Monday, June 29, 2015

Life Snapshots

I love a nice round-up. The internet (and culture generally) is increasingly difficult to keep up with and I have more or less given up on trying. The majority of my internet consumption is directed by a handful of people that I trust. I stumble across miscellaneous bits and pieces on Twitter and Tumblr but I fall back on recognisable humans.

On email: Jessica Stanley's Read. Look. Think; Ann Friedman's Newsletter; Margaret & Sophie's Two Bossy Dames; Jia's tinybitchtapes.

On blog: Stevie's Weekend Lists; Ana's Week in Clicks; Mallory's Gems of the Week.  

These women are all pretty thorough and I'm not but I thought I'd take a personally inflected shot at the format. If only to preserve my influences in (short-lived) perpetuity.

The Greenwich Rose Garden

  • Revenge of the Nerds - Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The always-excellent TBA on Taylor Swift's passive-aggression, plausible deniability and vicious words. Don't fuck with writers. Or, at least, don't fuck with beautiful, talented, best-selling, fearless writers who can mobilise an army of teenage girls against you.
  • Immaculate Self-Conception: Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein on Instagram - Molly Beauchemin: The public expectation of 'authenticity' on Instagram; representations of women; how to display yourself as a woman within a rock, as opposed to pop, context.
  • Switch - Ceres_Libera: Seeking comfort and re-reading one of my favourite fics. I'm not a part of this fandom and am not familiar with the source material but the characterisation is good enough that it really doesn't matter. *warm glow*

  • I have fallen a little bit in love with Kacey Musgraves over the last few months and her new album Pageant Material is excellent. Looking at my general musical tastes you might not guess how much country music I was exposed to as a child but occasionally that upbringing will make itself felt.
  • A new episode of Shipping & Handling podcast dropped last week and that's always a treat.
  • I have a broad, often scatological sense of humour, love bad-ass female heroes and will watch every McCarthy-Feig collab until I die. Amy Schumer might be the future of rom-coms but I can only hope that McCarthy-Feig are the future of mainstream com-coms. Spy was deeply silly and I enjoyed it a lot. 
  • Lots of people on the internet love it but it took an IRL recommendation to get me to finally check out Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. The Australian 1920s flapper-detective is delightful and it's on UK Netflix right now. I'm sure that Agatha Christie fans will love this but I enjoy it as a Jeeves & Wooster fan and a general fan of the era. There's drugs and sex and murder but really this is good, clean fun.
  • The roses are in bloom in the Greenwich Park Rose Garden. They smell amazing and even on a rare, sunny weekend the eastern side of Greenwich Park isn't too busy (by London standards). I still haven't managed to visit the Ranger's House because the opening hours are very limited but one day I will get there.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Read: May 2015


