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.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What I Read: March 2015

  • Fingersmith - Sarah Waters: Thieves! Victoriana! Lesbian love affairs! Backstabbing! I'm not sure why I never got around to reading Sarah Waters before but I am officially on board. Her writing is fun and elegant and clever and I enjoyed this a lot. Next up: The Paying Guests.
  • To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf: Inspired by Janet Malcolm in January I am on something of a Bloomsbury binge. To the Lighthouse had been sitting on my bookshelf for years and I finally dug it up as part of my attempt to put everything Woolf ever touched into my face. I need to decide between Mrs Dalloway and The Waves next. TTL blurs the line between elegy and novel and it was especially interesting in the context of Bloomsbury history. It's probably not starter-Woolf but it is thoughtful and poetic and lovely.
  • Bloomsbury - Quentin Bell: See above. This slim biography of the Bloomsbury group/movement was written by Vanessa Bell's (née Stephens, sister of Virginia Woolf, painter in her own right and, arguably, heart/hearth of the group) son and he combines a unique position with a very calm and reasonable writing style. I'm not sure that I learnt much I didn't know from this book but it was a pleasure to read.
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N. K. Jemisin: This is Book 1 of a YA/fantasy trilogy that I read on the recommendation of a couple of internet folks. It turned out to be too high-fantasy for my taste but if that is your bag then maybe check it out? It is very straight-faced but it has a POC heroine which yey. I didn't particularly enjoy this but I don't really have anything bad to say about it either? I don't know.
  • Yes Please - Amy Poehler: Things I Love: Amy Poehler, Parks & Rec, smart ladies. I was the target market for Yes Please and I was so ready to love it but, and I take no pleasure saying this, I was disappointed. Yes, Amy is awesome and she comes across as an intelligent and competent human in this book and, no, it isn't a disaster but there isn't much to love here. Yes Please isn't as funny as Bossypants or as open or well written as Not That Kind of Girl (N.B. I don't think either of those books are perfect but they are two distinct styles in the Funny Lady Memoir Thing category); it is neither one thing nor another. The book isn't that funny and the Smart Girls at a Party advice thing (which I totally support!) is rather condescending in print. Clearly Poehler wants to protect her privacy and I get that, I don't need her to spill the gory details on her personal life, but without jokes and without some more meaningful emotional honesty there isn't much to take away from the book besides a more in-depth career history than I could have found on Wikipedia. 
  • HP 1-3 - J. K. Rowling: We had many, many hours of driving in California and an excellent friend generously sent me the full HP audio collection. I had a couple of other adult/unfamiliar audiobooks with me but new cars/giant American freeways/no functioning GPS or maps are all quite stressful and we needed something more comfortable. Stephen Fry's voice is relaxing and the Potter plots are fun but not complicated or distracting. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person on the internet/Tumblr who isn't an HP-superfan and I hadn't revisited Books 2 or 3 since the 90s (had a miniature freakout when I found out how old they were and, hence, how old I am) or seen the films so it was quite interesting to go back and coo over Baby Draco.
  • Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This is another book that I should have read sooner. I think I avoided it because CNA is too young and too talented and also because I assumed that it was going to be super serious? Americanah isn't a laugh riot and it has a lot of Big Themes but it isn't dry or impenetrable either. The writing is luminous and politics are handled so sharply and almost effortlessly and I raced through it. Also, in unusual synchronisation, my Pop read this over Easter and loved it too and you can't ignore a recommendation from Chuck Snr. I would enthusiastically second that recommendation - there is no good reason for anyone not to read this.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Recent Bookshops I Have Enjoyed

I love bookshops. Of course, everyone loves bookshops. Loving bookshops is like loving sunshine or puppies or red wine. Bookshops are like wonderful, delicious oxygen and, like oxygen, sometimes I forget that I need them. If I am in the vicinity of Waterstones Piccadilly or Broadway Bookshop I might pop in and grab a book but neither of them are conveniently located for me and, also, London crowds. I love this city and I'm happy to be back but everything is an effort and hideously busy besides.

My erratic reading habits just don't revolve around bookshops any more and I feel guilty about the slow, steady decline of bricks and mortar stores but I enjoy the way I read. I like cobbling together a weird selection of library books, obscure and specific second-hand books and lent copies from family and friends. Bookshops are good for communities but communities are also good for communities. When there is a shiny new book that I desperately want I will try and buy it from an independent IRL shop but, simultaneously, I try not to chase new-ness. It is easy to get swept up in reading only this month's hyped titles but I try to follow my current interests rather than trends and not neglect older titles.

All of this is to say that I don't, in my day to day life, spend as much time in bookshops as I might like for a variety of more or less logical reasons. But holidays mean time; time to browse, time to read, time to ignore minor stressors. One of my great pleasures on holidays is exploring a city's bookshops. Staff and local favourites, layouts and displays, allllll the books. There is just no upper limit on the amount of time I can spend in bookshops when I'm given the chance.

We bought and browsed all up the West Coast but these were some of our favourites. None of these are secret finds - if you are interested in books and have been/are planning to go to any of these cities then you will probably have heard of them and/or visited already. That's awesome. They are doing amazing work and they deserve all of the recognition.

Los Angeles, Skylight Books

Flickr: Kent Kanouse

They have a tree in their shop! It is all fair wood and light. Their recommendations were 30% books I had read, 30% books I was keen to read and 40% books that I had never heard of but which sounded very interesting. This is a very impressive ratio. They host events and they have a podcast and a beautiful, specialised art bookshop next door.

