Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Sunday Book: Longbourn

I am a Janeite to my core. Where other people may have core muscles I have a deep and abiding love of Austen. Of course, this explains why it took me about four days to recover from climbing on Saturday – core muscles are useful for many things, posture and upper body strength included. Although Austen is useful for life and now I’m not sure where I’m going with this…

I think the jist of it was; I love Austen a lot. She is a writer of exquisite detail, precision and observation. Her novels are works of art in the truest sense and I will never tire of returning to them and to her remarkable insight into the human condition. Emma may be the most perfect book ever written. So funny, sharp and truthful. I will watch every TV and film adaptation ever made because even when they’re shoddy or they stray from the original and are only the faintest echo of her genius they are often still touched with glory.

Hypocritically, I don’t feel the same way about the recent spate of book adaptations. Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters is a great title and a fun idea but I don’t want to read it. Ditto, Val McDermid’s new Northanger Abbey or Mrs. Darcy’s Sexy Times/whatever it is called. I really enjoyed the BBC Christmas adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley – Anna Maxwell  Martin is a goddess and Matthew Goode is a mega babe – but I don’t feel any great inclination to read the book.

This is to say that, although Longbourn had crossed my path rather vaguely I hadn’t paid much attention, novelistic romps through P&P tending towards the bawdy and uninspired. But how the mighty fall and great minds change. I read a strong review somewhere I have since forgotten, a copy was pressed upon me by my mother, whose tastes are (largely) excellent, and I had a strong Regency craving. So I gave it a shot, with fairly low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised. This is not trashy and it is a legitimately refreshing fictional take on Austen. It didn't throw new light on Austen’s work for me (I have studied her too enthusiastically for that) but it was an emotive reminder of a perspective on her work that I often overlook when I'm reading for pleasure.

Longbourn is the servant’s story of P&P. Jo Baker uses the fixed points of the upstairs narrative to spin a downstairs story. She takes a quote from the original novel as the header to each chapter and extrapolates from there. Nothing in her story contradicts the original novel which just goes to show how little detail is included about those other people sharing a house with the Bennets. Austen left an enormous imaginative space within her jewel-like world for the smart author to play in and Baker clearly had a ball. She explores many of the social issues that sit just outside Austen’s vision – the war with Spain, race and the slave trade, illegitimacy and the reality of extreme poverty. Austen alludes to the war, slavery sits at the edge of Mansfield Park and Harriet Smith is the natural daughter of nobody knows who but the author has other concerns.

Austen’s novels are all about class and money, the fragility of status and the very real threats to the livelihoods of women balanced on the edge of the (mostly) middle class. No one is a more acute observer of class, its niceties and its cruelties, and Jane Fairfax is in a dire situation; the Bennet daughters are at risk of losing their way of life. I don’t judge/criticise her perspective. But… she is looking at a very specific cross section of society and experience and there is a world beyond that. Baker brings that world to life in an engaging way.

Admittedly, beyond the politics and perspective, Longbourn isn’t especially innovative. Baker isn’t changing the very fabric of story-telling or exploding the form here – this is a pretty traditional plot and structure. Beginning, middle and end; romance, obstacles and all that. But that’s fine and it’s an enjoyable read. Mostly though it is a lovely, non-clichéd opportunity to immerse yourself in Austen’s world and explore her margins and for established fans that is a delight.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Friday Sound

First Aid Kit are back! Hurrah! New single now, new album in July. Love.

This is not a brand new track but I really really like Wet (google 'Wet NYC' to avoid trouble) and I have been listening to this song on repeat for months.

Tune-yards are back too! Welcome back everyone. I will never indulge Merrill's stupid capitalisation but I will dance happily around the flat to this song.

Mostly I'm in love with Jenny's new pink hair (phwoar) but this double video is super cool and relaxed and lovely in classic Warpaint stylee.

What have you been listening to?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dumdums Donutterie

Almond crème & pistachio cronut / Raspberry crème cronut
Crème brûlée donut / Raspberry preserve donut
from Dumdums

I don't get cupcakes. I find them supremely pointless. A doughnut though... that's a whole other matter. They unite three of my favourite things - sugar, dough and fried food. Admittedly, after I ate fourteen jam doughnuts in a single break time as a thirteen year old I had to take a year or ten off to recover but I've been back in the game for a while now. Just in time to catch the haute-donut craze. The idea of spending real money on doughnuts (the above box didn't leave me much change from £10) seems vaguely ridiculous but a cronut is a glorious, literally heart stopping thing.

The Dumdums cronut is, perhaps, not quite as delicious as Rinkoff's but their opening hours and new Boxpark, Shoreditch location are considerably more convenient. And the raspberry crème cronut was particularly beautiful. Plus, they have all sorts of other fancy doughtnuts - the crème brûlée shell cracked charmingly.

Bring on the fancy doughnut joints. Doughnuts all round.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Sunday Book: Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch

I have a proper Sunday Book in the pipeline so this is just a quicky but I wanted to spread the joy. Dianne turned me on to Ben Aaronovitch and his Rivers of London series and I accidentally read the first two books in about three days. I actually rarely read funny, fast paced, adventure type books in print (I get those hits from fic) and I had forgotten what a pleasure it is. I have included the blurb for Rivers of London (Book 1) and a few of my favourite quotes below but I just wanted to add that a) these properly made me grin on the tube, b) they are very London-centric which I enjoyed but might be alienating? c) the plotting is sharp and the characters are delightful, d) if you really want 'What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz' (as per one of the cover quotes) you should just re-read Drop Dead Gorgeous/The Way We Get By which are obv the pinnacle of that genre.