So I'm just going to have to do a really rubbish round-up because I do not have the energy to do it again properly. *Sigh*
  • Foxglove Summer - Ben Aaronovitch: I have written about him and the Rivers of London series before and I'm sure I will continue to do so because they are fun and I like them. This is #5 and, like #4, I found it rather slight (due to the books' popularity, it seems, they are now being published too fast to match the content of the first three novels) but I will read #6 (The Hanging Tree, due Nov 2015) nonetheless once it hits the library circuit.
  • The Third Wife - Lisa Jewell: A tightly written and well executed novel. I don't dabble much in the commercial/family life-drama/thriller world but if that sounds like your cup of tea then I would easily recommend it.
  • The Hawley Book of the Dead - Chrysler Szarlan: This did not work for me. I have read both of the comp titles, The Night Circus and A Discovery of Witches, and I didn't really care for either so perhaps this is a question of taste but I don't think this book lived up to either the (dubious) lyricism of the former or the (dubious) romance of the latter. It felt confused and over-long and, although there were some nice ideas, it just didn't follow through.
  • All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews: Now this I loved. I read Miriam Toews’ beautiful, semi-autobiographical novel in almost a single sitting. Although the story is grim, the narrator’s sister tries repeatedly to kill herself as her family struggles to keep her alive, the voice of Yolanda, the narrator, is so compelling. The way that Yoli thinks and speaks, the contradictory jumble of her emotions, feels intimately familiar even if you have never endured this kind of trauma. She loves her sister and is afraid for her; she both resents and understands her inability to live; her own life is falling apart and she is sleeping with the wrong men but she holds herself together for her mother and her children. All of this should be horribly depressing but the book is light-footed and slyly comic throughout. I would never have expected to laugh so much at a slow, painful suicide narrative but Toews reveals the humour embedded in life’s most agonising moments. The empathy the characters offer each other is deeply moving and the book has, undoubtedly, expanded my emotional understanding of suicide. I finished the book in tears but feeling uplifted; I am a better person because of it. I will be reading A Complicated Kindness next on LJ's heartfelt recommendation. (Isn't Toews great with titles?)
  • A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful - Gideon Lewis-Kraus: I do not care at all about the angst of young, white men and Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a young, white man with doubts and worries but he is also an excellent writer, observant and very self-critical, so his account of late-twenties ennui and the three walking pilgrimages he undertook in response to said ennui is surprisingly gripping. Surprising to me anyway. I found myself fascinated by his chronicling of these endless, pointless, painful walks and I thought a lot about life and survival and whathaveyou. We all have ennui after all or, at least, I assume we do.
  • City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett: Both of the hosts on two of my favourite book podcasts, Shipping & Handling and Portable Magic, have raved about this fantasy novel and I was looking forward to giving it a shot. In a world where the colonised rose up and killed the gods of the rich and powerful, the tables have turned and a once beautiful capital is in tatters. There are spies and bureaucrats and religious fanatics and murderous pirates and monsters. The world building is excellent and there are two very interesting and sympathetic female leads and I liked this a lot even if I didn't love it. It is clever and interesting and I'll definitely try another RJB.
  • Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened - Allie Brosh: I love Hyperbole and a Half, everyone loves Hyperbole and a Half, but I hadn't got around to reading Allie's 2013 book. [Exciting news, her next book, Solutions and Other Problems is due out in Oct 2015.] If you are familiar with the blog then the book won't contain any great surprises but there is new material and it is funny and sad and wonderful and all in one place. Allie gives great dogs and small children and even as she excoriates herself she reminds me to try and forgive myself. I love her and consider her as something of a patron saint which I'm sure she would hate but there you go.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Food Recently: Weekday Dinners

Because I am endlessly interested by how people manage to feed themselves. My default for this time of year (and, bloody hell, British weather has been all over the place - June is not doing itself any favours) is a pulse + a vegetable + cheese and a big pile of leaves. Easy, delicious and moderately healthy. Or, at least, as healthy as will ever interest me. My idea of good health involves a generous helping of carbs, quite a lot of cheese and the odd bit of cured meat. Nothing has been deep fried so I'm feeling like a freakin' paragon of virtue right now.

Chickpeas with chorizo, roasted red pepper, spinach and goats' cheese : You know what I found interesting on our recent America trip? No chorizo. Not on the West Coast anyway. There were a lot of mildly spiced sausages masquerading as chorizo but no proper cooking chorizo with that delicious fatty, cured kick. Strange. This recipes contains so many of my favourite things. Re the recipe, you can play pretty fast and loose with quantities. I inevitably skip the chives and roast my own pepper (one is fine) because jarred peppers are a level of fancy that I have not yet attained.

Green lentils with feta and roasted red pepper : Basically everything can be made good with the addition of roasted red peppers and a salty cheese. Also, I love green lentils and they are legit healthy. Fellow anemics, for when you don't fancy a steak or a Guinness (often) lentils are high in iron. Eat with some raw spinach and feel a little perkier. Also, also, hummus is  the greatest condiment.

Roasted butternut squash with chickpeas and tahini : I suppose the red peppers and butternut squash are appealing to my sweet tooth? They certainly add delight to a warm salad. No cheese here but tahini is magnificent and savoury. And I could probably eat chickpeas every day for the rest of my life. They're just so versatile and delicious.

Bonus, all of these recipes make for excellent lunch the next day. You will win at tupperware.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Amy Schumer + Trainwreck

I mourn the death of the classic chick flick. Yes, plenty of them were garbage but I have pretty low-brow cinematic taste. I enjoy a quiet, beautiful indie film now and again but sometimes I just want to be entertained and a decent script with a female lead and a happy ending is my idea of a good time.

I resent Hollywood's current disinclination to cater for mass female audiences. Obviously women can enjoy Mad Max and superhero films and big, dumb action franchises but we are not the primary audience. It's probably true that women are more likely to accompany their (heterosexual) partners to BOY films than men are to tolerate GIRL films but I still think Hollywood should be trying to woo my dollar. I mean, I'm fickle and if Sleepless in Seattle came out tomorrow I would probably turn my nose up at such sentimental pandering but I still want them to at least pretend to value my preferences.

