Things on Cowboy’s Head – Part 47

Cowboy's Head is taking a break today. She is taking a rest cure in the sink as she's been working *really* hard perfecting her nap skills.

Cowboy’s Head is taking a break today. She is taking a rest cure in the sink as she’s been working *really* hard perfecting her nap skills. (She looks a bit crabby here, but she’s not in real life. I think I interrupted her “private” time.)

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot. All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

 

Of Love and Hunger – Julian MacLaren-Ross (1947)

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Saw this novel somewhere on the interwebs, and it sounded just like something that I wanted to read at this point in the year when I am usually pining for autumn, cooler temps and a bit of rain. “Of Love and Hunger” has it all and it was great: cold, rainy, seaside, UK, 1940’s, realist, dingy bedsits, disaffected young men type of novel. (A bit early to be considered an “Angry Young Man” novel, but you can definitely see the beginnings here.) All of this sounds hideous, but it was a great read at the right time.

Richard Francis Fanshawe has been returned to England from his stint in India as a journalist for quite some time, but he is having a tough time finding work that fits him. (He’s not what I would call “the greatest employee in the world” though.) He finds himself working as a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner sales person in a rather run-down seaside town, living in a grimy boarding house, drinking and gambling after work and constantly being hounded by creditors and his ongoing debts.

Fanshawe makes friends with another cleaner sales person who ends up being fired and who takes a job as a worker on a three-month cruise line at sea. The friend asks Fanshawe, quite innocently, to “keep an eye” on his fairly new and young wife whilst he’s at sea, and the story goes from there.

Of courses, shenanigans ensue…

julian_mrWhat I really enjoyed about this novel was how it was written. It’s in first-person from the POV of Fanshawe, and the reader only knows and sees what Fanshawe knows and sees. The reader is also treated to the accent of this character and his way of speech – North (Norf) London and full of idioms and other dialect characteristics.

By the end of the read, I could really “hear” how Fanshawe talked, and found that this was a really well-drawn fleshed-out character for me. It rains a lot, he wears shabby macs (raincoats), he has to walk the pavement carrying a heavy box to demonstrate his wears, is behind with his rent, and is generally unhappy with his situation. Although he hates the whole set-up, there seems to be little determination to change his circumstances. He’d rather just float through life at this point (and complain about it to others in a similar situation). It’s a sense of lassitude with a heavy touch of fatalism. The war is coming, conscription is on the horizon and moving this way fast, so why try to change things even if he could?

Set in 1939, England was on the brink of war with Germany (war was declared in September of that year), conscription was just about to be introduced, and child evacuations and blackouts had started to take place. At the same time, politically speaking, there were ripples of Communism, Stalinism, and the implementation of the Great Terror in Russia where Stalin systematically killed “enemies of the people”. England was on edge, Hitler was moving west fast, the future was uncertain, unemployment was increasing, prices were rising, and this feeling of unease is really well described in the undertones of this book.

Julian MacLaren-Ross was a man who enjoyed drinking, social discourse, and not working, and who would rather hang out with others who also had a similar philosophy at the pubs in Fitzrovia, so it was rather a debauched group of friends that he had. He seems to have been a rule-breaker and rebel-without-much-cause, and after conscription, he was kicked out of the British army after deserting and going AWOL with a female friend. (It doesn’t sound like military life was a life he would enjoy much…)

In fact, even his biographer has referred to him as “the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent,” due to his preference for lounging around and drinking than doing something productive. He published some books and articles, but his reputation as a professional layabout would precede his literary output for years. (I imagine that there was a DSM diagnosis in there somewhere. He just happened to live at a time when that wasn’t widely in use or as generally accepted as it is now.)

So – overall this was a really good read, and thanks to whoever it was who brought it to my attention. I’d never had found it otherwise.

 

Showing the Flag – Jane Gardam (1989)

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This was kindly sent from my mum from England, a recent find for her and as we share similar reading tastes, I received it via the Royal Mail. Having loved Gardam’s other works (most of which I have read pre-blog), I had looked forward to this read and I wasn’t disappointed.