San Francisco, Dog Eared Books

We were staying just around the corner from Dog Eared Books and we went in every day we were in San Francisco. I love that they mingle new titles and second hand books - it appeals so particularly to my aforementioned reading habits. R particularly enjoyed their graphic novel choices. They are repping the excellent work of small presses (see above) and they have an awesome zine selection. There sister-store Alley Cat Books has an exhibition area and a strong magazine showing. Again, amazing staff picks.

Portland, Powell's City of Books

Flickr: Scott Beale

Real talk, R did not love Powell's even though he bought a few books. I understand his hesitation; Powell's is not a cute, little indie bookshop, Powell's is an enormous, terrifying, overwhelming indie bookshop. It sprawls across an entire city block, there are multiple floors and colour-coded areas and it was completely heaving. I suspect that there are quiet corners but of a weekend it is more like a supermarket than a bookshop. I'm fine with that though. I am happy to be surrounded by a billion people if they are enthusiastically and reasonably mutedly scanning and buying books. We are united in our booklove and there is space. Besides, I find it comforting to be so deeply, physically entrenched in books. You don't have to find Powell's adorable or lovable to find it awesome in an age where bookshops are struggling.

Visit all these places! Support bookshops! Support books! Read everything!

This is my message.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Georgia O'Keefe and Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keeffe’s home at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

I know I just got back from a big, fancy America trip but can I turn around and go back? These images of Georgia O'Keeffe's home in New Mexico fill me with longing. They are so calm and pure. My mind is very busy at the moment and they almost make me feel peaceful. Like, if only I could get there, I could create anything and truly come to terms with myself.

And I could go, theoretically anyway. Ghost Ranch hosts spiritual retreats and tours and yoga and events. I would love to go although I suppose that tourists are antithetical to artistic zen calm. Anyway, that's a lot of pressure to put on a place and you know it would just be overflowing with my junk in 0.3 seconds. I am a clutter monster. I am doing some (very minimal by anybody-else-in-the-world's standards) decluttering in our flat at the moment in a mild attempt to make it a more relaxing place to spend time. I mean, it's cosy but it's also a bit hectic. I need some G O'K vibes. Or just slightly less stuff. Or both.

At least until I can get to Ghost Ranch there is plenty to be reading:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What I Read: February 2015

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson: Maybe you have to love ghost stories and the uncanny? I don't, really, and I suspect that this slim novel was destined to struggle under the weight of my expectations. The internet loves it and it has been hailed a lot recently as a rediscovered, classic piece of women's writing. It vaguely reminded me of The Turn of the Screw but is so long since I read that James that I couldn't say whether it is a testament to the quality or just how rarely I read within this kind of sub-genre. Creepy and cloying; a fairy tale gone awry.
  • So Much Pretty - Cara Hoffman: I spent the first 80% of this book appreciating the setting and general politics but not necessarily engaging with the plot. Most of the story is set in crappy, run-down, rural New York state and there is a lot of interesting wealth/class stuff, the corporatisation of American agriculture, big pharma, small town vs. big city, misogyny, rape culture... A lot of issues that I want to read about, particularly in fiction, but I kept getting distracted by the temporal/character shifts and losing momentum. I didn't give this the reading it deserved, I was super busy and reading in small chunks, and I'm not much inclined towards crime. BUT, man, the final 20% is baller. It is explosive and shocking and awesome - I could have read it on loop. The book leads up to it but you still aren't sure the author is going to go there and then she does. Very strong ending.
  • The Wild Marquis - Miranda Neville: Oh man, this was garbage! Background: I read a lot of Mills & Boon in my youth and I love Georgette Heyer with my whole heart. I have a great deal of fondness for the regency romance even if it isn't a big part of my literary diet any more. This was recommended on Tumblr by someone whose taste I trusted and it is £1.99 on Kindle so I picked it up. Mistake. The words 'quivering womb' were used. I rest my case.
  • Clariel - Garth Nix: The Old Kingdom trilogy remain some of my favourite children's/YA books ever. I re-read them within the last two or three years and they totally stand up. They're fantastic, wonderful characters and brilliant world building. So obviously I was super excited to discover that Nix was writing a prequel even though I'm not sure there has ever been a good prequel (?? Is that true? The best a speedy Google can come up with is The Hobbit, no thanks, and Wide Sargasso Sea, which is great but totally doesn't count). And Clariel isn't a disaster... I didn't dislike it - the Old Kingdom remains a fun place to play, Nix is a good writer, he sticks with an interesting heroine and he clearly has things on his mind. But it's kind of a bummer? It's not obvious why he chose to write Clariel's story unless he's planning a larger story arc and although I understand the decision to avoid a neat, shiny redemption narrative it does make the book rather sad and strange. I don't know, we'll see, I guess.
  • On Writing - Stephen King: Well, Stephen King is man with opinions. I don't read his fiction so I suppose it is predictable that I might not always agree with his writing maxims but there is a lot of sensible advice in his (very readable) 'Memoir of the Craft'. Learn the basics, work hard, write more. Agreed! And I find there is something very companionable about reading a writer writing about writing. Also, about a third of the book is autobiography and it's really good fun, zippy and endearing. I will continue to pass on most of his books and read all of his interviews.
  • More Than This - Patrick Ness: This is such a weird book. I am a big Patrick Ness fan - I think Chaos Walking is up there with The Old Kingdom among the greatest children's/YA series/trilogies ever (N.B. I feel like there should be a permanent asterisk on the blog about His Dark Materials which is obviously THE GREATEST CHILDREN'S/YA TRILOGY EVER, incomparably and forever, on its own special, magical level). It's hard to do justice to just how weird More Than This really is, the blurb writers certainly haven't managed, but it's a very big-ideas, interesting trip. I just want to watch a thirteen year old read it. Even when I don't love them I think Ness's children's/YA books do everything that genre should in terms of challenging the reader, blowing apart their conceptions and generally fucking around in strange, un-normal places.