Talking About Food.

I think I said too much.

There was a long, very long, time in my life when I said basically nothing. I held it all inside. I was the very epitome of ‘bottled up’. And then I started writing and it was like all sorts of fizzy stuff rose to the top and spluttered out from under the cap. Mainly here.

It feels good, a release valve and all that, but this weekend I found myself in a writing workshop and that bottle got properly shaken up and I may have made a complete fool of myself.

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The event was labelled as a FOOD writing workshop and I, in my innocence, thought we might be asked to brainstorm effective adjectives to describe cheesecake, or instructed on international standards of measurement. Remember, I studied SCIENCE! Our lab write-ups were not expected to stir the emotions. We weren’t required to read them aloud to an expectant circle of fellow scientists who might comment on our choice of the word incubate over cook, dispense over pour or centrifuge over stir vigorously. 

Nope. No lists at all of handy adjectives, nor tables nor graphs, nor even rules about Oxford commas, and the minute I saw those chairs arranged in a CIRCLE I knew I was in Trouble.

Our first task was to write a poem.

Dear God, I thought, are they serious? We had five minutes to choose from some vaguely culinary objects placed on a table, and then another ten minutes, or so, to compose a poem.

This was immediately followed by the sheer terror of realisation that I would have to read it aloud.

People are lovely. The kindness of strangers is such a reassuring thing. There were eleven of us: 5 Irish, 1 English, 3 American and, bizarrely, 2 unrelated Mexicans. What was striking, I suppose, was that despite disparate backgrounds and various motivations, everyone immersed themselves in the experience and went with it. There was no place to hide. Everyone, every single person, was kind and generous.  The teachers/ facilitators/ counselors, Regina Sexton and Jools Gilson, were patient and insightful and, thankfully, funny. It felt more like therapy than school. Seriously, not like science, not even a little bit. I can’t even tell whether or not I learned anything.

The reward for reading a poem aloud came in the form of a break, with tall pots of coffee and buttery shortbread hearts served by ladies in navy uniforms and white broderie anglaise trimmed aprons. Nice.

But, the respite was short-lived and the second task did the shaking. We were asked to write a recipe, but not really a recipe, more a memoir piece with food, or a recipe, at its core. You see the danger here, don’t you?

I was already brimming with endorphins and charged with caffeine. I sat facing the wall in the same corner where I had written the poem and I was crying before I reached the first full stop.

Spill, spill, spill. A memory on a page. Tears and snot all over the place.

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In my defence, I wasn’t the only one. It’s fascinating to me how much emotion is bound up in our memories of food. Or, on the other hand, how much food we even remember.

Dorcas Barry gave a talk on Saturday about the idea of emotional nourishment. Apparently, when we experience a happy, joyful, meal with family or friends, we experience a rush of oxytocin which not only aids digestion but has incredible health benefits. Oxytocin drastically reduces our risk of heart disease, even in the face of a toxic diet. There’s even science to prove it.

Now, here’s the thing, when we REMEMBER that lovely, happy meal with loved ones, we get exactly the same PHYSICAL rush of oxytocin and the same protective effect, even at a distance of years or decades from the actual plate of food. So, when the kids share a good laugh over passing all their sprouts to my plate, or a potato that bears a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, they are creating memories that will, literally, protect their hearts, over and over again, for the rest of their lives. And when we sit down on Christmas Eve and remember all the other Christmases, we are laying down a barrier against all the goose fat we are about to consume. Isn’t that amazing?

It seems to me, and I would love to know if anyone out there knows more about this, that we have evolved so that people who reminisce, recall, read, talk and write (even terrible poetry) about food actually have a better chance of survival. Hah! I feel I have found the ultimate justification for all my waffling.

I’d like to mention two fellow (and FAR superior) bloggers from the workshop.

Kathy writes Gluts and Gluttony, a beautifully written blog about growing and cooking food in the Cotswolds.

Lily writes A Mexican Cook, in her friendly, cheerful, authentic voice, about Mexican food and how to cook it in Ireland.

Litfest17 was a blast. I was still spilling words all days Saturday, asking stupid questions of bemused celebrity chefs and gushing idiotically in my excitement at meeting some of my heroes.

