Feeding My Habit.

My approach to book-buying has, of late, come into line with my attitude to purchasing stuff in general. That is, I have learned to resist the hype and take the marketing with a generous pinch of salt.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve needed to have a book on the go and, ideally, a next book on standby. Books are my drug of choice for escapism, for stimulation and for comfort. While I’ve always craved the latest front-table bestsellers, I haven’t always had the budget to indulge in them. I’ve learned to source my books wherever I can – I can’t pass a charity shop without checking their shelves.

Our local library, by the way, is not great and anyway, the ownership of the book, the shelving of it amongst its peers, is all part of my habit.

For many years I’ve simply read the best I could find at a small price. Slim books were largely ignored as the page to price ratio was unsatisfactory. If I splurged on a shiny new book it needed to be BIG. I’ve spent happy hours scouring the shelves of Waterstone’s looking for something to match Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

In the last couple of years, call it a mid-life crisis if you will, I’ve realised that I need to be more discerning. I know now, as I somehow didn’t quite accept before, that I will eventually die without having read all the books that I should have read and, much worse, all the books that I wanted to have read.

Now I keep lists. When I approach the dusty shelves of a charity shop or those huge stacks at the Ballinora Christmas Bazaar (aka the bizarre bazaar due to outlandish nature of items on offer) I do my best, I try (not claiming perfection here) to limit my purchases to books on my list. I just don’t have TIME to waste on fifty shades of shite, however cheap its going.

To get to the point, three such listed books leapt from the 2-for-a-euro ranks and I pounced on them with unadulterated glee. I have reveled in reading these in ‘off’ mode. No note-taking, no recipe-making, no sales-pitch reviews.

In brief:

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

This one has been on The List for years but fell down the slim book chasm. It’s extremely short, barely a novella, but gloriously good fun.

Her Majesty the Queen happens by chance upon the visiting library bus at Buckingham Palace. Curiosity leads her to chat to the driver and politeness forces her to take out a book.

“Is there anything you would recommend?”
“What does Your Majesty like?”
The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people.

Before she really understands what is happening, Her Majesty becomes a Reader. In other words, an Addict.

And later:

There was sadness to her reading, too, and for the first time in her life she felt there was a good deal she had missed.

Wonderful. The perfect book for anyone who knows they love books, or anyone who thinks they don’t.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

A comment I read on Instagram, someone saying they hated the ending, was enough to put me off buying The Goldfinch. Tartt’s books seem to divide people. When I posted a photo on Instagram lots of people said they loved this book but dislike another, or the opposite, loved her other books but couldn’t get into this one.

I thought The Goldfinch was a cracking read. I was hooked from the off and had to be physically prised out of it when the Christmas visitors rang the doorbell.

It is the story of a boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing of a New York art gallery, and somehow walks away with a priceless painting.

In complete contrast to The Uncommon Reader, it’s massive. Part art-heist, part family saga, part sordid tale of drugs and violence, part philosophical treatise on the meaning of Art, perhaps it tries to be too much. Some sections are written in what seems unnecessarily minute detail. Then years are skimmed or skipped. I might have got cross about that, had I not been breathless to find out what happened.

The protagonist, Theo Decker, got on my nerves. I mean he literally made me nervous. His choices made no sense which was fine when he was a kid but got close to incredible as he got older. A nagging fear that the whole plot was on the verge of collapse only added to the almost unbearable suspense.

It’s a book that doesn’t get to the point until the very end. I liked that. And I like the point.

Here’s a line:

-a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart by all kinds of angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.

Have you had that happen? Mine is this one. I’m not alone; it was voted Ireland’s favourite painting. We’re a romantic lot.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Can you forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a book, another book, about slavery in America? The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize. Obama called it terrific and The Guardian called it devastating and my heart just sank every one of the half dozen or so times I picked it up in a bookshop, and put it down again.

I put it on the list and on the long finger. Then I found it at the bazaar propped up against Obama’s Dreams From My Father and I bought both (for a euro!).

I bought it because I thought I should. I finished it with a blush of shame for my ingratitude. I can read whatever the hell I want and for that alone I ought to be grateful. It’s easy to say that but rarely we mean it.

Have you read it? Layer upon layer of ingenuity. I finished it late the other night. It was still in my head when I turned over the following morning. I must have been processing it all night. My waking thought was “The star…Black Beauty…f***ing brilliant.”

For readability, pathos and creativity, The Underground Railroad is awesome.

I read this book only because I thought I should. You should read it.

Three very different books but they had a thread in common. Art, art as pictures or music or books, is certainly more than a luxury. Art is a privilege but also somehow a necessity.

Donna Tartt quotes this line from Nietzche:

We have art in order not to  die of the truth.

