Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

The Ballroom by Anna Hope: review and interview

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“Where love is your only escape ….

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors,
where men and women are kept apart
by high walls and barred windows,
there is a ballroom vast and beautiful.
For one bright evening every week
they come together
and dance.
When John and Ella meet
It is a dance that will change
two lives forever.”

The Ballroom is a remarkable work of fiction, where the love story between two patients in a Victorian asylum shines a light on a most unedifying and painful time in history. Set in what has been called ‘God’s own country’, the contrast between the ungodly practices going on inside Sharston Asylum and the majestic, pure beauty of the Yorkshire Ridings is acute. As part of this review-feature, I interviewed author Anna Hope about her research and the themes which underpin this evocative novel. 

British asylums were home to people diagnosed with mental illness and/or learning disabilities and although some of their stories have been recorded, sadly, the majority have been lost or weren’t documented in the first place outside of medical records. The history of stigma and fear associated with mental health services means that, historically, patients have been voiceless, socially, politically and culturally, and the public remain largely ignorant about what went on inside these asylums. Privacy laws means that a hundred years must pass from the death of the last patient before any personal details can be released into the public realm, hindering historians from accessing the archives, but author Anna Hope has managed to conduct extensive research which underpins the fictional story of two patients, Ella and John, and their doctor Charles Fuller, who were incarcerated in a fictional asylum she called Sharston, an institution which she says is “crafted as much from the imagination as the historical record” after she learned of a family connection to an actual asylum which once existed nearby.

Hope’s great-great grandfather was called John Mullarkey and he was a patient at Mernston Asylum in the West Riding of Yorkshire after his transfer from a workhouse. Seemingly suffering from what we’d now diagnose as a depressive disorder with an attendant malnutrition and cachexia, Hope’s author notes describe how he never recovered and died in Mernston aged 56 in 1918. The Ballroom is novel is dedicated to his memory and takes its name from her discovery of an actual ballroom inside the asylum, fallen derelict from lack of use. It was this poignant epilogue which triggered my tears which had been brimming for the last four chapters.

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

Tell us about your research and how you encountered the story of your ancestor…

“I came across the evidence of his time in the asylum by chance (if there is such a thing) when looking at the census records for my great-grandfather, his son. In a tiny crossed-out note on the side of the census form for 1911 it stated that John Mullarkey, the head of the family was in Menston Asylum, explains Anna.

“Having never heard of the place I immediately did a search on the Internet and came across local historian Mark Davies’s fantastic online archive dedicated to the history of what became known as High Royds hospital. It was there I saw the pictures of the ruined ballroom at the asylum’s heart and knew I needed to write about the place. When I eventually accessed my great-great-grandfather’s records I found them to be incredibly moving; he was a man suffering from what was deemed to be ‘melancholia,’ but really he seemed to have been sent out of his mind by poverty and worry over work. To add to this, on his admission from the local workhouse he was ‘emaciated’ and ‘poorly nourished.’ He never recovered and died in the asylum in 1918, ” explained Anna.

“I took many of the biographical details of his life: coming from the west of Ireland to find work in Liverpool as a young man, his ‘melancholia,’ his refusal to speak when arriving in the asylum, and used them for the character of John in the book, but I also always knew I wanted to have the freedom of fiction in creating John Mulligan. Similarly I re-named the asylum Sharston so I might have the greater latitude in writing about the place that fictionalisation allows, ” she adds.

The Ballroom introduces us to Ella, recently admitted from the cotton mill where she worked from a young age after smashing a window- she has barely had a life. The brutal working conditions there caused her eyes to suppurate painfully and skin to develop an inflamed rash. Her desire to see the beautiful moors she knew lay just feet from the building and her need to inhale air which was not clotted with dust motes led to an act of atavistic desperation and as a result of this, she was beaten and committed to Sharston under the care of an ambitious young doctor, Charles Fuller. His own employment there defies the stifling expectations of his own middle-class Yorkshire family and Charles struggles to find his own identity, He has high hopes that weekly music and dances in the asylum’s ballroom will help him make his name in the medical world as a doctor who uses music to tackle psychological fractures. He spends hours imagining the reception his paper will receive in London, adopting a purely intellectual approach in order to inoculate himself against his feeling. Charles is in denial of his own emotional connection to music, despite observing the benefits that listening to music brings to his patients.

John is one of those patients, an Irishman diagnosed with melancholia after a series of losses, and so is Ella. The Ballroom is, on first sight, the story of growing relationships in a closed-off world. John and Ella are catalysts for change and acceptance and submission and through them we meet other patients; resilient and spirited Dan who is John’s friend, and Clem, another victim of a time and place where women who dared to push against a seemingly gilded existence were sat firmly down, again and again, until they broke.

In her authorial note, Hope talks of her shock at learning that the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, was a strong supporter of eugenics, espousing his belief that mental illness, poverty and physical disability were all evidence of a weakened genetic stock and therefore provided a good reason to sterilise the significant numbers of people in Britain with these conditions. Her own discoveries colour the prose, allowing us to feel shock, and then dismay, as former critics of the practice become zealous devotees of it. This volte-face is an ironic result of what appears to be Charles own psychological breakdown as he fights with his insight and goes on to project his own failings onto the patients and especially, onto John who represents all those qualities he fears he lacks: poetry, a heart and soul that cannot be imprisoned and a disturbing masculinity which seems hewn from the wild moors.

