31 October 2015

The Asylum by John Harwood

The R.I.P. Reading Challenge is an event I look forward to every October.  The need to search out spooky tales through books at this time of year is inherent; the joys firmly established by many Halloweens marked by trick or treating and bags of candy.  By early September I already have an eye out for the book to read that, however ridiculous, will conjure up images of desolate buildings, foggy nights, creaking doors, and plenty of unexplained events.  While John Harwood's The Asylum didn't quite live up to my expectations, it was entertaining.

'I woke, as it seemed, from a nightmare of being stretched on the rack, only to sink into another dream in which I was lying in a strange bed, afraid to open my eyes for fear of what I might see.  The smell and the texture of the blanket against my cheek felt wrong, and I was clad, I became aware, in a coarse flannel nightgown that was certainly not my own.'

Georgina Ferrars is now a resident of Tragganon House on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.  The door to her room is locked and the windows barred, yet she is told that her stay is voluntary.  The superintendent of the asylum, Dr Straker, refers to Georgina as 'Lucy Ashton' - apparently the name she gave when she appeared at the asylum in a state of distress.  Her travelling bag is also marked with the initials L.A.

Georgina tries to remain calm while taking in her surroundings, confident that one telegram to her uncle in Bloomsbury will sort out the mystery.  The reply arrives from Josiah, a bookseller, that states the person housed in the asylum can not possibly be Georgina as she is currently in the house.

Panic sets in but quite admirably, Georgina keeps her wits intact.  Through a very convenient detail, a writing case reveals a packet of letters, sent in error by a solicitor, that tell the story of Georgina's fractured family.  An elopement, a suspicious death, and the loss of family secrets and fortune in a landslide, give the imprisoned young lady plenty to unravel.

Early on I was quite sure this was going to be a case of 'evil twin does the old bait and switch'.  Hmmm...bait and switch (tick), asylum (tick), two young ladies enjoying cuddles under the duvet (tick)....wait a minute - this sounds remarkably like Sarah Waters' Fingersmith.  Well, not down to every detail but the main threads are there.

The Asylum was intriguing enough that I wanted to find out how Georgina would get herself on the other side of a locked door.  The conclusion is full of high drama and the book fulfills its promise of being a Victorian Gothic mystery...but if you're looking for this storyline and want to read something that feels more authentic, reach for Fingersmith.  

I dug out my very yellowed and decrepit copy of The Virago Book of Ghost Stories and read a snippet in the introduction that reeled me in called Juggernaut by D. K. Broster.  Not a name I'm familiar with but I can tell we'll get along....

'Tea now appearing, in a large Britannia-metal teapot enriched with repoussé roses, Miss Halkett removed herself from her chair to the table, with a view to doing fuller justice to the meal.  And indeed the chronicling of deeds of terror had never affected her appetite, not did the 'Things' which in her stories walked behind her heroes on lonely moors, or waited, gorilla-like, to strangle her heroines in underground passages, ever sit beside her bed or deprive her of a single night's rest.'

Although, I find myself hoping that at some point Miss Halkett tried her hand at a story where the heroine strangles the hero...

30 October 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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


'Many folk stories warn of the dangers of accepting a gift of food, especially a luxury food such as fruit or cake, from a woman outside the immediate family.  In 'Snow Drop', the earliest version of the tale which became better-known as 'Snow While', the wicked queen, who plainly has magical powers, prepares one last trap for her victim: a poisoned apple.  'The outside looked very rosy and tempting, but whoever tasted it was sure to die'.  'Hansel and Gretel' is the best known of a group of stories to which two children are victims of their own and their parents' terrible hunger.  These two children, abandoned by their (step)mother, find an alternative and apparently miraculous source of food, a house made of luxury items: 'the cottage was made of bread and cakes, and the windowpanes were of clear sugar'.  The magic house is inhabited by a witch; it embodies and represents her magical power that she can create such an impossible dwelling and symbol of plentitude.  The witch at first seems kind and considerate, but later reveals herself to be the opposite of the nurturer she seems; she is a devourer, not a substitute mother but an antimother:

The old woman, nodding her head, said "Ah, you dear children, what has brought you here?  Come in and stop with me, and no harm shall befall you; and so saying she took them both by the hand and led them into her cottage'  A good meal of milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples and nuts, was spread on the table, and in the back room were two little beds, covered with white where Hansel and Gretel laid themselves down, and thought themselves in heaven...

