Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Love is a Pink Cake - Claire Ptak

Life really does keep getting in the way at the moment. I've got a jumper minus its sleeves that I really wanted to finish before the weather warmed up too much to wear it, an almost literal ton of books to read, work is busy and a whole lot of personal stuff going on in the background. The days are flying by. There are books to write about as well, but they deserve a slightly more positive frame of mind than I'm feeling today so this is a quick post to celebrate an impulse buy that's come through with the feel good factor.

I don't need anymore cook books, specifically not baking books, and pink isn't really my aesthetic but when I unpacked Claire Ptak's Love is a Pink Cake at work the other day I decided to bring it home, reasoning that if it was't for me I'd pass it on to my youngest sister. 

The recipe that grabbed me was for Ras el Hanout Snickerdoodles, the one I've made this morning was the blonde peanut butter cookies. Sorry Sophie, I think this one's a keeper. Claire Ptak has the Calafornia style Violet bakery in East London and whilst I think I had her earlier book I also know I didn't keep it - the combination of London and California isn't really my thing, and the Americanised measurements, although practical for a book to be sold on both sides of the Atlantic normally put me off a bit.

On the other hand you can't argue with the perfect salty, nutty, chewy, sweet, cookie - so what do I know. Blonde chocolate has started to appear everywhere recently, though in some ways the Caramac's of my childhood remain unbettered (yes, a Caramac is weirdly waxy and gritty in texture, but it tastes of nostalgia and quality has no chance against that). I want to like it, but it's toothachingly sweet and again not really my thing. It blends perfectly with peanut butter though.

This recipe also adds a touch of lemon juice to balance the sweetness and some wholemeal flour (I had rye and used that instead which I like for it's nutty edge). It said it would make 12 cookies, but I ended up making 18 because I like them slightly smaller and it's handy to have a couple of batches worth in the freezer against a rainy day. I had M&S chocolate this time and was glad to use it up, but I'm thinking of making these again with the Caramac's that I spotted in a pound shop whilst looking for coronation  window dressing (and doesn't that say everything about the general level of excitement for the first coronation this country has seen in 70 years). If they work out I'll post the recipe. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Corinthian - Georgette Heyer #1940Club

If I remember rightly Simon and Kaggsy's last club didn't fall in a Georgette Heyer year and I didn't manage to read anything for it in time. Honestly, at the moment between work and peri-menopause symptoms, I don't have much energy for anything - even reading. It's disheartening but as the general consensus is that when you come out on the other side of menopause it's amazing, I'm gritting my teeth and getting on with it (not that there's much choice). 

1940 is a Georgette Heyer year though and I read The Corinthian not so long ago with the Georgette Heyer readalong on twitter (I also have it playing via audio book whilst I write this). Heyer has been my comfort read since adolescence and she's proving as effective now as she did when I hit puberty. Her blend of humour, adventure, and romance was clearly a welcome bit of escapism during the war too given her popularity. 

Before the readalong The Corinthian hadn't been a particular favourite, but reading it with at least one person who absolutely adored it (Emma Orchard has now written her own Regency romance which I'll be writing about soon) changed my view of it. The corinthian of the title is Sir Richard Wyndham who opens the book about to make his proposal to a woman he doesn't much like. He's 29, hasn't met anybody else, their families are keen and it's by way of being a duty for him. His prospective bride is a good looking but otherwise deeply unappealing woman who makes it clear that Richard's only appeal to her is his vast fortune which can be used to bail out her irresponsible father and brothers.

Richard gets drunk the night before going to propose, finds a young man, who turns out to be a young woman in boys' clothing, escaping from a window on his way through late-night London, and thanks to a lot of brandy making it seem like a good idea decides to accompany her to her childhood home and sweetheart. By the time he wakes up sober again, he's on a stagecoach and committed to this adventure.

Penelope Creed is an heiress set on escaping from her aunt/guardian who would like Pen, and her fortune, to marry her cousin - who looks like a fish. Along the way, the couple are involved in a crash, meet a pickpocket, become embroiled in a diamond heist, find a dead body, an eloping couple, and obviously fall in love in a matter of days. It could, and maybe should, be ridiculous, but Heyer is so good at side characters that it's charming and funny.

