28 November 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1804 -81

Mr Ingersoll and Wm. Winans dined with father and I, we had a Baltimore ham to relish turkey and pea nuts for dessert, but mince pies or plum pudding I have not ventured to propose since the Cholera season...

  I had about sixteen to make tea for...Cook had made some of her most transparent jelly in lieu of fruit which one does not offer in these Cholera times, & if English palates did not fancy Pea-nuts the American lads were not slow to help themselves, & Stuarts sugar plums & candy went around.

Whistler's Mother's Cook Book

25 November 2014

The Great Escape

Winds were gusting at 94 kilometers/hour last night.  Signs were blown away, my neighbour's roof has a bare spot were some shingles should be, and the power was flickering at our house.  'An excellent night to hazard the drive to listen to a speaker at the library' said her foolhardy husband.

Ted Barris is a professor of journalism at Centennial College and what lucky students they are to have such a passionate man head their class.

For almost two hours, Barris had an entire room captivated by his telling of an historically significant event that, thanks to Hollywood, many of us were led to believe was masterminded by Americans.  In fact, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, James Garner, etc...were portraying Canadian officers.

'On the night of March 24, 1944, eighty airmen crawled through a 400-foot-long tunnel, code-named "Harry," and dashed from Stalag Luft III, the infamous WWII German POW camp.  It became known as The Great Escape.  The breakout took a year to plan, involved 2,000 POWs, and prompted a massive manhunt across occupied Europe.  All but three escapers were recaptured; on Hitler's orders fifty were murdered.'

Mr Barris interviewed the widows and relatives of the key players and the book features many photographs and letters previously stored in suitcases and closets.  Pointing out a letter one officer sent to his wife asking for yet another pair of pyjamas made us laugh when Barris asked the men in the group how many pairs of pyjamas they would go through in one year.  The men digging the tunnel were taking off their uniforms so they wouldn't be caught outside full of yellow dust from the sand.  Instead, they dug in the nude or wearing pyjamas which could be hidden easily.  Another letter asked for as many gramophone needles as could be spared.  The Germans prided themselves on allowing cultural activities and a gramophone was allowed so the prisoners could enjoy music; the needles were being used for something completely different.

The ingenious resourcefulness of this group of men is astounding and we have to remember that many of them were in their early to mid-twenties.  An air duct along the tunnel was constructed by soldering together KLIM cans stolen from the garbage heap.  KLIM spelled backwards is milk and the alternative was a powder to which water was added.  Stamps to be used on forged travel documents were carved into the heels of boots.  It seems there was nothing these men couldn't create.

Afterwards, most of us in the room lined up to buy a book and meet the author and I am so glad that we ventured out on such an awful night.  The Great Escape: The Untold Story would make a WWII enthusiast or Canadian history buff quite happy this Christmas.

21 November 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1831 - 1904

We spent the afternoon cooking the Thanksgiving dinner.  I made a wonderful pudding, for which I had saved eggs and cream for days, and dried and stoned cherries supplied the place of currants.  I made a bowl of custard for sauce, which the men said was 'splendid'; also a rolled pudding, with molasses; and we had venison steaks and potatoes, but for tea we were obliged to use the tea-leaves of the morning again.  I should think that few people in America have enjoyed their Thanksgiving dinner more.

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

17 November 2014

The Rich House by Stella Gibbons

There are plenty of cosy reads out there and then there are those that rise above - The Rich House is delightfully in the latter group.  Set during the 1930s in a coastal town the opening line is enough to make you stop what you're doing and plug in the kettle.

'Mrs Pask was an elderly widow living in the town of Seagate, where the meekness and simplicity of her nature caused her to be somewhat despised by her acquaintances.'

If that doesn't make the corners of your mouth curve with a grin, Mrs Pask lives on the 'Quiet Side' of the High Street.  The mild way in which Stella Gibbons highlights what is desirable to this character clearly displays the issue of class.  Having said that, there is a substantial amount of gazing through the net curtains so what goes on across the street, while perhaps being undesirable, provides a great deal of entertainment.  Through cutting humour the reader is provided with a pretty clear picture of where most characters stand on things.  

'Most people have a They.  Some people, when they say They mean the Germans; others mean their relations or burglars or Communists.  Miss Gaye meant the tradespeople.'

My favourite character is the orphaned Mavis Jevons who lives with Mrs Voles and her daughter, Reenie.  Mavis rents a bedroom with a 'slim view of the sea' for eight and sixpence a week but struggles to make ends meet.  Despite every appearance of a well-organized existence Mavis owes money to the Cosyhome Furniture Company and lives in fear of not making the payments.  Her dinners, taken in her room, consist of a boiled egg, some lettuce and a bit of fruit but there is always the comfort of a pot of tea.  Needless to say, her complexion runs to the anemic.  Meanwhile downstairs, Mrs Voles is frequently frying up something so the house seems to always smell of meat but she is too mean to share. Mrs Voles also has an aversion to any kind of fruit featuring black people on the label so refuses to eat pineapple from Hawaii.  Living in a modern society where it's frowned upon to write amount matters of class and race in such a way, there are moments that made my eyes widen but I'm not about to judge past literature.   Reenie, in her efforts to look for foods which 'Belong to Us' discovers she is quite taken with geography and begins a search in bookshops for 'a natlas'.  Thankfully she is a gentler soul than her mother.  While there is humour in the writing, again, as a modern reader I desperately wanted Reenie to have the option of furthering her education rather than doing her mother's bidding.

