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

20 January 2015

Old Books, New Books, and I'm Booked

Last Friday I drove to the ReUse Centre in search of anything by Barbara Comyns; Our Spoons Came From Woolworths has turned me into an enamoured fan.  Unfortunately, there was nothing on the shelves but further along the 'C' section I found a very nice consolation prize.

Part one of Diana Cooper's autobiography The Rainbow Comes and Goes was missing but I still consider myself very lucky.  These two books are in near pristine condition with spines so tight I can tell they've never been read.  The cover art on both books is gorgeous but I am over the moon about the painting by Dame Laura Knight on Trumpets From the Steep.  The image continues on the back cover but in all its glory the painting is shown below....

A Balloon Site by Laura Knight, 1943

The Light of Common Day opens in 1923 as Diana and Duff board a ship to cross the Atlantic with provisions from Fortnum & Mason.  Irresistible.  Another interesting find was Flavia Leng's tribute to her mother Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter's Memoir.  I've only read My Cousin Rachel and can hardly call myself a devotee but this sort of commentary on the twentieth century could not be left behind....and it was only $1.  Now, on to new books...

Last Saturday, at Ben McNally Books, I found a book that I'm quite sure the people at Everyman's Library put together just for me.  I already own a copy of Ghost Stories and Christmas Stories (some of these are pretty spooky too, if you ask me) and couldn't be happier to add London Stories to my collection.  Covering works from 1603 up to 1999, I stood in place reciting the list of authors including John Evelyn, George Gissing, Graham Greene, Mollie Panter-Downes, Muriel Spark, and Elizabeth Bowen.  No doubt the pitch of my voice was raised by an octave with the excitement of each passing name as I recited to my husband.  Such a supportive and patient man.  The blue book that's hiding is The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life by Lyndsy Spence and founder of an on-line community dedicated to the sisters.  Full of anecdotal events and their thoughts on all sorts of subjects from shooting parties to fashion, the book's appeal is part curiousity and part tongue-in-cheek laughs.  Perfect for dipping in and out of this is the book to grab if you have an appointment or a wait in a departure lounge.  Speaking of which....

I am thrilled to be heading back to London in May and already have a date to meet Mary (Mrs. Miniver's Daughter) in the Rose Garden of Regent's Park.  Elizabeth Bowen strolled this area with Charles Ritchie, and others, so I'll be drinking it all in while dodging bees and keeping my eye out for adorable English robins.  I'm also planning to take the train out to Cambridge and so excited about the Eric Ravilious exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery!  Also, I've roped my long-suffering colleagues into another read-along; it's The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins come February.  The author is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery so if the need arises for an atmospheric day out during a grey day I just might stop by.  Planning is half the fun...

16 January 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

20th century

Under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, Mildred  Wirt Benson wrote twenty-three of the first twenty-five books in this ever popular girl-detective series devised by Edward Stratemeyer, but the fact was kept from public knowledge for over fifty years, coming to light only when Benson testified in a 1980s' court case.  The Nancy Drew Cookbook postulates Benson's influence, but reflects the style of the books she wrote.

Late one afternoon Nancy was hurriedly called to the home of Mrs. Russo, a neighbor, to help her find a valuable heirloom ring.  The piece was strangely missing just before she was to give it to her niece at a birthday dinner party.  No one else had been in the house all day.  Mrs. Russo, who had selected the ring from her jewel box that morning, was positive she had not worn it in the kitchen while preparing dinner.
  Nancy, however, refused to overlook a single possibility.  After Mrs. Russo had gone upstairs to dress, Nancy began a search.  She figured that if the woman had unknowingly dropped the ring into some food she was preparing, it would have sunk to the bottom.  First Nancy examined the aspic salad, then the cream of mushroom soup.  No ring!  Next she looked at the blueberry muffins. Still in their twelve-cup pan.
  'If the ring's in a muffin.' she thought, 'it would have been spooned up last, so the jewelry would be in one of the end cups.'
  Nancy began to break open the muffins.  No luck on one, two, three.  Then she halved the fourth.
  The next moment she cried out, and raced up the stairs. 'Mrs. Russo, the ring was in a muffin!  Your gift is safe!'  As the woman thanked Nancy profusely, the girl added with a smile, 'How about my whipping up another batch of muffins for your party?/

The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking

11 January 2015

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White was mentioned on blogs and a podcast as being something of a runaway hit in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  The premise, a group of people in a claustrophobic setting with an undercurrent of suspicion, is my husband's favourite sort of story so I wasted no time in ordering a copy.  The book arrived just as I was finishing the wonderful Our Spoons Came From Woolworths so I scooped it up with a promise to my husband to be quick.