(We have a new laptop. It has a forward facing camera because we are MODERN. Hence the high quality book selfie)(Why isn't the singular selfy?)

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (and as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. 
Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden... and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair. 
The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying.
"Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the 'London once-over' - a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport - like base-jumping or crocodile wrestling."

"On duty as uniformed doorman that day was Gurcan Temiz of Tottenham via Ankara. As a typical Londoner, Gurcan had a high tolerance threshold for random thoughtlessness; after all, if you live in the big city there's no point complaining that it's a big city, but even that tolerance has its limit and the name of that limit is 'taking the piss'."


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Food Reviewed: Pizza Pilgrims

There is a tragic lack of good pizza in London. I mean, there's an enormous amount of crap pizza but really really good, authentic pizza is surprisingly rare for a massive metropolis. When you consider how many smart burger and ramen places there are it's ridiculous. Pizza is not 'on trend' but how is that possible?? Great pizza is always in fashion. When done properly it is reasonably healthy (more or less - if you don't eat carbs you can leave my house), quick and delicious. It's a smart way to demonstrate skill and high quality ingredients. And, also, it is super delicious. It is the perfect fast food and I should be falling over wonderful pizza purveyors.

But, no, it is all Pizza Express and Domino's and Pizza Hut and I'd rather have no pizza than bad pizza. I am a pizza snob and I can own that. I've been lucky enough to spend an extended period time in Italy over the years and I know that I am due more than hot dog stuffed crust *shudder*. I want a base that is both crisp and chewy, I want to be able to actually see and taste a naturally sweet tomato sauce, I want puddles of stretchy, creamy mozzarella and, yes, I want olive oil and some basil. That is not too much to ask. I have eaten perfect margaritas in Italian city, towns and hill top villages. They are not an impossible dream. Once I was presented with a heart shaped pizza and it was pretty much the highlight of my life. Carb-based seduction is the ultimate seduction.

So for the last two and a half years, between sporadic trips to Italy, I have been surviving on Franco Manca. They're very Italian (service is negligent at best), the pizza is excellently priced and they have an interesting topping selection (not relevant to me but apparently important when dining with non-margarita purists) with great ethics. The pizzas are mostly excellent but for a long time they only had very non-central locations. Brixton was my Franco Manca of choice and I have never lived or worked anywhere that it wasn't a trek from. I have eaten a lot of FM pizza but the locational inconvenience did put a dent in my desired level of pizza eating. You just don't always want to haul arse down to Brixton (or Chiswick!).

Finally there is a viable alternative though! Pizza Pilgrims have opened a bricks and mortar pizzeria in Soho with extensive seating and it is getting an official thumbs up from me. In truth, I was wary of it because I had eaten their pizza back when they were just a wee pizza van (appropriately an apé) and I was not impressed. A mobile pizza oven is just not a smart idea to me - it is too difficult to generate the requisite heat. Pizzas are not demanding food but they need a bit of preparation space and a hot hot oven, 500oC hot with space for the air to circulate, and an apé, as much as I love them, was never going to fit the bill. I remember finding the van pizza decidedly lacking and shedding a solitary tear as I crossed off another potential pizza dream... However, those problems have been remedied by a real cooking set up and the PP pizzas are solid. They seem less prone to slightly under-cooking their pizzas than FM. Both use a sourdough base which is yum but does need a proper cook to prevent it from being gummy around the crusts. I've had gummy crusts (nice) at both PP and FM but it has happened more at FM where the atmosphere is always rushed.

Overall, PP might be the best pizza I've eaten outside of Italy? (Big claim. Would need to revisit that excellent Berlin pizzeria and, sadly, I haven't had an extended opportunity to check out the New York offering which, presumably, aside from the abominable deep pans, are strong. Maybe I should make a pizza pilgrimage to Wales and Glasgow? Strong Italian communities. Any tips?) I've eaten at PP probably five or six times in the last two or three months and it gets my vote. Good pizza, easy access - if you can get there before 7 you don't even have to queue. Plus, it's three minutes walk from Gelupo, my favourite place in the world. N.B. PP do serve Gelupo but it is worth the brief walk for the full range of flavours - the Rhubarb Crumble they've been serving for the last few weeks is top notch.

If you have a London pizza favourite pleeeeeease let me know. I am not a one pizza girl. My fondness for PP doesn't mean I'm going to stop eating FM. Ideally I want to be able to find a great pizzeria within ten minutes walk at all times. The more good pizza the better.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday Sound: Summer Jams (not fruit)(not summer)

It is grey and pathetic outside but there is no denying that spring is in the smoggy London air. I am dying of hay fever and the skies are full of Saharan dust but it is worth it. The merest suggestion of good weather to come does magical things to my mood. I shed a layer of grumpiness with each layer of clothing.

In the spirit of a burgeoning spring that will one day become summer (because summer is unimaginable deep in a drizzling English winter) here are some proto-summer jams. I find it impossible not to dance to these. Project for the summer - learn the Busy Earnin' dance. So good.