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:

cup-of-tea

(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.

Things on Cowboy’s Head – Part 45

Things on Cowboy's Head. No, 45: Yellow flower from garden.

Things on Cowboy’s Head. No, 45: Yellow flower from garden.

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.)

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer (2011)

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With this volume receiving glowing reviews from all across the interwebs, I’m surprised that it took me so darned long to read it (months instead of days).  

A fairly typical stunt journo-type of book (“I tried doing this for a year and look what happened” theme), this was well written and interesting in places. Focused on learning how to remember better, Foer decides to train for the American Memory Championships using a former winner as his coach. In doing so, he covers large swathes of the memory-related topics with a heavy emphasis on the ancient writers such as Cicero and others who wrote treatises on the art of memory and rhetoric. Pretty interesting in parts, but all seemed so complicated to remember simple things. (Perhaps that’s just me. I’m more of  a Written List Person though.)

I finally finished this almost never-ending book. I don’t know why I had such a hard time finishing this one. The topic was interesting, the writing was fine, there were some interesting snippets in there… However, for some reason, it didn’t grab me and I really only finished it because I made myself do that.

Honestly, it’s a good book, but I found it extremely easy to put down and not pick up again.

 

Hiroshima – John Hersey (1946)

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“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk…”

Having seen this title on Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’s blog and reading her positive review, I picked it up at the local library. I only had a vague idea of the awful situation that happened in Hiroshima on August 06, 1945, and so I was a pretty clean slate to start the piece. Then, after being riveted to the book for 31,000 words, I finished the read, astonished that (a) this whole bomb thing happened in the first place, and (b) why it’s not really talked about much any more. (At least, not in the world in which I live.)

John Hersey was an award-winning journalist and writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. He’s also considered to be one of the earliest writers who wrote what was called “New Journalism” and I think would be called “literary non-fiction” now (or perhaps “creative non-fiction”) and, in fact, when this piece was published, it was considered so important that the editors of the New Yorker magazine handed over its large editorial space to print this whole thing in its entirety. (It was published in 1946, just over one year since the bomb had landed in Japan.)

Hiroshima in ruins. October 1945, two months after the explosion. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Hiroshima in ruins. October 1945, two months after the explosion. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Hersey follows six ordinary people who happened to be living in Hiroshima on that fateful day, and then he follows them as they endure the after-math of this horrible incident, and this structure was so effective as it allowed the reader to see the utter confusion and horror from a more human perspective as opposed from an international political view. I am not that well versed in the history of why the atom bomb was used (although I have read about it more), but it still sounds like a dreadful idea to me, affecting innocent townspeople who had *nothing* to do with the decisions of the warring governments of different countries.

Hersey writes in an objective voice, reporting what this small group of survivors tell him about how the bomb affected the lives of themselves, their families and Japan itself. Their multiple ongoing physical injuries and illnesses from the radiation lasted for years, not to mention the emotional toll that followed, and I was astounded to see that the government was reluctant to pay for the ongoing medical care for these people and how little the medical personnel knew about radiation sickness. (Interesting note: Japanese culture/language was not comfortable with the Hiroshima victims being called “survivors” interpreting the word as focusing on being alive which could suggest a slight to the sacred dead. Instead, the survivor group was named “hibakusha” which means “explosion-affected persons.”)

The a-bomb was dropped on August 6 sixty-nine years ago, and so it’s fading from memory as its survivors et al. pass on with just the other day, Google reporting that the last member of the Enola Gay flight crew had died. However, as this horrific event fades into the past, I think it’s very important for people to remember it and apply the lessons learned to present-day world politics.

So, this was an amazing read, and, right or wrong, it happened and it needs to be remembered. A powerful read which sent me down the numerous fact-finding rabbit holes on the interwebs to find out more.