Pauline Williams is twenty-two and remembers her teenage years as carefree.  She is still spirited but getting on which surely explains the neuralgia in her head when the cold winds blow.  The love of her life is Brian but his constant fixation on 'going all nudist' is a turn-off which leads to no small amount of strife between the pair.  Other than a handsome face and a bit of money in the family, I failed to see what Pauline saw in Brian - he's quite despicable.  His deplorable side is not lost on Pauline though (thank goodness) and I was thrilled whenever she rebuffed his childish and spoiled rantings to join his club.  Another woman, wealthy and past her prime in looks waits in the wings and even Brian's father thinks it's a match made in heaven.

The Rich House is really a nickname for Parkfield, the large family home of the Early family; theatrical bohemians who live amongst exotic souvenirs, old playbills, and cobwebs.  Their son, Ted, is maturing into a handsome young thespian who is great friends with Pauline.  He enters the servants' corridor and finds Louise...

'She was sitting at the table under the barred window with all the materials for stuffing a chicken around her, but a book was in front of her and she was reading.  As he came in she slowly looked up.
  'Is that for tonight?' he enquired, poking the chicken with a not very clean finger.
  'Yes.  Don't do that.'
  'Don't you put sage in the stuffing, then, you know I can't abide it.'
  'It isn't going to be stuffed with sage, it's going to be stuffed with prunes and chestnuts.'
  'She put her chin into her hands and smiled at him.  Her face always had the ghost of a smile on it, and this annoyed people in Seagate.  Her teeth were not her own and her lips were too full and she was forty-seven and not groomed, but she was beautiful.  Ted was too inexperienced to know what was the force that made her face attractive.  It was not intelligence, nor gentleness nor spirituality.  Most women disliked her at sight.'

There is a wealth of social observation to absorb within this book's 312 pages.  I was even intrigued by mention of one character's engagement ring which is bragged to be worth an eye-watering £70 but purchased for £40.  Thanks to Google you can find out approximately how much that bauble would be worth today and it turns out to be somewhere near £4,312.

There is also an air of mystery when spiteful letters pop up in mailboxes which make it obvious certain people are being watched.  Poor Mavis receives her share and coupled with losing her job at Just's Library she is driven to a breakdown of sorts.  This is the part of the book where, if you have a heart, you'll be driven to the tissue box.  Think along the lines of poor Jane Eyre wandering the moors all alone and starving.

You may wonder why, with so many storylines featuring a negative slant, this works as a cosy novel.  For me it's the way Stella Gibbons puts the reader on a chair in every room and in the head of the main characters.  Being able to soak up what happens in other people's homes and examine social mores from another era through story is as good as any documentary.  Also, just a quick mention, the synopsis of this book begins by stating that it is set on the eve of World War II but there is barely mention of anything relating to that event.  So if you're looking for hankies and tears on the train platform, you won't find it here but you will be thoroughly entertained at every turn.  I promise you.

Thanks to Fleur and Scott for pointing out this title when I posted about another wonderful book by Gibbons, Here Be Dragons.  The Rich House is now a firm favourite and something tells me it will be all the richer after a second reading.  If you're looking for a very nearly perfect and very enchanting cosy read to get you through the approaching wintery months, this is it.

The Seaside by Alice Maud Fanner

15 November 2014

Shopping, Seminars, Streatfeild, and Stella...

Sliding from one season into another can be such a time grabber.  The garden has been sorted and put to sleep, the pots brought in and hauled into the basement, warmer clothes and boots bought, snow tires installed, investigation on how mittens and gloves end up solitary rather than in a pair is closed.  My friend, Kara, gave me a box of spider traps for the basement and now I'm afraid to check them.  The good news though is that aside from the mundane, some really nice things have been going on as well.

Jill Downie presented a seminar this past Thursday evening about the German occupation of the island of Guernsey.  It was so well attended at the library that she kindly offered up a second night for a repeat performance.  Jill's talk largely consisted of readings from two wartime diaries; the wording carefully veiled as, in many cases, the Germans were billeted with citizens in their homes.  The fear of saying anything against the enemy in black and white meant a fair bit of reading between the lines later on.  I was surprised most by the level of starvation and just assumed that since there was land there would at least be crops but Guernsey's inhabitants were as restricted as if they were in prison.  Germans were patrolling the coast and even laid mines in the water making it too risky to even attempt fishing.  Although, not only did a few fishermen with boats escape by sailing away there were a few cases when a German soldier would flee with them.  With approximately 7,000 officers occupying the small island it was inevitable there would be love affairs but Jill could not find evidence of women having their heads shaved as did occur in other cases of collaboration or dalliances during the war.  With this new perspective my copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is calling.

