Saturday, December 31, 2022

Hotel Splendide - Ludwig Bemelmans

I'm ending the year feeling far from well - at a guess, this is what flu, when you've had a vaccine, feels like (either that or I'm totally burnt out, or maybe it's both). Anyway, I'm on day two of trying to write this post and crossing my fingers that it'll make sense because currently my conversational attempts really don't. Grammarly is trying to tell me I'm failing but it has some funny ideas about the right words so I'm ignoring it.

I have wanted to read Hotel Splendide for a very long time; ever since seeing it mentioned by Anthony Bourdain and reading about it in Slightly Foxed. I did manage to track down a copy of Hotel Bemelmans, but my memory of it is somewhat different so I'm no longer assuming they're the same book as I have done for years. 

Ludwig Bemelmans emigrated to America (from Austria) when he was 16, started working s a bus boy in one of the big New York hotels working his way up before becoming better known as an artist and writer (he wrote, amongst other things, the Madeline books). He landed in America in 1914, and first published this book in 1941 when he was already an established children's author, which is perhaps why there's not much sense of Bemelmans behind the stories. This is very much the story of life in a grand hotel before prohibition and the great depression, which must have felt like an entirely different and infinitely more decadent world in the 1940s - maybe even more than it does to us now. 

It's a mostly funny and charming book with some fascinating insights into both the people he encountered and the many eccentricities of the staff, as well as of the times. In one episode goes back to Austria some time in the 1930s (superinflation is in full effect) with another colleague who went to America at the same sort of time. They have a sort of plan to humiliate the professor who had made life a misery at school, but find things so changed, and so desperate, that they end up pitying him. there must be a propaganda element to this vignette, but the banality of the whole thing makes it work better than perhaps it should.

The chapter I found most troubling is where the hotel's only black employee is fetishized with an artist's eye - does he look more beautiful in this setting or that? Against copper pans or silverware? His habits and vanities are set before us, but by the end of the book they're no more remarkable than anybody else's foibles. Still, it's a section that made me feel uncomfortable for the way it focuses on what Bemelmans clearly considered exotic. 

They're possibly also the most revealing moments regarding Bemelmans own personality. Bourdain referred to him as the original bad boy of the New York hotel scene - a high bar to clear, but you'd have to do some reading between the lines to think of him in that way from this book. That's probably a good thing and why this deserves it's place as a classic. I doubt the unvarnished truth would have aged well, whereas this carefully edited collection of anecdotes and pen portraits is an absolute gem. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

the Cocktail Edit - Alice Lascelles

With New Year's Eve, and indeed a new year, coming up if you like a cocktail you should buy this book, and if you're thinking now is the time to get into cocktails - there isn't a better place to start. Although I do have a couple of books I like as much as this one, notably Richard Godwin's The Spirits, I think the Cocktail Edit is the best all-round guide I've yet seen.

There are a number of really important things that it does really well, and finding them all together isn't as common as you might hope. The first I'll discuss is the concept of the 6 or 12 bottle bar. Right now the estimated cost of getting the 12 bottles recommended would work out at around £200. I don't know if that sounds like a lot or not, I've seen people spend much more at this time of year, I wouldn't do it myself - but then I don't have to because the only bottles I don't have at the moment are Campari, Luxardo Maraschino, and a sparkling wine I'd use in a cocktail. 

If you've acquired some mix of gin, an average cognac, bourbon or rye, tequila or rum over Christmas you're also off to a good start. And that leads on to the second excellent piece of advice this book gives - you don't need super-premium spirits. You do need to be aware of the ABV of what you're buying, you want it to be between 40% - 47%, as the ABV affects the price you might want to avoid the very cheapest brands or off-brand spirits but that's about it. My experience is that too many people either want the cheapest possible option (fair enough, but quality beats quantity here, at least up to a point) or they want to show off (which is also fair enough, but unnecessary).