First published in 1937, the very effective cover art depicts a vintage steam engine stuck fast in thick snow with a village off in the distance.  The warm lights glowing from the train hint that night is fast approaching and not just any night but Christmas Eve.

When the 11:37 train out of Euston station has been immovable for nearly an hour some of the restless travellers from the third-class section decide to take their chances on foot.  After enduring a tiring slog in whipping winds and driving snow two groups find their way to the front door of a country house....

'The ringing of the bell brought no response.  Knocking proved equally fruitless.  For a short while it seemed as though they were doomed to further disappointment, although David was in a mood to break windows if the necessity arose.  Then Lydia took the bull by the horns and tried the doorhandle.  It turned, and she shoved the door open with a little sigh of relief.  A roof, even without the invitation to stay beneath it, had become an urgent necessity.'

A fire is blazing, the table has been laid, and a butter-knife lies in the middle of the kitchen floor.  There's no sign of the home's occupants but a large portrait hanging on the wall of a distinguished man seems to follow the guests with his eyes.  Upon arrival, a gentleman from the second group announces that a passenger from the train compartment next to his had died...and it looked like murder.  Right away, suspicion falls on the cockney guest, Mr. Smith.  Physiognomy was a popular concept in the early nineteenth century and comes into play with the author describing him as having a low forehead, the back of his head is flat, and he has bushy eyebrows.  Not quite reason enough to commit someone to trial if you ask me but it's all part of what makes this mystery feel authentic to the era it's from.

Lydia's efficient nature means a rota for duties is drawn up in no time and David is assigned the duty of costing out everything the group uses or consumes so proper remuneration can eventually be made.  The very idea that a crisis would deprive anyone of Christmas is preposterous so Lydia reassigns her Christmas gifts, hangs up stockings, and cuts boughs to decorate the handsome house.  You would be mistaken if you think Lydia is simply the domestic sort as in no time at all she makes it very clear there is to be no keeping information from the women in a misguided act of protection. In the meantime, another guest is confined to bed with a twisted ankle and can only wait for the creak of the stairs meaning a bowl of soup is on its way.  Well, at least Jessie hopes it's something....or someone providing comfort rather than something deadly sinister.

I'm not usually a reader of mysteries but Mystery in White was a lot of fun; I won't hesitate to order more titles from the British Library Crime Classics series.  The characters are an eclectic mix and it was interesting to watch the relationship dynamics develop.  A momentary scene of high drama towards the end will probably come off as a bit cheesy to many modern readers but again, it's all part of the fun of reading a good old-fashioned mystery.

Don't feel that you've missed the train (couldn't resist) on this one just because Christmas has passed.  Mystery in White is well worth picking up to keep you company on a cold night or to give someone as a gift, especially if they're planning a trip that involves rail travel.  Delightful!

9 January 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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


I have only made carrot-and-raisin salad once, the day it was taught to me in seventh grade, but the memory of those bright orange shreds specked with raisins and clotted with mayonnaise has been unaccountably hard to shake.  It's easy to understand why the recipe appealed to the teacher - carrots made it nutritious, raisins made it sweet, and mayonnaise made it a salad - but I can't explain why a combination I never hoped to eat again was able to lodge itself so firmly into the apparatus of my adolescence.  Perhaps those endless Wednesday-afternoon classes, known by 1958 as 'Homemaking', had a grip on us that we hardly suspected at the time, codifying as they did a grim and witless set of expectations that loomed across the future like a ten commandments for girls.  Eerily enough, this course, which purported to be about the real world, had nothing whatever to do with anything that happened in my home or that I had ever seen happen anywhere else.  Why were they claiming life was like this?  Who on earth wore pink cotton 'hostess aprons' or, worse yet, had to sew them?