I drew parallels between the black Ragtime musicians of New Orleans and their small emancipatory gains and that of Charles and his orchestra when he first tried to play Ragtime and failed to embody its spirit. As a reader it was a moment in the story where I held my breath, wondering if Charles would let himself be free. Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients in the asylum. He fails to recognise this although Ella, Clem and John all seem to display a nascent awareness of this. Did you feel ever tempted to give Dr Charles Fuller the gift of insight, I ask Anna?

“I definitely thought about giving him insight and I do think he’s perhaps more aware than he allows himself in his thoughts,” Anna replies. “Ultimately though, I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy. And to have empathy you need to have some modicum of self-love. I’m not sure, despite his arrogance, how much Charles really loves himself. I loved him though, despite the horror of what he becomes. I think I kept seeing him as a small boy, terrorised by his father, someone who has never felt comfortable in his own skin and wants to hurt the world in the same way he’s hurting.”

 

Of particular distress to me was learning that relatives of Charles Darwin were also exponents of eugenics and their lectures may well have gone on to influence the modified Feeble-Minded Bill which was passed in 1913 as the Mental Deficiency Act. That Darwin’s own contribution to the knowledge we have of humankind should be so distorted and abused for political ends keeps the story taut as we await the unfolding of history, sitting alongside Charles as he struggles to retain his equilibrium at one of the London lectures and sits in his room, clutching transcripts of Dr Tredgold’s address to the society at Caxton Hall. Tredgold’s findings on the Feeble-Minded were eventually passed onto Parliament and Charles wants this for himself because he is surrounded by almost faceless patients and fears invisibility as a result of what must feel like voluntary professional incarceration.

The reader cannot help but draw parallels with the politics of today but there is authorial subtlety at play here and as a result, realisation creeps slowly and coldly upon the reader.  Whilst Charles and his fellow eugenicists burn with the fevered heat of the zealot, Ella, John and the other patients remain oblivious which adds to the creeping unease until Hope allows it to bloom fully in her reader. What is particularly affecting is our realisation that the patients remain unenlightened as to Charles’s plans for medical posterity. We see them react in confusion and fear as things happen to them but any resolution of this does not involve knowledge and a consequently attendant power. And so the paternalistic philosophy of the asylum system perpetuates their dis-empowered status and our knowledge makes us collusive.

Whilst the government of today is not advocating eugenics, there does seem to be a feeling that there is a growing British under-class who are depicted as taking more than their fair share. Instead of eliciting compassion and support, they are instead dehumanised and ‘othered’ as a prelude to drastic social-welfare cuts. It has been a primitive and successful strategy to date. We are privy to Charles in his private space, a small room in the grounds where he studies, practises music and reads a transcript by Tredgold which states: “I have no hesitation in saying, that nowadays the degenerate offspring of the feeble-minded and chronic pauper is treated with more solicitude, has better food and clothing and medical attention, and has greater advantages than the child of the respectable and independent working man, So much is this the case that people are beginning to realise that thrift, honesty, and self-denial do not pay,” and in this, we cannot help but hear the words of Ian Duncan-Smith.

And Charles in his own private space, reads of measures which involve the most private space of all- a person’s sexual and reproductive organs- a potential decision which will make them public property, and their removal a tacit condition to access welfare and mental-health care. The plot exposes a paradox: sterilised patients remain incarcerated in a hidden asylum, where daily doings are secretive but patients are not permitted privacy or secrets and their bodies and minds have fluid boundaries which are defined by those who have charge over them. They are permitted only the most cursory of identities.

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High-Royds asylum at Menton, West Yorks

An early scene introduces us to John and Dan as they dig communal un-marked graves and these graves act as sump for all manner of fears as well as being a literal and metaphorical barrier to hope and progression: even death is not an escape and death will not return identity to patients nor give them a longed-for privacy and personal space. Hope finds a way to navigate us through a realisation which might otherwise threaten to overwhelm the reader, via runaway Ella, whose furious, defiant flight is brought to an accidental end by her encounter with John as he sees her fleeing as he digs the graves for patients who die in the feared chronic wards.

Released from Scarston asylum, Hope’s prose roams and probes the glorious countryside and when the reader is plunged back into the crepuscular gloom of the buildings, it is a shock. The sense of place is profound and John and Ella’s appreciation of the world outside is heightened because they are divorced from it. The asylum is a scar on the landscape but it also seems hewn from it. The dramatic Yorkshire moors which seem wild, dangerous and untamed to those of us unfamiliar with them and to Charles who prefers the tamed and subdued, but to John and Ella, they are places of safety, an alternative and purer form of asylum for the couple who seek out the dark woods and fields of crops to meet and fully be themselves. As Ella finds ways of escaping the dankness of the laundry and the dank gloom of the day-rooms and dormitories, she steps into the light and we see her.

John and Ella are very much part of the landscape and show such love for the countryside and nature. Indeed Ella’s need for air and space and connection is what causes her to be committed in the first place when her breaking of the mill-window is deemed such a transgression, it cannot be the act of a sane person. I found their attempts to maintain this connection with nature inside such a dark place almost unbearably sad and Hope’s own love for the Yorkshire Ridings shines through her prose.
Was it a shock for you when your research led you to read about such darkness (unnamed graves, abusive practices) existing in what is called ‘God’s own country’? For the reader, it is such a contrast and a triumph of writing, I comment.
“I grew up in Lancashire, in a beautiful village on the moors, but close to towns like Bolton, Blackburn and Bury, which in the 80’s were suffering a lot from post-industrial malaise. It always struck me how these towns, which were often full of deprivation were so close to such wild, open country and I always thought about the mill workers, and what their relationship might have been to those moors,” Anna says.
“As for Yorkshire, my dad’s a Yorkshireman and I have many Yorkshire members of my family, and I see that darkness and wildness as definite Yorkshire traits. There’s a blackness to the humour there which I love, and which only comes from things being a bit tough, but also this sense of incredible expansiveness you get from the landscape. I walked a lot on Ilkely moor, for instance, when writing the book, which is such a rich and inspiring spot. But I suppose, no, it wasn’t a surprise to me to discover such darkness there, although it must be said the unnamed graves were by no means confined to Yorkshire and the north, I think such practises were widespread in the asylum system across Britain,” she adds.

