Friday, 30 October 2009

Of A Grey Christmas

A grey Christmas is not one that I would normally look forward to, but when the particular shade being promised is Persephone Grey, things change rather dramatically! I am excited today as this morning I joined up for the Persephone Secret Santa which is being organised by Book Psmith. I think it's a wonderful idea to spread the Persephone love and bring together more like-minded people from the blogging community. If you're a Persephone fan, and haven't signed up already, do pop across to Book Psmith's site and have a look at the details.

After all, a Christmas guaranteed to bring at least one new Persephone will be a happy one even if the weather is as grey as these covers. (Thanks to Claire at Paperback Reader for bringing this scheme to my attention in the first place).

As Sir W said (albeit on a rather different subject!) in his 1601 essay 'Of Conceit', such a delivery at the start of the festive season

'is a pretty gift to begin with'.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Of Recommended Reading

Although Howards End is on the Landing may not be entering my best-loved books list, one of the things Susan Hill has done for me is bring to my attention a few books or authors which I had never come across before, and which I'm now looking forward to trying. One of these is The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez.

It is a small book of only just over 100 pages, including illustrations by Peter Sis, but despite its tiny stature it sounds like it is going to pack quite a punch. The inside jacket tells us that it is a 'fable about the power of literature to steer our destinies', and it is a fantastical book about the joys and the dangers of obsessive bibliophilia. It arrived in the post today, and I am looking forward to reading it even more after Savidge Reads' recent review of it.

Also awaiting me in my college pigeon hole was another title to add to my new Barbara Pym collection, which I am eager to increase after enjoying Some Tame Gazelle and Excellent Women so much. Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to further my acquaintance with Pym when I asked for suggestions recently, and especially to Merenia, who particularly recommended this latest buy: Crampton Hodnet.

This sounds right up my street: how could I resist a Pym novel which is actually set in Oxford?! I shall be sharing my thoughts on these books just as soon as I read them, and I can't wait to try both of these new additions to my shelves (I can see my new bookshelf filling up rather speedily...), although they will have to wait for a while. I am no further with Stone's Fall than I was yesterday, and it too will have to lie mainly unread until after the weekend: I have a friend from Cambridge staying with me until Sunday, and as I haven't seen her since February, we have a lot of catching up to do, and a variety of pleasant activities planned in which to do it!

I must get to bed now, as along with all the meals, exhibitions, and general frivolities we have planned for the next few days, my friend and I both have to be at the library in the morning, for a couple of hours at least! On the subject of bed, I sign off today with some of Sir W's musings from his 1600 essay 'Of Sleepe':

'This Sleepe is to me in the nature that Dung is to Ground, it makes the soyle of my Apprehension more solid, and tough; it makes it not so light, and pleasant, and I am glad of it, for I finde my selfe too much subiect to a verball quicknesse'.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Of Howards End Is On The Landing

Book Review: Susan Hill, Howard's End is on the Landing (Profile Books, 2009), £12.99.

I read Susan Hill's recently published book Howards End is on the Landing during my enforced stay in bed with 'flu last week (on which subject, btw: I am feeling much better today, so hopefully this time my recovery will be permanent!). Its beautifully decorated dust jacket helped in my fond attempts to pretend that my deathly pallor and hideous purple eye-bags might somehow make me into one of those Pale and Interesting Young Women swooning into their pillows, like the lady in James Whistler's Maud Reading In Bed:

Actually, 'read' is perhaps not exactly the right term. I started reading Hill's book at the beginning, but ended up dipping in and out, alighting on chapters whose titles sounded most alluring, and leaving others until these had run out, and reading other books inbetween*. In itself, I suppose this butterfly approach suggests something of my tepid response to Hill's book. I must say that I don't think this style of reading particularly harmed the book, the structure of which actually lends itself to being read as and how one sees fit. As Verity of The B-Files mentioned in her interesting review, the chapters are extremely short and do not necessarily flow on from one another in any thematic or other way, lacking any overarching structure.

