Books

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Six: Delia Smith’s Christmas

This is obviously a brilliant book. The Parmesan-Baked Parsnips are the only way to cook parsnips, the Caramelised Cheese and Onion Tartlets are recommended as party nibbles for vegetarians but are far too good not to be made (in huge quantities) for everyone and the Truffle Torte is, as it says in the book, the best chocolate dessert. All that said, this book is actually included in this list because it makes me laugh. There is a chapter called The Last 36 Hours in which the reader is calmly taken though the run-up to the Main Meal. So far so good, the instructions have probably saved many Christmas Days from disaster. What makes me laugh is the entry for 8.55am: the turkey is in the oven, the bread sauce made and the frazzled cook is allowed to ‘take a break’. Everything should be under control and Delia suggests you ‘help the kids unwrap their presents, have a coffee or TIDY THE HOUSE’!!!!! Who tidies the house on Christmas Day – surely part of the fun is that every surface should be littered with wrapping paper, ribbon, chocolates, half-written thank-you letter lists and wine glasses? And one final quibble; her timings make no allowance for the Queen’s Christmas Message, unless one eats lunch very quickly.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Five: Christmas in Exeter Street, Diana Hendry, illustrated by John Lawrence

The house in Exeter Street is a large, welcoming building with sash windows that appear golden from the light inside, a snow-covered roof and charming pointy red chimney pots. It is the day before Christmas Eve and the guests are just starting to arrive. Each page of this delightful picture book sees more and more people coming to the house, some expected, others a surprise, but all welcome. In the end the vicar and his wife sleep in the bath, five thin aunts sleep on the shelves of the dresser and a family whose car has broken down squash onto the (luckily wide) window sills. Father Christmas has to use his fingers and toes to count all the stockings. The small black cat, who crept in unnoticed, decides it is so lovely he’ll stay till next Christmas.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Four: Roast Figs and Sugar Snow, Diana Henry

Wintery food is so much more inviting than summery fare. Admittedly summer has scones with cream and jam sitting on the lawn, ice cream on a beach and chilled white wine (that is food, isn’t it?) but I can’t, at the moment, think of much else. Winter has luscious, rich, recipes and this book contains the very best. Sadly, I’ve never been able to make my favourite recipe in this collection: Sugar-on-Snow. This is a kind of toffee which appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. It is very simple – all you do is heat maple syrup and butter to the required temperature, which you test by spooning the mixture onto snow. If it sets and forms a web of toffee, it’s ready. Apparently in New England they have parties with dill pickles (this I’m not sure I like the sound of), mulled apple juice and doughnuts.

The book also contains Tartiflette; the most ridiculously over-the-top concoction of potatoes, bacon, onion, Reblochon and crème fraiche, Pumpkin Tarts with spinach and gorgonzola (which taste even better heated up the next day), and the delightfully-named Peasant Girls in a Mist (softened apples layered with sugary-cinnamony breadcrumbs and topped with thick lemony cream).  Even the salads look tempting (which is high praise from me) with cured ham and potatoes, a farmer’s salad helpfully topped with fried eggs and a Friulian Winter Salad with chestnuts, pancetta, spicy Italian sausage, walnuts and pomegranate, oh, and a few leaves to justify the name. Writing this, I realise that this is one of my most-used cookery books. I just wish I could make the toffee. Perhaps this year.  

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Three: A Guinea Pig Christmas Carol

This is my third book connected to A Christmas Carol and the fifth in this delightful series. Previous titles include Oliver Twist, Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice and The Nativity. Opinion is divided as to whether these little books are utterly charming or indescribably naff but I was enchanted the moment I saw a small grey Mr Darcy in  top hat propose to a ginger and white Elizabeth Bennet. In later books ‘Elizabeth Bennet’ reappeared as the second shepherd and ‘Mr Darcy’ made a particularly intimidating King Herod. Each book contains an assurance that none of the animals were harmed or placed under any stress but I should imagine the reverse was true. We had a guinea pig a school and I looked after him for one holiday; he was a gregarious little creature and would have loved to have been involved in this sort of project. As it was he had to be content with the intricate obstacle courses I built for him.