 

Hope is adept at writing conversation, melding evocative visual imagery and exquisite dialect with casual chat which contain little speech bombs if you pay attention, encouraging readers to become more insightful. Clem quotes Emily Dickinson; “There’s a certain slant of light. Winter afternoons. That oppresses, like the heft of cathedral tunes” as she helps Ella in the laundry where they both work, a beautiful example of the way Hope uses light, shade, and dark to emphasise the taunt of the countryside outside as the light and dark of day and night flows over the moors and pushes against the high windows. Music contains the same light and shadow too, as does dancing and the question is whether a moment of joy makes the rest of life more or less bearable. We’re forced to ask that of ourselves.

There’s epistolary conversation too and the letters that John and Ella write to each-other, with Clem’s assistance, are full of delicate yet powerful natural imagery; the epic migration of the swallow and the changing light of the surrounding woodland; a flower picked from the lawns and pressed in an encyclopaedia. Like them, we are swallowed up by the stolid and sere asylum walls but Hope reminds us to look up, out of the windows as they do and to keep watch over the future on their behalf even when it seems as if the walls have closed in on them [and us] permanently.

For Clem and the other patients, the life of the mind is a divine agony and there are no easy answers, even in death. Charles introduction of music as therapy in the asylum is a troublesome catalyst, making patients vulnerable in new ways, opening them up to the divine as Dickinson elucidates in her poem. Handling a man’s cotton shirt with stained cuffs, Clem half muses, “Men. You can never  get the stains out,” a shivering reminder of events which might have triggered her symptoms and caused her incarceration. Mental illness can be hard to articulate for even the most verbally adept and at a time when this was not encouraged socially, and little benefit seemed to result from an open conversation with ones doctors, these asides act as signposts which we can navigate from, although it is frustrating that the doctors do not see what we, the reader with historical hindsight, can.

In The Ballroom, Anna Hope gives voice to stories rarely told and life to people who were secreted away, living lives so tenuous and shifting, they barely seemed to exist at all. The historical detail is handled skilfully by Hope and her own historiography never overshadows that of her characters whose ability to make themselves heard is already seriously hindered. Like Dickinson’s poem, her book shifts from the place where hurt originates- society, religious doctrine, the culture mores of the time- to the earthly recipients of that hurt- the patients and staff who are trapped in their own way. Hope roots her characters strongly in the dramatic landscapes of the Yorkshire Ridings, giving back the dignity, belonging and sense of place that asylum has denied them, and her prose soars over the story, reminding us of the swallows which so fascinate John as they return each year to make their summer homes on the moors. The love story at its heart is painful but one of the best I have read in a long time.

The Ballroom is very cinematic, I comment to Anna. Who would you like to see play the main roles? Or is it something you find hard to envision?
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it at all, but as an ex- actress I know how fickle that world can be, so I try not to think about it too much! If it happens, I’ll definitely have some ideas to pitch in though – the characters are so dear to me and I can sense them so clearly that to have a very different sort of actor playing the role would be hard,” Anna replies.
I’m pretty sure that The Ballroom will be on our screens at some point.
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Author Anna Hope // photo contributed

The Ballroom was published February 4th 2016 and is in all good bookshops.

Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 9780857521965

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring books: reviewed

There’s some really good book releases this spring, rippling with themes universal to us all from parenting and childhood discoveries to the impact of seismic news events and difficult personal choices. Landscape, travel and nature writing is particularly strong this spring and I have chosen books by writers who transcend this genre, weaving together fact and the psychology of place, time and person, creating a conscious form of historiography.

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A few of my favourites are set in the American south, and some of you will know that I have a particular yen for the darkness, quirk and rich history of this part of the world. Chandler Alexander’s The Makings of a Fatherless Child is one such story, a compelling coming-of-age tale of a young boy, Amel River who lives in the Mississippi Delta. He contends with a broken home, poverty, a lack of a father and a voice in his head that won’t go away. Whilst stretching his neck towards adulthood, he is aided by a variety of interesting characters which include a two year old child and a drunken stranger. And where would a story set in the Delta be without a drunken stranger? Out now. 

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My second novel is  GodPretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michelle Richardson, a story which laces beauty, love and sweetness with the hardscrabble existence of tobacco farming in Kentucky during the dying days of the sixties. Ruby Lyn Bishop was orphaned at five years of age but has lived since then with her God-fearing uncle Gunnar. As she passes her sixteenth birthday, she is beset with dreams and wishful thinking about her own fortunes after years of making intricate paper fortune-tellers for the townsfolk.If you are a lover of intricate plots set over a small period of time and adore the southern sense of place, this book is for you. Out April 26th.

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Fans of Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, have been eagerly awaiting her next novel and in The Summer Before The War, we can once again enjoy the quietly moving and capable storytelling that made her first book so enjoyable. It’s 1914 and the last days of a beautiful Edwardian British summer in East Sussex but a stranger is about to arrive in the village. When Agatha seeks to engage a woman as the new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash is the result, and she is far more free of thinking – and attractive – than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. As the village prepares for the Great War, other conflicts rise to the fore as some very British traditions are tested. Out March 24th.