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I’m moving on now to the books Santy brought for my family. Fortunately, Santy has a peculiar habit of delivering books I’m aching to read.

I finished Nigel by Monty Don earlier today. Gardeners of these islands are familiar with the presenter of BBC’s Gardeners’ World and his handsome, scene-stealing Golden Retriever.

The book is a mixed bag – stories of Nigel’s antics, memories of other beloved dogs and a history of the garden at Longmeadow. It reads as though Monty just sat down every now and then and spilled a few thoughts on to a page, much like a blog post, and they all got stitched together into a book. He writes as he speaks, gently, but also firmly enough to keep the reader to heel.

If you like dogs and gardens, it’s a lovely read. I wept. Husband wept.

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One last thing, I learned a new word from Alan Bennett.

Opsimath: one who learns only late in life.

That’s me.

For My Child And Your Child Too.

A Boy Called Christmas

I came this close, this close (holds forefinger and thumb together and squints left eye in demonstration of just how close) to writing a post about sadness. Not because I’m sad, but because I’m not, and because, when I am, I can’t write, or say, or even think, anything  productive at all. Anyway, it’s all there, written on a page with a pen, and maybe we can come back to it one day. For now, ’tis the season to be jolly.

Did you know that Santa wrote a book? It was an elf-help book called How To Be Jolly. It had a very limited release but topped the charts for its target demographic. This, and much more, I learned from Matt Haig’s thrilling  exposé,  A Boy Called Christmas.

Haig revealed, at last, the true and previously unrecorded secrets of Father Christmas’s early years. You may wonder how the author learned these facts. Haig, rather honourably I think, refuses to reveal his sources. He argues that you shouldn’t really question such things. He just knows, otherwise why ever would he have written the book?

A Boy Called Christmas

Whether you call the great man Father Christmas or Santa Claus or Saint Nick or Sinterklaas or Kris Kringle or Pelznickel or Papa Noël, the important thing is that you know he exists.

“Can you believe there was a time when no one knew about him? A time when he was just an ordinary boy called Nikolas, living in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of Finland, doing nothing with magic except believing in it? A boy who knew very little about the world except the taste of mushroom soup, the feel of a cold north wind, and the stories he was told. And who only had a doll made out of a turnip to play with.”

Nikolas’ childhood was none too promising. His parents, Haig tells us, were kind and loving but very poor. His mother was a jolly soul, with red cheeks and a warm laugh. His father, Joel, was an industrious woodcutter with only 9 ½ fingers and very tired eyes. Nikolas had no brothers or sisters or friends. His only childhood companion was a small, very hungry, brown mouse called Miika who, even though he had never even seen it, or even smelled it, believed in cheese.

A Boy Called Christmas

Our first clue to Nikolas’ destiny is the fact that he was born on Christmas Day and, for that reason, nick-named Christmas by his parents. Joel even made Nikolas his own wooden sleigh and painted his name, Christmas, on the back of it.

Haig’s account introduces us to Nikolas at eleven years old, soon after his mother had died in a tragic accident. Despite determined efforts to be happy, Nikolas was a bit sad, and maybe a bit lonely, and really, extremely hungry. Little did he know, things were about to get much worse.

Lured by the promise of a rich reward from the King of Finland, Joel the woodcutter undertook a dangerous expedition to the Far North to find proof of the existence of elves. He took with him the Christmas sleigh (but at least not the turnip doll) and left Nikolas in the care of his miserable and ancient (she’s forty-two) Aunt Carlotta.

“Everything about her, even her voice, seemed covered in frost.”

Aunt Carlotta’s shocking deeds do not make easy reading. Suffice to say, Carlotta was greed incarnate, so unbearably mean that poor Nikolas gathered his courage, put his mouse in his pocket, and simply walked away.

“Then, with Miika peeking out at the road ahead, Nikolas turned and headed north through the trees, towards the place he thought he might find his father and the elves, and tried his hardest to believe in both.”

It would, I fear, be irresponsible of me to reveal what Nikolas found at the Far North. You’ll have to read the book. I won’t even whisper a word about the flying reindeer, the truth pixie or the exploding troll. I will not give credence to the miserable lies extolled by The Daily Snow newspaper, or give my opinion of the media mogul elf who believes that goodwill is just another name for weakness.

What I will tell you is this: Nikolas found food. He discovered gingerbread and sweet plum soup, jam pastries and bilberry pie. And, Miika found cheese. While those things may not constitute a happy ending, or a happy Christmas, they are a very good place to start.

This book is so good, it gave me chills. I loved it so much I crocheted a set of the characters for the Small Girl.

