‘I’ve been showing off, it’s a soothing feeling.’
Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day.
I have fallen off the blogging horse and it was that line, from a book about grabbing life by the horns, ironically enough, which threw me.
It made me think about what I’m doing here. I hadn’t considered before that much of the pleasure I’ve taken from blogging has, in fact, been due to the soothing effects of showing off. I’m not certain that my garden, over-run as it is with dandelions, or my amateur attempts at cooking, however excellent my cheese toasties, are good enough to merit boasting about.
Besides that, for a stay-at-home parent the school holidays demand a different rhythm. There is the pleasure of time spent helping the Small Girl with her Country House Sticker Book, you can probably guess that book was really a little present for myself, oh, the joy of it, and playing Paper Dolls and doing things for which there is no internet link, like picking bowls of white currants together and chasing butterflies.
The summer holidays also bring the complementary penance of never having ten minutes alone which makes any type of writing an almost impossible endeavour.
What little quiet time I have carved out has been spent at work. The highlights:
Tragically tardy, here is a link to my July edition of Cooking The Books. I chose a light and frivolous book, ideal for a bit of mindless beach reading. While the title may be less than appetising, the recipe, mind you, is seriously delicious. No-one has eaten my quiche (my mother’s quiche, to be exact) without asking for the secret to it’s light and, dare I say, frivolous texture.
Sarah Healy tweeted that my article on her book was a ‘candid, beautiful review’ which gave me quite the thrill. A review of the review, eh? It meant a lot to me. Click here to read about The Sisters Chase.
To the cohort of Persephone fans out there, thank you again for inviting me to join your ranks. I contacted the wonderful women at Persephone Books and they sent me reams of information and some gorgeous photos for this article: Though she be but little, she is fierce!If you haven’t yet come across Persephone Books, can I plead with you take a look? They are very special.
Last week was enjoyably spent testing recipes from Valeria Necchio‘s gorgeous new cookbook, Veneto. This, truly, was a labour of love. Our happiest days of newly-wedded bliss were lived in the Veneto. Teenage Son, my eldest, was born there and cut his teeth on the region’s crusty bread. It was a shock to realise how long ago it was but also how much the food, and a glass or two of Prosecco, still has the power to bring it all back. Click here to read my review of Veneto.
So tardy am I with this post that the time has come round to tell you about the August edition of Cooking The Books. Having taken the light and frivolous route for July, I opted this time for a classic. Both the book, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and the dish, Crabe Mexicaine, are mouth-watering. Click here for a sneak preview of Eat Like Hemingway.
Still, I am circling that horse and thinking it looks a bit too high for me. If I could only do it half-heartedly, without revealing too much of my self, it would be grand. But I can’t. I’ve decided to take a short break, to enjoy the summer, fleeting as it is, and to live life for a while without forming it into sentences in my head.
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I’m going to climb out on a limb here. Please don’t shove me off.
I’ve never been a good enough feminist, perhaps because I haven’t needed to be. I was raised by a fiercely independent mother, herself the daughter of a woman who ruled her roost and then some. I have access to healthcare and contraception. I’m married to a man who has demonstrated, many times over, that he stands between me and danger. I am sufficiently well educated to know that I am fortunate.
Here is what I believe: I believe that men and women both, obviously, are animals. I believe that we are driven, more than anything else, by instinct which is conducted by hormones. I believe that our primary instinct is to make babies and to protect them, just the same as every other mammal out there. I believe that men have an instinct to prove their strength which has led us in to no end of trouble.
In her Bailey’s Prize winning novel, The Power, Naomi Alderman asks what would happen if women ruled the world. What would happen if the next generation of women were physically, unassailably, stronger than men? How would things turn out? It’s an interesting question.
Alderman proposes that a genetic mutation has caused a new organ to develop in women’s bodies which gives them a super-human electrostatic power as well as the instincts to use it.