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All families have their myths and legends and when your family is well-known, sorting out the truth from hyperbole and hagiography can be very challenging. The Nicholson family are well-versed in telling their own story and now it is Juliet Nicholson’s turn in her book,  A House Full Of Daughters. She converts her previous acceptance of her complicated family history to intricate, questioning research and in the process, tells a vivid story which roams from Malaga in Spain to the salons of fin-de-siècle Washington DC; from an English boarding school during the Second World War and sexy Chelsea in the 1960s to the bankrupt, and decrepit New York City in the eighties. Then there’s the Nicholson women: her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, the flirty manipulation of her great-grandmother Victoria, the infamous eccentricity of her grandmother Vita and her mother’s Tory-conventional background. This is a delicious book. Out March 24th.

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Onto a different house and two different families in The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, where, on a snowy Brooklyn night in 1947, two women, sister by marriage and friends by choice, give birth. Helen and Rose are married to brothers Abe and Mort and the two families share a brownstone. Tightly wound around an explosive secret and with complex family dynamics which become known to us over a long period of time, the multiple perspectives can at times feel a little unbalanced but on the whole, this is a highly readable and deft exploration of family life. Out March 8th.

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This new anthology of previously published writing by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard is the sum total of a woman who is relentlessly and forensically alive and in The Abundance, Dillard shines a beautiful light on the everyday, asking us to drop our casual acceptance and re-engage anew with the world around us. She makes us notice through the application of her poets soul, philosophers mind and artists pen and enchants via words which pin down a series of images onto the page: lunar eclipses, leaves, moths to flames and the magnificent sight of birds in flight all catch her eye, and, in turn, ours. As we read, she tasks us to ask ourselves why, how, where and what does the minutiae of my own place in the natural world mean to me? If you’ve never read her, this is the perfect introduction to a writer who is admired by landscape and nature writers everywhere. Out April 7th.

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In Rain, Melissa Harrison explores the relationship we have with the weather as she follows the course of four rain showers, over four seasons, across Wicken Fen, Shropshire, the Darent Valley and Dartmoor. Particularly pertinent to the British who enjoy a good conversation about the weather, Harrison weaves a meditative pathway through all manner of ologies and disciplines: botany and biology; literature and philosophy; geography and psychology to gently encourage us to engage with rain instead of merely grumbling about it. Also included is a meteorological glossary with common terminology such as cloudburst (“sudden, intense rainfall of short duration”) and the esoteric regional words for all things watery from the skies, similar to that employed by Robert MacFarlane in his recent book, Landmarks. Her level-headed gaze ranges from the earthly: germinating seeds and rain-sodden earth, to the sensory [and scientific] delights such weather causes. Her contemplation of petrichor- the particular aroma after a rain shower is particularly delightful. Coined in 1964 by Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather, petrichor is derived from two chemical reaction when oils secreted by plants during dry periods are released into the air because of rain. Chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes are also released and these two aromatic compounds combine to create petrichor. If you aren’t thoroughly charmed and intrigued by this, then I can’t help you.

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I adored The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu Jaber’s previous memoir and in her new memoir, Life Without a Recipe, I am re-acquainted with her funny, warm and poignant writing about creating a family on one’s own terms. As Diana honestly acknowledges, building confidence in one’s own path sometimes takes a mistaken marriage or two—or in her case, three and there are many rows between Bud, her flamboyant, spice-obsessed Arab father and Grace, her sugar-fiend of a German grandmother. Bud and Grace could not agree on anything to do with Diana and her life choices, whether they be food, family, who to love and how to love. Caught between cultures and lavished with contradictory “advice” from both sides of her family, Diana spent years learning how to ignore the well-intentioned prescriptions of others and forging her own, at times imperfect, path. Out April 18th. 

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Going to NYC soon and want to find out more than the best place to shop? The Chronicles series takes a look at the history behind some of the most fascinating cities in the world and now they have published an edition about this most famous of cities. Each book introduces the major characters that shaped the city, then offers comprehensive walking tours to bring its words to life. In Chronicles of Old New York: Exploring Manhattans Landmark Neighborhoods, author James Roman,  a native New Yorker, walks us around the many neighbourhoods and amuses us with anecdotes about those quirks of history that have helped shape the city such as which park lies over a sea of unmarked graves. The inclusion of historical maps and photographs helps bring visionaries, risk-takers, dreamers, and schemers such as John Jacob Astor and Gertrude Whitney to life, showing how they left their mark on a city and continue to shape its development after their deaths. Out April 1st.

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Helen Stevenson’s memoir Love Like Salt is a poignantly beautiful account of what it is like to be the mother of Clara, a child with a chronic illness. Despite the sadness of her daughters diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, this is an uplifting book which describes how Helen and her family are able to triumph over adversity in many forms. Helen is a translator and she uses her own profession to reinterpret the strange landscape of biology and illness. The story is set against a backdrop of music and art and literature which soars over and beyond the confines of the CF diagnosis and the bullying her daughter experiences at school in France. The family moves back to the UK which is where we leave them, all of us cautiously optimistic that Clara will continue to prevail over this awful disease which, as of yet, remains incurable. Out now.