A Boy Called Christmas, crochet

The reindeer at the back is Blitzen. Yes, I made him last year and he has changed his name by deed poll at my request. Anyone can have a red nose at this time of year. Standing on Blitzen’s left foot is Little Kip, a very small elf with very big ears. Next to Kip and staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (what my children call the smell the fart pose) is our hero, Nikolas. My best attempt at a tiny turnip doll lies below his hand and Miika, the mouse, is on the chair. Father Topo, Mother Ri-Ri (with the plaits) and Little Noosh make up the cast. I stopped short of Father Vodol, the media Mogul. I made the decision that, for Christmas, it’s as well to believe that he and his ilk don’t exist. Also, I ran out of yarn.

A Boy Called Christmas is a fine story with a very important message, actually several vital messages:

“We must never let fear be our guide.”

“An impossibility is just a possibility that you don’t understand.”

“Humans are complicated.”
“Elves too.”

“Life is pain.”
“But it’s also magic.”

“Perhaps a wish was just a hope with a better aim.”

“…and hope is the most wonderful thing there is.”

With each new book I read from this author, I find myself believing more and more in Matt Haig. To a world darkened by fear-mongering, where fake news is the order of the day, Haig delivers a message of hope, of generosity, of inclusion, and of kindness. You might choose to believe that this book is a fairytale, written just for gullible children. You could believe that this is book is allegorical, that Nikolas’s journey reflects a pilgrim’s progress from friendless boy to benevolent father figure. If you are very brave, you can choose to simply believe, as I do, in a boy called Christmas.

Now, on to that food…(but first, Blitzen and Nikolas doing the King Of The World pose)…

A Boy Called Christmas

An Elfin Feast.

Gingerbread.

Ingredients.

3 oz (80g) butter
3 oz (80g) soft dark sugar
2 oz (55g) golden syrup
1 egg yolk
8 oz (250g) cake flour, sieved
2 oz (55g) crystallised ginger, chopped into small dice
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger.

300g icing sugar and the juice of 1 lime to make icing
Icing pens, baubles, sprinkles, jelly tots, etc.

Method.

Cream the butter and sugar together until the sugar crystals dissolve and the mixture gets pale and fluffy.
Add the golden syrup and the egg yolk and mix well.
Mix the flour, ginger, bread soda, cinnamon and ginger together and then tip the lot into the butter mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the mixture lightly into a ball.
Leave the dough to rest in the fridge in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and cut out shapes using cookie cutters.
Bake at 180˚C (350˚F) for 10-12 minutes, depending on the cookie size.
Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
Add the juice of a lime to the icing sugar and mix vigorously. Add more icing sugar if the icing is too runny. Allow your creative juices run riot. Failing that, enlist children.

A Boy Called Christmas

Plum Soup.

Bramley cooking apples are sour and cooking down to a mush. If you can’t find bramleys, use soft cooking apples and perhaps less sugar. At worst, cook the plums in good quality apple juice and omit the water.

Ingredients.

1 ½ lb (650g) plums
1 lb (2 medium sized) bramley cooking apples
6 oz (150g) sugar
5 oz (150ml) water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 orange
3 cloves
whipped cream to serve.
 

Method.

Cut the plums in half, remove the stones and place them in a saucepan.
Peel, core and chop the apples and add them to the plums.
Cut a slice from the centre of the orange, stud it with the cloves and add this to the pot.
Cut some strips of peel from the orange, as long as you can make them, and add them to the pot too.
Squeeze the juice of the orange into the pot.
Add the water, the cinnamon stick and the star anise.
Cook over a low to medium heat for 20-30 minutes until everything is soft.
Fish out the spices and pieces of orange and peel.
Whizz up the soup in a liquidiser or with a stick blender until smooth.

You could serve this soup warm but we like it chilled, with a blob of whipped cream on top and a garnish made of the cooked orange peel. We, the grown-ups, also appreciate a slug of sherry stirred in to the chilled soup.

Bilberry Pies and Mince Pies.

Bilberries are the Northern European cousins of blueberries. They look and taste almost the same. If you can lay your hands on bilberry jam, by all means use it. Blueberry jam was the closest I could find. This pastry recipe has been handed down through the generations of my family under the title “pastry for mince pies.” It makes a delicious, sweet and buttery pastry which is easy to handle and reheats perfectly.

Ingredients.

1 jar of blueberry jam
1 jar of mincemeat
8 oz (250g) flour
2 oz (55g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
5 oz (135g) cold butter
1 egg yolk (save the white for glazing)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ice-cold water

Method.

Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Sieve the sugar on top and mix through.
Cut the butter into cubes and add to the bowl.
Wash your hands in cold water and then use the tips of your fingers to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Mix together the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the cold water. Add this mixture to the flour and butter and fork it through until the dough begins to clump together.
Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it together gently. Use your palms to flatten the ball into a disk shape ready for rolling out. Wrap it in cling-film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and use a suitably sized cookie cutter to make circles to line a bun tray or mini-muffin tin. There is no need to grease the tray as the pies will come out quite easily. Cut out stars, or any shape you like, to make a lid.
Fill the cases with jam or mincemeat and pop the lids on top.
Brush the lids with the leftover egg white.
Bake at 180˚C for 15-20 minutes depending on the size.

A Boy Called Christmas

My title, by the way, is taken from the song Peace on Earth best enjoyed in the gloriously daft and magical Bing/Bowie duet.

I pray my wish will come true, for my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory, see the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again.

P.S. The eagle-eyed will have spotted that I took the food photos while I was only halfway through the crochet project. Poor Nikolas is, literally, legless. I blame the optional slug of sherry in the plum soup.

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Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

Right so, who’s up for a frank and honest conversation about perimenopausal symptoms, the perils of freelance writing, and the politics of who is going where on Christmas Day?

No? No. Me neither.

Can we escape, instead, into a book? Come with me, please, this one is worth it.

The books. There are books in the kitchen, books in the study and books in the drawing room. There are books in my satchel, books on my desk and books by my bedside. There are novels and short stories, biographies and diaries, haikus and travelogues. There are gardening books and poetry and of course there are cook books…”He was never without a book.” I can see it now, carved on my gravestone.

He had me at “drawing room” and doubly so at “satchel.” That’s Nigel Slater using some of those words in the English language that we Irish have never felt fully entitled to use. It is an excerpt from a chapter, or entry really, as The Christmas Chronicles is more diary than cookbook, entitled A Sweet Moment. Slater describes the simple pleasure of sitting in a comfortable chair to read a book.

Howling wind or falling snow aside, the best reading companion is the smell of something baking in the oven.

No arguments here.

This is an extraordinary cookbook. I’ve never read any other cookbook that felt so intimate, so genuine, so much like an invitation to step inside a real kitchen and make myself at home.

“Come in.” Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. “Come in.” They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear.

Can anyone else hear the ghost of Christmas present laughing in the background?

And yes, I know the world is a shit-storm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour.

Nigel Slater’s writing would verge on maudlin, if it wasn’t tempered with such enthralling honesty. He doesn’t pretend that his memories of Christmas past aren’t tainted by grief. He doesn’t pretend that he always makes his own mincemeat. He doesn’t blithely ignore the existence of his competitors on the cookery bookery shelves. He gives credit where credit is due.  He mentions, and thanks, his followers on social media as though they were flesh and blood people.

All of this adds up to something that feels fresh and immediate and very modern. At the same time, by some sorcerer’s trick, Slater endorses time-worn traditions and exudes acute nostalgia. He made my chest ache. Ah, listen, let me cut to the chase. He made me cry. A flaming cookbook made me cry, IN THE SHOP, before I even paid for it.

If you are expecting a book of practical instructions on how to cater Christmas, you may be disappointed. The chronicles take the form of a day-by-day diary, beginning November 1st and ending on the 2nd of February. There is a lot to learn from this book: anything from the history of tinsel, Christmas stamps and pantomimes to the burn rate of candles to the best Brussels sprouts.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

You don’t know what you are going to get from one day to the next and at times it reads as though it was a surprise to him too. Some of the entries bear all the hallmarks of a sleepy head – half formed thoughts jotted down by candle-light before dawn. A less well established author might have been compelled to edit, to tighten up, but these sleepy paragraphs, to me, were beguiling.

The only fault I found was that the book ends rather abruptly, as though he simply tore this clump of pages from his diary and sent them off to his publisher. One can only presume that we will pick up with him again, on February 3rd. It works, it leaves you wanting more, but it’s a bit too low key for me. I’m needy.

The food? I have two words for it. Comfort and joy.

Have you ever roasted a head of cabbage and then smothered it in cheese sauce? It is, without exaggeration, a cruciferous revelation.

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You’ve heard enough, I think, ( here) about the Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perhaps less of the comfort on that one but certainly joy, or maybe glee. It was worth it for the laughs.

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Cauliflower soup with a cheesy sourdough crouton was an equally delicious and less incendiary option.

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Toad-in-the-hole is not something we habitually eat in Ireland. Like drawing rooms and satchels, and Paddington Bear, this is a particularly British thing that we are not certain we are entitled to enjoy. It’s funny, when you think about it, how distinct are our cultures. I like it that way which, I suppose, is why I resist the blending of them. Regardless, this was undeniably comforting on a wet Saturday night.