She's also very good at sketching in Pen and Richard's romance. We see him quietly fall in love with her as she chats with the other stagecoach passengers. What starts as a bond built on the shared experience of social pressure - and it presses on him as hard as it does on her, quickly becomes liking and trust. Heyer dangles the possibility of the shared room trope before us and then neatly whisks it away because that's not her style. Her heroines have to make their choices without convenient devices designed to abdicate responsibility for them. 

For the most part that's it - a fun story with a sweet romance at its heart that anybody might enjoy and be distracted by - apart from the ending. When Richard finally convinces Pen that he loves her and isn't being chivalrous he kisses her by the side of the road in full view of another stagecoach full of passengers. A public display of affection that might have been mildly shocking anyway, but she's still dressed as a boy, and crucially everyone watching believes she is a boy - so what they're doing would have appeared illegal both in the early 1800's when it's set and in 1940 when it was written. When I first read this in the late 1980s section 28 would just have been coming into effect. 

I can't judge how shocking or not the original audience would have found it, but it definitely felt transgressive in my teenage mind and I still think it's deliberately provocative in all the best ways. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Sea Bean - Sally Huband

I'm wondering if I have a favourite time of the publishing year? I used to think it was autumn, super Thursday, and all the big releases landing before Christmas - but a lot of those books aren't very interesting to me. Right now though interesting books are landing thick and fast on every subject and in every genre and I've struck metaphorical gold a couple of times already.

Sally Huband's Sea Bean is the first of these hits - it will easily be one of my books of the year, but more than that, it's one of a handful of things that I've read early or in proof and felt that it's something special. I hope my instinct is right on this one too.

I've followed Huband's work for a couple of years - she's been in a couple of anthologies that I've really liked, including Antlers of Water, was mentioned in one of Stephen Rutt's books, and had generally become a name to watch out for. I'm not quite sure what I expected after I read the first short description of Sea Bean in The Bookseller which focused on trauma and the restorative effects of beachcombing in a way that frankly put me off. I'm well aware of the beneficial effects of immersing ourselves in nature, but wary of taking that to far, or making a sort of cult out of it.

Huband emphatically does not do this. She moved to Shetland in 2011 with her husband and baby son. He is a helicopter pilot working in the oil industry. It's not a flexible job in terms of childcare so starting a family meant some difficult decisions for Sally - children weren't compatible with her academic career either where progression, and this is common to most jobs - is reliant on overwork in early years and often the need to move to where the jobs are. When he's offered a job in Shetland it sounds like taking it was an easy decision for the family.

Unfortunately pregnancy triggers chronic illness for Sally, and her hopes of finding a job in Shetland that would cover the costs of childcare don't come off. The specifics of her experience are unique, but the often painful experience of reinvention to accommodate a partners better paid profession, beginning a family, and indeed bodies that we can no longer assume will behave as we think they should are not. The way Huband writes about undoubtedly difficult things is matter of fact and honest. I'd say brave, but that has a slightly condescending ring to it which feels wrong to me - unselfish is a better description, because the more personal things seem to me to be shared in the spirit of letting others know they are not alone if they've felt the same.

The summery on the back of my proof describes Sea Bean as "..a message in a bottle. An interconnection of our oceans, communities and ourselves, and an invitation to feel belonging when we are adrift." which sums it up well. Sally finds a home and a community both in Shetland and beyond it through beachcombing, volunteering for research projects related to wildlife, and through her writing. I can't think of anything I've read off hand that better describes the rewards and challenges of island life, and how it can offer both freedom and a feeling of being trapped depending on circumstances. 

When I got my copy it came with a promotional postcard showing a message in a bottle which prompted me to message the publicist to tell her the story of my father finding this message in a bottle . She replied that this was the sort of connection the book was full of, it is, dad's story is mentioned in passing. It's also these connections, finding the things that draw us together that make island life work. Huband talks about building a community of care in a sometimes stifling community of place - she hasn't been afraid to speak out on contentious local issues - build enough connections with people and you can withstand the pressure to keep quite and keep the peace. 

Shetland is at the centre of this book, but it reaches far beyond following the path of the things that wash up on it's shores from all over the world. Inbetween there are bits of history and folklore, local issues that have national significance, meditations on what the proliferation of plastic in our environment means for all of us, and a myriad of different connections to make.

It's an extraordinary book. Generous, profound, curious, wide ranging, warm, challenging, beautifully written and endlessly interesting. I can't recommend it highly enough, it's filled me with hope for what is possible and for the resilience of women and islanders.