Which brings me to the next thing I love about this book - the ethos that runs through it is that it's much better to do simple brilliantly than to mess up complicated. I cannot stress how important this is for the home bar. I want cocktails that I can make quickly and with a minimum of fuss so that I can enjoy drinking them without having a full-on job to clean my kitchen afterwards. 

And then there are the recipes which are a great mix of classics and contemporary twists on them - these will teach you the basics, move it on a level, and give you the confidence to play around with judiciously chosen substitutes. Most of cocktail making is about ice and proportions and once you've appreciated that there's a lot of room to play. 

Finally - though there are a lot more good things I could say about this book - I'm very much here to share the enthusiasm for cups and punches. There's a world beyond Pimm's that's will cover everything from a lazy Sunday in the garden, or at this time of year on the sofa, for 2, to the largest party whatever you decide to use as a punch bowl will accommodate.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Boxing Day, Books, and Mulled Wine

It's been a full-on month - busy at work, and some difficult things happening behind the scenes including the loss of a very dear friend, and continued worry about my 96 year old father in law who isn't in the best of health but is a long way away from us. I haven't ended a year feeling this drained in a while and honestly, I hope I never do again.

Despite this, I had a lovely Christmas day - which made going straight back to work today feel like ripping off a plaster. I got some great books including Alice Lascelles' The Cocktail Edit, and I'm drinking leftover mulled wine with chocolate in it, which is a win for this evening. The mulled wine is inspired in equal parts by Alice Lascelles and Annie Gray's At Christmas We Feast - and tiredness. 

We were too tired on Christmas eve to finish the modest pan of mulled wine. There was enough left to chance keeping it until getting home from work today, but 48 hours of macerating with cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and orange had made it a bit overpowering. Which is when I remembered the recipe for Wine Chocolate in At Christmas We Feast, which I didn't much like when I made it.

I had a mug's worth of mulled wine to play with so added a spoonful of grated hot chocolate and gave it a good stir - it took the edge off the spices and orange, rounded everything out, and made a really good drink - a twist very much in the spirit of The Cocktail Edit. 

My preferred mulled wine method is to use a bottle of inexpensive but okay red wine (anything from a supermarket own range label that comes in at about £5 will be perfect) and to gently heat it with a couple of small cinnamon sticks, 4 cloves, 2 star anise, a couple of strips of orange peel along with some slices of orange, and whatever juice is left from it, and 3 tablespoons of light brown sugar - experiment with the sugar, my preference is for something which comes with a bit of flavour as well as sweetness. Heat it to just about a simmer and then remove from the heat for half an hour to let the flavours really blend, then reheat and add a good measure of brandy if you want a bit more kick. 

The Wine chocolate recipe has you heat a bottle of ruby port with 1tbsp of rice flour and 125g of good dark chocolate (around 70% - 75% cocoa solids). Mix the rice flour with 3 spoons of cold port into a paste, add to the rest of the port and heat with the grated chocolate until a very low simmer is reached, it's smooth, and the consistency of double cream. Serve in small cups and drink straight away You may enjoy this riff on a recipe from 1723 much more than I did.

For the best of both worlds serve the mulled wine with a teaspoon of good-quality dark chocolate flakes stirred vigorously into each glass or cup. Alternativley strain the mulled wine into a clean pan before reheating, add around 125g of chocolate and whisk it in as it reheats. Add the spices back for decoration if desired. 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Death on Gokumon Island - Seishi Yokomizo

When I said yes to taking part in Kate's Reprint of the Year award I chose a couple of books I'd bought and was still getting around to thinking I needed the push. I've happily collected all the Seishi Yokomizo reprints that Pushkin has released and before this had yet to read any of them. Work has been a challenge over the last few weeks (exhausting) and there have been some other distractions in the background so I was still late reading 'Death on Gokumon Island' (full disclosure I made a nest out of a duvet next to a heater and read most of it this afternoon. 