Here’s the thing: she makes women the stronger sex and then asks how things would change. Well, surprise, surprise, the stronger sex takes charge and it all turns out much the same. The stronger women are power hungry and greedy and completely dismissive of men. Some even rape and pillage, mutilate, torture and degrade the weaker sex.
When we ask, as we do, what would happen if women ruled the world is this: What would a world be like that was governed by the physically weaker sex? To give women an unassailable physical strength is to redefine them. Alderman just changed the nomenclature. She called the weaker sex men and put women in charge.
What I would rather she had asked is what, unimaginable, alterations to our society, our thinking and our instincts, even our endocrine system, would need to take place for the physically weaker sex to take control of the planet. Is there a point in our future where intellectual ability could simply outweigh physical strength?
There’s another way of looking at this book. Alderman also examines how we think about the way women have been treated and maltreated throughout history. She suggests that we are thoroughly conditioned to accept the second class status of women. This is probably true. All the same, I can’t accept that it is any more shocking to imagine unborn boys being wilfully aborted by families desperate for a daughter, or more horrifying that the genitalia of young boys would be mutilated or in any way worse than young men might be terrorised, raped, scarred, trafficked, humiliated, bought, sold or killed. It certainly didn’t make for comfortable reading but I can’t imagine that any decent man who has cradled his infant daughter in his arms isn’t at least as much repulsed by the undeniable abuse of women. Does the author really believe that men don’t possess that much empathy? Does she really believe that women don’t?
Interestingly, not one of the archetypal strong women in this book, not the ambitious politician, nor the religious reader, nor the crime boss, has a son. The women I know would take each other’s eyes out, if it came to it, to protect their sons. For the vast majority of us, protecting our offspring, and guarding our nest, is the be all and end all.
I am glad that I live at a time and in a country where this book is published, lauded and even applauded. Equally, I’m glad to live at a time and place where I don’t have to like it.
Does The Power have an interesting and original premise? Yes, it’s clever and well-constructed but the argument, in my opinion, is intrinsically flawed.
Is it a good read? That depends. The plot is compelling but not nearly so much so as the headline reviews (‘kick-ass, thrill a minute vim’) had led me to expect. The characters are cartoonish ‘types’ and it all comes off a little like watching a school production of a Shakespearian play with all the male characters being played by earnest girls with painted beards.
Did The Power make me think, and re-think my understanding of feminism? Absolutely; that’s why I’m here with a bee in my bonnet. I’m still not, it seems, a good enough feminist.
I feel obliged to warn readers that this book contains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence. Having said that, I think it would certainly add spark to a book club meeting and I’d love to know what you think.
I’ve no idea how it can possibly have come about but I find I have read another Hemingway. It was entirely unintentional, I assure you. I had sworn to avoid the man as being far too depressing but his books, somehow, keep popping up just as I mutter the words, ‘what will I read next?’
A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris, turns out to be barely an amuse bouche of a book at just 125 easily read pages. That’s the thing; he writes with such simple eloquence, you can knock it back with barely a thought until the bitter note at the end leaves you reeling with sadness.
He’s a bit of an arse too, isn’t he? I mean, I just can’t bring myself to like him. Or perhaps it’s that I feel I wouldn’t trust him. There’s something else though: his writing is sexy. Listen, it’s a much misused word. I’m the first to roll my eyes in despair when I hear a chef describing a cheese toastie as sexy, and you are all aware of the intensity of my relationship with cheese toasties, but I do think Hemingway, well, just has it. Charisma. Scott Fitzgerald, apparently, turned to Hemingway for advice on how to satisfy Zelda. Poor Scott, I don’t suppose he expected his buddy to publish the conversation in a book. While we are on the subject, can anyone tell me whether that scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls is the origin of the phrase the earth moved ?
‘…suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.’
Moving swiftly along…he writes a lot about visiting Gertrude Stein at her salon and recounts some of her advice to him. Stein advised Hemingway to stop writing stories which were inaccrochable. I had to look that one up. I think its safe to say he ignored her.