Thanks to the book's sub-title, 'A year of reading from home', and from what I knew of the book's premise before reading it (Hill decided to read only books already in her home collection, aside from review copies and academic works, for a year), I was expecting a kind of reading diary, probably arranged chronologically, and discussing the highs and lows of Hill's experiment, her frustrations at not being able to purchase new books, and her delight at (re)discovering old ones. Thus I expected a book with a fairly strong narrative drive, albeit with plenty of more general bibliophilic digressions along the way: it is perhaps for this reason that I found the lack of coherency slightly irritating. The book is much less about Hill's 'year of reading from home' and more about the way in which particular books evoke particular memories, leading her into dreamy reminiscences, often about famous writers she had encountered or been friends with throughout her life. It is this type of thing which makes the genre label 'memoir' on the back of the dust jacket so apt. Although I enjoyed reading some of Hill's stories, and some of her more general musings upon books were interesting (I am of her mind in disliking the idea of e-readers, for example; although I had to disagree with her rant against bookplates, loving them so much myself! I found it ironic indeed that I should have put my own bookplate in the front of this book before reading it...), I was disappointed not to have more about this particular year in Hill's reading life. I felt at the end like I had little understanding of whether or not this had been a worthwhile thing for Hill to do, and had scant sense of what the year had actually been like for her - so much time was taken up with past stories of varying degrees of interest.

Although some dissenting voices have been cropping up (most notably Claire at Paperback Reader in her thoughtful review), it is generally completely positive responses of Hill's book which have been flooding in, with bloggers joyful at a book whose author is obviously a bibliophile herself. Personally, I would recommend this book, but with reservations, and although Hill displays some lovely turns of phrase, I cannot say that this has inspired me to read any of her novels (which I had not done before reading this, although I did enjoy the thrilling stage version of The Woman in Black a few years ago!). In an odd way, I found the book to have a somewhat reserved and listless tone about it, even when Hill was at her most enthusiastic, although this is simply a matter of personal taste, for, as I have said, in many ways the book is extremely well written. All in all, a bit of a curate's egg!

* On one of my breaks from Hill's book, I picked up my as yet unread copy of The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks by James Anderson, the third in the Burford family mystery series. I had very much enjoyed the first two, the deliciously titled The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy and The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, and it was a delight to return to the Earl and Countess and their lively daughter Gerry for another riot of murder and mayhem. Anderson's books are great fun, affectionately recreating the atmosphere of the Golden Age detective stories, but with tongue often firmly in cheek. I really felt like some proper comfort reading last week, and this did the trick admirably! I love the covers of the reissues of Anderson's books, and recently bought a card featuring the same picture as that which adorns the cover of the first title, which is now decorating my mantelpiece:

I have just now begun the second of the book haul which arrived alongside HEiotL the other day: Iain Pears' latest novel Stone's Fall. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am a huge fan of Pears' great book An Instance of the Fingerpost, and I have high hopes of this new one, which looks to be equally intricately structured and plotted. I am only four chapters in, and am already hooked! Hopefully my next review will be a little less luke-warm than my response to Susan Hill...

Another bookish quotation from Sir W to round things off today. This one comes from his 1601 essay 'Of Trappes for Fame', and delightfully describes Sir W himself making a happy discovery sitting amongst the volumes in his own library:

'I happened very lately amongst my bookes to meete with Diogenes Laertius, where I was much delighted, euen more then euer I was with any booke, for I do beholde their words and writings with nothing so good a stomack as I do their liues, and to know what they did. I found hardly a page, but I wished my memory, to gather some griftes in them, not a line but so full of precious liquor, as the words were too shorte wasted for the matter. He is in great estimation with me, and shal be one of my neerest companions'.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Of Counting Chickens...

... before they are hatched!

I am Seriously Disgruntled today. Having blithely crowed about how happy I was to have recovered from my 'flu in time for my housewarming, it turns out that I was a little premature. Or, in other words, co-hosting an all-night party the day after leaving my sick bed of three days was maybe not my best idea ever. Last night I began feeling slightly woozy again, meaning I had to leave early from a night with friends eating cheese and delicious home-made Hungarian sausages and arguing over which film we wanted to watch (it was fun, really!), and today I woke up feeling much the worse for wear, weak and woeful. I am particularly sorry as I was meant to be going to London this evening with my mum to see Enron at the National Theatre. I had been looking forward to it as it's had great reviews, and I would have loved to have seen Sam West on stage, having thought him very good in numerous TV shows over the years. Strangely enough, I missed out a few days ago on hearing his father, the actor Timothy West, give a talk about his career at a special event in Oxford because I was chained to my bed. Luckily Enron is transferring to the West End next year, so I'll definitely be booking replacement tickets and hoping not to get struck down by any other Inconvenient Maladies!

