Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Face in the Glass - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

'The Face in the Glass' from the British Library tales of the weird series is a collection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's gothic tales edited by Greg Buzwell.

'Lady Audley's Secret' has to be Braddon's best known book, I first read it about a decade ago (it was one of the first books I posted about on Here) after a lifetime of meaning to read it. It made quite an impression, and I still don't understand why it isn't as frequently adapted as 'The Woman in White' has been. Both published in the early 1860's and along with 'East Lynne' are the beginnings of Victorian sensation fiction.

I discovered Wilkie Collins novels, appropriately enough in my great great uncles dusty Edwardian library as a teenager. Any valuable books were long gone, but there were yards of slightly damp uncut Wilkie in cheap green covers. House and Library were sold together before I got to discover much more then those and bound editions of Punch which makes me wonder what other Victorian gems I might have missed out on discovering at that impressionable age.

Collins gave an inkling that the place of women in Victorian society might have been more interesting than I had assumed, Braddon more than confirms that, both in her own life and with her writing.

Reading the collection of her gothic tales I'm struck again by both how good she is, and the subtle but profound differences between her stories and those of male contemporaries that I'm familiar with. This collection opens with 'The Cold Embrace' in which a feckless art student is haunted by the ghost of his fiancé.

It's not entirely clear where Braddon's sympathies lie in this story, even if the young artist should have been more constant in his affections his fate seems like a harsh one, and there's a sense that the young woman could have made better choices. 'At Chrighton Abbey' is a good old fashioned ghost story, and as it begins I had assumed the narrator is a young man.

I think Braddon does this on purpose, re reading it she's careful not to mention gender for a good few pages, and when she does it comes as a surprise. Her narrator is the child of a Chrighton cousin, left more or less destitute when her father dies so she heads off first to Vienna, and then to St Petersburg where she earns good money as a teacher. Then in her 30's she goes home for Christmas where she's welcomed with open arms by her relations. This is not Brontë country, but rather a precursor of the independent new woman.

Indeed there are a few independent women in this collection who either set out to earn their own living, or are amply supplied with their own money. They are in stark contrast to the desperate creature in 'The Cold Embrace'. 'The Ghost's Name' is also interesting, both for its humour including a prosaic afternote to the main drama which is an excellent punchline, and the way it discusses  domestic violence.

Altogether this is a wonderful collection, getting just the right balance between being entertaining and providing something more to think about under the stories than just their entertainment value. It's also an excellent introduction to Braddon, why she's so interesting and how she can feel quite subversive.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cocoa - Sue Quinn

The problem with my kitchen drain continues, the consensus amongst the 7 men who have so far been to look at it being that it's complicated, and will probably be expensive to fix. It's work that should be covered by the building service charge and the management company that deals with that are in no particular hurry - though they do at least seem to be accepting that it comes under their remit.

Meanwhile I've been reminded that much worse things can happen, and am adjusting to the inconvenience (as is my mother, who is taking my laundry which is amazing of her, and readers - she irons everything. Even pyjama trousers, which I have never done). It also helps that I'm off work this week, having time on my hands makes everything better.

I've also got Sue Quinn's 'Cocoa' which is exactly the book I needed to cheer myself up with. I picked it up after seeing Diana Henry recommend it a couple of times, and fell in love on the spot. It bills itself as an exploration of chocolate with recipes - but has more recipes than I think that suggests, and they're good ones.

Is also worth saying that if you have a mother who enjoys cooking, or are looking for something more interesting than a supermarket Easter egg* to give this year, you want to look at this book.

The background information about chocolate and the industry is interesting. The explanation about quality and what to look for on labels is really useful, and the description of how to taste chocolate was illuminating. It's basically exactly the same process as for wine, which I hadn't fully appreciated.  The flavour descriptors are particularly similar, which makes sense now I've thought about it, I'm also thinking  this is something I can use as a training tool. There will be times when it'll be a lot easier to use different chocolates to teach a tasting skill set than it is wine.

If I needed that further underlining I got it in spades when I opened a bag of cocoa nibs and inhaled - it was almost intoxicating. Cocoa nibs feature a lot, which is good because they're both really versatile, but also the kind of thing I find I buy, use once, and then linger unloved at the back of a cupboard.