She refused to discuss Joyce and implemented a three strike rule where those who mentioned his books a third time were never invited back. I might do the same, if only to avoid embarrassing omissions from personal reading list (note to self: try Ulysses again).
‘You should only read what is good or what is frankly bad.’
Sound advice. I wallowed merrily in Hello magazine this morning and it did me a power of good (those royal toddlers are too cute). Of course, as Hemingway points out, choosing books is just another form of gambling; no book, whatever the reviews say, is a sure thing.
Word of mouth is the way to go and there are some lovely people hereabouts who have never put me wrong when it comes to book recommendations. Several of you urged me to take a look at Persephone Books and, oh, my goodness, what a well spring of pure joy I have discovered! Thank you, so much, for pointing me in the right direction. I have, in turn, pointed Husband in the same direction with a whisper of ‘all I want for Christmas…’
So far, I have read E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. I can’t recall laughing aloud so heartily or so often since I read Adrian Mole. Proper, nearly choked on my coffee, laughter. There aren’t enough funny books anymore. I’ll write more about this another day. I’m moving on, gleefully, to Agnes Jekyll’s (sister-in-law to Gertrude of the rose) Kitchen Essays.
Where was I? Oh yes, Gertrude Stein’s advice to Hemingway: ‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she told him,’it’s that simple. No-one who is not very rich can do both.’
I opted for a picture, just the one, and it’s very small, but I love it. Husband, Teenage Daughter and I met up with a dear old friend, with excellent taste it must be said, and we all went along to the Crawford School of Art Graduation Exhibition. The clientele was almost like a separate side exhibition of the Cork populace. The place was jammers with blue-haired artistic types who had clearly constructed their own clothes from crisp packets, their proud relations, canny financial types with a keen eye for a bargain and a few random punters like ourselves doing our best not to accidentally drink an installation.
Belonging, firmly, in the ‘not very rich’ category, I spent the next evening darning the elbows of school jumpers and re-enforcing the toes of my beloved espadrilles.
Dinner, following this week’s splurges on fine books and fancy pictures, must be foraged from the garden. Spuds, peas, beans, courgettes and herbage a plenty; what more could you want?
It has occurred to me that I have scuppered my chances of substantial blogging ‘success’ by stubbornly refusing, against advice, to separate the books from the baking, etc. I’m sticking to my guns. I’m a housewife; surely that’s niche enough these days. I bake, I garden, I make and mend, I moan a lot, occasionally rejoice, and I read a ton of books. Because of this blog, my lovely fellow-bloggers, and your kind comments, I know I am not alone. That, my friends, is all I need.
One more thing: while I am fortunate enough to be paid for contributions to Bookwitty.com, my blog posts are not sponsored in any way and are not affiliate-linked. If I mention a book here, or link on to a review, it is simply because I really love it and want you to know about it. That’s all.
I have no idea what the collective noun is for gooseberries but the word around here is glut. I’ve run short of jam jars and the freezer is already chock-a-block and so, I have been driven to remarkable (by my standards) creativity.
There are, in my garden, two types of gooseberry bush. The first is a vicious creature, intent on impaling its owner with inch-long thorns.The fruits of this bush, which take considerable determination to gather, are massive, green, hirsute, tough-skinned, globules of concentrated citric acid. They make excellent jam (as seen in this post) and now, believe it or not, they make a fabulous kimchi. Now listen, I’m no expert, the only kimchi I’ve eaten thus far are those I’ve made myself. I don’t even know whether it is correct to write kimchi or kimchis in the previous sentence. Whichever, this is tasty stuff. Husband and I have been piling it up on burgers and barbecued chicken. The recipe is a variation on the Rhubarb Kimchi in Fiery Fermentsby Christopher and Kristin Shockey. I recommend their book as an excellent guide for any fellow novice fermenters. Take a look at their website, here. If you have a few gooseberries, this is surely worth trying for novelty factor alone.