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Remaining with the mother and daughter theme but fictional this time, Jennifer S Brown’s debut novel, called Modern Girls, takes us to New York City in the thirties, at a time when national socialism is on the rise in Europe and women of all ages are starting to define themselves outside of the home. It’s 1935 and Dottie Krasinsky is the epitome of a modern woman, employed as a bookkeeper, a boyfriend in tow, but living still with her Yiddish parents. When she becomes pregnant, she has to face the fact that her options are still very limited. Then there’s Dottie’s mother who is dying to get back some of the fire in her belly, lost to years of childrearing. Her own situation bears uncomfortable parallels with her daughters when she too faces an unwanted pregnancy. Brown has written an eminently readable ages-and-stages story, set in a time when greater freedom and choice loomed tantalisingly close for women. Out April 5th.

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Learning about experiences far removed from my own particularly appealed in Anju Joseph’s The Living, although its themes of discipline through work, the pleasures and rewards of long-term friendship and the tension between the joy and tedium of family life are universal. Claire is a young single mother working in one of England’s last surviving shoe factories, her adult life formed by a teenage relationship. Arun, an older man in a western Indian town, makes hand-sewn chappals at home. A recovered alcoholic, now a grandfather, he negotiates the new-found indignities of old age while returning in thought to the extramarital affair he had years earlier. This is a novel which rewards you for looking closer until you can clearly see the eddies and currents that lie beneath waters that seem, upon first glance, to flow seamlessly. Out now.

I have linked to the authors own page, or to the publishers because I will not link to Amazon. Please order these books through your local booksellers, where at all possible. They need our support and our love. All reviews are honest and have not been solicited.

Coming soon: the best food writing and cook books this spring. 

 

 

 

 

Suffolk’s bookish heritage

 

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An old  postcard, sent in 1914,of the Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill, where Arthur Ransome sailed and set two of his novels.

The countryside and small scale urban landscapes of Suffolk have long seduced those of a creative bent with artists and writers taking inspiration from this county, situated as it is on the edge of the English landmass, punctuated by towns and miles of rolling fields and quilted by waterways. We take a look at some well known and others, less so. 

Arthur Ransome has a long and renowned association with Suffolk, using it as both backdrop and inspiration for his children’s books. The Ransome family moved to Suffolk in 1936, and they lived at Broke Farm on the banks of the River Orwell where Pin Mill harbour could be seen from his window. Ransome moored his sailing boat, the Nancy Blackett here. Made famous in his novel, ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’, the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the Orwell and downriver from the mighty Orwell Bridge, overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily on a spit of land between the rivers Orwell (which inspired a pen name for George Orwell) and Stour. The waters infiltrate this strangely porous landscape with its fimbrels of mud-flats and saltings. The breeze carries a salty brackish-tang of mud that mingles with the honey scent of the gorse-covered headlands and their ridge-line stands of pine and oak. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.

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The Butt & Oyster Inn

The young adventurous protagonists of Ransome’s book were staying at Alma Cottage; located right by the Butt & Oyster pub and he had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard although his home was actually high up on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington.

Ransome’s first Suffolk based story, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, tells of an unintended voyage across the sea. The Swallow children have promised their mother they will play in the safe confines of the harbour, but their boat, the Goblin, loses its anchor and drifts away in a fog. The children end up sailing across the North Sea to Holland. In tribute, an annual sailing race now takes place from the sailing club at Pin Mill. In the second book, Secret Water, the Swallow children are once again in a pickle, marooned on an island with a small boat and end up charting the area of islands and marshes which, in reality, are south of Pin Mill at Hamford Water.

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There are plenty of folks who live on the river at Pin Mill and quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red sailed Thames sailing barges are also a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here. Last summer (June 2014), Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brought it to Suffolk for the Felixstowe Book Festival and I had the great pleasure of seeing up close, the craft that bravely sails the pages of Ransome’s books. Keep an eye out for future visits next year, hopefully.

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The boatyards of Pin Mill

The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well-known (and signposted) trail that loops around Woolverstone Hall and the Park that surrounds it, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past those mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rising up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirting the tiny village of Chelmondiston, before returning you to your start point- The Butt & Oyster Inn. The pub overlooks the boatyards which edge Pin Mill Common on both sides and makes a logical and scenic place to start or finish at although if you like a drink, it might be best to wait until after that walk- the fireside seats and sunny warmth streaming through the picture windows overlooking the water makes it hard to get up and get going. If the weather is inclement, sit by the window with your book and watch the wheeling gulls, sent upriver by rough seas as they set down, then take off again from the maram grass covered islands and shores of this beautiful part of Suffolk.

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Jane Taylor

The west and south of the county boast many fine examples of buildings and churches built by wealthy wool merchants of which Lavenham is probably the most famous of all, but how many of you also know that the village has a direct connection with the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and its composer Jane Taylor (1783–1824),  an English poet and novelist?  Jane and her family made their home at Shilling Grange in Lavenham’s Shilling Street and Twinkle, Twinkle was originally published under the title The Star in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Taylor and her older sister Ann. The poems were a special commission by the publishers Darton and Harvey and Twinkle’s simple verse belies the skill required to capture the tender relationship between a mother and her child as she introduces it to a universe beyond the nursery walls. In her autobiography, Ann, Jane’s sister, alludes to this skill as she reminisces about Jane describing her own writing process: ‘I try to conjure some child into my presence, address her suitably, as well as I am able and when I begin to flag, I say to her, “There love, now you may go”’.

It is not known if the poem was actually written in Lavenham or indeed, inspired by its West Suffolk night skies and many scholars claim that the poem was written in Colchester, where the family moved to. Jane did have an interest in astronomy though and would have had fine views of the Lavenham skies from the attic windows which her brother noted:

“The window commanded a view of the country and a tract of sky as a field for that nightly soaring of the fancy of which she was so fond,”  Isaac wrote in 1825.