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Brian McGinn, producer of Chef’s Table, talks about how to tell food stories. ‘Once you’ve had a scone in Ballymaloe House in the morning,  with the jam and the butter and everything, you’re like, shit, when can I have more scones and, hey, what other scones are out there?’
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Rebecca Sullivan who, in real life, is just as warm and passionate as her book made me believe. She hardly mentioned The Art of the Natural Home and spoke, instead, about the preservation of native Australian foods. A beautiful person.
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RTE’s John Bowman hosts a foodie special of Questions and Answers, with Rory O’Connell, Michael Kelly and Joanne Blytheman.

 

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A very proud Granny watches Willow Xena singing on stage.

And the food, oh God, we could be here for hours but my oxytocin levels might reach dangerous heights.

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Fingal Ferguson, charcutier and knife-maker, struggles to balance cooking with the demands of celebrity.
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#flaggy shore oysters
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Gaelic Escargots anyone? I’m afraid I was NOT brave enough. Maybe next year.
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Source of a mouth-watering Lamington square for ‘second breakfast’.

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‘Roll up, roll up, cme get your oxytocin here!’
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The maker of the best Cacciocavallo Toastie in the land (first lunch). Be still my heart.
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Happy as clams (second lunch).
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The spoils. A Kombucha starter, a sourdough starter from Arbutus, an unbelievable syrup for gin cocktails and a thingymabob for holding dough.

Yes, yes, I know, I can’t NOT put it in. It’s nothing much. You’ll wonder now, what all the fuss was about.

How To Cook Eggs.

It was the way she made eggs for me, in the morning or maybe for lunch.

Always the same ancient saucepan, the enamel worn off it and a handle that would brand you if you didn’t know how to position it just right on the orange-glowing electric coil.

She would count in the eggs, two for me and two for her, and pour water from the tap, just enough to cover them, and cook them then, at a gently knocking simmer, until they were exactly right.

No timers or gadgets, just somehow knowing when they were done, with the white white, not snotty, and the yolk still having a bit of run to it.

What I remember best are the sounds. The crack of the spoon against the eggshell, the scooping out of the egg into a cup, then a quick clinking stir with a knob of butter and a pinch of salt until it was amalgamated together into golden, endlessly comforting, googy eggs.IMG_7034

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Two Books Worth Their Salt.

Feeding a Family. Sarah Waldman.

Book shopping has always, for as long as I can remember, been the only type of shopping I truly enjoy. I’m very picky when choosing books and have become ever more so. I get quite annoyed with myself when I am suckered by publicity into buying a mediocre book.

When I’m reviewing books, I try to write what it is I like about a book. But, there are some books, the books that rise above the average, that I want to hold up above my head and wave towards you saying, LOOK, this is a book worth your time and money.

A mixed perk/pressure of my book reviewing work is that I can sometimes choose books from a publisher’s advance catalogue but, to do that, I must rely on gut instinct as there are rarely any reliable reviews to help. I am obliged to, lierally, judge a book by its cover. I’m on tenterhooks then, when book post arrives, for fear I will be let down.

In the last month, I have been unexpectedly delighted by two books. Both are far more practical and useful than I could have hoped. More surprisingly, both have made me think deeply about how I am raising this little family of mine.

The first is Feeding a Family by Sarah Waldman. I came across this by happenstance as it had the same publisher (Roost) as Eat This Poem. Obviously, as feeding a family is my primary concern, I was attracted by the title. In just a few short weeks, this book has become the mainstay of our dinner time. It is the best blend of healthy/tasty/practical that I’ve come across in this style of book. Perhaps the best endorsement is that my kids won’t let me give it away. Only one caveat: measurements are mostly in American cups and spoons and sticks of butter, all that malarkey. I have an imperial measure that has both English and American cup markings on it which is dead handy.

Cookbooks are always expensive but, if you are trying to feed a family, particularly a young family, this is a good investment. Read my full review here.

Feeding a Family. Sarah Waldman.

The second is The Art of the Natural Home by Rebecca Sullivan.Rebecca Sullivan. The Art of the Natural Home.

This is a book of recipes to make natural (meaning safe, environmentally harmless and, for the most part, even edible) products that most people would never even consider trying to make. Oven cleaner, kitchen spray, food colouring, moisturiser, shampoo, even mascara!

