30 January 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1912 - 75

Margaret was hungry, not tired.  She went to the kitchen.  As soon as one meal was over, she began to think about the next.  Food had started to entrance her.  
  The kitchen had its scrubbed, afternoon, waiting look.  On the rocking-chair lay Nanny's film paper.  Margaret took it to read while she stood in the larder eating.  On the stone slab was half a gooseberry pie, caved in, and a jam-tart covered with a trellis of pastry; but she had to eat secretly what would not be missed.  In the meat-safe was a slab of grey beef, overcooked, a knuckle of veal gleaming with bluish bones.  Sage swung from the ceiling, brushing against a net of onions with a lisping sound; there was a brown crock full of cream cheese.  She cut a thick slice of wholemeal bread, covered it with butter, then with the cheese, began to eat greedily, dealing craftily with the crumbs, turning the pages of the cinema paper.  When she had finished, she was still hungry.  She cut another slice and spread it as before.  The thought of all this good, wholesome food going into her was pleasing.  A fly from the outside tried at the perforated zinc over the window.  As strategy failed, it tried force.  When it flew suddenly away, the silence was complete, perfect.  Margaret ate more slowly, with no further sensuous delight.  She felt puffed and fagged with eating.  'Grossly, full of bread,' she murmered, thinking she saw what it meant, felt what it meant, for the first time.  And then 'crammed with distressful bread,' she remembered Shakespeare must have been greedy too.  She was sickened now by the food around her on the shelves, puled off some bits of sage and sniffed at them - aromatic, that was better.  She heard her mother calling down through the house; the voice winding thinly down the stairs, along the passages, peevishly.  


27 January 2015

Sharing a London Story

How is it possible there was a time when I shied away from short stories?  

With temperatures way down in the -20C area last night I was more than happy to let my husband brave the cold while taking our dog for a quick whip around the block.  Deacon gets suited up as well and is quite happy to shove his face into snowdrifts so don't feel too sorry for him.

Once they were out the door I poured a cup of tea and grabbed my new short story collection London Stories.  My eye went straight to George Gissing's story.  

Christopherson was written in 1906.  For bibliophiles out there this story will handily fill you with no small amount of guilt so be warned.  It's about a chance meeting between two men in a bookshop 'where Great Portland Street opens into Marylebone Road.'  Just as one of the men pays for a book he is approached by the other who asks to have a look inside the cover.  Sure enough, there is a name written there...W. R. Christopherson, 1849.  Just as the gentleman thought, the book used to be his and he looks at it longingly.

Christopherson is a man in his sixties, out of work and looking the worse for wear.  Through further conversation it's revealed that his wife works to the point of exhaustion for very little money and is not well.  Christopherson, in denial as to his financial state, spends his wife's earnings on collecting ever more books.  Over time, the two men run into each other in bookshops and eventually Christopherson offers his new acquaintance a peek at his library.  A library would insinuate some sort of order but this is not the view which greets the visitor.  Books are stacked everywhere with mere pathways here and there so as to navigate the run-down flat.  So many, in fact, that the usually comforting aroma of leather, paper, and ink, fills the senses to the point of nausea.

A well-off relative of Mrs. Christopherson, Mrs Keeting, has made an offer to the down at heel couple.  Free room and board, as well as food, for keeping her house in Norfolk ready for any guests who choose to visit.  But there is no place for thousands of books.

The idea of parting with any of his beloved collection fills Christopherson with despair but what are the books value compared to the health of his wife?  I won't give away the ending but if you have fifteen minutes why not enjoy the story in its entirety here.

And just a thought when it comes to short story collections.  Do you start at the beginning and read your way through or dip in and out?  

24 January 2015

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

This was my second adventure with the writings of Barbara Comyns and I am completely enamoured.  Her quirky storytelling in a matter-of-fact way reveals the warts and all dynamics of the Willoweed family in their Warwickshire home, quite literally swirling with chaos.  And although the opening lines are often quoted whenever this book is mentioned they are worth repeating.

'The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.  The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.  Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.'

Published in 1954, this wonderfully eerie tale is set about forty years before so just around the time of the Great War.  The first few lines could cause a reader to think this story is a bit twee but just you wait.

Grandmother Willoweed is a feisty matriarch who controls her family by threatening to remove members from her will...almost daily.  This behaviour results in emasculating her son, Ebin, an out of work journalist and he, along with just about everyone from the village, tends to avoid her if possible.

'He stood looking down at the river, which had returned to its banks, but was flowing very fast and full.  In some way the river flowing with such purpose and determination depressed Willoweed.  He felt humiliated and a failure in everything he undertook; the thought of all those half-complete, mouse-nibbled manuscripts in his room saddened him even more.'

Ebin is father to three children but technically the youngest, Hattie, is the result of an affair.  Mrs. Willoweed, or Jenny, died just as she was about to deliver her last child but miraculously Dr. Hatt saves the baby.  Hattie is named after the doctor and it's obvious that Jenny's lover was a black man.  But none of this matters in the least.

From the very first page of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead I was reminded of reading fairy tales as a child and would have loved this as a bedtime story (I used to love being scared).  The Willoweeds are a family living between reality and madness and when people in the village start dying by their own hand this tale takes on a decidedly Grimm Brothers feel.  Despite some very dark moments, as a reader I found myself thoroughly entertained by the idea of what could possibly happen next; such as Old Ives talent for making funeral wreaths using the language of botany.

'Ives liked to choose suitable flowers for his wreathes.  He often planned the one he would make for Grandmother Willoweed: - thistles and hogswart and grey-green holly - sometimes he would grant her one yellow dandelion.'

Amidst the madness there is plenty of love and I was particularly charmed by the relationship between the three siblings.  Padding out the story of the Willoweed family are two sisters, Eunice and Nora, who are maids at the cottage and their peripheral story is both interesting and entertaining.

My copy of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is an inter-library loan from a nearby university with strict instructions for no renewals.  I'm quite sure it's a first edition with gloriously thick pages, blue cloth binding, and a small-ish size that sits in your hands so comfortably.  Hopefully the second-hand shops in London will have a copy pop up while I'm there and if you ever find a copy just take out your wallet and buy it.

Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious, 1938

23 January 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1873 - 1954

Whether counting the nuts she would collect and eat before the sunset or recalling the appetites of her animal friends, Colette had a uniquely sensuous voice.

Jeanne Muhlfeld

                                                                                           Monts-Boucons, mid-July 1902

Do you recognize me, Jeanne?  I'm wearing an apron with pockets, a broad-brimmed pink calico hat, little hobnailed boots, no rice powder, buckskin gloves holding large pruning scissors - and the heart of a girl.  You cannot imagine the pure - and purgative - joy of eating black cherries which the sun has ripened on the tree.  It rains, it shines, I get up at six and in bed by nine.  I am turning the color of a pig-skin valise.  My account book is like a well-kept flower bed.  It's my annual virtue debauch, almost clandestine, which debases me to the moral level of a day laborer...And now I must spray two apple trees which are prone to aphids...I can't tell you about the silver dawns and the apricot sunsets today because my mouth is full and I have made a bet with myself to eat four hundred nuts between lunch and dinner.  Oh! that's not a record, of course, but when one must gather as well as shell the nuts...

trans. by Robert Phelps

Colette by Jacques Humbert, ca. 1896