300g gooseberries, sliced as finely as patience allows
3 scallions (spring onions), sliced finely
1 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste
Generous tablespoon of chilli flakes
Generous tablespoon of grated fresh ginger.
Combine everything together in a bowl and give it a good mix until it all looks a bit juicy. Then, pack the mixture into a small fermenting jar, if you have one. I don’t. I’ve used either small Kilner jars or recycled beetroot jars which seem to be exactly the right size for our appetites. The important thing is to press it down as firmly as you can to eliminate as much air as possible.
Leave the jar in a shady corner of the kitchen for a week, remembering to ‘burp’ it daily by the simple expedient of quickly opening it and closing it again. You should see tiny bubbles so you know it’s alive. The flavours mellow and mingle as the week progresses.
It’s ready to eat. I keep it in the fridge too prevent further fermentation or spoiling.
The second variety is a far more gentle gooseberry; smaller, smooth-skinned and turning a rosy pink under the cerulean blue skies of this past week. With a stroke of pure genius (it might have been the sun) I had a notion of making a Gooseberry Clafoutis. This is a variation on a recipe for Rhubarb Clafoutis taken from a children’s cookbook (Yumee by Aoileann Garavaglia) so it’s dead easy and, honestly, very yumee. I doubled the recipe; you could easily halve it again if your home is not populated, as mine is, by ravaging savages.
200ml good, full fat, natural yogurt (my favourite is the greek-style from Lidl)
4 tb.sp. golden syrup.
Place the topped and tailed gooseberries in a large, oven-proof dish. Mine is a 28cm diameter tart dish but a lasagne dish works fine too.
Whisk together the remaining ingredients to make a custard and pour over the gooseberries.
Bake at 180°C for 35-40 minutes. Watch it closely at the end and try to nab it when the edges are browning but the centre still has a wobble to it.
Serve with cream and a good book. (I’m reading Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield; it’s a joy! Thanks, Sam, for convincing me to treat myself.)
If even those simple recipes seem too much like hard work or if, like me, you STILL have MORE gooseberries, try this one.
The One-Week-When-The-Sun-Shines-In-Ireland Dinner.
Suggest to husband that he take the barbecue you bought him for Christmas out of the bubble wrap. Allow Husband cook just as much MEAT as his heart desires. Pass everyone a ripe tomato for sake of conscience.
Suggest to offspring that they pick everything that’s ripe, with a particular emphasis on GOOSEBERRIES, and encourage to have huge fun wrapping fruit in tinfoil parcels (I’ve read, by the way, that Americans find our persistence with tinfoil quaint). Deliver parcels to expert at barbecue.
Relax in the company of Small Reader and above-mentioned Provincial Lady.
Relish, ideally with vanilla icecream, the fruits of your labour.
The very first published piece of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, which I suspect may have been the first of any fan fiction, was a book called Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton. Having no small number of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs on my own shelves, I had a notion of collating a list. Holy Moly, I had no idea how many were out there! A girl could spend her entire life reading nothing else. Darcy and Elizabeth grow old, or don’t, have two sons, have five daughters, have affairs with Bingley and Charlotte respectively (yes, in that order), battle zombies, are transformed into Antipodean animals, and, most horrifying of all, agree to take part in a reality TV show.
Meanwhile, my lovely twelve-year-old daughter has been reading the real thing. She ran upstairs last night to tell me, through the bathroom door (why must big announcements always be made through the bathroom door), that she had finished it.
‘It was so exciting! At the end! It all happened so fast! After all the long stories! With Wickham and everything! And then Jane and Bingley! And then Elizabeth and Darcy! It was like wham, wham, wham, The End! But what will I read now?’
Like thousands before her…
Eldest daughter helped me design a solution to finding your ideal dose of Darcy. For rapid reviews of these books, click here.
Big news, big news! Rose Servitova is here (well, you know the way, sort of, virtually, here) and she is brilliant. But hang on, let me start at the beginning.