Perfection Salad:  Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century

4 January 2015

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Reading experiences that end with hugging the book to your chest and wiping a tear from your eye down to sheer pleasure are treasured ones.  This book is one of those.  I first heard about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths years ago and always mixed it up with The Brontes Went to Woolworths.  I shied away from reading reviews too thoroughly because I didn't want the story spoiled and so was blissfully ignorant as to what to expect once I opened the cover.  It has all become crystal clear why this isn't a book you find very often on second-hand shelves.  Not only will I never part with my copy but any future copies I do find will be bought up and passed on to friends.

In this, Comyns second book, Sophia shares the details of her early married life with who the reader assumes is a friend.  The events are so tragic that Helen is in tears and when her husband hears the story he promptly arrives at Sophia's home with a sympathetic gift of strawberries.  By the second paragraph the reader is whisked back in time to when Sophia and Charles, whom she met on a train the year before, are preparing for a wedding and both only twenty-one.  The bride is so naive as to the larger picture that she brings her pet newt, Great Warty, along in her pocket 'as a sort of page'.  Both are woefully unprepared for the responsibilities which lie ahead.

'When we got in the church the priest took Charles right away.  I thought it was a trick of his mother's at first, but no one seemed surprised.  Then I saw him standing with James very stiff and still.  They made me sit in a pew with Paul and at I felt a little scared in case they married me to him by mistake.'

I remember reading somewhere that during, shall we say, less carefree eras, couples would marry young so they could have sex.  Within no time at all a couple living in penury and starving would have to ask themselves whether the trade off was worth it.  With Charles spending his days playing at being a very unsuccessful artist it's Sophia who feels the responsibility of earning enough money and sits as a life model to pay the bills.  A few small cheques from her older sister, Ann, or the pawn shop are sometimes needed to bridge the gaps.  Though the only time Charles seems to worry about money is when his supply of cigarettes dwindles.  Unsurprisingly, in less than three months Sophia is pregnant and without any of the joy most couples share with this news, in fact, Charles is livid.  When there isn't enough food to cover three meals a day for two, life will inevitably be more difficult with the needs of a growing baby.

If you haven't read this book I wouldn't blame you for wondering where the charm exists with such a dreary synopsis but spend a few minutes reading Sophia's voice and you will be entranced.  In Maggie O'Farrell's introduction she wrote...

'I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn't make it back to the holiday flat for some time.'

Another part of the appeal is the setting of 1930s Bohemian London...velvet dresses, painted furniture, and flats let for for mere shillings that would be considered a Millionaires' Row these days.  Also, Sophia's character grows and matures throughout the book while experiencing many of life's lessons with a matter-of-factness that I found quite admirable.  Her voice is so genuine it didn't take much figuring out to realize that many of the descriptions of Sophia's daily life are autobiographical, and therefore, even more heartbreaking.  And yet, there is an undeniable sense of optimism that something better has to be just around the corner.  

Lucky for me, there is a copy of The Vet's Daughter on my shelves.  If star ratings are anything to go by it's even more popular with readers than Our Spoons Came From Woolworths....hard to believe.  I was so tempted to go straight from one Comyns book to another but have decided to carry Sophia around with me a little bit longer.

 Woolworths, 1930s

2 January 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1888 - 1923

It grew hot.  Everywhere the light quivered green-gold.  The white soft road unrolled, with plane-trees casting a trembling shade.  There were piles of pumpkins and gourds: outside the house the tomatoes were spread in the sun.  Blue flowers and red flowers and tufts of deep purple flared in the roadside hedges.  A young boy, carrying a branch, stumbled across a yellow field followed by a brown high-stepping little goat.  We bought figs for breakfast, immense thin-skinned ones.  They broke in one's fingers and tasted of wine and honey.  Why is the northern fig such a chaste fair-haired virgin, such a soprano?  The melting contraltos sing through the ages.