The two little girls attended dance lessons at the Swan Inn (now the Swan Hotel) tutored by an 18-stone dancing master from Bury St Edmunds and their father, a noted engraver, painted both children against the bucolic backdrop of their garden back in 1792. This portrait is now owned by the National Portrait Gallery although it is on long-term loan to the Bath Preservation Trust and is hung in the Georgian setting of the drawing room at 1, Royal Crescent, Bath.

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Shilling Grange : wikipedia commons

The Taylor sisters were fairly prolific, publishing several volumes of tales and rhymes for infants but Jane died early aged forty of breast cancer on April 13, 1824 although her work continues to attract visitors to the village and particularly Japanese tourists who are especially entranced by this magical little poem and like to see the house its author lived in, now owned by the National Trust who have staged exhibitions at the nearby Guildhall. And one more star-related Lavenham fact for you: Molet House on Barn Street is a handsome black and white Tudor building and if you look closely, you’ll see that its doorway boasts an engraved star. This is the badge of the De Veres, the local lords of the manor, and is it known as a ‘molet’ or ‘mullet’ and is said to refer to a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem high in the skies, as witnessed by a member of the family called Aubrey the First during the Crusades. He  went on to victory.

Here, he tells of this event, speaking of himself in the most self-important of tones: “God willing the safety of the Christians showed a white star ……. on the Christian host, which to every man’s sight did light and arrest upon the standard of Aubrey de Vere, there shining excessively.” It was subsequently claimed that an angel actually leaned down and threw the star onto De Vere’s standard himself, thus further legitimising Aubrey’s war efforts in his opinion.

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Face-helmet, unearthed at Sutton Hoo and now in the British Museum

Many places near to Ipswich are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment and their stories tell themselves -stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place, where, in 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaeologist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold and burnished jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and completely intact feasting set, and most famously, the ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum, although the original now resides at the British Museum.

Intensive archaeological excavations gave us wonderful insights into the lives of these Anglo Saxons: tiny fragments showed that rich textiles, dyed using plant matter, once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen over-shirts to shaggy woollen cloaks woven to keep out the searing winds blown straight here from Siberia and caps luxuriantly trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the boggy acidic peat which was composed of soil enriched by centuries of decaying bracken, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king, ruling over the hardy souls that once carved out a living from this harsh and inhospitable land.

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The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship adhering to the highest of standards and benefiting from far-reaching international connections which spanned Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of glittery treasures, cavernous reception halls and strong, formidable warriors described in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s book, Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister tale of a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world who love the interactive displays and the chance to dress up. Take a copy of ‘Beowulf’ and recite it aloud to the kids: this dramatic piece of prose perfectly suits dark and stormy East Anglian winter days where you can declaim loudly into the wind in a kingly (or queenly) manner.

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Suffolk wealth from wool: Lavenham’s architecture.

Suffolk has always been a place for migration. We began as the indigenous ‘South Folk’ whose toughness and shy self-reliance became hard-wired through centuries of fighting off challenges by land-grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility. You can see why our county sea-borders are home to such a compelling mix of people and the county town of Ipswich, with its history as a busy working port and status as county seat, has always attracted economic migrant workers from all over the world. The Orwell River was once a prime trading route between Ipswich, the European mainland and the rest of the country and in the Middle Ages, the wool produced by wealthy East Anglian merchants and farmers was exported via Ipswich whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area is now slowly being restored although the waters bob with yachts and houseboats now instead of the merchants ships that once plied their trade there.

Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of 22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here as she said in an interview with a regional newspaper:

“Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.”  

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With a well-established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says;

“I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”

Ipswich docks are undergoing regeneration and now bustle with a different kind of economic activity from their earliest incarnation (they first took shape in Anglo Saxon times). In a place where merchants once traded and dock workers hefted cargo onto the rust encrusted decks of the great ships that sailed between Britain, Europe and the rest of the world, the docks are now populated by sailors working on sleek pleasure craft. There are some fishing fleets still, sturdy and stout hearted as they putter in and out of their berths but the biggest change is in the crowds of locals, here to eat and drink and to live in flats on the redeveloped warehouses and wharves. At night, lights blaze not from the returning fishing boats but from the bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses that have migrated here. It is beautiful and has yet to reach its full potential, a very different one to its original purpose.

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Ipswich marina, partly renovated

With its long and noble maritime history, one of our choices for a great place to eat and drink here was always going to be afloat and Mariners Restaurant is situated on a beautiful craft berthed on the newly redeveloped Ipswich marina, surrounded by sympathetically restored brick built warehouses and some maritime related businesses. The Mariner was built and launched in 1899 as the gunboat SS Argus for the department of the Belgian State. Recommissioned in 1940 by the Belgian navy, it was sunk, raised and subsequently re-repaired by the Germans who returned it to the Antwerp based owners in 1945 and then rechristened as Flandria VII.

Sri Lanka, Dunwich, Orford and Ipswich all appear in Rona Tearne’s book, ‘The Swimmer,’ a tale of a relationship between a woman and a young male immigrant and, appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for a dreamy story of 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) who spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain and while he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair and when tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.