In this volume Scrooge is a wonderful long-haired guinea pig called Beverlie-Anne, who looks particularly fetching in reading glasses and a nightcap. His nephew Fred is a dashing ginger and Marley’s ghost is positively scary. There is a portrait of Charles Dickens unlike any other.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Two: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Having read Miss Marley I had to reread the story that had inspired it. Jacob Marley had always been a peripheral character and I had never thought about Scrooge’s past. Now I read the story with a new insight. They had both been enthusiastic and likable young men but a grim determination not to be poor had overtaken both of them and turned them into money-grabbing monsters. I had always regarded them as simply greedy and mean but Miss Marley shows that both had good reason to fear poverty. There are a great many different editions available but I like this one as it slips easily into a pocket.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book One: Miss Marley, Vanessa Lafaye

Here is a reverse Twelve Days of Christmas, leading up to the day rather than away from it. I have chosen a mixture of festive fiction, cookery books, picture books and children’s stories that I particularly like.

This is a prequel to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and aims to uncover the mystery of Jacob Marley’s past. When the story opens Jake (Jacob) and his younger sister Clara Belle are living rough on the streets of Victorian London, uprooted from their previous comfortable and well-to-do life. At twelve, Jake is tough and determined to survive, telling Clara each night, ‘I promise that we will have a good life again. And I will always keep you safe’. Following their early lives this book brilliantly explains why Marley and Scrooge became as they did and also explains some references in A Christmas Carol that I’d never even really noticed. At the end of the book there is a separate, fascinating twist but I shall leave that unexplained. It only remains to say that this is a delightful little hardback which would grace any stocking. Just make sure that the recipient also has a copy of A Christmas Carol. 

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Holiday Reading

This post has failed to keep to my planned ‘one a month’ but only just and it is much longer than I intended. Writing about seven books, some of which I care passionately about, has made me wordy. Read in parts, or skip, as you will.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of going on holiday is choosing which books to read. Recently I went to Wales and although I was only going to be there for four days I had a train journey at either end so I embarked on some careful book planning. For the past ten years or so I have always based my holiday reading round a rhyme; as you will see I am prepared to bend its rules but it is a useful guide. I discovered it in Claudia Fitzherbert’s column about her bookshop in The Telegraph in 2005. I still have the original cutting because, although I am a rare and irregular reader of newspapers I am a great ‘cutter out and keeper of useful and interesting articles’, some of which eventually get read. Anyway, here is the rhyme:

  • Something old, something new,
  • Something made up, something true.
  • One that’s here and one that’s there
  • And one that could be anywhere.

 

Something old: E. Nesbit, The Lark

Beloved by generations of children, E. Nesbit was also a successful writer of fiction for adults. The Lark, reissued as part of the Penguin Women Writers series, is a delightful tale of unexpected freedom and gentle adventure. Set in 1919, the story opens with Jane and Lucilla at school, confident in the knowledge that their inheritances will ensure comfortable lives until they marry. Largely lost by a hapless guardian, the inheritances turn out to be a small cottage and an even smaller bank account. Armed with Jane’s uncrushable conviction that the whole thing is a lark, a little luck and a degree of freedom rare at the time, the two young ladies set about earning their livings.

Something new: Rowena House, The Goose Road

This is very new, at the time I read it, it hadn’t even been published – one of the advantages of my day job as The Shop Scribe to Hatchards is that I get advanced copies of all sorts of exciting books (the downside is that I get far more than I have time to read, but that is hardly a just cause for complaint). The Goose Road is a children’s book but, like many, it is a worthwhile read for anyone, regardless of age. Set during the First World War it tells the story of Angélique, daughter of a French farmer. The book opens with his death and, try as she might, Angélique cannot mourn the death of this bully; her concerns are with her brother and the task of maintaining the farm for when he returns from the fighting. However, her father died in debt, the Requisition plundered the farm and Angélique’s only hope is to sell her brother’s Toulouse geese for a good price. The necessary journey across France really captures the times with trauma and danger but also humour, especially regarding Napoleon, the authoritative gander.   

Something made up: Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

This is my favourite book of the year so far – and I shall be surprised if anything supplants it. Beautifully written it follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, opening in 1922 when he is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal. He is branded an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the hotel where he lives – not in his usual grand suite but a small and bare attic room. The count philosophically takes charge of his new life, not just making the best of the situation but delighting in it. The hotel is large and forms a world within Moscow, a world which the count makes his own, rising through its ranks with style and charm. He is one of the most gracious gentlemen in all fiction – and quite probably in fact as well. I would love to have met him.

Something true: Claudia FitzHerbert: The Diary of a Stockmistress

Turl Street, Oxford by stevecadman on Flickr

Although I am an erratic newspaper reader, there are times when a column will make me faithful: Monty Don in The Observer, a series of articles following a 2CV in the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge of 1997 (I had a 2CV) and Claudia FitzHerbert’s The Diary of a Stockmistress in The Telegraph. Between November 2004 and March 2006 she wrote a weekly (?) column about the QI Bookshop in Oxford which she ran. It was tiny, quirkily arranged and, to my great regret, I never went there. Like so many things, I assumed it would always be there and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. I hadn’t even saved all the columns, just the one with the rhyme and half a dozen others. A trawl of the internet unearthed about half of them. The others may be there but my technological skill and patience ran out.