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Slater’s recipes are mostly very easy and undemanding. What he offers are suggestions for a way of eating, and a way of enjoying the winter, rather than prescriptions for what is correct, or seasonal, or must-have or must-do or must-make.

My six-year-old made the Lebkuchen Chocolate Cream, all by herself…a triumph!

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The Stollen was my own particular triumph – a first but my no means last attempt. I even made the marzipan. It doesn’t look remotely like Nigel Slater’s stollen but it was very good to eat. Yes, I am quite proud.

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The Ricotta Filo Tart, a sort of Sicicilian baked cheesecake in a crispy shell was almost too pretty to crack open. Almost, but not quite.

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My forays into combining fruit with brandy have already been well-documented (here) but, I assure you, the joy continues.

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I made four jars of Slater’s quince mincemeat. It may not look beautiful but this stuff has been the mainstay of my mental health in recent days. Jar, spoon, Poldark book 10…I may just survive.

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This afternoon, by popular demand, after my girls have had their piano lesson (the piano is in the kitchen which is a very good thing with only occasional drawbacks), I shall make another batch of these quincemeat and mascarpone pies. They are exquisite little self-contained puffballs of Christmas cheer. You do have to eat them while they are still warm. Does that sound like a problem?

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I have only one other Nigel Slater cookbook on my shelves. It is called Real Food. I hardly ever cook from it, I’m not sure why not, but it contains my most favourite ever recipe –for a perfect chip butty. It’s not really a recipe, it’s a poem.

The fact that I didn’t cook much from that book has thus far inhibited me from buying any other of Nigel Slater’s books. That and the inescapable fact that they are quite expensive. Nonetheless, Item 1 on my list of New Year Resolutions is to source (hopefully second-hand) more of his books and to devour them just for the pure pleasure of it.

Slater’s is the sort of writing that makes me feel better. His words provide a sort of nourishment for the weather-beaten soul. I found this book both enlightening and inspiring. I want to eat like this, have a garden like this, make a wreath like this and yes, more than anything else, I want to write like this.

While Nigel Slater may not have the power to halt the shit-storm, he might empower you to shut the door on it. If nothing else, here is a book full to bursting with tidings of comfort and joy.

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A Fairly Unbiased Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks.

Can there ever be such a thing as an unbiased review?

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A good portion of the people who pick up Uncommon Type will do so out of curiosity to discover whether Tom Hanks, the Hollywood A-lister, can write. You would expect him make a decent fist of it, wouldn’t you? After all, we already know Tom Hanks is a smart and articulate man. He’s a professional communicator, has an understanding of timing and character development and he’s funny. Does all of that add up to being a good writer? I, for one, was rooting for Forrest Gump to come up trumps.

Occasionally, when Tom Hanks is out and about in the real world, he meets a small child who can’t understand how the man he is facing could possibly claim to be Woody from Toy Story. Hanks knows exactly what to do. He asks the child to close his eyes and then, to the amazement of all, he performs the voice and the child knows without any doubt that he has met the real Woody.

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Having read Hanks’ first collection of short stories, I’m left with the impression that he intends to play the same trick on his readers. Even the most commercially successful of authors, Stephen King or Dan Brown or Paula Hawkins, don’t have the advantage Hanks has of having a voice so very familiar to us. If I were to say to you, ‘My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates…’ I’m willing to bet you can hear Tom Hanks’ voice in your head finishing the sentence.

There is no doubt that the actor’s spoken voice shines through, clear as a bell, in his writing and that, absolutely, is a real pleasure. He brings the same affable, jocular manner we’ve all seen on some chat show or other. He sounds like himself – at his ease and, more significantly, in control. Hanks is a natural raconteur, an exemplary story-teller and to read his book is the closest you will come to having the Tom Hanks you know so well from the movies actually take a seat by your fire-side and spin you a yarn.

My problem is this: I think he’s still acting. He’s still performing voices, acting the author, while we, so to speak, read with our eyes shut.

The collection opens with a story called Three Exhausting Weeks in which a man who was previously content to spend his days doing a load or two of laundry and watching a game on TV begins dating an old school friend, a woman who is fit and smart and driven to succeed.

“Being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy Seal while working full-time in an Amazon fulfilment center in the Oklahoma Panhandle in tornado season.”

The story charts the increasingly hectic, but mercifully brief, course of their mismatched relationship.

It’s a snappy and entertaining piece of writing and introduces a quirky foursome of friends who appear twice more in later stories. With each reprisal, I liked these characters a little more but even three stories, a trip to the moon and a bowling championship, later, they seemed more like the cast of a sit-com than real people.