For me, Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice has been the cause of Delight and Despair as I have spent a lifetime searching for anything to match it. I’m thrilled to have discovered a real gem which I think shall sit quite happily alongside my battered and worn Austen collection.
The Longbourn Letters, by Rose Servitova, is a collection of the correspondence between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins over a period of seven years including the events of Pride and Prejudice. The gentlemen exchange as much commentary on gardening affairs as they do on family exploits with particular attention paid to Mr. Bennet’s miraculous and prize-winning blackcurrants.
Mr. Bennet frequently resorts to a bolstering measure of port, or cognac, or fine wine (as available) before tackling correspondence with the indefatigable Mr Collins and his letters, while polite and jovial, seem to primarily serve as a method of keeping his cousin at arm’s length.
‘May I caution you, sir, not to trouble yourself with rushing to our sides.’
Nevertheless, Mr. Collins is a deal more bearable in writing than in person and Mr. Bennet grows to appreciate Collins’ candour and naïveté.
‘I must confess, I would not give up our correspondence for all the geese in the land, or for all the port either, for that matter, although the sacrifice be greater.’
The Longbourn Letters convinced me completely. It was a joy to become better acquainted with Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins and to witness the rather moving relationship which develops between them. I willingly admit to shedding a tear and fear I may have been overheard snorting with laughter in a most unladylike manner.
Rose Servitova, it turns out, is a funny and charming woman, an Irish woman at that, and an excellent correspondent. I have greatly enjoyed a rapid-fire exchange of emails with her over the last couple of weeks and now, by the magic of the internet, here she is to chat with me about her book.
Rose, how and when did you first come to read Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice in particular?
I first came across Jane Austen’s works at my grandmother’s house. She kept all the classics, happy, happy days.
If you were to describe yourself as one of the Bennet girls, which would you be?
Mary Bennet – would you believe? I see her as a spiritual and deep individual, who does not conform to what’s expected of her by society. In my version of her, she is nature-loving and likes lots of alone time. I see her as being as witty as Mr Bennet but as she does not use it in the same beguiling way that Lizzy does, it is not seen as ‘charm’ or as an attractive, effeminate wit but as something quite out of place in a society where she should not be smarter than the men in her company.
Yours is an epistolary novel. Are you, in real life, a writer of letters?
I certainly did write hundreds of letters in my lifetime but only send emails now – rarely letters. I await a ‘beam-me-up Scotty’ machine. Then the fun will begin!
Jane Austen included lots of letters in her novels. Do you think people sometimes reveal more in a letter than they might in conversation?
When emotions are hard to deal with, it may be easier to express in word rather than in person. On the other hand, there’s the risk of misconstruing a message and I have often had to send a clarifying correspondence because I saw that unintentional mischief was afoot.
The book opens with the discovery of a box of letters long hidden behind the shelves of Longbourn’s library. Would you agree that many of us who grew up reading Austen are more than half convinced that Pride and Prejudice really happened?
You would be surprised if I told you how many people asked me about the letters I discovered, so convinced they were by the prologue. They knew I had written a piece of fiction but they were convinced, somehow, that these letters were real, including their discovery. It made me laugh. I do think that The Longbourn Letters is more ‘real’ and convincing in that sense than the original Pride & Prejudice because there’s no pandering to a plot or a romantic storyline, there is just an unfolding of a relationship, that will catch you unawares. It is only at the end that you really see how far they’ve come, though the humour and shenanigans keep the reader engaged throughout.
Did Jane Austen’s plot figure more as a constraint or as a support to your novel?
Excellent question!! It has been noticed by some reviewers, very cunningly, that the novel really takes off once the plot of Pride & Prejudice comes to an end in the middle of the second chapter of The Longbourn Letters….and they would be right. It was a great scaffolding to help me along at first and I never had any intention of deviating from Austen’s genius, but once I was freed from the storyline of Pride & Prejudice I could allow Mr Collins and Mr Bennet the freedom to get on with things themselves…and they did not disappoint.