The witch decides to eat Hansel and to keep Gretel to work, and as a result it is Gretel's feminine linkage with the kitchen and cooking that allows her to take the witch from consumer to meal, baking her in the oven she prepares for Hansel.

The Witch in History

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham 

26 October 2015

The Women's Institute - My Visit to the Erland Lee Museum

For someone like me who experiences this organization through documentaries, books, and film, the whole concept of these women and all they achieve is as British as you can get.  So when my copy of Jambusters: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War by Julie Summers arrived back in 2013, I was expecting to delve deeper into the world of jam and Jerusalem and other 'Britishness'.  The Women's Institute began in Britain in 1915, after the beginning of The Great War...but my eyes widened when I reached page twelve and read about Adelaide Hoodless...

'A speech she gave at a conference of the Farmers' Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph was heard by Mr Erland Lee, secretary of the Farmers' Institute of Wentworth County.  He immediately invited her to speak at their next Ladies night at his institute in Stoney Creek.  Some thirty-five farmers' wives were present at the talk.  They received enthusiastically her suggestion that as the men had a Farmers' Institute so the women should consider having one of their ow.  The farmers' wives were so keen that they invited her to return the following week, on 19 February 1897.  That night the idea of a women's institute was born and a week later what became known as the 'Stoney Creek Women's Institute' was called into being and its first meeting was held.  Its motto, chosen five years later, became 'For Home and Country'.'

The homestead where that meeting took place is barely half an hour away from my house!  The idea of visiting the Erland Lee Museum was placed on the back burner but yesterday the stunning colours of Autumn and sunny blue skies were perfect for a get-away.

The humble walk to the front door of The Erland Lee Museum.

The stove in what was the original cabin built by discharged British soldier James Lee in 1808.

The 200 year old dining hutch houses plates donated by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

The cranberry glass chandelier is in the drawing room added in 1873.

The hand-woven coverlet on one of the girls' beds is American.  The border to Buffalo, NY is a mere forty minute drive away.

The 'Constitution table' where the bylaws were written that night in February 1897.  The curator told us that members of the W.I. visiting from Britain have even kissed the table!

List of Charter members.  

A photocopy of The Consitution...

...and a peek at the handwriting inside.  

I could have stood in front of one of the bookcases for ages (there was a copy of The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett).

My husband called me over while we were in the nearby barn to take a look at this group photo.  The last line made me laugh out loud.  Is the clue necessary?!

View from the parking area and the side entrance.

A time capsule in the back garden constructed in 1997 to be opened in 2047.

A view of the back of the homestead on a beautiful autumnal afternoon.

The Erland Lee Museum is well worth the five dollar admission charge.  My husband and I were there for nearly three hours and could easily have stayed longer.  This venture has certainly piqued my interest in the history of the Lee family and other founding members.  The next stop on my Women's Institute pilgrimage will be to visit The Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead in St. George.  I'm not exactly sure when that will be but hopefully within the next month.   

23 October 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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



A man accustomed to being cooked for is a helpless thing.  Abandoned by his cook, either temporarily or permanently, his first instinct is to find someone else to make his meals.  This conditioned response may be because women, from his mother onwards, have not only spoiled him, but woven an air of mystery around cooking.  They have whispered of barding and basting and double boilers.  Like cats, they have spat at frying pans to test the heat or, in apparent ungovernable rage, flung strands of spaghetti at the wall to see if they would stick.  The whole performance, from the shopping that seems to require arcane and distressingly female talk - phrases like a pound of skirt or a bag of Desirées - to choosing the one dish of the thirty available , that in some talismanic way his cook will have decreed the only one suitable, could have made a man craven in the kitchen.
  On the other hand, he may just have been arrogant and idle or simply not interested.  But friends will soon tire of providing for him and he must turn to the fridge and stove and think conscientiously about cooking for himself and for others, because nothing is more lowering than too many solitary meals, and a man left to cook for his children will find they grow fractious on uninterrupted junk food.
  Men who cook, particularly those new to the activity, want to make dishes that either have the quality of immediacy, or ones where alchemy in the oven will transform them.  Men, on the whole, are not good at diddling about waiting for one thing to happen before proceeding with the next.  For this reason, a stew which can be left alone to cook for hours and requires no cosseting is a favourite.  Most men, even abandoned ones, believe it improves with keeping and that it can be jazzed up with curry powder and raisins towards the end of its life.  This is not so, although the sauce of a stew does mellow when it is cooked on one day, heated up and eaten the next.