Another character who wins himself several appearances in the collection is Hank Fiset. Now, this guy I really like. Hank Fiset is a bit of a crank, a Grumpy Old Man but also an old school, small town, newspaper man who crafts his column so that it can be read in exactly the time it takes to boil an egg. He accompanies his wife on a trip to New York where he finds the Caesar salad too tart, the parking inconvenient and the art for Art’s sake only.

“I saw a movie that was nothing more than time passing – really, a lot of clocks ticking and people looking at their watches. I gave it ten minutes.”

He mourns the demise of print newspapers and recalls a colleague, a re-write man at the old associated press, whose type-writer was a Continental.

“The man made quite a racket doing his job a few hundred times a shift– the chonk-chonkka of his typing with the ba-ding of the bell, the krank of the carriage return, the shripp of the copy ripped from the machine.”

This brings me to the author’s most charming device, the hook on which the collection hangs. In each story there is an individual type-writer. Some are older than others but all can lay claim to the term vintage. In some stories the type-writer plays a starring role, in others it’s an extra hanging about in the background but it’s always there somewhere. The type-writer made me smile, every time.

Close enough to the centre page of this book, and at its very heart, you will find a real gem, a story called These Are the Meditations of My Heart. It’s about a girl who can’t resist buying an old type-writer that’s going cheap at a yard sale.

She brings the type-writer to a repair shop where an old fellow with a, probably, Polish accent teaches her a thing or two about type and type-writers and why we are so attracted to them.

“Because they were built to last forever.”

Can’t you just hear Hanks doing that probably-Polish accent?

“You are seeking permanence,” he says.

It was in this story that I thought we might, just might mind you, be hearing the voice of the real Tom Hanks rather than another of his myriad characters.

“I’m not one who types between sips from a tumbler of booze and drags from a pack of smokes. I just want to set down what few truths I’ve come to know.”

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Hanks failed to convince me that he is a writer. He doesn’t display the compulsion to bare his own soul . Sure, Hanks writes and he writes well. He writes convincing scenes of American lives, poignant characters who recall a better past or believe in a better future. But, he doesn’t say anything in these stories that he wouldn’t have said better in a movie. He doesn’t give himself away. He’s still playing Woody, doing a voice, acting.

It may be that Hanks is too good an actor, too smart, too practised at guarding his privacy, to be a writer. It may be that I was looking for something he was never going to give.

When you see Hanks’ name on a movie poster you know you are in safe hands. Tom Hanks is never less than entertaining. Equally, his stories are thoughtful and congenial. Some are moving, others hilarious but they are not provocative and they are not personal. His stories are safe, which is a pity really, because Tom Hanks can write.

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A Light Breeze, Rising Slowly.

“The inclusion of peas also seems to stop the wind, the other sort, not the one that rattles down the chimney.”

That’s Nigel Slater, in his new book, The Christmas Chronicles, writing about his recipe for Jerusalem artichoke and pea soup. I’ve heard, of course, of the explosively flatulent effects of the Jerusalem artichoke but I had never even seen one, let alone eaten one, so I didn’t fully appreciate how significant the inclusion of peas might, or might not, be. Still, Slater’s doggedly honest writing really hit a nerve in me, not just this recipe but his writing in general, and I resolved to set forth on a search for the infamous root.

Then, would you credit it, on the very same day (last Saturday), I was picking up a bottle of organic wine in the farm shop (how fantastically middle class is that statement?) at Ballymaloe Cookery School (yes, very fancy) when I discovered they had the aforementioned artichokes for sale (well, naturally). The stars were aligned, my friends,IMG_0057

and my bowels were in for a shock.

No, Mr. Slater, the peas did not alleviate the situation, or if they did, God help the soul who went without them. Dear Lord, I was so full of gas my ears popped.

I suppose I ought to mention that the soup was delicious. Everyone agreed it was yummy, and then quietly removed themselves to private (well-ventilated) spaces.

I’m left with two tubers which I held back from the soup pot with the intention of planting them. They are, by all accounts, ridiculously easy to grow. I can’t decide, now, what to do with them. Has anyone any advice? Is there a secret I don’t know? Maybe I should just raffle them off on Instagram? (WIN!! Farty tubers!! Tag your friends!!…)

Let me try to redeem myself somewhat from that unseemly interlude:

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That blue Le Creuset pot was a wedding present, making it twenty years old. I used to use it for making casseroles until the family out-grew it and I had to buy a bigger pot (not Le Creuset, sadly, more the industrial catering variety). The lovely blue pot, then, fell out of use for years and years which was a source of genuine regret. I would move it about from shelf to dusty shelf with a mixture of affection and irritation.