The recipes are the real hook for me with this book. Quinn explores the savoury end of the chocolate/cocoa flavour spectrum as well as the sweet, things like prosciutto with bitter leaves and a nib vinaigrette, or soft cheese salad with blackberries, mint, and nibs sound particularly good. That said it's sweet stuff I've made so far.

A delicious Jasmine infused 'Medici' hot chocolate inspired by Cosimo III Medici's favourite, and jaw droppingly extravagent, drink. Quinn's version mixes milk chocolate with milk and jasmine tea bags and makes something unusual (at least if for most of your life hot chocolate has meant Cadbury's sugary drinking chocolate powder) refreshing, and slightly addictive.

Just as addictive is a sweet dukkah, the sweetness mostly comes from honey and is subtle, nibs give a cocoa depth of flavour, pistachio and rose petals make it extraordinarily pretty, cumin and fennel add another dimension that increases its versatility - and that's only half the ingredients. It creates a minimum of washing up and is going to be a store cupboard staple.

Chocolate, olive oil, almond, and Rosemary cookies also turned out to be every bit as good as they sound. Not to sweet, rich, and a brilliant flavour - worth washing up in the bathroom sink for.

All of those recipes feed back to the basic ethos of the book which centres on ethics and quality. Chocolate is a luxury, and we can all "choose chocolate for flavour, quality, and provenance not the cheapest price tag." That doesn't mean paying a fortune, just taking care to make sure something is at least fair trade, and taking the time to look at the label to see what it is we're actually eating.

*We love chocolate in my family but aren't big Easter egg fans. I dislike the packaging and the premium price for an ordinary product, mum can't resist the temptation of eating them before she's given them away, Dad hates anything he considers too commercial, my stepmother doesn't like cheap chocolate, and so it goes on.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Knitting Post

Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I've been knitting a hap for the last few weeks. It didn't start particularly well, for some reason everything went wrong and I had to rip it back a couple of times before the (simple) pattern clicked. When it did click progress was smooth enough to make me wonder why it started as such a struggle.

The starting point was Donna Smith's Brough shawl pattern. Her shawl looks beautiful, but it's knitted in a heavier weight yarn than I have in my stash, and I really need to use up some of the yarn I've got (because currently there is no space for more, and I can't possibly justify spending more money on more yarn until I've used some of the stuff I've got). Part of the appeal of Donna's design is the size of her shawl, and also how squishy it would be with that thicker yarn, so it's going to have to wait.

I liked the tessellating leafy motifs of the lace border though, and the thought of starting from a single stitch and working up - which I hadn't done before, and is presumably why it took me so long to work out the repeat (or maybe I hadn't drunk enough coffee, or shouldn't have been trying to listen to podcasts at the same time). I really wanted to use the 7 balls of Jamieson's 'Peat' (spindrift) I had, but didn't think that would be quite enough so decided on a second colour for the border.

There were a few contenders, and whilst I'm pleased with the smokey grey purple shade I went with (Jamieson and Smith, I forgot to make a note of the colour code) I think I could have gone bolder. Overall though I'm happy with the way this has turned out. The size is good, the colour is delicious, the pattern is pretty, and I might have learnt my lesson when it comes to swatching (don't really have the patience to do it, but I should have, because I ended up having to guess when to stop).

It's also the sort of thing that's really useful for this time of year when it's starting to get a bit warm for a coat, but you need something more than just a jumper, or a cardigan. I'm also torn between starting straight away on another one (and making a slightly better job of the edging) or finding something much smaller that will be quick,

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Vagina A Re-Education - Lynn Enright

This post is probably going to send the spam I get about gynaecology clinics in Hanoi into overdrive. So be it.

I've more or less read this book twice now, it's looking distinctly battered after weeks of being carted around, and the margins are full of notes. It's a long time since I read something that felt so important and life changing. Better yet, it looks like there are a few nooks about vaginas and vulvas in the offing.