Audrey's review of The Ladies of Lyndon during Margaret Kennedy Reading Week made me want to own a copy of the book.  Oh sure, I could have simply placed an order for the reissued edition but the hunt is part of the fun so I was thrilled to finally find the black Virago in a second-hand shop.  While in the rafters of the shop on the sliding library ladder I spied a vintage-looking cover and found another gem.  Beyond the Vicarage is the third book in a trilogy by Streatfeild but if I were to stumble on any single copy, this would be the one for me.  Telling Kara about my finds I admitted to a very unfeminine, although discreet, fist-pump after discovering something special; apparently she performs a full-blown dance.  Anyone else want to share?

The Persephone Biannually arrived recently and resulted in doing, in part, exactly what it's supposed to do.  I went through the list of titles like a child with the Christmas catalogue...have it, want it, need it!  A copy of Tell It to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge should be arriving any day now.  I'm planning a trip to London for Spring and will no doubt bring back a few more titles in my luggage.  Which segues nicely....at a service recognition event earlier this month I was recognized for my twenty-five years as a circulation clerk at the library.  I chose a hard shell carry-on piece as my gift and look forward to wheeling it through Heathrow!

And finally, just finished The Rich House by Stella Gibbons last night and will be sharing my thoughts in a day or two.  Just a snippet....I loved it!

14 November 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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


When a vanilla bean lies like a Hindu rope on the counter, or sits in a cup of coffee, its aroma gives the room a kind of stature, the smell of an exotic crossroads where outlandish foods aren't the only mysteries.  In Istanbul in the 1970s, my mother and I once ate Turkish pastries redolent with vanilla, glazed in caramel sugar with delicate filaments of syrup on top.  It was only later that day, when we strolled through the bazaar with two handsome university students my mother had bumped into, that we realized what we had eaten with such relish.  On a long brass platter sat the kind of pastries we had eaten, buzzed over by hundreds of sugar-delirious bees, whose feet stuck in the syrup; desperately, one by one, they flew away, leaving their legs behind.  'Bee legs!' my mother had screamed, as her face curdled.  'We ate bee legs!'  Our companions spoke little English and we spoke no Turkish, so they probably thought it odd that American women became so excitable in the presence of pastry.  They offered to buy us some, which upset my mother even more.

A Natural History of Senses

7 November 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1858 - 1924

A member of the Fabian Society, Edith Nesbit published under the gender-neutral names of E. Nesbit and Fabian Bland.  She wanted recognition as a poet, but turned to children's literature to support her large family.

Jimmy was eagerly unpacking the basket.  It was a generous tea.  A long loaf, butter in a cabbage leaf, a bottle of milk, a bottle of water, cake, and large, smooth, yellow gooseberries in a box that had once held an extra-sized bottle of somebody's matchless something for the hair and mustache.  Mabel cautiously advanced her incredible arms from the rhododendron and leaned on one of her spindly elbows, Gerald cut bread and butter, while Kathleen obligingly ran round, at Mabel's request, to see that the green coverings had not dropped from any of the remoter parts of Mabel's person.  Then there was a happy, hungry, silence, broken only by those brief, impassioned suggestions natural to such an occasion:
  'More cake, please.'
  'Milk ahoy, there.'
  'Chuck us the goosegogs.'
  Everyone grew calmer - more contented with their lot.  A pleasant feeling, half tiredness and half restfulness, crept to the extremities of the party.  Even the unfortunate Mabel was conscious of it in her remote feet, that lay crossed under the third rhododendron to the north-northwest of the tea party.  Gerald did but voice the feeling of the others when he said, not without regret:
  'Well, I'm a new man, but I couldn't eat so much as another goosegog if you paid me.'
  'I could,'said Mabel; 'yes, I know they're all gone, and I've had my share.  But I could.  It's me being so long, I suppose.

The Enchanted Castle

Mabel Betsy Hill

4 November 2014

The Duchess of Reads-A-Lot

Dressing up as the Duchess of Reads-A-Lot was a terrific idea prior to Halloween.  But let me tell you, being stuffed into a 'scarcely draw breath' tight dress consisting of mountains of material was hardly a play at the park.  And this was minus the added pain of a whale bone corset.

The heavy mist was a perfect backdrop for a spooky date but it meant gathering my silks mid-thigh to avoid the puddles.  Crumbled silk is not a great look for a Duchess.  Oh, and try getting a seat belt clasped over volumes of pleats but there was nary a horse and carriage to be found when it came time to leave for the library.  Playful pleas to help me navigate the loo were met with laughs so I was on my own.  There was no darting through the stacks either; I was slowed down to a snail's pace.  Forget regal gliding, fine ladies from the past were struggling to pull along their trailing frocks and their noses were in the air as they desperately tried to breathe.

Five hours is a dress like this cured me of any fleeting desire to live in an eighteenth century world and I suspect that many privileged women from that era stayed in their dressing gowns for as much of the day as possible.

My neighbour, Suzanne, is a wonder with a sewing machine and a more than generous friend for sharing such a gorgeous dress with me.  If I don't gain another ounce I just might do it again next year.