About eighteen months ago, I discovered The Common Loaf from Riot Rye and set about becoming the sort of person who has a sourdough starter living at the back of her fridge (I do!) and makes real, really good, bread. I think I’m about three-quarters of the way there. In other words, my bread turns out to be really good about 75% of the time. The two things that make the greatest difference, I think, are time (it really needs at least twenty-four hours rising, there’s just no way to cheat on that) and the blue Le Creuset pot.

The pot gets pre-heated in the oven, the dough goes in, and when I lift the lid an hour later I get this:

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I’m experimenting at the moment with a recipe for walnut bread. It’s a long story but the shortest version of it is that, when I was in Paris, I bought a booklet of recipes for things to make with leftovers of Poilâne’s walnut bread. (Here is an article from The New Yorker about Poilâne, if such things interest you, and here is a video in which Julia Child visits Poilâne and bakes bread.)IMG_0096

Now I have managed to make myself some very good walnut bread. Yeay!It might not be from Poilâne but listen, short of moving to Paris, what are my options ?IMG_0119

However, the chance of there being leftovers is slim to nill. And, could there possibly be any better use for them than buttery toast?IMG_0147

I’m 160 pages in to The Break by Marian Keyes. I’m totally hooked…need more toast…

Hope you’re having a good week,
Lynda.

PS. There is NO LIGHT at all coming from the sky these days and my photos look miserable. A set of fairy lights (three euros twenty-six) is the most cost effective lighting solution I can come up with.

Small Joys.

Here’s a thing: I often find myself, completely unintentionally, writing in my head. I form words into sentences, build a pleasing rhythm, hit an excellent (in my mind at least) crescendo and, just as I’m congratulating my inner writer on the marvelous blog post I’ve created, I draw a mental line under it and forget the whole lot. The writing, whether it ever makes it to the page or not, seems to be a lot about drawing lines under things, and moving on.

Not too long ago, I heard an interview with Marie Heaney, Seamus Heaney’s wife. She said that she would watch him tapping out a beat on the steering wheel of the car while he was driving and she would know that he was writing in his head. I thought there was something very moving about that, that she could almost see what was going on inside his head, almost read his thoughts in a kind of tapped out code, and that she let him at it where I would probably have been nagging him about the state of the garden shed.

Anyway, my point is that I have been here in my head, you just couldn’t see me.

I often hit a low at this time of the year, when the light fails but it’s too early for fairy lights. This year though I’m grand and just for that, I am grateful. I do feel the need for quietness, especially after the busy-ness of Halloween and I breathed a long sigh of relief when the kids went back to school.

Let me tell you some of the small joys I’ve been relishing.

I’ve been basking like a cat in the sunshine of these last few days and taking the opportunity to tidy up the garden. We still have a few roses…IMG_9836

…and a few visitors…IMG_9834

…and fruit! I am still managing to nab an alpine strawberry or two most days (I don’t share them) and I have planted (on Rory O’Connell’s advice) a myrtle bush. This is Myrtus ugni, also known as a Chilean strawberry. The berries taste like a strawberry inside a blueberry. To walk out to the garden in November and pick a handful of berries feels like a small miracle.IMG_9816

In previous years I would have cleared the flowerbeds by now but this year I am leaving all the seed heads, including the mighty teasels, for the birds. I can’t tell you how much I love to look up from a book and see a family of goldfinches outside the window. I think they may even be getting used to me sneaking up on them with my camera aloft.IMG_9929 (2)

On our last evening in Paris, after we left Shakespeare and Company, and had a little snog on the street and that kind of thing, Husband and I contrived to bring home a few sprigs of rosemary as a memento. We put them in a water bottle and then transferred them to a smaller-than-100mls shampoo bottle for the flight home and then, with just a little bit of wishful thinking, nursed them in a glass of water for a fortnight until little roots appeared and then potted them up and, hey presto, by the magic of plant science, we have at least one survivor growing strong and making me very happy.IMG_0034

Also making me smile is our substantial crop of chillies. We’ve taken to making fermented chilli sauce about once a month (see this post for more on fermented foods). I’m not certain whether it is the satisfaction of growing the chillies, the prettiness of them, the pride in making the fermented sauce, the kick of eating it or the gastro-intestinal benefits of consuming it but, all in all, the whole affair is making me happy.IMG_9919

Another thing, of even greater joy, is watching the Small Girl playing the piano. She has to climb up on to the piano stool and her feet dangle in mid-air while she reads the notes and counts the beats out loud while she plays and concentrates so hard I can nearly see steam coming out of her ears. The dog, meanwhile, nods his approval.IMG_9914

I could write a whole post about the book in that photo (I did, in fact, in my head). I found it in the wonderful Prim’s Bookshop in Kinsale. It’s Real French Cooking by Savarin, this copy printed in 1956. As well as some hardcore cooking techniques, Savarin includes a generous smattering of cartoons and anecdotes, as he says, “in the hope of pleasing the housewife in a rare moment of leisure.” Did you know, for instance, that the speciality of the Tour d’Argent in Paris is the Canard au Sang, a duck served in the juice of two other ducks? Every duck served has an individual number and a record is kept of who ate it. Number 112,151 was eaten by Franklin Roosevelt in 1929. The Duke of Windsor had number 147,883 in 1935. The late Queen Mother and her guests had numbers 185,197 and 185,198 in 1938.