I'm in my mid 40's,  have had pcos and period related issues since my late teens, and thought I was reasonably knowledgeable - turns out there's a lot I didn't know I didn't know. I really wish a book like this had been available 30 years ago, not even for the questions it answers, but for the ones it asks, the language it gives you, and the conversations it encourages.

The language is the first, and maybe most important, thing here. My family isn't noticibly prudish, neither are my friends but vagina or vulva are seldom used words - it's always euphemisms. But if you're not comfortable using the correct terms it makes it so much harder to have a conversation with your GP if something seems off, and so much easier to have concerns brushed aside. Enright normalises the vocabulary and that alone is a gift.

So is her repeated, and very sensible, advice to see a doctor if you have concerns about periods, pain, or changes - my experience is that women are not told this enough or generally given much idea of what might be a cause for concern. I had 20 years of being brushed off by GP's before being lucky enough to get an appointment with a gynaecologist who was so indignant on my behalf that thinking about it still makes me cry (mostly with gratitude, a bit of anger). I hope that things are getting better, but chances are they're not changing that quickly, and we need all the information we can get.

I also really appreciate how open Enright has been about her own experiences. There's a lot of personal information in here of the sort that people don't generally share even with the closest of friends, again maybe because we don't always have the language to do it. Not particularly wanting to talk about something is okay, but not knowing how to, or feeling you can't is another thing altogether. The discussions I've had about this book with friends have led to a ridiculous amount of penny dropping moments (a lot of people are going to get a copy as a present this year).

The amount of discussion reading this has sparked has been enlightening as well. The chapters cover biology and geography (for want of a better word), orgasms, appearances, periods, fertility,
menopause, pregnancy, and more. Feminism is central, but it's not an easily definable book. It's more or less an overview of a whole lot of things, and if it's specifically pitched at anyone I'd guess it's girls in their teens - who in many ways would be the demographic most in need of a lot of this information.

Really though a book like this should be a household staple, if you have a vagina, or know someone who does there's going to be useful stuff for you in here. It's not a perfect book - I think the chapter on fertility or the lack of it could have had something about women who choose not to have, or accept that they cannot have children, and how society views that. But then each chapter could be expanded into a book of its own, and at least this book is a conversation opener.

What it does brilliantly is underline the range of experience that falls under normal. Again, when I was hitting puberty the books available described periods as something easy that you would sail through (descriptions like The Curse, or A Woman's Monthly Duty, suggested differently) with no real acknowledgment of how painful or limiting they can be. It's the same when we talk about pregnancy, we don't talk about miscarriage much at all for something so common. It's only because I have a friend who has been vocal about it that I now know ante natal depression is a thing.

Menopause isn't mentioned much either apart from not very funny jokes. Maybe because to acknowledge it would be to admit that we ought to be making more effort, especially in the workplace, to accommodate women going through it. To be able to read about all of these things in a way that feels honest, and points you in the direction of more information, is huge.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Salt and Time - Alissa Timoshkina

My drain issues may not yet be resolved but I'm trying to not let it get to me, it is after all a small problem to have compared to some of the things that are happening in the world. I really need to concentrate and finish some of the books I'm reading too - I seem to have slipped back into the bad habit of starting 4 different things at once and not finishing any of them.

I had Waterstones vouchers to spend (happy making in itself) when I bought Salt & Time last week. I think more than anything else it's the title that attracted me to this book, 'Salt & Time' conjures so many images and associations both from the kitchen and beyond, that it was irresistible.

Alissa Timoshkina is specifically from Siberia, and explains that like many Siberians that means a mixed heritage, in her case including Jewish Ukrainian and the Russian Far East with the unifying experience of living under the soviet regime.

It was a British Library exhibition that bought home to me the vast scale of Russia and the Soviet Union, or at least some approximation of it. I find the idea of Siberia as a melting pot of culinary traditions easier to comprehend (food influences from Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Mongolia and Korea) even if Korea came as a surprise, because I did at least know something of the history of exile and resettlement - but does anything bring that into sharper focus than food?

Even if I can't taste the food (mostly because my cooking decisions are currently informed by how little washing up they will create) at least I can think about the flavours, and textures of Timoshkina's food. And also how it is specifically Timoshkina's food as well.

