't even on my radar so you can imagine my excitement. 

And then there's Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro's 'Books do furnish a Painting'. A book that explores the books in art appeals to both the art historian and the bibliophile in me. Can I just keep repeating that this is a book about two of my favourite things? Probably not, but it looks as good as it sounds (it sounds so awesome doesn't it) and is another real treat.