Pushkin, Seishi Yokomizo, and my reckless choice of a book I hadn't previously read all came up trumps for me. There are a lot of reasons to explore this series - and this book also works really well as a stand-alone. Written in 1971, it's set on a small island in the Seto inland sea at the end of the war. Soldiers are trickling home, defeat is heavy in the air, and the full list of casualties is still unknown. Private Detective, Kosuke Kindaichi has come to Gokumon with the news that his beloved comrade and heir to the island's head fishing family, Chimata, died on the transport boat back.

Chimata's dying words were to beg Kosuke to go to the island - if he, Chimata, were to die his sisters would be murdered. It's a weirdly gothic setup, and as Chimata's prediction comes true the murders maintain a macabre and theatrical mood. The islanders are the descendants of pirates and prisoners, and a superstitious lot with a deep love of the dramatic. There's a streak of insanity running through the head family (this is not a politically correct book), and more ingenious twists and turns than I had ever dreamed of. 

Why read it - partly it has to be for the atmosphere. The elements of a familiar anglophone golden age mystery are all here but in unfamiliar ways - in much the same way that a cup of tea might differ between the vicarage in St Mary Mead and the temple on Gokumon island. 

The island setting is clever too - it's quite possible to believe that to the locals tied together by family connections and shared isolation would think and believe differently to the next island, never mind the mainland. These islanders have their own loyalties which seem both entirely crazy and make sense within their context. 

The post war timing is a stroke of genius - it's a culture in the middle of significant change and trauma which all adds to the atmosphere of horror and despair and works to make the plot more feasible. 

And finally, the plot is clever - the clues are there, but the solution is horrifying enough not to be easily guessed at. If you don't vote for this one, do at least consider reading it. It's a treat. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

R in the Month - Nancy Spain

December has become my month for Nancy Spain - regardless of when I buy her books, she feels like a wintery kind of read to me. This is undoubtedly because of the slapstick/pantomime elements she brings to her mysteries. 

'R in the Month' is easily my favourite of the 3 I've read so far too - 'Death Goes on Skis' took some getting into before I loved it, and 'Cinderella Goes to the Morgue' had a pantomime setting that invaded everything. 'R in the Month' has all the overdrawn elements and dislikable characters I associate with Nancy Spain but the characters also seem more feasible somehow (which is quite something with this author). 

We're in a grim Southcoast town at a badly run hotel - the proprietor is a no-good, spendthrift, almost bankrupt drunk with a great deal of charm, his wife is at her wits end with any charm she had long exhausted. Their permanent guests include a disreputable Major and his wealthy mother, the staff are a bitterly quarreling pair of lesbians, one of whom has an impressive drug habit. Into this promising setup comes Miriam Birdseye (a genius and actress) along with her friend Pyke (playwright and ex-barrister). 

There are oysters and then there are bodies -  but everybody is lying, nothing is clear, and we only find out who dunnit in the very last pages. The element of reality and the very best of potential red herrings are Tony the hotel proprietor's drunkenness and his wife's desperation as she realises how bad things are. They're desperate, unreliable, and dishonest - but are they murderers?

Or could it be the dodgy major who Miriam might be engaged to? Maybe his uncle, and then there's a seedy bank manager, along with number of other suspicious characters who keep popping up to muddy the waters. Miriam herself has her hands full trying to balance the jealous affections of Pyke, Inspector Tomkins, Major Bognor, and Colonel Rucksack, never mind solving a murder. It's almost all nonsense, and entirely enjoyable. I'm also going to go out on a limb and say it's better for the absence of Natasha, the Russian ballerina, who has been a feature of the earlier books in the series. 

You can ignore the cover of the book too - this is set in a grim February where it scarcely stops raining, the wind blows like it means it, and everything is damp and depressing in Brunton-On-Sea. I've enjoyed Nancy Spain before this, but I'll say again, this is the book that's really made me love her and get why she has quite as many fans as she does. She's always funny, but this time I really feel like there's something more behind the humour and the book is all the better for it. 

