31 January 2013

Kitchen Diaries II

Title: The Kitchen Diaries II
Author: Nigel Slater
Year published: 2012
Pages: 532
Time It Took To Read: Three weeks

I have been obsessed with food and food writing since 2004. I moved in with my ex and his parents around then, and missed my mum's cooking dreadfully. My mum's cooked professionally since I was small, and always had a massive stock of food magazines and books. I started buying cookery and food books whenever I saw them. I have a fairly massive collection of them, and as I've grown older, I've grown pickier about what I buy. I've never been much of a fan of Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey. However much they scream "home cooking", it always strikes me as restaurant food. I don't want some arty farty salad or dessert full of egg whites, I want stew and traybakes. I prefer inspiration to aspiration.
Nigel Slater is my absolute favourite food writer. Nigella Lawson comes a close second, but I've never been able to get her savoury recipes to work, though her baking is sublime and ALWAYS works. The first Kitchen Diaries is probably my favourite cook book, especially when I just want some inspiration rather than instruction. So, I snapped up Kitchen Diaries II in the sales after Christmas. Nigel's writing is sensual, and greedy. He likes the same sort of food that I do, and sometimes he likes to faff about for hours making a curry, and sometimes he has a lump of cheese with some bread. My own cooking tends to veer wildly between cooking roasts, spiced noodle soup, cakes and egg and chips. I try to give my kids something proper to eat every day, and rarely resort to convenience food - fish fingers and chips being my sole freezer standby, coz my kids inexplicably don't like pizza. Oh, and peas. This isn't out of some snobbish aversion to convenience: I just like cooking and I *REALLY* like eating.

The book took me three weeks to read because I only read food/cookery books when I'm eating. If I read them at other times, I become overwhelmingly peckish and end up gorging on biscuits. It's designed to be read throughout the year, with seasonal recipes that Nigel has actually cooked and eaten, almost every day. There are a lot of recipes from Simple Suppers and Simple Cooking, as he was developing the TV shows while he was writing, though it's not a tie-in book. It's autobiographical, with lush photography and it's personal. Nigel doesn't dictate.

I've cooked two recipes so far, both for Thursday night tea for me, my boyfriend and my kids. First was beer braised sausages. I don't like sausages unless they've been braised - a hotdog is my idea of hell. So, I fried some sausages and onions up, then put them in the oven for an hour with Guinness, stock and some sugar to get it to caramelise. I served it with mashed potato and some steamed winter greens. It was the nicest thing I've eaten this year, so I'll be making it a LOT more often! Fear my food photography!

 I also made a hazelnut chocolate slice. Well, it was supposed to be a slice, but I didn't have a small enough baking tin, so I made a regular 23cm round cake. I'm quite a slapdash, sweary, messy baker. I'd be rubbish on GBBO. I messed about a bit with the quantity of hazelnuts - the original recipe had half the praline blitzed and cooked with the cake and the other half used as topping, but I just made the cake-praline. I didn't trust the kids not to choke to death on whole nuts. The praline...was a shit...I used cling film on the tray so I didn't ruin the baking tray/make the praline taste of chips, and wished I'd done the same on the spoon (ruined) and the saucepan (probably ruined). I also burned my thumb. Bloody praline! Otherwise, the cake came together nicely, even though I mixed it while holding the toddler on one hip because he'd decided me making a cake was absolutely unacceptable behaviour. The topping was a nutella buttercream, which I made with my eldest's 'help' (i.e. he shoved his face in the bowl when I'd finished mixing it, after cowering in the corner screaming about the noise the mixer makes).
Here it is, in all it's wonky glory (another reason I'll never be star baker). It is VERY hazelnutty, as you'd expect considering the whole tub of nutella in the buttercream...
Apologies for the lack of recipes. I did look to see if they're in the public domain, and they're not...so go buy the book.