My girls and I got a real kick out of the cosmetics section and I was thrilled by their reaction to it.

Best of all, the products work. This book, genuinely, has the power to change how you think about buying stuff.

Don’t believe me? Oh ye of little faith…read my full review here.

I’m off now to dolly myself up (cocoa blusher and all) for Teenage Son’s End Of Year school mass. My boy has finished school. Weird.

I’ve enrolled in a food writing workshop at Litfest17 in Ballymaloe tomorrow. I’m very worried that ‘workshop’ implies actual work. They won’t make me stand up and read something, will they? Waaah!

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Truth is Beauty.

A few weeks ago, my attention was drawn (thanks, Sam) to this post on the really lovely Countryside Tales blog. It’s a very practical post, with reams of useful information for those who would like to share their garden with bees and butterflies.

However, it was these lines that lodged in my head:

‘A lot of attention has rightly been given in recent years to encouraging people to provide nectar sources in their gardens but we also need to provide food plants and to be prepared for these food plants to be eaten and to look nibbled. This may go against the grain for many gardeners, but if we want to support the continued survival of our wildlife (and through them our own), we need to look after them properly and shift our aesthetics a little bit as a result.’ (CT from Countryside Tales)

My mother and grandmother, both wonderful gardeners, set great store by traditional and natural methods BUT they also resorted to the failsafe of chemical pesticides and herbicides when necessary because their ultimate goal was a good display of perfect flowers. That’s the mindset I began with but recently it has shifted.

My Anenome coronaria had massive chunks taken from the petals this year. It was as if someone had taken a scissors and trimmed the petals right off. Touring the garden with me, my Mum (box, closed) suggested a garlic spray. That seemed like a good plan but then, I had to wonder why. Hardly anyone sees the garden but me and I get as much pleasure from the bugs as I do from the flowers so, even from a purely selfish standpoint, it wasn’t worth the effort of mashing garlic (the bugs in my garden benefit greatly from my sheer laziness).

Strangely, that was something of a turning point. CT’s post came soon after and somehow validated my new viewpoint. This might not sound like a big thing and I’m not managing to express it very well. Wiser women than me have written about why gardening is good for body and soul but one reason is surely that it brings us in touch with nature and another is that it envelopes us in beauty.

The thing is, what exactly does beautiful mean? In lots of ways, it means something different to me now than when I was younger. All sorts of imperfections, freckles, laughter lines, scars, scuffed floors and ear-marked pages, move me to that indrawn breath that spells beauty.

My constant is this; let it be real. That line from Keats was one of the few lines of school poetry I took to heart:

 ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

 

Are the perfectly circular holes in my rose petals beautiful?IMG_6617

I think they are. Letting go of perfection, or taking a different view of perfection, has come as a huge relief.

Whatever bug felt the desire to dine on roses, or maybe line their bed with fragrant pink petals (lucky bug), they have moved on. This week’s challenge is simply rain.

I’ve whined long and hard about rain in these pages but, not today. I’ve found breathtaking beauty in raindrops.

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You will still, however, find me guilty of killing slugs. Anyone yet discover the beauty in slugs?

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New Girl.

New Girl.

That Tracy Chevalier book, New Boy, did that thing that good books, the best books, sometimes do. It shook one of my boxes until the clasp opened and old aches leaked out.  I didn’t manage to write the review I wanted to write because I was avoiding it. Too busy stuffing it all back in the box and sitting on the lid. The way books work on my mind is still a complete mystery to me but here is a weird thing. I went straight from New Boy to The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. It’s a free falling, foul mouthed blast of brutal honesty. I’m hitting the final quarter of it and find it has turned a key somewhere. Unleashed me.

Where to start, where to start…

I was a new girl, over and over, a perpetual new girl, a repeat offender. The first time, I was nine. But there is something important here. It’s not being the new girl that’s the thing, it’s being different, and that started before we moved. Do you remember the ocean at the end of my bed? That changed everything, just as much as if it had actually changed the colour of my skin. My mother mourned her lost baby and raged against the wreck of her marriage. Glass after glass crashed against the kitchen wall. My father took the train to Galway to comfort his bereaved mistress. We met him one weekend in Athlone, the halfway mark, and he gave me The Hobbit. That’s all I kept outside the box. But we all were marked. We may as well have been burnt black.