She notes in her introduction that she particularly wanted to celebrate Russian food outside of its conventional visual codes (no matryoshka shaped pepper grinders or colourful wooden spoons here) and that actually feels quite profound. This is food that honours a number of traditions and has a strong sense of place, but it's also food that has been adapted to suit a generation that has different resources and expectations. It's Russian heritage is central to everything, but much like Anja Dunk's 'Strudel, Noodles, and Dumplings' it's not totally bound by that heritage.

Something else that Timoshkina does that's interesting, because this dorsnt always happen, is include ingredients it's not going to be easy to source. I'm a little bit obsessed about finding some Bird Cherry  flour which it seems is very specific to Siberia (literally a flour ground from dried bird cherries, the flavour sounds incredible), unfortunately neither of the suggested suppliers seem currently able to oblige (is bird cherry flour a seasonal thing?) and despite a bit of searching online I haven't found anywhere else selling in the uk.

Once upon a time I'd have found that frustrating, but I've come to a point that I'd rather the recipe  was included even if I'm unlikely to ever be able to make it, because at least I can know about it, imagine it, and enjoy the thought of it. To leave it out because the ingredients are hard to find cuts of even the joy of imagining.

It's a lovely book, and when I have a properly working kitchen to get back to making food in I'll be back to say more about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Lighthousekeeping - Jeanette Winterson

Drain men are here again, but it is not hoping well. They're not saying much to me, but from the swearing I gather the hole they've just knocked into the wall has not given access to the stack of drains as hoped, and is now just another expensive mess to clear up. I am feeling far from happy about it.

Apart from anything else, and this is running well into the third week of not being able to use my kitchen properly, all of it takes up so much time. Phone calls, emails, waiting for people to turn up, and all the rest of it. I've spent all of today answering calls and the doorbell to one man, if I even think about picking up a book something buzzes or rings, or starts being hammered. To be fair I don't think the drain guy is having a good day either, but he gets to go home to satisfactory plumbing.

Meanwhile it's been quite a long time since I finished 'Lighthousekeeping', and after much thought I'm still not sure what I want to say about it. I enjoyed it, a lot. I think I more or less understood what Winterson was trying to do (though that's possibly optimism on my part) but if ever a book begged to be discussed with a group, or at least one other enthusiastic reader who had some ideas about it, it's this one.

There's a fairy tale element of the fantastic, and a lot of interest in telling stories and the independent life they take on over time. There is Pew the blind lighthouse keeper who has always been at the lighthouse, but has he always been there, or has a Pew always been there. Stories and memories are something we inherit and recycle between generations and friends. Telling them makes them ours and creates memories and legends along the way.

Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson both inhabit this particular story, along with continuous metaphors about light and dark, or the flashes of light in the dark that can guide us. Mostly though, I just find myself enjoying Winterson's writing.

And now there are two holes in my kitchen wall, but the plumbing/drain issues are no nearer to being fixed. The current conclusion is that the floorboards need to come up. Nobody appears to have plans for the building that show where the pipes go - although they surely must exist somewhere, and I still can't use my washing machine. I've had better days.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Captain Marvel film

I don't normally talk about films here but the new Captain Marvel film felt like it complimented the gender flipped Taming of the Shrew at the RSC, so here we are.

The reviews I've read for Captain Marvel have all been solidly middle of the road which is fair enough. My expectations for a superhero film are that it'll provide solid entertainment, if it does more that's a bonus. They've also compared it to Wonder Woman and found it wanting, which I find much more surprising. I liked the Wonder Woman film more than I expected to (because DC films have so far been mostly disappointing) and Gal Gadot was excellent in it, but it didn't feel as groundbreaking to me as it obviously did to some.

Turns out that Carol Danvers is the hero I was waiting for, and Captain Marvel the film that would deliver such a thing. Given that Marvel haven't always made the best of their female characters (Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow has been particularly badly served) it's really good to see them crack it here.

Brie Larson looks more like an athlete than a swimwear model in this, and her costume looks fit for purpose - which is a pretty good start in itself because that's still all to rare. We liked her back story too - before she acquires her super powers she's already the sort of woman who persists in following her goals regardless of the setbacks.