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Christmas Tree and a Christmas Stocking

I'm struggling to feel festive this year, although it's just possible that the cold snap we've just hit will change that a bit - frost is at least pretty even if it's treacherously icy underfoot now (after a year out of action post hip replacement, and then last year with a broken ankle my mother is under strict instructions to take care). 

An unseasonably warm November means that there are still a number of trees around here dressed for October rather than December, so the fact that it's only a whisker over 2 weeks until the big day is unexpectedly discombobulating. On a personal note the news a couple of weeks ago that a much loved primary school teacher had died suddenly, and the less unexpected but much more devastating news that a very dear family friend died on Monday has cast a damper on things.

In an attempt to be positive, I can at least say that both have underlined what's important about this time of year; to make the most of the time you have with those you love. Both women gave unbounded love and kindness and will be missed more than they could maybe know. 

My Christmas tree is also up, and after a couple of duds, I've got a good one. Two years ago the tree kept falling over, ridiculously, and in slow motion each time. It was hard to sleep for the worry of an impending crash and the job of cleaning up hundreds of pounds worth of Christmas decorations shard by glittery shard. It is terrifying to think what Christmas decorations would cost to replace like for like (I couldn't) they're getting stupidly expensive and after almost 30 years of collecting bits and pieces, the tree in its full glory is potentially the most expensive item in my flat. 

Last year's tree smelt strongly and upsettingly (in absolutely equal measure) of what we think was either badger or fox urine. It also dropped a lot of its supposedly non-drop needles, possibly as a reaction to the indignities it had suffered. There was nothing about that aroma that made us feel festive, we were stuck with it for a whole month as getting a tree up the stairs into my flat is a considerable commitment in itself.

This year's tree fits perfectly in its corner, has so far remained resolutely upright, and doesn't really seem to smell of anything. I thought it might be a bit tall for the room, but it's slim enough to work, and looking at it has genuinely been a solace. It cost me £20 which seems like more than a bargain for something which providing so much quiet joy. 

Something else that I really enjoyed making was a final Stoorbra sock, supersized onto bigger needles and with DK yarn to make a satisfyingly generous Christmas stocking - you can get a book and a whisky bottle into it. I doubt the baby it's been sent to will be getting either this year, but it's a great pattern from Alison Rendall, available on Ravelry HERE. I'm a slow knitter with a full time job, it's taken me on average 2 weeks per sock every time I've made these - which means if anybody is feeling inspired to knit a really spectacular Christmas stocking you should just have time!

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Hex Appeal - Kate Johnson

This arrived at work as a reading copy and I thought it looked terrible, but then I picked it up to mock, started reading, and got hooked. I'd been expecting something like the truly awful (in my opinion) The Ex Hex, or any number of similarly poor books which feel like they've been cynically written to cash in on current book tok trends. 

Hex Appeal isn't a great work of literature, but it reminded me of Practical Magic with a little bit of Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in, and it did it in a good way. I wasn't at all familiar with Kate Johnson before this, but a quick google tells me she's a reasonably well-established romance writer - she certainly spins a nic romance here. 

Essie, a witch with an affinity for winter is minding her own business one autumn day when she gets a whole lot of worrying portents from a passing taxi. Josh is an American fleeing a bad breakup and a change of career heart by renovating a house he's inherited in the village. 

Fate has some serious plans for them but they need to bind an ancient evil and bring in winter, before finding a way to live happily ever after. (Mild spoilers here) There are family complications, some time travel, Essie's trauma after accidentally freezing a part of her first boyfriend, and altogether a lot of things that wouldn't normally appeal to me very much but here it works.

I think this is undoubtedly because Johnson is good at what she does, and also because she's writing with a good deal of affection for a genre and hitting the right balance of respecting it whilst not taking it overly seriously - including the running joke about the frozen bits. The relationships between the different characters work well, and if some of them are only sketched in they still hold together really well. The time travel bit brings in some proper peril - who wants to be caught as a witch in 17th Century Essex? 

Altogether I'm repenting of my initial snobby dismissal; if you're in the mood for something light, funny, and feel good this is worth checking out.