It was as if the kids in the school yard could smell smoke on my clothes. There was something not right about me. Something dangerous. And then my parents embarked on a new beginning.

We left Kildare on the very day Diana married Charles. I stood in front of the portable telly in the kitchen watching a fairytale unfold while men carried the table away, the chair from under me.

And then I was the New Girl. Gentle, kindly Sr. Frances taking me under the wing of her habit, reading a book about Benji the dog while I cried into my folded arms.

It wasn’t awful. I wasn’t bullied. I just moved round the edges like an extra piece of a jigsaw. Cork people speak a different language, by the way, it was Christmas before I understood a whole sentence or could distinguish ‘nyah’ (no) from ‘yah’ (yes). Actually, I still run into trouble with that one.

See, I’m feeling better already.

I liked the order of the place. I liked wearing a uniform, navy pinafore and pink jumper that my mother had made on her knitting machine before we left Kildare. I don’t remember the knitting machine turning up in Cork, now that I think about it. I liked changing into indoor slippers and being the best at Geography. To be fair, the girls were nice. I just couldn’t find a place to fit.

Then, a year later, my mother decided that she wouldn’t sleep with a knife under her pillow any longer and we would leave him. I don’t know why she had a knife under her pillow but they could easily have killed each other then. They were out of their minds, both of them. Shakespeare would have got some good material out of them.

Dublin, then, to share the home of one of her girlfriends and a Dublin city school with BOYS, eighteen boys in the class and only nine girls, including the new girl. Christ, that was a long way from the polished convent floors. They were wild. I sat, mostly, in stunned silence while boys used those cylindrical rubbers that came in plastic tubes to demonstrate the mechanics of intercourse.

The girls, being city girls, had been to stage school and spent yard time perfecting their dance routine to Phil Collins’ You Can’t Hurry Love.  I can only dance when I’m drunk and, at eleven, I was a ways off that yet so I read books. I can’t remember what I read but I can see, in my head, the view over the top of my book and them dancing beyond. There was one manipulative little bitch whose father was in advertising. Anyone remember the ad for Kimberley, Mikado and Coconut Creams with all the kids on a roller coaster? Yeah, she was in the roller coaster. Of course she was. Oh Damned Iago.

After that, my mother determined to reclaim her home in Cork and kicked my father out. Or he left. Who knows? I think he took my younger sister with him.

Old Girl New Girl turns out to be even harder. Then there’s a very fuzzy bit and then my aunt taking me to Dublin late at night and installing me in her local school. I only remember my aunt grilling me on lines of poetry homework. Nobody had checked my homework in years. I don’t think I spoke in that classroom or schoolyard. I didn’t want to go home and then I did.

Back in Cork, they were still nice girls, they really were. There was a really good teacher and at the risk of being repetitive, can I say, on the very off chance that someone reading this can send my love and gratitude to Mrs Leahy, who minded me and taught me how to make a tiered ra-ra skirt, please do.

I made a friend. Someone kind enough to brush the smuts off my clothes and have a laugh. And that’s really all it takes, isn’t it? One person who stays quiet long enough to let you be yourself. Someone who doesn’t set about rattling your boxes but sets their box on top of yours to keep it company. She was great. We had sleepovers and midnight feasts. We watched Remington Steele and played, PLAYED, at being private detectives. We listened to an awful, awful lot of Chris de Burgh. Look, nobody’s perfect. From then on, I was OK. I was able to turn my back on the shit and look outwards. I had two whole years before I moved school again.

I’m posting this now. No pictures or frills. Before the box slams shut.

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In times so long ago begins our play…

Othello, text.

Our house is wrapped up in a ball of nerves. State exams are looming large and each of my two examinees is stewing in their own particular brine of combined panic and determination.

To escape the fumes, the smaller girls and I have been gallivanting more than usual. Last Saturday we donned our glad rags and went to a junior Proms concert at City Hall. The Cork Youth Orchestra played a jolly selection of sing-a-long pops songs ( mostly ABBA), hits from musicals (mostly Annie) and movie soundtracks.