We also liked that her key relationships are friendships, and female friendships at that, and also that Lashana Lynch who plays best friend Maria Rambeau turns out to just as amazing without any particular super powers, and that there's the space for her character to demonstrate just how amazing she is.

The link to Taming of the Shrew is that this felt like a genuine gender flip that quietly put women front and centre in the same way that almost every other superhero or action film has men. Unlike Wonder Woman where part of the joke is that she's a woman in a mans world. Because of that it felt genuinely fresh to watch, if not precisely groundbreaking (the Ghostbusters reboot was that film for me). I really hope a lot more things look like this in the future.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC

Back to Stratford upon Avon this week to see the gender swapped production of 'The Taming of the Shrew' which has just opened. We thought we'd seen this before, but when I got home and checked through my old programmes it turns out I hadn't, and that any familiarity with the plot was as much as could be picked up from common knowledge and '10 Things I Hate About You'.

The relationship between Katherine and Petruchio is theoretically a difficult one for modern audiences, but despite that it's put on frequently enough to suggest that people are quite happy to watch Katherine being forced into obedience. About the only homework I did before going to see it was read This article from The Guardian back in 2012 which raises a few interesting points.

I've at least read 'H is for Hawk' so the falconry references in the text were not lost on me, but they do nothing to make me think Shakespeare is any less misogynistic in this case. A woman is not a hawk after all, and the starving and sleep deprivation that Petruchio subjects Kate to isn't made better because he more or less shares the same deprivations - he's making the choice after all, she is not.

Thanks to tremendous performances from Joseph Arkley as Katherine, and Claire Price as Petruchia though, I can see this as a love story.

We were intrigued by the idea of a gender flipped production, where most of the men become women, and the women men, and the reality didn't disappoint. I don't think I had any clear idea of what changing the genders would make the play look and sound like, but the things that stood out where not necessarily the things I expected.

Hannah Clark's costume designs felt perfect - the women's gowns are sumptuous, in rich colours, swords or daggers at their waists, the men's more delicate and muted. They look like they've been lifted directly from Hilliard miniatures, but seem feminine in comparison to the block colours the women wear, and that's the first thing that felt different.

Seeing a stage full of women in a Shakespeare play feels different, and welcome, too, but the idea of a woman looking to sell of her sons to the highest bidder didn't feel particularly different to a father doing so with his daughters. Maybe because historically any well to do family would have been arranging their sons marriages as diligently as their daughters and for much the same reasons.

When Katherine becomes a man though the violent manifestations of his anger and frustration feel more threatening to me then if they were coming from a woman, and in turn Petruchia's casual violence towards her servant seem more shocking. Because Arkley is a physically imposing presence on stage the vulnerability of his position as a man in a woman's world is highlighted too. The way he holds the balance between making his temper really threatening to the status quo and displaying equally real vulnerability is brilliant.

Claire Price is the perfect counterfoil here too. Her Petruchia is vivid, attractive, and mercurial. The chemistry between the pair is what made me believe this could be a love story based on an instant mutual attraction. It doesn't deflect how horrible Petruchia/Petruchio's treatment of Katherine is, but by the Sun and Moon scene it's possible to believe that Katherine is consenting to play the same game as Petruchia. Once that choice is made the balance of power changes to something more equal - trust given has to be respected.

It's still a problematic play for me, but this production is brilliant. Sophie Stanton especially is a comedy genius, the way she glides across the stage as if on castors would have been worth the admission charge alone, but it is Price and Arkley who steal the show, making it a compelling mix of funny, challenging, and disturbing. It's shaping up to be a really good season at the RSC.

Friday, March 8, 2019

3 Books to celebrate on International Women's

The unsatisfactory situation regarding my kitchen drain is dragging on, and I'm not going to lie, it's getting me down, but it's my weekend off. I'm going to see The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC tomorrow, and whatever else is going badly at the moment I have an indecent amount of books to get excited about.