I am hoping to be properly better tomorrow, when I will post something rather more cheerful (!), but for now, I am going to once more retire under the covers with a hot drink, attempting not to grumble too much as I recline wanly, but rather firmly agreeing with Sir W's words in his 1600 essay 'Of Patience':

'the body by this preuents an aduenture, therefore that respect makes mee obstinate'!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Of Warming the House

My cold turned into the 'flu (whether or not of the porcine variety, I am unsure...), and I felt very sorry for myself during the three days I spent languishing in bed, despite having Dominic West and the rest of the cast of The Wire to keep me company. Happily, yesterday I began feeling much more like myself, which was fortunate as yesterday evening was the occasion of our housewarming party.

Some friends and I began the evening with a pre-party meal at the lovely Slovak restaurant Moya, which, thanks to my new location in St Clements, is just a hop and a skip down the road. After a celebratory cocktail, I enjoyed a delicious, melt-in-the-mouth pork shank...

... before indulging in this scrumptious 'bubble cake' for pudding. It tasted just as good as it looked:

The good food continued at the party itself, as along with the various varieties of alcohol with which we were presented, one of our guests also brought along a delicious 'Zebra cake' which she had baked earlier in the day:

It was lovely to catch up with old friends as wine, music, and conversation flowed freely. The house stood up remarkably well to being filled to capacity, and our new abode was warmed in a truly fine style: Time itself even rolled back an hour, making us feel that our new home is truly blessed! Here's hoping there'll be many more enjoyable evenings in St Clements over the next year!

In his 1601 essay 'Of Vanitie', Sir W warns that:

'a drunken night makes a mistie morning'.

Luckily, despite partaking freely of the many bottles presented by our guests (including some Chocolate Wine: very rich, very sweet, very curious! It would be a fun Christmas tipple), I managed to avoid any such mistiness myself today!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Of New Arrivals

More goodies to battle my cold arrived in the post yesterday:

I had an Amazon voucher left over from my birthday, and these are some of the riches which have resulted. All three are books which I've been wanting to read for ages, and all three, coincidentally, have rather nice covers:

I am very excited about all of these books, and will be posting about each of these as and when I read them (starting with Howards End is on the Landing). I also thought I would share the pretty little bookplate which has gone inside all of them -- marked now of course with my name, the name of my college, and the date of purchase:

I shall leave you with another bookish quotation from Sir W (happily, there are many!), which this time comes from his wonderful 1601 essay 'Of Essayes and Bookes'. Although I am not sure if I am always so virtuously minded as he in my choice of reading matter!

'I thinke well of these Bookes named, and the better because they teach me how to mannage myselfe: where any of them grow subtile, or intend heigh matters, I giue my memory leaue to loose them. There are none that I scratch with my pen that doe not fatherly counsaile me to the way of vertue'.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Of Combatting Colds

Apologies for the lack of posting, but I'm rather Under The Weather at present. Although I seem to be keeping the dreaded Swine Flu at bay, I have succumbed to a rather nasty cold. This has left me with a voice that comes and goes (and always comes at a rather lower pitch than usual), and an inclination to do little more than curl up with a cup of hot water with honey and lemon and a blanket. And a good book, of course: at the moment, I'm enjoying Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. This is the only the second Pym I've read; by fluke, my first was actually her first published novel -- Some Tame Gazelle -- and it turns out that Excellent Women is her second, as well as mine. I'm very pleased to have finally read some Pym, and will be posting some more about her once I'm more myself. In the meantime, if anyone has any recommendations for any particular Pym favourites, I'd love to hear them!

I've also been snuggling up beneath the bedclothes (hurray for wireless internet!) with my laptop to continue working my way through The Wire. I'm about half way through the final season now and already becoming sad at the thought that it's nearly all over. Alongside this I've been enjoying the fact that True Blood has just come to 4oD. I wouldn't normally say I'm one for vampire dramas, but I'd had it recommended by several friends, and I must admit I'm already gripped: it's a tad melodramatic perhaps (well, it is about vampires I suppose...), but it's funny, incredibly sexy, and totally addictive. Oh, and it has the best title sequence I've seen for a while (these are getting so good now -- the one to the divine Mad Men is another personal favourite).