Cooking for Occasions

Man Peeling Potatoes by Harold Persico Paris

19 October 2015

Great British Bake Off: Another Slice

As Canadians we were a bit late to the party but to be fair The Great British Bake Off didn't show up on our cable channels until last year.  The end of another season has put a stop to worries about runny icing, less than impressive rises, and partially-cooked pastry.  Congratulations, Nadiya! Flora and Tamal are tops in my book too.

Our second favourite night was Friday when The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice aired.  It was like being invited to Jo Brand's house for a cuppa.  The fan bakes were impressive and fun in turns but it's cake so it can never really be bad.  There was one moment though...a woman made a cat cake, sitting in a litter tray, with fondant made to look like....well, let's leave it there.

The Great British Bake Off: Another Slice was just published and we thought it would be very much like the show.  There is no Jo Brand but it is packed with contestant profiles, baking history, quizzes, crosswords, fan bakes, behind-the-scenes stories and more, laid out in eye-catching colour.  It rates very high in charm factor.

I can see it now...pajama-clad family members shouting out the answers or...just keeping it to yourself.

Suddenly the small bowl of soup and a few oat crackers that was my lunch doesn't seem all that satisfying.

 If you're lucky enough to be left alone with the book and you have a package of pencil crayons handy (because everyone is buying those adult colouring books) you can brighten up a tea party.

If there's a Great British Bake Off fan in your life then this book is a must-buy!  And for those of you in mourning until the next series, this book will help nicely with the withdrawal.

16 October 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1852 - 1930

'Lucinda had always liked a bit of cold pork, some left-over dinner vegetables, some little savory relish, for supper, but now she ate a slice of bread-and-butter and a spoonful of sauce, and drank a glass of milk.  Charlotte had decreed that that was better for her.  Lucinda had not even her cup of tea since Charlotte reigned.
  Lucinda had been fond of a rich cup-cake, which she had also enjoyed stirring up once a week for herself.  She had taken an innocent pride in excellence, and she had treated her few callers to it.  She had like a slice of it between meals.  But that was now all done away with, there was no cake baked in the house.  'That rich cake is not fit for you to eat, Aunt Lucinda,' Charlotte had said.  'I think we had better not have any more of it.'  And poor Lucinda came gently down to her niece's views on diet, and put cup-cake and cold pork and vegetables away from her like devices of Satan.  She concealed from herself her longing for them; and she felt the most sincere love and gratitude to Charlotte for her interest in her welfare.'

'An Innocent Gamester'

A Young Woman Drinking a Cup of Tea
Maurice Louis Monnot (1869 - 1937)

11 October 2015

Historic Houses and Fall Fairs

We're in the midst of another stunning Thanksgiving long weekend.  The skies are blue, the sun is shining, the colours, albeit a bit behind this year, are glorious, and the temperatures are still high enough to rake leaves in a t-shirt.  And this weekend is all about being outside as Thanksgiving is a marker for getting outside jobs wrapped up and switching sleeveless tops for sweaters.  Waking up to frost on the rooftops isn't that far off.

My husband and I spent an afternoon with our border collie wandering Bronte Creek Provincial Park.  There was a decidedly odd feel about the place, a sort of 'Children of the Corn' vibe; acres and acres of green space and only two other people roaming the outbuildings.  Switching mindset, I conjured up the intro music from The Archers while watching the piglets frolic....(must resist the urge to mention Helen's predicament).  I digress.

For my birthday I chose to spend some time being a tourist in my own backyard.  We visited Campbell House built by Upper Canada Chief Justice William Campbell and his wife Hannah in 1822.  The house was picked up and moved from it's original location, just over one kilometer away, in 1972.  The photo (above) is from another site because the facade is completely covered in plastic as part of Nuit Blanche, a dusk until dawn art festival.