I've also been thinking all day about what kind of book list I might put together for International Women's Day. Or lists. There are so many avenues to explore. In the end though I don't know that I can do better than recommend the two books I'm reading and the one I bought on my way home. Between them they cover a lot of ground.

The book I bought is Melissa Harrison's 'All Among the Barley'. I've been waiting for this to come out in paperback (hardbacks take up to much space in an already overcrowded flat) and am really looking forward to reading it. Harrison is one of the relatively few contemporary writers I'm interested in. 'At Hawthorne Time' was spectacular, and I've enjoyed everything else I've read by her (Rain, and various articles) as well as the seasonal nature anthologies she edited. Everything about 'All Among the Barley' sounds good to me.

I've been reading 'The Old Man in the Corner' by Baroness Orczy slowly. It's a series of mysteries and solutions related to a young female journalist by an annoying old man - each one is spread over 2 or 3 chapters, and whilst I've had no problem spotting who done it so far it's a fun book. If I'd been making a list I'd have put Georgette Heyer on it at this point because I absolutely do think of her as a feminist icon (God alone knows what she'd have made of that, probably not much, but she's interesting if sometimes problematic, and I'll endlessly defend my high opinion of her).

Orczy does something similar to Heyer in that they both do a good line in independent heroines and demonstrate that there have always been successful women hidden more or less in plain sight. Because I'd read books by Orczy and Heyer as a child I knew that there was a history of commercially successful women writers which in turn meant that the handful of 'Classic', canonical authors weren't the anomalies they are sometimes still presented as, but part of a much wider tradition.

When I started exploring down this particular track my whole perception of women's place in history changed. Our voices are woven all through it if you have the patience to look for them. The question is who keeps silencing those voices, and why?

And last but not least is Lynn Enright's amazing 'Vagina A Re-Education'. This is an overdue, important, book. I've had to stop reading it at night because it gives me to much to think about and I can't sleep. I'll be writing a lot more about this very soon, but my god I wish I could have read something like this 30 years ago - it would have made a huge difference to my life if I'd had some of these words and knowledge a bit earlier. It is quite possibly the most empowering thing I've ever read.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

More plumbing woes and New Books

Not even 3 weeks since the plumbers and drain people were last poking about my kitchen drain is blocked again. Not completely, but it's taking 5 minutes for about 1/4 of a sink full of water to drain (I timed it). I can't politely express how frustrating this is.

On the back of that I've bought 2 plungers in the last 24 hours. From this I've learnt that A) size matters, measure your plug arrangement if you need a plunger. The first one I bought was to small to be any use.

 B) Not many places sell plungers anymore. Supermarkets certainly don't seem to, local hardware shops are more or less a thing of the past, pound shops had nothing, and Wilko's offerings are not great (I think they're to flimsy to be really effective).

C) Find some instructions on how to use the plunger, probably before you but one because you might want to get some sort of tape to cover the overflow pipe at the same time. Blocking that pipe isn't particularly easy. The wet rag the Internet suggested proved impossible to stuff down the small holes, when I unscrewed the covering the pipe behind it fell back from the sink. Dad suggested bunging it with a cork. Good luck finding a suitably sized cork. After I mopped out the cupboard under the sink and screwed everything back together I ended up using some decorative Angela Harding parcel tape. It wasn't altogether effective, but it sort of did the job.

D) The advice to use petroleum jelly to get a better seal between plunger and surface just means that you end up with a blocked sink covered in Vaseline (not easy to clean). Wilko's plunger cups are quite soft, no amount of Vaseline is going to stop them bending so that air escapes. It also means you can't return the useless plunger because it's covered in bloody Vaseline.

E) All of this takes a surprisingly long time and covers you in an entirely unsurprising amount of water. I would have done better to spend the money on books or biscuits and stuck to my current knitting project where the technical difficulties have proved much easier to resolve.

And if nothing else, at least it's been a good book week with these 3 beauties from the British Library crime classics series and Meike Ziervogel's latest Novella turning up in the post, along with the latest edition of Slightly Foxed, and sufficient Waterstones vouchers to make buying 'Salt & Time' guilt free (because clearly I'm going to need all the money for proper plumbers, though god knows if they fix the problem they're worth every penny).