The closest thing you really get to a rom-com these days is a female-lead slash-com. It's a clumsy construction but I would roughly categorise Bridesmaids as a dram-com, The Heat as a cop-com and Pitch Perfect as a glee-com? I don't know, that doesn't really work. They're all comedies targeted at women, let's leave it there. And I like those films. I celebrate the fact that women are being funny in mid-budget films and that we are embracing gross-out humour and that all of the aforementioned films prioritise female friendships. I love female friendships! They're the best! But sometimes I yearn for the easy endorphin hit of romantic fulfilment and that is hard to find on film these days.

I caught a pre-screening of Amy Schumer's upcoming film Trainwreck last week and although it isn't at all schlocky it did satisfy a lot of my rom-com urges. I'm probably being overly optimistic but it felt like it could be a successful new model for contemporary romantic comedies if we accept that the "chick flick" as it existed into the mid '00s is dead forever. There is comedy and there is romance and it feels very modern.

Amy, the film's protagonist, is a fully conceived character. She has a career and a family and a very active social/sexual life. She isn't looking for a relationship but she meets Bill Hader's character (LOVE do not doubt Hader's potential as a romantic lead - he is charming and delightful and he has the biggest, brownest eyes) and they like each other and that is important. I love Chris O'Dowd and I have a soft spot for Sklyar Astin but they are the least important aspects of their respective films. Which is fine. But the relationship is not a sub-plot in Trainwreck and that is really nice too.

Also, it was kind of relaxing to take a break from body horror jokes for a while. Bridesmaids was on TV over the weekend and while the food poisoning scene is masterful you only really need to see it once and I never needed the vomiting in Pitch Perfect at all. Also, also, Amy Schumer is a perfectly attractive, slim-normal, human-looking person and I loved that there were no jokes at the expense of her body or appearance. She is neither very beautiful nor very thin but her sexuality isn't ridiculed.

Also, also, also, TILDA SWINTON. Spot her in the trailer. She is a perfect human being and I love her.

Prior to this film, I hadn't really bonded with Amy Schumer. I appreciated the political drive of her most recent season of Inside Amy Schumer but I don't like sketch comedy. I will defend to the death a woman's right to be lewd and sexually aggressive and drunk, as often per her public persona, but it isn't a mode of being/comedy that interests me. However, I am now fully on board. She wrote and, perhaps, produced Trainwreck and it is funny while maintaining an emotional depth, romantic while maintaining a tough, independent heroine and generally a pleasure.

I liked it. So there you go.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Food Reviewed: Ristorante Rosella

I have written before about my problems with Italian restaurants. I cook a lot of Italian food and I have eaten too much excellent Italian food in situ to tolerate crappy imitations. Particularly at London prices. A carbonara with a weird bechamel sauce and soggy pasta for £12.50 makes me want to scream with frustration. (I am a drama queen.)

So it is unlikely that I would have ever wandered into Ristorante Rosella without a personal recommendation. It is a remarkably unprepossessing joint in Kentish Town and I'm now a bit in love with it. From the outside it looks like a sketchy caff and the majority of the menu is priced appropriately for a sketchy caff. Inside it looks like every glorious cliché of a cheap, family run Italian restaurant and there are a handful of specials each day. Pastas and pizzas on the menu are in the £5-7 range and specials around £8-12. I enthusiastically forked out for a special but I'm willing to believe (and I have been told) that the standards meet similar levels of quality.

I ordered the lamb pappardelle and it was excellent. It wasn't fancied up or fiddled with and there were no bells and whistles; it was a good, rich but not overwhelming, lamb ragu and good, fresh pasta. Great fresh pasta actually. I would go as far as to say that this is the best pasta I have eaten in London. Big claim! It was everything that anyone ordering a lamb pappardelle could have wished for. It made me feel like my basic demands for UK Italian restaurants were reasonable and achievable.