Mr. Bennet is one of Austen’s wittiest characters while poor Mr. Collins is all but witless. Why did you think their relationship could develop beyond the demands of duty?
To me it was as obvious as Darcy and Elizabeth. Mr Collins and Mr Bennet were made for each other and I have no doubt that when writing, Austen was aware of how much their contrasting with each other showed the other one up. While avoiding the company of Mr Collins, Mr Bennet confessed that he relished his letters. Due to inheritance, marriage to a neighbour and Lady Catherine’s nephew becoming Mr Bennet’s son-in-law, they were destined to see and hear more from each other over time and not less. I had to learn what those letters contained, how they maintained correspondence over the years and did they change any for being in each other’s lives.
I’ve long believed that there is a special bond between cousins, even those whose characters seem incompatible. It seems to me that your book touches on that bond. Would you agree?
Absolutely! Some of my closest friends are my cousins. There is a bond – a pulling together that happens as a result of being cousins that is very special, especially if you spent time together in your youth. It’s a Famous-Five type relationship.
You seem to have channelled the voices of Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Did that come easily? Did you find yourself writing regency style texts and emails to family and friends?
Haha! It amazed me how easy it was for me to get inside their heads. It says a lot about the author, in my opinion – an ability to have a dry sense of humour and be as ‘thick as a ditch’ at the same time. The letters were a good way to go because once one was written, I knew immediately how the other would respond. I also found it so easy to write ‘regency’ as you refer to it. Perhaps my internal dialogue is reminiscent of the late 18th century.
I finished your book with damp cheeks and a wobbly chin. Were you sad to reach the end of their correspondence? Are you tempted to further explore Austen’s characters?
Thank you for that, I still cry and laugh at certain parts (and I know what each letter contains). No, there was no sadness. It felt complete. In fact, one person in the industry recommended I add an extra 30,000 words and publishers might be interested. I said ‘no’, it was perfect as it was and I don’t care about word counts and watering down plots to get extra pages. It was about my two men and their tale had been told and was just right. Life is like that. Things don’t always go on, they finish when they finish. I am tempted to explore more Austen characters but will they ever be as light and easy to write as The Longbourn Letters– I doubt it but I will give it a go.
I was chuffed to discover that Austen’s first love was Irish. Tell me a little about Tom leFroy.
It was certainly a romance-of-sorts that had the potential to develop into something but his relations, seeing that ‘danger’ was afoot, separated them. He was the eldest of eleven children, whom he was obliged to support and so he was expected to ‘marry well’ and climb to the top of his career in law. This he did do.
Limerick has good cause then to join in the celebration of Jane Austen’s bicentenary. Tell me about the events you have planned.
They cover screen, theatre, fashion, music, dance, architecture and talks/workshops from July to December 2017. To name but a few, at this early stage, I can confirm that director Whit Stillman will be joining us for a screening of Love and Friendship with Q&A afterwards. The amazing Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, Limerick woman and costume designer on Becoming Jane, Love and Friendship, Brideshead Revisited and many more, will be joining us. The Irish World Acadamy of Music & Dance collaborate with Sound Heritage Ireland to see music of the era come to life again in one of the Georgian manors in the region, the one-woman comedy Promise & Promiscuity is coming to theatres, a whole host of speakers and historical costumers are presenting at a number of incredibly popular afternoon tea events held at the wonderful Georgian hotel, No 1 Pery Square. There is more but please check this link for individual event details and for a full programme when finalised www.facebook.com/janeausten200limerick .
You can discover more about Rose and her book at these links:
The facts of the matter are these:
At a little after eight o’clock in the morning of the first Friday in June, Marcel Després landed in my postbox in the form of a book called Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick.
I flicked, as I am wont to do, to the first page and read a paragraph.
And then another.
And didn’t stop, except to make coffee and point my family towards food, until I had read, and revelled in, the last paragraph. Click to read on.