Right, for now, I think I might just make myself another cup of tea, make sure the tissues are within reach, and retreat to my comfort reading again until I am feeling slightly more human myself! It is perhaps fortunate in such circumstances that I can say with Sir W (in his 1600 essay 'Of Fame') that as long as I can remember,

'my occupation hath been vehemently bookish'.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Of Chocolate Shoes

As you may have gathered from my despair when I had to forego my usual heels for the dreaded pair of Walking Boots earlier in the summer, I am rather fond of shoes. I also rarely say no to a nice bit of chocolate. You can therefore imagine my delight when I discovered the following edible treats:

I think I may just have found my Perfect Chocolates! These stunning Chocolate Shoes are the creations of Bristol based company Clifton Cakes, but are also on sale in Liberty in London (another reason to visit a shop which is already a favourite of mine) and -- dangerously -- via mail order. You can also buy this super cute pair of small shoes, which, as their website suggests, would make a lovely gift:

Clifton Cakes also run chocolate tasting and making courses, which sound rather heavenly. I suspect I'd be rather better at the tasting, than the making, although perhaps when indulging my inner glutton I should remember Sir W's warning from his 1601 essay 'Of Knowledge':

'the body neuer sendeth the stomacke to tell vs, we haue eaten too much, but the soule feeles it too; when the stomache riseth against the meate, the conscience dooth against intemperaunce, and as the one feeles the meate, the other dooth the sinne of the surfetting.'

Although I think my conscience could pretty easily be beaten into submission by the sharp points of those chocolate stilettos..!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Of Being Tempted

I recently came across the delicious site that is Fey Handmade, with all its wonderful goodies. How could I not be entranced by a company with a range called 'November in Paris'? At the moment I must admit that it is only really the nearly $20 international shipping charge which is putting me off succumbing to temptation. (Any lucky people in the US get shipping for FREE!) These are just a few of my lust-after pieces:

Peacock Earrings, $28

I love peacocks on accessories, and indeed some of my favourite stationery is this set of note cards which I picked up on that trip to Florence I mentioned yesterday. I bought them at a wonderful shop called Il Papiro, along with a couple of other beautiful things:

I always like a good cup of tea, and when it's in a pretty teacup I find it tastes all the better, so of course this tea towel immediately appealed:

Teacup Tea Towel, $11

On the subject of Tea (something I really must blog about properly one of these days, it occurs to me), I'd also like to try these scrumptious sounding soaps:

Jasmine Tea Soap, $6

Rooibos Tea Soap, $6

Redbush tea was a favourite of mine long before I discovered Mma Ramotswe (although I'm pleased to sip in such illustrious company), and the delicate fragrance of jasmine always manages to soothe and refresh.

I love both cameos and horses, so this necklace is a perfect combination:

Horse and Foal Necklace, $32

Perhaps it's a good thing I'm not eligible for free shipping -- the most recent installment of my AHRC grant might be disappearing rather quickly! Although, as it is, it does come to the point when, if one buys enough, the shipping cost suddenly appears really rather reasonable... Perhaps I should just give up and accept the inevitable for, as Sir W rather wryly pointed out in his essay 'Of Judgment' (1601),

'All are tempted, many yeeld, few hould out'.

And where pretty things are concerned, I must admit that I somehow generally find myself in the latter category!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Of Catching Up

Well, that was a slightly longer break than I'd intended! I can't believe it's actually over a month since I last blogged, but life rather Got Too Much for a little while (and we also had the usual faff of setting up the internet -- why do these things always take SO LONG??). I had a great holiday in Rhodes: relaxing in the pool...

... enjoying the beautiful scenery ...

... and eating far too much Good Food ...

Although I think my favourite meal of the holiday has to have been the octopus which my half-brother caught (using a rather fearsome looking spear gun) in the bay which lay at the bottom of our garden. Not something I'm used to in Oxford! There's something so special about a lazy meal outdoors under a blistering blue sky, with the sea lapping away and the sound of cicadas on the breeze. Since I've been back I've tried my hand at recreating a few of the simpler dishes we ate there, although it's never quite the same at home. One of my favourites for a starter or a light lunch is rocket with figs and parma ham, drizzled with balsamic vinegar (admittedly all the better when the figs are from a tree at the bottom of the garden, perilously claimed by clambering along the rocks like a mountain goat, whilst trying not to be tripped up by the *actual* wild goats prancing about the hillside). Watching my dad whiz up some black olive tapenade also inspired me to have a go at making my own for the first time, which I did with the aid of Clotilde Dusoulier's wonderfully easy recipe from her delightful book Chocolate & Zucchini (based on her equally brilliant blog. I also highly recommend her foodie guide to Paris, which skirmishofwit and I used on our trip to the French capital last December).