The fripperies may be upstairs but it's downstairs that I find the most interesting.  The young lady directing our tour did tell an eye-widening story about another employee who heard a thump in the library and found a book on the floor.  There wasn't another soul in the room.  Then it happened again...said employee quickly packed up for the evening.  Who could blame her?

Then we walked over to Mackenzie House, a more modest abode but equally fascinating.  Built in 1830, this was the home of Toronto's first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie before he was exiled in Buffalo for many years for leading a rebellion against British rule.  His grandson went on to become the tenth Prime Minister of Canada.  While a well-liked man and leader, Mackenzie King frequently held seances to connect with his mother.  Strange but true!

The gas was lit once we made our way into the kitchen and I could have happily spent an hour in there with a pot of tea.  The staff are testing the waters with a Georgian baking class this weekend.  Hope it's a success!

A lovely young man, handsomely kitted out in period-appropriate clothing, talked to us about the print industry during the nineteenth century.  The politics of the day were at a fever pitch so the local paper was filled with hidden messages about rebellion and stories of independence in the United States.  The tedious process of picking out letters to form a story is unimaginable but apparently, as with anything else, the more you do it, the quicker you become.  When asked for a volunteer to try the 1845 press I jumped right in.  It took me several minutes to find the right letters, put them in the block right-side up, and going in the right direction....I would have been fired before lunch.  A roll of the wheel, a turn of the crank and 2,000 pounds of pressure was applied.  Not too bad for a first try! 

Yesterday we drove to Balls Falls for their annual fair; we never miss it.  We browse the artisan's stalls...and eat....and browse....and eat.  My husband can't resist the chippy wagon but I really enjoy something a bit healthier so it was eggplant parmesan for me - so delicious.  The Niagara region is wine country so it's also a good chance to sample new products.  Okay, forget what I said about healthy...every year the line-up for piping hot apple fritters is a long one.  And every year I can't believe that health and safety measures haven't put a stop to teens sitting around a boiling vat of oil.

We're having a roast dinner tonight and I've already helped myself to the pumpkin pie that's supposed to be for dessert.  I'm thankful for spandex in my jeans....Happy Thanksgiving!

9 October 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

It's my birthday today and there will be cake!  

My husband and I have taken some time off work to enjoy the autumnal bliss of crisp mornings, fiery red maple trees and orange pumpkins.  Today we're off to Toronto to visit two historical homes in the heart of downtown and root for the Blue Jays in a lively pub!

The Birthday Feast by Peggy Angus

6 October 2015

By Special Request

I knew Jennifer was writing a book because it started coming up in conversation...after we talked about the weather, what we've been up to lately, and anything else.  A couple of weeks ago we talked about so many things that Jennifer forgot all about her books at the circulation counter and left without them.  A quick phone call home and she was back in no time with a sheepish grin.

 Recently, Jennifer asked if I would attend the launch party for her new book at A Different Drummer.  I was thrilled!  This independent bookshop has a charming location in one of our city's historic homes near Lake Ontario.  The previous owner has retired and moved on but thankfully a new owner has taken up the torch and made the shop even better.

The bookshop was heaving with people from Jennifer's writing group, friends, neighbours, and a few of us from the library.  There was green punch and she even found time leading up to Sunday's event to bake jam-filled peanut butter cookies in the shape of a speech bubble.  They were SO delicious that it came as no surprise when one of the questions from the audience was a request for the recipe.

 Jennifer signed my book and made me feel special on HER big day.

'Jelly Miles would rather be playing video games with his best friend P.B. than preparing for a speech competition.  In fact, he'd rather be doing just about anything else.  So he's as surprised as anyone that he's taking this year's competition seriously.  As first, it's for the awesome prize.  But when the competition turns ugly, Jelly realizes it's his chance to finally get the last word with the class know-it-all.  With his reputation, self-respect and the friendship he values most on the line, can Jelly find the courage to get up in front of the whole school and show his true self?

Laugh-out-loud funny, Speechless is about standing up to bullying, knowing who your friends are and finding your own unique voice.'

I haven't had a chance to read Jennifer's book just yet but the early buzz is so positive and I am thrilled for her!

2 October 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1830 - 86

'I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow.  So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, saleratus, etc., with a deal of grace.  I advise you if you don't know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.'


Baking Bread by Helen Allingham, 19th Century