This is a collection of short stories and was, as is usually the case, a mixed bag. This collection had been mostly published in various literary places during the 1980’s and, in general, most had aged just fine, not particularly dated etc. Gardam is such a great writer that even if the story and I didn’t particularly enjoy each other, at least the writing was high caliber.

I think my favorite story was the title one, “Showing the Flag”, about a young boy going abroad via a large boat who loses something important to him, but to be honest, 90% of the other stories were really good. Each had a strong narrative arc, one or two were absurdist in places, and all of them were unpredictable at the endings. A couple were very Po-Mo in how they finished and I’m ok with that as I am not such a big fan of nice and tidy conclusions all wrapped in a big red ribbon. (I enjoy wondering how the story finishes once the writing had ended…)

So a fast read with some great writing and another title off the TBR shelf. Win, win, win. :-)

Things on Cowboy’s Head – Part 46

 

Things on Cowboy's Head. No. 46: Paintbrush.

Things on Cowboy’s Head. No. 46: Paintbrush.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot. All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

 

The Campaign for Domestic Happiness – Isabella Beeton (1861) – Part Two

book309This is the second part of my review about the Penguin Great Foods’ Beeton entry. Part One is here.

Desserts:

  • “The dessert certainly repays [for time and cost] in its general effect, the expenditure upon it of much pains, and it may be said, that, if there be any poetry at all in meals…there is poetry in dessert.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Re: garnishes: The ice-plant (literally a frozen plant with iced plants) is the best garnish to use as its “crystallized dew drops [produce] a marvelous effect in the height of summer”. (Advice duly noted and will be implemented at tonight’s supper although my plant might be a bit droopy as it’s not been in the fridge freezing…)
  • And then this (which, of course, is TRUE): “chocolate in different forms is indispensable to our desserts…”
  • One of the highly recommended puddings (i.e. dessert in U.S. talk) is Arrowroot Blancmange or perhaps Tipsy Cake which, as far as I can tell, is an old cake with a hole cut in the middle in which one pours loads of sherry and brandy, let it soak, and then cover with custard and almonds.

Tea and Coffee:

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(Note: The books in the Penguin Great Food Series have cover designs that are all based on real china service designs of the period appropriate to when the book was first published. Cool idea, methinks.)

 

 

  • “We think it highly probable…that the instinct of man…has discovered in these [drinks] the true means of giving to his food the desired and necessary quality…”
  • If you’re stuck, a good substitute for cream/milk in tea/coffee is this: “Add one new-laid egg beaten and added gradually to drink to prevent curdling.” (YUCK.)
  • Green tea: “Strong green tea is highly pernicious, and should never be partaken of too freely…” (Watch out, Starbucks customers… Plus re: image above: Digestive biccies prob. not around but yum all the same.)

And if you happen to be ill, here is what Beeton recommends. (My suggestion is that you run (or limp) very far away as fast as you can rather than have this.)

Invalid Jelly: 12 shanks of mutton, 1 lb lean beef, 3 quarts of water, 3 blades of mace (herb), an onion and toasted bread crusts. Boil the shanks, add the beef, and simmer for five hours. Strain the broth, and when it’s cold, take off all the fat. This is eaten either warm or cold. (Ugh. The threat of this would cause me to deny any and all illnesses whatsoever.) :-)

This was a fun read and reminds me to be very grateful that I’m not forced to endure Victorian era meals and food.

The Campaign for Domestic Happiness – Isabella Beeton (1861) – Part One

book309You know me – I love reading about social and domestic history of times past, and so when I rediscovered this book on the TBR piles, it took my fancy. Plus, I had just been reminded of the (slightly younger) version of the U.S. domestic handbook by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (pub. 1869) and so this book won the lottery of What-To-Read-Next.

beetonThis title is actually a collection of different pieces taken from Beeton’s well-known Book of Household Management, a valuable guide for the domestic householders of Victorian times and an intriguing social history document as seen through today’s eyes. It’s part of the Penguin Great Food Series which looks interesting in and of itself.