Thursday, April 6, 2023

Portrait of his Sister - Francis Swithin Anderton

Once upon a time, I had a project in mind to research my great grandfather's career as an artist in some thoroughness - it hasn't as yet come to anything, though I have successfully managed to get Doug interested and he may yet make a job of it. Meanwhile I have been lucky to secure a second unfinished portrait for my own small collection of family portraits. 

This one is the kind gift of the couple who bought our old family home 30-odd years ago. It had been left in the attic, abandoned I think because the canvas had fallen back on some exposed nails on an old packing case and had been punctured in a couple of places. In all the bother of removing the accumulated rubbish of the previous century, it might well have ended up on a bonfire. 

Just back from the conservator
Before restoration

Stern Mrs Foster.

Fortunately, the new owners opted on a restoration instead, the painting was cleaned, patched, re-stretched, and framed. They have now sold up in turn, and as part of their downsizing very kindly passed it back to me. Somewhere along the way she had picked up a little bit of mildew, and the original repair job was in need of a touch-up. I also wanted to get her varnished for better future preservation (it's much easier to clean dirt off varnish than it is from paint, and modern varnishes do not yellow the way old ones used to). She won't have glass on her and I'm all too aware of how much dust, candle soot, and other sundry grime accumulates on my windows to be complacent about a canvas. 

I got her back today looking particularly vibrant and full of the joys of spring - and I'm very happy to have done so. Florence Ruth Anderton married Edward Hornby Foster, and was by all accounts a formidable woman. She is popularly rumoured to have haunted at least two of the houses she lived in, and for all I know maybe she left some part of her spirit in a few others as well. I never heard her referred to as anything but Mrs Foster by anyone, family included, who could have remembered her - but there are photographs of her in fancy dress, many taken with her brothers which suggest a lighter side to her personality. I would dearly have liked to meet her. Dad has another, finished, portrait of her that I covet where she looks remarkably stern, although maybe she's just trying to balance her hat and maintain some gravity.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers

I'm not quite sure how another week has gone by, except that I've not been very well in the last few days and they're a bit of a blur. I've also been working hard on a jumper which I want to finish whilst the weather might still be cool enough to wear it before it needs to be put away for the summer. To this end I've been listening to audiobooks rather than reading. Oh, how the reading is stacking up.

I've also been falling asleep to audiobooks fairly regularly because of the not being very well, so it's made sense to listen to something familiar where I can go back or not as I can be bothered. Gaudy Night seemed like an obvious choice for this; long enough to get through the main part of the body of the jumper, and a book I've read so many times it really doesn't matter if I pay a lot of attention or not.

I still have a mixed relationship with audiobooks. They're excellent company for making things, but I feel I miss a lot and far too often do fall asleep listening if I'm not doing something else. The interesting thing about listening to a book that's been familiar to me for 35 years is that the narrator will alert me to things that I've possibly got in the habit of skipping over. 

For this listening I've been struck again by the casual snobbery at play, especially where servants are being talked about, the equally casual and pervasive antisemitic tropes in Sayers (which seem to pass under the radar compared to writers like Heyer, but which I honestly find worse), and in this book how much the rise of the Nazi's in Germany is discussed - I don't think I'd entirely picked up how many references there where before, although the references to eugenics I had remembered.

Less obvious in some ways when I'm not reading myself is the love story. Or maybe I was more sensitive to Nazis than romance this time - who can say? Written in 1935 it's fair to say the attitudes are interesting. Harriet Vane has been traveling in Germany, Lord Peter spends a lot of time off stage in Rome helping avert war, there is much talk from visiting Americans and biology professors about selective human breeding to promote intelligence and physical fitness. And even more talk towards the end about medical solutions to dealing with criminals - both to rehabilitate and for scientific experimentation (frankly chilling knowing what would come next). 

I fell in love with this book when I was 13, it made me long to go to university and learn things (not solve murders), it's hard to say what a contemporary 13 year old would make of it. Would they be as oblivious to the discussion of eugenics as I was back then? I hope not, and whilst on the one hand it's interesting to see a certain amount of what almost feels like approval for what's happening in 1930's Germany here - it must after all have been a fairly widespread attitude I'm also uncomfortable with it. Sayers characters feel less sympathetic with each reading.