Book count: 12/50

25 January 2013

The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford

Titles: Highland Fling, Christmas Pudding, Wigs on the Green, Pigeon Pie, The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, Don't Tell Alfred
Author: Nancy Mitford
Years published: 1931, 1932, 1935, 1940, 1945, 1949, 1951, 1960
Pages: 975
Time It Took To Read: 10 days, approx 6 hours per book

I was about 14 when I first heard of Nancy Mitford in any meaningful way. As a youth, I would prowl the house looking for books I hadn't read yet, to quench my uncontrollable thirst for tasty reading matter. In this way, I read hopelessly unsuitable books like the biography of Fred West. I also read The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate. This sparked a fascination that has led to me buying most of the books on the family, but this is the first time I've sat and read all of Nancy's fiction IN ONE GREAT TOME!

The first two of her books are flimsy love stories, based on people she knew as one of society's Bright Young Things of the 1920s. They are rather wispy and unsatisfying.
The next book, Wigs on the Green, was a satire of fascism. This was in the days before the war, and before the extent of the evil of Adolf Hitler was known. After the war, the book remained out of print until a few years ago. It is another flimsy love story. The one thing that stands out is the character of Eugenia Malmains. Nancy's sister Unity was a Hitler-worshipping eccentric Nazi. She had a personal friendship with Hitler and was in Germany when war broke out. She shot herself in the head, which caused irreversible brain damage and eventually led to her death of meningitis after the war. Due to her extremely unpopular political views, she was vilified by the popular press and it is difficult to get any idea of what she was really like from her letters or biographies, because she seems like Nazi Miranda Hart on crack. In Eugenia Malmains, it is possible to see what Unity may have been like as a person. Both Unity and Nancy's other sister Diana, later wife of Oswald Mosley, were deeply offended by the book. The story behind the book is more interesting than the story it tells.
Pigeon Pie is a spy-comedy, set in the early days of WWII. Its light hearted tone is rather jarring considering the subject matter, but this was before the Blitz had begun. It's silly, though manages to go beyond the simplistic love stories of the first three novels.

I think the reason I fell in love with all thing Mitford is primarily because I am reminded of my own family when reading about theirs. Nancy was the eldest of seven siblings, one boy and six girls. I am the second eldest of seven, with two brothers and four sisters. When you have a large family, moreso I think than with a smaller family, you develop your own language and in jokes that are incomprehensible to other people. You only have to say 'string' to one of my sisters for us all to die laughing, and nobody on the outside has a clue why. When my brother was younger, he would say to my (then youngest) sister "Bay-bee....cake" and make her scream with rage. And if I wanted to annoy him, I would talk to him of clots. I only had to tell my sister Jess that I was going to make her laugh and then pronounce earlobe in an exaggerated manner, and she'd crack up. I see that close-knit, family in-joking come to life in The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate.
The stories of the two books are fictional, but the anecdotes and the situations are adapted from Mitford family legend, and it gives them such a delicious reality. The characters are a blend of the Mitford sisters, the parents modelled on their parents. If you read Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, many of the scenes in the book are referenced as having happened in reality. Both books are narrated by Fanny, the single, abandoned daughter of 'the Bolter', who marries repeatedly. Fanny is raised by her spinster aunt Emily, the Bolter's sister, and goes to stay with her other maternal aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew. Their family - the Radletts - is based on the Mitfords and The Pursuit of Love is the story of Fanny's cousin Linda. Linda's story is one of unhappy marriages and one great true love. Nancy's own one great love is reflected throughout the story. I don't want to give away Linda's ending, but Nancy's own was unhappy. She suffered a deep, unrequited love for one man for thirty years, following him to France, hoping for his company. He saw her as at first a lover, then a great friend, and was fully aware of her feelings but couldn't reciprocate. I believe Linda's ending is the one that Nancy wished she'd had.
In Love In A Cold Climate, the story moves away from the Radletts (though they feature frequently) to Polly Montdore, their neighbour. Polly is typical of teenagers everywhere, moody and hating her mother, though her reason are not what everyone thinks. They believe she is ripe for marriage and needs to fall in love, yet Polly resolutely fails to do so. The reason why becomes the backbone of the story. Meanwhile, Fanny is establishing a home and social life with her new husband.