This post will be in a notes format as that seems to be the most sensible way to approach this:

Etiquette:

  • Morning calls (which actually happen after lunch) should be short (15-20 mins) and are required after a dinner party, ball, or picnic. The visiting lady may remove her boa and her neckerchief, but not her shawl or bonnet. (The latter being removed implies that the visitor is planning to stay much longer than the allotted time – what horrors!)
  • About gargling at the dinner table: “The French and other continentals have a habit of gargling the mouth; [sic], but it is a custom which no English gentlewoman should in the slightest degree, imitate.”

Entrees:

  • Re: “French beef”: “It is all but universally admitted that the beef of France is greatly inferior in quality to that of England, owing to inferiority of the pastures…”
  • It’s recommended to serve boiled Brussels Sprouts in the shape of a pineapple: “A very pretty appearance…”
  • Cucumbers should be “excluded from the regimen of the delicate” as it’s “neither nutrition or digestible…”
  • Other options suggested for dinner parties: fried ox-feet/cow-heel, veal cake (“so convenient for picnics”) and lark pie (especially with lark tongues). Potted partridge is also another option.

Dairy:

  • Ices/Sorbets: “The aged, delicate and children should abstain from ices or iced beverages…stilton as they are apt to provoke indisposition” in the digestive process.
  • Milk: “This bland and soothing article of diet is excellent for the majority of thin, nervous people.”
  • Cheese: “A celebrated gourmand remarked that a dinner without cheese is like a woman with one eye.” Also, Stilton (which my dad used to love) was also called British Parmesan, but Beeton warns that “decomposing cheese” is “not wholesome eating, and the line must be drawn somewhere…” (My dad would wait until his Stilton was almost walking away and then he would eat it. Chuckle.)

As this post was getting somewhat unwieldy, I’ll end here and post Part Two at another time.

P.S. WordPress has changed. Wah. (Although I have no right to complain as it’s free.) :-}

 

Only in London – Hanan Al-Shaykh (2002)

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After finding this title, both author and title new to me, I thought I’d see how it was. Four strangers meet on a bumpy plane ride, and then from there, the story continues with each of their lives as threads in a piece of cotton. If I can carry that metaphor further, it’s a really badly woven piece of cloth with great big holes in it, plot-wise.

Not being familiar with the author or the title (but quite happy to see that it was written by someone other than a rich white person), I started the book. It was pretty ok – the plane incident happens, the characters disembark and go off to their separate / connected lives.

You’d expect there to be some jumping around as you’re introduced to the lives of the characters, all immigrants to London (bar one), because that’s part of getting to know them. However, Al-Shaykh jumps around from character to character at random moments, and at times, it’s really tricky to know exactly who you’re reading about at times. It’s also tricky to keep track of where these characters are. At the start of the paragraph, the character is in a London hotel, and then by the end, s/he is on an airplane going somewhere, but where? How did s/he get there? Weren’t they just in a pub five seconds ago? This was one of the most disjointed reads I’d ever looked at.

And this was a shame as the book had so much potential. The author is a pretty established writer from Lebanon (the book was translated into English prior to pub in UK), so it’s not that this was a young scribe with a debut novel – I feel she should know how to do this by now with her publication record. I usually really enjoy books with individual plot strands that are woven together somehow, but in this book, you started out with the four character strands, but then the plot would be so convoluted and unevenly spread amongst the four that it was easy to forget who was who. (And besides, the blurb on the back cover gives the whole game away anyway.)

And the plot holes? Oh my. These came along quite regularly and were huge chasms (along with the gaps in continuity). At first, I thought I had been daydreaming when I was reading and just missed it, but then I realized that it was one of these “It’s not me – it’s you” cases.

It was a shame as this really had potential; my only explanation is that perhaps there was a reason why I am not familiar with the author or her work…. Sigh. I wish I could get this time back. I’m going to have to chalk it up to experience, I’m afraid. Her other work may be stronger, but I’m not sure that I’ll check it out.