‘The Star Wars part was the best, Mum, wasn’t it?’ reminisced Small Girl this morning as I plaited her hair, ‘because they had storm troopers and everything?’
‘Uh huh, yes.’ I’m not a big talker until that first coffee hits the basal ganglia.
‘And it was brilliant when they mixed in the Harry Potter music too. I like the really old Harry Potter music.’
‘Yup.’
‘Because Harry Potter came first, didn’t it Mum, because books always come before films,  don’t they?’ and it dawned on me that things that happened before you were born are all muddled together in a difficult to grasp and somehow irrelevant long ago, even if you are only five.
‘Well, yes, the Harry Potter books came before the Harry Potter films but the Star Wars  films were made before that. The first Star Wars film was made a long time ago, when I was exactly your age.’
‘In a galaxy far far away?’ This girl, she makes me laugh.
‘Exactly.’

That’s a rather long preamble (and it might get longer yet) into the book I want to tell you about. I’ve read that book purchasers are amongst the most brand loyal of all consumers. When we find an author we like, we will stick with them, preferring to invest our money and time in a sure thing than risk giving an unknown author a chance. Are you like that? I am, absolutely. Tracy Chevalier (The Virgin Blue, Girl With a Pearl Earring) is an author whose books I would buy without hesitation so I was very excited when I saw that she was involved in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project and doubly pleased that her chosen (or is it assigned?) Shakespearean play was Othello.

I studied Othello for my Leaving Certificate (ah, the whiff of exam pickle returns) so I know it. I mean, I’m no scholar but I got it, you know? I had a wonderful teacher, the kind they make movies about. She took Othello apart and put it back together again until it all made sense and, what’s more, it made sense of everything (if there is someone reading this who can send my love and gratitude to Bean Uí Chinnéide, please do).

Othello, text.

We journeyed to Dublin on a bus so that we could see a black man play Othello. I might even have finished that last sentence at ‘see a black man’ full stop. Mind you, we didn’t dwell on the racism angle because Othello is about so much more than that. It’s about being different and courageous with it, being different and even proud of it. It’s about fear of the unknown and how we act to quell that fear. It’s about control, power, mind games, beauty, nobility, truth…it is dark and it is brilliant.

Just as dark and illuminating is New Boy. Tracy Chevalier has set her retelling of Othello a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Othello in a school playground of the 1970s. How flipping genius is that? Read my full (and marginally less rambling) review here.

By the way, for those who would have preferred Star Wars in iambic pentameter, this is amusing:

Now, I must go and attend to another pot of pickle. As a direct result of my solemn oath to be a true and honest tester of recipes, there is a fizzing jar of fermenting cabbage waiting to be ‘burped’…more on that anon.

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‘The book doctor will see you now.’

Adding a final flourish to PJ Lynch's art at Lismore Castle.

That’s what they said, seriously, and Small Girl got such a kick out of it. Let me explain.

We traveled, on excellent advice from Welovelittlethings, to the Towers and Tales Story Festival at Lismore Castle.

Traditional shop front. Lismore. Ireland.

Lismore is a quiet, picture book quaint, Irish village smack bang in the middle of exactly nowhere. Apparently, the townsfolk were ecstatic in 2015 when they got a bus shelter.

Defunct shop window. Lismore, Ireland.

You do, however, get the impression that it was a much busier place in a long bygone era.

Mc Grath's butcher shop, Lismore, Ireland.

In actual fact, Lismore has a cathedral, which makes it a city, albeit a remarkably tiny one.

Lismore Castle. Co. Waterford, Ireland.

Lismore Castle is a real, proper castle, built in 1170 as a bishop’s palace before becoming home to Sir Walter Raleigh (yes, he of the potatoes, the tobacco, and the cloak on the puddle story). On Raleigh’s demise the castle was taken by Elizabethan colonist, Richard Boyle. Boyle’s son Robert was THE Robert Boyle, as in ‘father of modern day chemistry‘ and Boyle’s Law Boyle.  Since 1775, the castle has been owned by the Duke of Devonshire (not the exact same duke, well, let’s hope not). The Astaires, The Mitford sisters, Cecil Beaton and JFK are just a few of the names in the guest book. No matter what age you are, this place is built from the stuff of fantasy. I just checked out the website; you have to apply for a secret code to access an inner, concealed website where the rental prices are. I didn’t go that far for fear my credit card would have shriveled up in horror.