I made the tapenade as part of a selection of canapes for Our Very First Dinner Party at the New House, and I must admit I'm rather proud to say it proved popular. Yes, that's right, I've moved in, and the house is slowly starting to feel like home. At the moment I'm just awaiting the arrival of a new double bed and a chest of drawers (the landlord obviously has No Conception of the amount of closet space a girl requires). And this morning my mum brought the last load of my stuff from home, so I now have my posters, my books, and all the various bits and pieces that really make a room feel like mine. All I need to do now is finish unpacking... I'm really enjoying settling in, both to the house and to the new area. Although it might sound silly to anyone who knows Oxford, and how small it is, relatively speaking, I barely knew St Clements at all (in fact, I'd rarely made the journey over the Magdalen Bridge...), so it feels quite exciting to have a new space to explore. I'm already starting to find new restaurants, and a new pub has just opened down the road which I'm looking forward to trying.

The past couple of weeks have been busy, with getting back to the swing of things in the library (today I was working in the New College Archives, transcribing a diary from the 1680s -- great fun!), but I've also managed to fit in a couple of trips to London. The weekend before last I went with friends to see A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse. I was particularly excited about this, as I had actually tried to book tickets alongside my reservations for Life Is A Dream (Dominic West!! *swoon*) and Red, but it had sold out almost immediately -- perhaps due to the casting of Rachel Weisz as Blanche DuBois. So when a friend had a couple of tickets going spare for the penultimate performance, I was all too keen to snap one up. It was my first trip to the Donmar (previously I had only seen their Donmar Westend season at Wyndham's), and I really loved the theatre itself, so I'm looking forward to going back in November for more reasons than just Mr West's presence (*cough*). As for the play itself, I've never actually read it, nor seen the famous film version (although now I want to do both!), so in some ways I guess it was good to see it without too many preconceptions. On the whole, I thought it was a great production: the cast in general was excellent, and Rachel Weisz was both fragile and feisty as Blanche. I particularly liked Ruth Wilson as Stella. The one disappointment was Elliot Cowan as Stanley. Perhaps this is just my personal taste, but I didn't think he had nearly enough charisma or simply just raw sex appeal, and the scenes between him and Weisz were sadly flat: there was really no chemistry there to spark them into life, and the rape scene lacked the emotional punch it needed to deliver to the audience. This was the only downside, however, and on the whole I really enjoyed the performance. After the show (a matinee), we went to Bob Bob Ricard for a pre-dinner drink (I enjoyed my cocktail which I chose on the sole basis that it involved Earl Grey syrup!), which was atmospheric and wonderfully decorated, and we then went on to Vasco and Piero's for an excellent meal afterwards. Both of these places were new to me, but I'd definitely go back to either. We rounded the night off swaying along in Ain't Nothin' But: The Blues Bar, before catching the Oxford Tube home.

I was back in London last weekend, this time staying with skirmishofwit, for some more good food and excellent company. We and some friends enjoyed lovely Japanese and Italian restaurants in Hampstead, a relaxing stroll on the Heath (I was rather glad to be back to the type of walks which don't require The Boots), and even fitted in some retail therapy. When I turned 21 a couple of years ago, my mum took me to Florence for a city break. I had a wonderful time: I loved the city, and could have spent much longer there. One of my discoveries was the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Tucked away behind an unprepossessing little door, one enters into a spectacular interior, a space which is beautiful in itself whilst also being filled with the most delicious bath products and perfumes. Founded in 1612 as a monastery, Santa Maria is a now must-visit for anyone at all interested in scent. While I was there I bought some of their honeysuckle perfume -- a delicate and unusual scent which is perfect for every day use. My bottle is now running low, so imagine my delight when I discovered recently that They Have A Branch In London. (Also in Paris, in case you're planning a trip). The London shop is on Walton St in South Kensington, itself definitely worth a visit, and another is shortly due to open near to the Royal Academy (yay!). Although the shop itself is not as beautiful as the Florentine original, the charm of the perfumes has not been diminished, and I was tempted by many (I liked the sound of Nostalgia, which claimed to have a hint of petrol -- one of my Favourite Smells Ever ... yes, I know, the strangeness of this has been commented upon -- but a spritz of it almost knocked me out. It was definitely more of a masculine scent -- in fact, on the right man, I think it would be superb. The trouble, of course, is finding the right man). In the end, however, although Tuberose was a strong contender (rather heavier, and definitely more of an evening scent -- maybe next time!), I remained loyal to my Caprifoglio and came away with another extremely pretty bottle to add to my collection:

Well, it's good to be back, and I shall Be A Better Blogger in future: or at least, like Sir W in the aptly named 'Of Resolution' (1600),

'I write thus, I thinke thus, and I hope to do thus'.