I know that it is not the done thing to out an unobtrusive local favourite but low-key, affordable, delicious food is hard to find and I feel obliged to acknowledge that I had a lovely time at Rosella and will certainly be going back for more.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What I Read: April 2015

The Blazing World - Siri Hustvedt

So this is very late... But at least I got it in before the end of May? Also, April was a busy month so things are a little sparse.
  • The Book of Life – Deborah Harkness: Given the limited time I have available for reading and the length of my To Read List, I don’t really understand how I ended up consuming this entire trilogy. It was mostly accidental, I certainly never paid for any of these; the pulp shelf, a library book, a loaned copy… The second one is quite fun but I didn't love any of them and the finale is a slog. It is/feels very long and the more enjoyable characters are largely absent. I am keen for bad ass witches in a mostly contemporary environment (although the Elizabethan time travel was the best part of this series – wish I got to say that more often) but I can’t recommend these in good faith.
  • Vivian Versus the Apocalypse – Katie Coyle: The internet (Tumblr especially) love Katie Coyle and I do too. She seems like a good, fun, interesting human and I'm psyched that she got picked up by a US publisher and is becoming a big deal. I have been meaning to read her first book, which won the Wattpad/Hot Key Books writing prize and was published in the UK a few years ago, forever and I'm glad I finally got around to it. The Rapture comes and there are holes in the roof of Vivian Apple’s family home, her parents are gone and she has to decide how to live without them. I think the concept is really smart, I love the Church of America and the zealous, conservatism of religious cults. I am thrilled that Vivian is neither a damsel in distress nor a goddess – she’s a confused, well behaved teenager trying to work out wtf is going on. Admittedly, this book didn't click with me emotionally but I'm happy that it exists and is being read.
  • Hons and Rebels – Jessica Mitford: I am a big Mitford family fan and I had owned this book for years and just, somehow, not got around to actually picking it up. This isn't a starter Mitford text (generally speaking I would recommend The Mitford Girls or The Pursuit of Love to newbies) but it is interesting to see Decca’s perspective. Like many of her sisters, she is an excellent writer and it is always fun to read about their lives. My own political affiliations are probably closest to Decca’s and I enjoyed her historical insights but, even in her own memoir, she is not always a sympathetic figure. Of course, if my sister was hanging out with Hitler I would probably be unforgiving but I did sometimes wish for a little more generosity. Also, the book closes shortly after the outbreak of WW2 and I wanted so much more. Still, always a pleasure to spend time with the Mitfords.
  • The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt: It has been weeks and I am still processing this. It was a fascinating and frustrating reading experience and I struggled to finish the book but it made me think so much. It wasn't really an enjoyable read and there’s no one in my real life I would recommend it to but I'm glad I powered through. A female artist has not received the recognition that she believes she deserves so, after her art dealer husband’s death, she exhibits her work behind the mask of three male artists. The story is told through her journals and news articles and art world essays and interviews with the characters around her. There is a fictional editor – one of my least favourite tropes ever ever. The author smugly name-drops one of her own books at one point; for a lot of the book it feels like she is having more fun than the reader. The satire of the New York art world is amazingly acidic. The book could be a straight polemic against sexism, and ageism to a lesser degree, but Hustvedt resists the urge to simplify. Reality is complicated and there are a thousand factors to any outcome and I really respected the book’s unwillingness to be obvious or binary. I didn't find it comfortable but it made me really consider art and commerce and success and personality and media and gender and our own and cultural blind spots… It’s not nice but it is a deeply interesting book.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Issue 25: Weather, Small Talk and Social Anxiety

I've got to say, I think this is an especially good issue of Oh Comely. Beautiful cover and so many interesting features. I have written a piece about meteorological small talk and I'm pretty pleased with it. Plus, more nice things:
  • A really gorgeous series of portraits of outdoorswomen by Liz Seabrook.
  • An interview with the director and portraits of some of the cast of Girlhood which is high on my To Watch List.
  • A story from the Gender Trust.
  • An interview with the director of The Falling which is pretty close behind Girlhood on my To Watch List. (So many interesting female fronted and directed films around at the mo.)
  • An interview with Courtney Barnett who is a straight-up babe.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Art Recently

If you can ignore the crowds, long weekends are a great time to catch up on some art. Although, to be fair, neither the Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern nor the Joshua Reynolds at the Wallace Collection were that busy. I mean, they were busy, of course, but they weren't unbearable. The Wallace Collection isn't quite such a tourist hub and their exhibition space is discretely separate from the main house but I was surprised by the Tate Modern. I can't remember the last time I visited and it wasn't a total scrum. It was very refreshing. The John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery was completely packed on a weekday morning though so, really, you never can tell.

I love me some Reynolds and the WC exhib is only two rooms but the selection is excellent and it is free. I find his 'fancy' paintings of small children rather cloying but the larger of the two rooms is dedicated to actresses and courtesans and it is awesome. The focus of the exhib is on Reynold's technique (what he put in his paint, how he used his canvases etc.) and there are some interesting x-rays but I would happily take a hundred annotated rooms of 'Reynolds and the Bad-Ass Ladies of the Late 18th Century'. There's a free idea for you, art folks. Kitty Fisher, Mary Robinson, Nelly O'Brien, Mary Nesbitt, I admire your hutzpah and I'm sure you must have been pleased by these portraits.