“Eight months later, number 203,728 went to Marlene Dietrich.”

Is that not fantastic? I’ve suggested to Teenage Daughter that she begin a register of her meringue swans. She continues to think I am nuts.IMG_0033

So far, on Savarin’s instruction, I have recruited the family to help me cook and peel chestnuts and have made a scrumptious Cevennes Pie (pork, chestnuts and apple encased in buttery pastry). There is no photo of the pie, unfortunately, they ate it that fast!IMG_9943

Sticking with the theme of French cookery (yes, I’m a little obsessed of late), I have been watching Julia Child on YouTube. Now listen, I am all to familiar with the feeling of finally getting the joke after everyone else has gone home but forty years late is a record even for me. Alas, so it was. I was two minutes into this clip when the forty-year-old penny finally dropped:

It’s the Swedish chef! For God’s sake, tell me I wasn’t the only Swedish chef fan on the planet who didn’t know this!

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Well, Mr. Henson is still making me laugh so that counts as a good thing.

I’m going to lightly trip over this book:IMG_9945

…which I found desperately sad. It has sat on my shelf for nigh on a year because I was afraid it would depress me and, to be honest, it nearly did. It is good but I didn’t like it. Bring on the happy books, I say.

I bought Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas for Middle Daughter last year but didn’t read it myself until January, too late to recommend it. I read it again last week and am currently on a third reading, aloud to the Small Girl, and it is STILL making me laugh. Read it, please, just read it! I’ll post a review soon.

I have a small (literally tiny, elfin even) crochet project on the go which is making bubbles of glee rise up and burst at the top of my head.

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Ooh, almost forgot, my Cooking The Books project for November is, if I do say so myself, a good one. It’s a cheering recipe and a flipping brilliant book. Belated thanks to the lovely Kathy at Gluts and Gluttony who recommended The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester when we met at Litfest. I loved the book, loved the pudding, and took huge pleasure in writing this article. Find it here.

Now, I have two more joys awaiting my attention. Look what the morning’s post brought:IMG_0032

You will notice I have decided to quietly introduce a few very tiny fairy lights. Sure, why not?

Wishing you many small joys,

Lynda.

A Ray of Sunshine and a Free Bench.

I’ve indulged myself for a few weeks in writing up an account of our weekend in Paris. It has been such a joy, not just because I succeeded in mentally air-lifting myself to a bistro in Montmartre, but because I wallowed in the freedom to write exactly what I wanted to write. I simply sat at the keyboard and told myself to ‘just get it down’, that’s all, nothing more. It’s not fancy but it’s honest and it says something, I hope, that I needed to say.

My desire was to package up something that we might take out in our dotage to read and remember a time when life was full to bursting. I gave it to Husband for his birthday, yesterday.

I also got him a book from Shakespeare and Company. I included a note in my order (there’s a space for notes in the online order form – of course there is!), thanking them for the tea and biscuits they gave us and they sent back a sweet handwritten note.

Honest to God, I think I left a piece of my heart behind in that shop. Can I just show you the packaging of their parcel? Look at this:IMG_9796

Would that not make any book-lover’s heart tick a little quicker?

Again, the online order form has some options to request a few little extras, a spritz of perfume, a poem typed up on the shop’s old typewriter, or just some random scrap of wordage they think you might like…

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It is surely for these small moments of contact, even virtual contact, with flesh and blood book people that independent bookshops MUST continue to exist. I’m not trying to sell you anything, well, I am, but I have nothing to gain other than that they continue to exist.

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The Paris write-up is far too long for a blog post. It would run to twelve blog posts, I think, which strikes me as ridiculous. Also, as I said, it is (even) more self-indulgent than my average blog post and includes minute details of no interest to anyone other than us.

The Paris write-up, which I titled A Ray of Sunshine and a Free Bench (it makes sense when you read it, I hope), does contain some photos. Most were snapped on Husband’s phone and some were taken by kindly strangers. This one is my favourite:

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Hope life is treating you all kindly this murky Monday morning.
Lynda.

PS. Teenage Daughter made iced buns for her Dad yesterday and there is just that one left over and now I have to eat it. Oh, woe is me. #dietshmiet