I worried the columns would not have stood the test of time but a second reading, a decade or so later, is just as pleasurable as the first. The shelves of the shop are arranged by theme, with fiction and non-fiction rubbing shoulders under headings such as Dislocation, Bohemia and Modest Proposals. The only subject she seems to consider putting on its own is poetry, because she notices that people who buy poetry never want anything else. I like coming upon poetry unexpectedly but possibly that is because I edit anthologies so I am always on the look-out for a new discovery. The staff include The Hungry Pole and Implacable the sixth-former who takes charge after school and at weekends. Rereading the columns I have laughed, grimaced, noted down a huge number of forgotten books and ultimately cried at the demise of the shop I failed to visit.

One that’s here: Philip Pullman, Deamon Voices, Essays in Storytelling

This earned its place as the ‘here’ book because Philip Pullman spent part of his childhood in Wales (which was lucky as I really wanted to read it and otherwise my books didn’t match the rhyme). Sadly, this book is not a joy to read. Badly produced it is bulky, heavy and doesn’t stay open. Oh it looks attractive enough; a substantial brick with a nice cloth binding. Everything about it says “I am worth the price printed on the back; you are getting value for money.” The problem starts when you try to read it. It is far too heavy and bulky to carry around. With 400 pages it doesn’t need to be so; Everyman’s Classics with 6-700 pages are perfectly manageable. You can’t read it in bed in case you fall asleep, it drops forward and knocks you out and it is awkward to hold as the binding means that it is intent on closing itself.

Having got that rant out of my system, the words themselves are a joy to read. Most of the essays began as talks or lectures and cover everything from the duties of a storyteller, via religion, humorous anecdotes and interesting asides to Philip Pullman’s own books. His voice comes through clearly and I think this would be perfect as an audio book.

One that’s there: Fran Cooper, These Dividing Walls

The dividing walls of the title refers to those at number thirty-seven, a late nineteenth-century building hidden away in a quiet corner of Paris. Inside the apartments there is a rag-bag of residents: the sad, the lonely, the furtive and the defiant. One hot summer’s day Edward, a refugee in all but name, arrives from England, mourning a past he cannot change. Employed in the bookshop on the ground floor he quickly learns to recognise the residents and becomes privy to some of their secrets. The story is set against a backdrop of mounting racial tension and violence in the city and as this threatens the peace of the building itself he becomes increasingly entwined in the lives of its residents.

One that could be anywhere: Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library

The premise of this immediately caught my attention: the story of a professional spy who collects fiction from different realities for The Library. An alternative London was the setting and Irene the interesting and charismatic heroine. It didn’t quite live up to my expectations but I think that was because I had ridiculously high hopes for this book. It has adventure, clever magic and excellent characters; I enjoyed it but not quite enough to read the others in the series.

Jane

Bløtkake

This, and many other delicious recipes, come from Jane’s new book, Nuts, Growing and Cooking, which she wrote with Sally Hughes. The first time we discovered Bløtkake (pronounced ‘blurt-kak-ir’) was in Tilly Culme-Seymour’s delightful book Island Summers.  It is a Norwegian birthday cake; at least it was the cake Tilly always had and the moment we read about it we knew we wanted it as our birthday cakes too. It is a wonderful concoction of sponge, cream, fruit and marzipan and makes a perfect centrepiece for any tea table, birthday or otherwise. In the book the cake has to make a fraught journey in a small boat from the mainland bakery to the island, this is not something we would recommend, although one Jane made survived a bike ride to Piccadilly.

Island Summers does not include a recipe for the cake but when Tilly came to sign her books she confirmed that our recipe was pretty near her original.

Ready-made marzipan is fine for this cake but use white, rather than golden for authenticity. You can use any combination of berries, according to your inclination and what is in season.

Serves at least 12; this is very rich and substantial cake, a little goes a long way.