The Sargent is the best thing I have seen recently even if the viewing experience would be much improved by a drastic visitor cull. I love him so much and the NPG have put on a truly fab exhib. He was the first artist I really clicked with as a child and then I went off him because I decided that his work was too neat and pretty and polished but now I'm back! Clearly I can be fickle but my fandom has held steady for the last few years and it shows no sign of shifting. Across artists and styles I love a portrait and this exhib is nothing but people. And so many interesting people - Henry James and W. B. Yeats and Ellen Terry and Auguste Rodin and Vernon Lee... The Yeats is a pencil sketch and I'm not sure if I've ever seen a Sargent pencil drawing before and it is remarkable. He captures beauty and character with such apparent ease, it's marvellous and baffling. The exhib really highlights his technical skill and it's fascinating to see him playing with styles. Impressionism? Yeah, I can do that too, nbd.

I liked the Delaunay least but it left my brain the buzziest. I don't think the exhib is very clearly narrated; Delaunay had a very varied career and turbulent life and I still don't understand how a lot of her work and history interacted. She was born in the Russian Empire, raised by a Jewish uncle and lived in Nazi-occupied France, which is a LOT of context, but the exhib still felt strangely ahistorical. I also don't necessarily care for her abstract paintings which is just personal taste. But her early portraits are very strong, she has an amazing eye for colour and pattern, I would happily have seen and read more about her graphic design work (lots of book/magazine/album covers) and when you come to her textile work it all falls into place. This exhib raised so many questions for me.
Delaunay clearly had a natural talent for textile design but did she find it satisfying? What are the risks vs. benefits of a very varied career? Would Delaunay have been more successful if she had been more focussed? Should you focus on the thing you love or the thing you show aptitude for? Did Delaunay's eye for products (fabrics, magazine, fashion, costumes, books) 'mean' anything? What might she have achieved if she hadn't put her energy into her husband's legacy after his death? Why did someone who made such a massive jump in her early artistic development (between her portraits and her abstract work) not make another jump later in her work? Was abstract art her end point or was she just exhausted by her commercial work?
The exhib doesn't really attempt to answer those questions and may or may not have intended to raise them but I can't help thinking about women-and-art and commerce-and-art and the nature of a career/portfolio. That's probably me though. Or maybe it was The Blazing World which I finished last week and which I will be living with for months. I'd recommend any of these if you are in London with time to burn and a friend/family member with a guest card. If you can only see one then I would rep the Sargent but there is food for thought all round.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April Menu

I made a celebratory Sunday lunch last weekend. Because food. Because why not. I was pretty pleased with how everything turned out.

Roasted beetroot with goats' cheese and ricotta mousse, toasted walnuts and cumin oil

Roasted pork belly with roasted new potatoes, home-made sauerkraut and watercress salad

Plum slump with vanilla custard


Plenty of slump was eaten but it wasn't necessarily my cup of tea and I wouldn't make it again. A slump is cooked on the hob and doesn't get a chance to brown or crisp up and it was a bit too gummy for me. Although it is classic Southern, the slump reminded me of Ye Olde Englishe dumplings and, although my dumpling tolerance has increased over the years (gyozas! wontons! pot pie!), I still found it too stodgy. Should you wish to investigate further I used the Baked Sour Cherry Slump recipe.

I got into pickles while I was in the States. I have been in love with pickled chillies for a while but I am now totally committed to most pickles (in moderation - I'm still an amateur pickle eater). Exceptions: pickled garlic and pickled eggs, these are too advanced for me. Since I've been back I have pickled my own chillies and made sauerkraut. I haven't tried the chillies yet but the sauerkraut is good and crazy easy. Small batches ferment quickly and I was very pleased with how mine turned out. Salty and crunchy and interestingly weird. A perfect accompaniment to fatty pork.

Skye Gyngells' roasted pork belly recipe is infallible. I have cooked it a couple of times and it is never anything less than freakin' delicious. From How I Cook, one of my most favourite cookbooks.

I cheated and bought a tub of custard because, imo, supermarket custard is amazing. Gone are the days of custard powder - the pots are cheap and awesome. Like pasta, home-made custard is something I think is rarely worth the extra effort.