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Bailey Bridge, over Stony Ditch at Orford Ness, crossing a tidal creek between the Ness itself and the River Ore estuary. Copyright Ian Taylor> attribution: share-alike 2.0 generic(CC by -SA 2.0)

The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around the region: a crepuscular and brooding backdrop. Shaped by conflict and affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum, least not in such a mutable part of the world, shaped by immigration, where the human landscape is so very much, more than a sum of its parts. The fictional story of Ben, swimming in the stream, feeds into the rivulets of migration that in real life forms the fascinating story of Ipswich. From the Frisian potters originally from the part of Europe we now call The Netherlands who settled the Quay area in the 7th century and established the first large scale potteries since the time of the Romans, to the people arriving here from the Caribbean in the 50’s, stepping off boats like the Windrush at Tilbury before setting off downstream to Ipswich, their contribution is woven into the very fabric of the town.

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In Something Might Happen, her murder-mystery novel from 2003, novelist Julie Myerson barely disguises the Enid Blyton-esque seaside town of Southwold, where she has a second home. Myerson’s storytelling again walks the line between humanity and the dark, jangling terror of what we are capable of, all set in the most domestic and cosy of surroundings,  a place of aspiration and longing for the land-locked suburbanite. Yes, this coastal landscape could be anywhere in Britain, which is important for a nation of people heavily invested still in the Victorian idyll of a seaside holiday, but I see it as unmistakably East Suffolk, where miles of marshland act as buffer between land and sea. Myerson’s most recent book, The Stopped Heart, is also set in an unidentified rural part of England but again, to a Suffolk dweller the sights and sounds say unmistakably ‘home’: there’s the ‘bright, raw smell’ of a freshly skinned rabbit and the ‘smashed’ sensation one of the characters feels upon seeing the sea. There’s a move to an isolated cottage in the country and ghosts and past crimes returning to haunt us as Myerson expertly weaves together the story of bereaved Mary, newly moved to the country and Eliza,  a 13-year-old farmer’s daughter, living in the same house a century earlier and addressing us directly from the grave.

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Charles Dickens was a frequent traveller to Suffolk and toured the county giving recitals of his work and was also invited to open the lecture hall for the Ipswich Mechanics Institute in 1851. Sources have claimed that the Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouses in nearby Barham may have inspired the workhouse setting and tale of Olive Twist. We know that Dickens visited and read the records of a ten year old apprentice who lived there; the sordid and inhuman conditions which triggered a riot in protest must surely have made an impression upon him?

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Charles Dickens in 1858 / wikipedia commons

In 1835 he stayed in Ipswich and subsequently set some of the scenes in his novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there- it is believed that an Ipswich woman, a Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold was the inspiration for the character of Mrs Leo Hunter in the book, depicted as a woman with pretensions for the performing of charitable works and the writing of poetry. Opened in 1518, the Ipswich hotel he was a guest at was known then as The Tavern, later being renamed the Great White Horse Hotel with meandering stairs and corridors depicted in chapter XXII. The hotel is no longer in its original incarnation and is now home to a chain coffee shop and one other store. Dickens also stayed at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds (a short drive along the A14) and this ivy clad hotel, which fronts onto Angel Hill, still stands and you can stay in the very room in which Dickens slept and wrote. In Ipswich, there are plenty of good coffee shops in which to sit and read your copy of Pickwick Papers (which also mentions the Angel Hotel). Try Jacey’s Coffee House, Arlington Brasserie, Bakers & Barista or appropriately enough, Pickwicks Tearooms on Dial Lane. They all serve a decent cup of joe, plus food and other drinks.

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The Angel Hotel entrance, Bury St Edmunds

Children may be interested to hear that the well-known nursery rhymes ‘Little Boy Blue’ and‘Humpty Dumpty’ may be satirical references to the life and fate of Cardinal Wolsey who himself was born and schooled in the town and whose bronze statue can be found at the junctions of St Nicholas, St Peters and Silent Street. These rhymes (and many others like them) served as a useful way of criticising, teasing or satirising figures of power and influence at a time when these behaviours, conducted openly would likely earn you a deadly fate, or imprisonment at the very least. Children love gory and dramatic history, as evidenced by the success of Horrible Histories and the pretty gruesome events behind seemingly innocent rhymes make perfect examples of how people living under oppression will always find a way of expressing dissent.Tell your children how the arrogance of this powerful man (who would not listen to any voice other than his own) is referred to in the line ‘Come blow your horn’ whilst ‘where’s the little boy that looks after the sheep?’ strongly implies that his ‘sheep like’ people are suffering at the hands of a self-serving and neglectful man. Humpty Dumpty references an interesting event in history, the loss by Wolsey, of his power, and by the time that this rhyme became popular, he had been charged with high treason, accused of delaying the annulment of Catharine of Aragon and Henry the Eight’s marriage. Humpty’s ‘great fall’ symbolises Wolsey’s own fall from grace. Indeed, Ipswich School lays claim to being the only school that warrants a real life mention in the works of William Shakespeare where, in ‘Henry VIII, Griffith has this to say about Cardinal Wolsey: “Those twins of learning that he raised in you, Ipswich and Oxford! One of which fell with him.” Further Wolsey related commemoration can also be found at 47 Nicholas Street where the Ipswich Society has mounted a blue plaque at Curson Lodge, to mark the birthplace of Wolsey on the opposite side of this street.

 

Christmas food between the pages

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“It was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapour had frozen over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar, Everything was rigid, locked up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.” … Winter not only sets in hard for Laurie Lee, but inspires him to write one of the most evocative depictions of Christmas in literature, His words resonate deeply with those of us living in the northern hemisphere where a sudden drop in the temperature turns noses the colour of cooked quince, bursts the tender cells of dormant plants as it clads the landscape in a brittle tracery of frost.