            Cake

  •             300 g /10 oz / 3 ½ sticks soft butter
  •             300 g / 10 oz /1 1/3 cup caster (superfine) sugar
  •             6 eggs
  •             300 g / 10 oz / 2 ½ cups self-raising flour
  •             2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

            Filling

  •             300 ml / 10 fl oz / 1 ¼ cups double (heavy) cream
  •             4 drops vanilla extract
  •             3-4 tablespoons apple juice
  •             3-4 tablespoons strawberry jam
  •             100 g / 3 ½ oz / ¾ cup chopped walnuts

            Topping

  •             300 g / 10 oz marzipan
  •             200 g / 7 oz strawberries
  •             200 g/ 7 oz blueberries
  •             icing (confectioners’) sugar, for rolling out and to dust the finished cake

To make the cakes

Preheat the oven to 180 C / 350 F / Gas 4. Grease 3 x 23 cm / 9 inch loose-bottomed cake tins and line the bases with baking parchment. Even if you have to cook them in batches, it is much easier to cook three separate cakes rather than trying to cut one into three layers. They also rise better.

Put the butter and sugar into a bowl and cream together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a little flour after each egg. Gently fold in the remaining flour. Pour the mixture into the tins and level out. Bake for about 20-25 minutes. The cake will have pulled away from the sides of the tin and a skewer should come out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few moments. Take the cakes out of the tins, remove the paper and leave on a wire rack to cool completely.

To assemble the cakes

Once the cakes are totally cooled put the bottom layer onto the plate you wish to use; the cake will be almost impossible to move once you have decorated it. Whip the cream and vanilla extract till it forms reasonably stiff peaks. Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of apple juice over the bottom layer of cake; this will ensure it is deliciously moist and gooey. Spread with a layer of ½ the jam and then add a layer of about 1/3 of the cream. Sprinkle half the chopped walnuts on top. Put the next layer of cake on top and repeat the apple juice, jam, cream and walnut layers.

Put the top layer of cake in place and cover the top and sides with a thin layer of cream. This is not the final coating but merely a ‘glue’ to hold the marzipan in place. Roll out the marzipan into a thin circle, large enough to cover the top and sides of the cake. Remember to roll it out on icing (confectioners’) sugar, not flour. Using the rolling pin, drape the marzipan over the cake. Trim any excess; tuck the edges neatly under the cake and smooth over any cracks.

Cut a large cross in the centre and peel back the four triangles of marzipan. You should have sufficient marzipan left to cut away the triangles and replace them with fresh ones. This isn’t vital but it saves cleaning off the cream and cake crumbs from the underside of the triangles which are now exposed. Hull the strawberries, cut into quarters if they are large and pile into the centre with the blueberries, or whatever fruits you are using. Put the remainder around the cake. Dust with icing (confectioners’) sugar and put into the fridge. The cake is best made an hour or so ahead to allow the filling to soak in. It is fine made a day ahead. Keep in the fridge and ideally remove an hour or so before serving.

Jane

 

An Admirable Cult

There are surprisingly many good books, some great books and of these a very few also achieve cult status. Joyce’s Ulysses is an obvious example, even if there are many readers who find it hard to connect with.  A slightly less well-known example is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which however is hugely entertaining and a far easier read. Although written in Stalin’s Russia between 1928 and the time of Bulgakov’s death in 1940, state censorship prevented its publication in book form until 1967, and even then much of the text had been removed or altered.The 150,000 initial copies were sold out within hours.  

In 1973 a complete and accurate Russian text was published. Subsequently at least three and a half million copies have been sold worldwide. There have been at least six English translations. The book has proved hugely influential. It has inspired 8 films, untold TV and theatre productions, numerous dance works and ballets, and many graphic and comic novels. Its content has provided a recurring theme of pop music; for example Mick Jagger’s Sympathy for the Devil. It has its own specialist website (www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/) and dedicated tours of Bulgakov’s Moscow take place as they do for Joyce’s Dublin.

One reason for its success is simple; it’s a very good story. The plot is based on a visit by the Devil and his entourage to Stalin’s intensely atheistic Moscow during the inter-war period.  Satan arrives disguised as the curious Professor Woland (“platinum crowns on the left side of his mouth and gold on the right. .. Mouth somehow twisted … Right eye black, left – for some reason – green. “).. What chaos follows!

Woland’s visit is linked to an unpublished novel written by the eponymous Master about Christ’s trial and Crucifixion in Jerusalem (“Yershalaim”) and Pontius Pilate’s ineffectual attempts to save him. The manuscript’s rejection and vilification by the Soviet literary establishment has brought about the Master’s madness and confinement into a rather upmarket state-run lunatic asylum and his alienation from his mistress, the adorable Margarita.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first is principally a satire on human greed and vanity and in particular upon the Soviet literary establishment and Moscow’s newly rich citizens.  The sycophantic writers are organised into a fictional association, Massolit. Based in a luxurious clubhouse, Griboedov’s; their every material need is catered for at very best prices. “But sterlet in a silver chafing dish, sterlet slices interlaid with crayfish tails and fresh caviar? And how did you like the fillets of thrush? With truffles? Quail a la genoise? Nine-fifty!” Massolit’s Chairman, Berlioz, is unfortunate enough to deny the historical existence of Christ to Woland, when he appears at the start of the book. Woland claims he has arrived in Moscow at the invitation of the State to expose the fraudulent nature of black magic. He then predicts, and he and his associates bring about, Berlioz’s death by decapitation from a tram