There is a third book concerning Fanny and her family, and that is Don't Tell Alfred. Fanny and Alfred, now in middle age, become part of high French society, and the story largely concerns their attempts to control the antics of their four sons. There's a lot of information about early yoof culture, with references to teddy boys and slang from the late 50s. This is the first book where Fanny is front and centre, and she just isn't as glittering as the Radletts in the earlier two books. In fact, the Radlett family is rarely mentioned.

Finally, there is The Blessing. This was published between Love in a Cold Climate and Don't Tell Alfred, and concerns the story of Grace and Charles-Edouard, who married in haste, had a child, then were separated by war. The story largely concerns the attempts of their son to keep them split up, in order to reap the benefits of divorced parents. The family appear in Don't Tell Alfred, with their son being a central character in one of the story elements

I do wish that the compilers of this edition had translated the multiple French paragraphs into English. Nancy was writing at a time when her projected audience were expected to be conversant in French. Alas, even though I read French fairly well, most of it is colloquial and difficult to translate. Footnotes wouldn't go amiss. It also helps if you're aware of debutante culture - where aristocratic girls of 18 were presented at court to find a husband, over a 'season' of balls. This custom died out in the 1950s, though there has been some attempt at a revival in London.
Otherwise, it is a very readable collection of light fiction, from a very witty writer. If you only read one, make it The Pursuit of Love. It is such a rich, beautifully told story, with believable, rounded characters and I love it. But I'll be honest, I think it's the only one I'll be re-reading. The reality of the Mitford family, as told through autobiographies and letters, is a far more fascinating story.

And so my book count total for the year reaches 11. And it's only January. Hurrah!

15 January 2013

Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch

Title: Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch - The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper
Author: Edited by Artemis Cooper
Year published: 1991
Pages: 326
Time It Took To Read: One week

This book took me a while to read, primarily because I've been ill. I've had osteomyelitis in my jaw, and I've never had pain like it. I'd rather give birth. Several times. So, I've spent much of the last week completely off my face on co-codamol. Whilst off my face, I've also been writing an assignment. I'm studying for a degree in health and social care with the OU and I have to do about one long essay a month. This one was a real shit, and took up all my thinking and writing time (in between painkillers).
To the book! I love reading collections of letters, especially of just two people, because I am nosy. You can tell more about someone from their letters than from their diaries or autobiography. You can see all their wit, their charm, their bitchy streak, their affection. Evelyn Waugh was a literary great, and responsible for Brideshead Revisited and Decline and Fall (among others). He was a prolific journalist. He was also a drug addled, alcoholic shit. Lady Diana Cooper was an actress and socialite, noted for her beauty. She was twelve years older than Waugh, but they were friends from the early 30s until Waugh's death in 1966. Lady Diana survived another 20 years, dying in her 90s. The letters were collated and edited by her granddaughter, Artemis Cooper.
Unfortunately, the letters in the volume are predominantly Waugh's. Artemis claims that not enough of Diana's correspondance to Waugh survives to make a more complete collection. However, I'm not sure I believe this. I think family censorship may have had a part in this - Artemis' father, the only child of Diana and Duff Cooper, is still alive. The effect is of a rather one sided friendship. There is about one Diana letter to every three of Waugh's.
I also take issue with the title. Mr Wu was an occasional nickname for Waugh, Mrs Stitch was her character's name in many of his books. However, they usually addressed each other as Bo and Baby. Although they were never lovers, there is a deeply affectionate bond between them that I have rarely seen in any of Waugh's letters to other correspondents. He is also enthusiastic (mostly) about his children, who he didn't appear to like overmuch in any of his other letters or diaries, seeing them as rather a nuisance.
This book is now out of print. I got mine from my mum, who got it from a second hand bookshop. You can obtain pricey copies on Amazon. To be honest, I wouldn't bother. The footnotes - essential when reading letters from a different era - are patchy. The only exchanges that really stick in the mind are the ones when the pair have had an argument - Waugh was notoriously prickly. The lack of responses from Diana mean that you're better off buying The Letters of Evelyn Waugh by Mark Amory which is still in print.
If you want to read a more fluid letter collection from the same era, I adore and recommend The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley.