Lismore Castle, Waterford, Ireland.

The castle is not usually open to the public so it was a real treat to get a peek inside. It was, mind you, a well-guarded peek. While the guest writers (Michael Morpurgo, Lauren Child, Ryan Tubridy and more) were staying in the castle we lesser mortals were confined to the courtyard.

To keep us from peering though keyholes, we were encouraged to add a final flourish to some wall art by Children’s Laureate P.J. Lynch. Small Girl felt that P.J.s palate was very limited and that the vital element was, without doubt, a big pink flower.Adding a final flourish to PJ Lynch's art at Lismore Castle.

The highlight for me was the poet Tony Curtis who told stories, recited poems and sang songs to a small guitar, all inside the shelter of a tent while rain kept time on the canvas. A proper troubadour.

Tony Curtis at Lismore Festival.

From Tony, we raced to our appointment with the Book Doctor. The girls waited nervously in the waiting room while the doctor’s assistant filled in their Reading Passports and made a note of their particular bookish likes and dislikes.

Dr. Juliette then sat down with each of the girls in turn, assessed their reading temperature and prescribed the appropriate treatment. Absolutely brilliant. I so wish they had a grown-up department.

CBI passport and book prescription.

The Book Doctor is run by Children’s Books Ireland, keep an eye open for them at festivals around the country and don’t miss an opportunity to get their specialist opinion. Irish, Munster, and especially Cork readers might be interested to read their interview with Jessica O’Gara (wife of rugby legend, Ronan) about reading with their bi-lingual children in France.

Small Girl’s most memorable moment, other than a gigantic icecream cone, was an encounter with the waffleword-spouting BFG. He might not have been quite 24 feet tall in real life but he had me convinced.

IMG_6539I found out about this festival a month ago and by then all the ‘big name’ events were already booked out. Thankfully, the only event with tickets remaining was with Sarah Crossan who is Middle Daughter’s new favourite author. It feels like all of five minutes since she was obsessed with Jacqueline Wilson but, God help me, she has made the leap to Young Adult.

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It’s a bit scary when your child moves from reading children’s books  that you can consider safe to reading YA fiction which, it seems to me, goes out of its way to deliver all the horror the world has to offer. What’s more, the higher the quality of YA literature, the more depressing it seems to be. I must admit that I’m struggling with this at the moment.

Sarah Crossan YA books.

I’m shadowing my twelve year old’s reading but not censoring it. I have to believe that they will hear about all the shite, racism, sexism, bullying, parental abuse, you name it, one way or another and, at least, these books offer some degree of guidance on how to deal with it. Also, I want to keep her reading.

Brian Conaghan (also pictured above) remarked that one of his books, about a boy with Tourette’s Syndrome, has been banned in several regions due to excessive swearing. Clearly, I’m not alone in my confusion about what is and is not appropriate reading for this age group.

How do other parents of young teenagers feel about their reading habits? Help me out here!

I’ve about thirty pages left to read in We Come Apart which Sarah Crossan co-wrote with Brian Conaghan. So far, I’ve been by turns appalled by the gritty nature of the content and impressed by the extremely impressive writing and pure genius of the collaboration. I’ll let you know more when I’ve finished.

Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin.

My Cooking The Books article for Bookwitty.com this month features a wonderful book called Sweet Pizza by Italian-Welshman G.R. Gemin. I was hugely honoured that Giancarlo emailed me to compliment my minor variations on the theme of his excellent recipe. Interestingly, he mentioned that the book is sometimes pushed into the category of YA fiction simply because it contains some (minimal, I promise you) swear words. I can’t say I even noticed any swear words. It’s a truly lovely book. For the review, and the recipe, Click here.

Grow your own lunch.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I also wrote up an article last week which has been, quite literally, growing on my windowsill for the last two months. As we all know, I am of the most haphazard and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants variety of gardeners so, if I can grow my lunch on a windowsill, anybody can. Read more here.

I’m off to plant more radishes. Have a great weekend.

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