Berlioz’s sidekick, Ivan Nikolaevich “Homeless”, becomes deranged and transferred to the asylum. A theatre performance by Woland results in citizens losing their clothes, chasing after apparently convincing money and revealing the most embarrassing secrets of their private lives. Woland’s associates include a memorable and enormous black cat, Behemoth, who talks as well as making poor jokes, shoots pistols and tries to pay his tram fare with Russian money. The goings on are memorably funny and inventive with elements of slapstick, magic realism and science fiction.

The second part of the book, whilst equally imaginative and comical becomes more focussed on the ideas of love and courage. Woland and his associates have taken up residence in the flat formerly occupied by Berlioz, enlarged infinitely by the use of the “fifth dimension” into the setting of the Devil’s Walpurgis Night Ball on May Day’s Eve. Because of her love for the Master, Margarita acts as the Devil’s hostess at this spectacular event. She is transformed into a witch and flies naked through the night with her maid Natasha (not without a little far from innocent fun tormenting the Master’ critics in Massolit) before facing a parade of the great sinners of history, all revived from the dead by black magic.  Her eventual reward from Woland is to join the Master in a state of blissful eternal peace while Pontius Pilate is released from a shadowy post-death hell.

Bulgakov draws on a vast variety of sources and influences to make a separate and convincing masterpiece. Goethe’s Faust and the tragedy of Man’s nature is perhaps the most central. Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, you name them, their influence can be recognised with ease. So can references to Freemasonry, the Manichean nature of the universe and the US Ambassador’s Ball of 1935!  I even had fun trying to connect the antics of the Soviet police and secret agents around Woland’s apartment with memories of Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in Rue Morgue. There just might be a connection.

In a way, none of this actually matters. The book is just a great read. It’s freely available from nearly all good booksellers and at £6.99 (Pocket Penguin edition, admittedly on rather poor paper), is cheap. So cheap it will actually cost no more from your local independent bookseller than the Internet after allowing for postage, so you can feel both virtuous and shrewd in supporting them!

Chris

The 2016 London Print Fair

The 2016 London Print Fair is now on running from today, Thursday 5th May until Sunday 8th May with more information available at http://www.londonprintfair.com/. If you are in the market for, or want a good look at an amazing selection of top class prints then it’s definitely worth a visit. Last night I went to the Press View; and the quality and variety of works present was frankly exceptional. A couple of images will have to represent a complete box of delights; it wasn’t easy to choose but both show the high standard of items available.

While nothing there is really cheap, there are a remarkable number of items that represent good long term value. Two acquatints each immaculately printed in red and black from two separate plates,by George Baselitz and shown by Till Verclas, were on offer for around £3,000. If your taste runs that way to modern German art, they seemed relatively inexpensive.

Christopher Mendez has several good dark early states of Piranesi’s Veduti di Roma at somewhat over over a thousand pounds and a really fine impression of a print of Poussin’s Landscape with Funeral of Phocion was significantly under half that.

Andrew Edmunds, likewise located just inside the main entrance to the left as you come in, seemed to be doing very good business indeed with an epidemic of red dots covering much of his stock after half an hour. An exceptional item was Gillray’s The KING of BROBDINGNAG, and GULLIVER (image below) in wonderful and brightest early colour, not especially cheap at around £8,000 but frankly when are you going to get one as good? It was unsold, although attracting a lot of attention from potential buyers, when I left last night.Whether it remains available today is an open question.

The King of BROBDINGNAG, and GULLIVER. H.Humphrey, 26 June 1803. JAMES GILLRAY 1756-1815

There were also plenty of very fine items for more serious money. Some of the Grosvenor School lino-cuts, printed in colours by Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews, were selling towards the top end of the tens of thousands of pounds. Gilden’s Arts Gallery had a nice large Miro for around £20,000. Osborne Samuel had some prints from Eric Ravilious’ submarine series in very attractive fresh condition, although for non- trivial prices around £12,000.

Finally there is just room to mention and illustrate below, a superb (but very definitely ‘price on application’) four colour lithograph of The Sick Girl by Edvard Munch shown by Frederick Mulder. I wish, if I win the lottery!

Chris