7 January 2013

The Last Four Things

Title: The Last Four Things
Author: Paul Hoffman
Series: The Left Hand Of God trilogy
Year published: 2011
Pages: 497
Time It Took To Read: Ages!

I read the first of this trilogy almost two years ago, when I was postnatal and bored. I borrowed this book off my boyfriend back in July. JULY! I started reading it to procrastinate when I was staying with him, and should have been writing an essay. I brought it back with me, and put it on a shelf and there it sat until a couple of days ago. I decided to finish it before starting any of the new beauties I got for Christmas.
Gawd, how I regret ever beginning it. The story is that a rather sociopathic teenager, Thomas Cale, is preternaturally good at combat tactics, and this unusual gift has been interpreted as the Wrath of God by the Redeemers. The Redeemers are allegorical for Roman Catholicism. so, the human(ish) Cale becomes powerful and corrupted. 
The first book of the trilogy establishes the mythology, and was incredibly slow going. This book is slightly faster paced, but sketches lightly over description, making it difficult to visualise. When I read, I have a picture in my mind of what is happening. If I cannot imagine the world, then I cannot read it properly. Instead of skipping through the words, I trip up over them. It is discombobulating.
This book manages to be a dislocating in another sense. The world is fantastical, but the placenames are not. Halfway through a long, gory battle scene, reference is made to eating fish and chips in Memphis. And boom, the spell is broken by incongruity. Every time I put the book down, I forgot everything about it when I picked it back up. Cale, and possibly Bosco are the only characters with real impact.Even Cale's two sidekicks, Vague Henri and Kleist are never fully fleshed out.
Another bugbear is the lack of rounded female characters. The ones there are exist for sex, reproduction or betrayal. Part of this is due to the religious distrust of women in general, but mostly it's a very male orientated story.

It's a shame because it is an excellent premise and could be an awesome story. The writing doesn't do it justice.

2 January 2013

The Lady of The Rivers

Title: The Lady Of The Rivers
Author: Philippa Gregory
Series: The Cousins' War
Year published: 2011
Pages: 527
Time It Took To Read: 3 days

This isn't really my first book of the year. I started it over a month ago, but never really got into it. I made myself sit and finish it over the last couple of days, in between the revelry/drunkenness of the new year. I was vaguely unimpressed.
I'm quite a fan of historical fiction, especially from the Plantagenet and Tudor eras. I've read the other two Cousins' War books, and much preferred them to this rather sketchy offering. It centres on the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford and Lady Rivers. She was the grandmother of the Princes in the Tower, great grandmother of Henry VIII, through the maternal line, mother in law and grandmother in law of two kings.
The book begins with the capture and death of Joan d'Arc, moves through to Jacquetta's virginal marriage to the Duke of Bedford, her passionate and fecund marriage to Richard Woodville and her links to the monarchy of the time. A factual study of her life would be fascinating reading.
This fictionalised account places her at the heart of the beginning of the War of the Roses. However, trying to tell the story from her perspective involves a lot of jumping around, in both time period and place, to ensure that she can witness events that she may not have witnessed. The best historical fiction makes the transition between what is historically known and what is imagined seamless. This book does not manage that.
The focus is on her alleged mystical powers, stemming from her legendary descent from the water goddess Melusina. The book alleges that her first marriage, to the Duke of Bedford, was formed solely so he could use her sorcery. Her relationship with her queen, Margaret d'Anjou is explored in detail, with enormous emphasis on the witchcraft element. The natural conclusion of the witchcraft/Melusina storyline would be to Jacquetta's trial, and acquittal, for witchcraft in 1470. Instead, the book ends with her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, meeting Edward III, in 1464. The story then picks up in The White Queen, which predates this book by several years.

In short, it's a bit too patchy and I found it difficult to concentrate. I believe the series should have been written and published chronologically, though in Philippa Gregory's defence, she didn't plan to write the book until she was researching The White Queen.
I will definitely be buying the later instalments of this series though.