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‘Cold December brings the sleet, blazing fire and Christmas treat’ goes the saying, as the earth moves its vast bulk to faces the shortest days of the year, square on. Daylight hours are misty and crepuscular meaning indoor lights remain lit but this unrelenting greyness is interrupted by the gaiety and colour of Christmas: scarlet holly berries and shiny gilt bells; a forest of trees and garlands looped from wall to wall; and the exotic poinsettia, the Christmas flower of Mexico now popular here. Sheeny sweet wrappers get balled up and left down the sides of sofas and outside, decorative festive lights are reflected in the wet cement of the town, making walks home at the end of the day less austere. The smells are different too: the smokiness of decaying autumn leaves and the hot sweet scent of chestnuts from street sellers; the spiced citrus rime from bowls of clementines and sweet baked fug of hot apples ‘hissing and bubbling with a rich look’ as Dicken’s Mr Pickwick enjoyed them.

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In the midst of this can be found the Christmas experiences of others, committed to the pages of novels and memoirs, a rich source of pleasure on dark evenings when a book, a blanket and warm chair are all one needs. Some of our most vivid memories are these written recollections and their remembering serves as a kind of collective seasonal synergy where Christmas plans become suffused with the idealised images of celebrations we’ve read about. Dylan Thomas understood this when he wrote A Child’s Christmas in Wales with its richly- stirred pot of the real, the imagined and the magical, His words are the sum total of a child’s magical thinking married with an adult need to recreate what was most enjoyed for our own children:

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

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Take carolling- I’ve never been, but having read Laurie Lee’s childhood account of stumbling through the snowy village lanes and surrounding fields with friends and other villagers, I feel as if I was there alongside, cupping my mittened fingers and huffing into them to combat the freezing air:

“Mile after mile we went, fighting against the wind, falling into snowdrifts, and navigating by the lights of the houses. And yet we never saw our audience. We called at house after house; we sang in courtyards and porches, outside windows, or in the damp gloom of hallways; we heard voices from hidden rooms; we smelt rich clothes and strange hot food; we saw maids bearing in dishes or carrying away coffee cups; we received nuts, cakes, figs, preserved ginger, dates, cough-drops and money; but we never once saw our patrons. We grouped ourselves round the farmhouse porch. The sky cleared and broad streams of stars ran down over the valley and away to Wales. On Slad’s white slopes, seen through the black sticks of its woods, some red lamps burned in the windows.

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Everything was quiet: everywhere there was the faint crackling silence of the winter night. We started singing, and we were all moved by the words and the sudden trueness of our voices. Pure, very clear, and breathless we sang:

‘As Joseph was walking
He heard an angel sing;
‘This night shall be the birth-time
Of Christ the Heavenly King.
He neither shall be bored
In Housen nor in hall
Not in a place of paradise
But in an ox’s stall.’

And two thousand Christmases became real to us then; The houses, the halls, the places of paradise had all been visited; The stars were bright to guide the Kings through the snow; and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls. We were given roast apples and hot mince pies, in our nostrils were spices like myrrh, and in our wooden box, as we headed back for the village, there were golden gifts for all.”

Food at Christmas carries all the richness and exoticism of the gifts carried across far away lands by the Three Wise Men although frankincense, gold and myrrh are symbolised by sweetly-plump preserved and dried fruits from Israel and Egypt, Southern Spain, Italy and the Levant. We eat ‘foreign born’ sultanas and raisins in minced pies and cakes, in yeasted stollens from Germany and steamed puddings crowned with a sprig of holly and spiked with gold coins, representing the wealth of the kingly coffers. Our wines are fortified and sweetened and spirits are drunk in generous measures: three fingers or more of golden raisin-y liquids are released from their wooden casks after years of quiet and solitary maturation, swirled and appreciated as their vapours rise up to join the spirits of all Christmases past and present.

No matter how poor, the household does its best to proffer these sweetmeats to visitors and when it cannot, families improvise with their own music and seasonal cheer as did Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford:

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“There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol-singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire that usual, made up their Christmas cheer.”

Thompson reminds us that extravagant Christmas festivities in grand country houses will mean that other families must do without their loved ones, who work tirelessly as servants for the local landed gentry: “ There was little visiting of neighbours and there were no family reunions, for the girls in service could not be spared at that season, and the few boys who had gone out in the world were mostly serving abroad in the Army.”

The day passed in an understated way, with some seasonal and religious markers:

“Christmas Day passed very quietly. The men had a holiday from work and the children from school and the churchgoers attended special Christmas services. Mothers who had young children would buy them an orange each and a handful of nuts; but, except at the end house and the inn, there was no hanging up of stockings, and those who had no kind elder sister or aunt in service to send them parcels got no Christmas presents.”

We’re not deprived of descriptions of tempting food though:

“Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner-table together with plum pudding – not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens (it was not holly country) were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday.”

An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies
An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies

Margaret Powell was in service and in the first of her three memoirs, Below Stairs, she shines a little light on Christmas from the perspective of servants in grand houses where every task was strictly delineated and decorating the tree was delegated to the Nanny. Powell found having to line up in the servants hall to receive a gift from the family very humiliating, noting that the servants were not given anything deemed frivolous. Instead of perfumes, silk stockings or delectable chocolates they got lengths of uniform material, aprons and black lisle stockings. They had to suffer what she referred to as their employers’ ‘social welfare expressions’ with the children looking at them as if they were ‘beings from another world, which I suppose we were to them’ and then spend twelve hours slaving away producing a feast fit for kings. “If we were to have perfumes or silks we would go astray, they thought” she wrote. “So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”

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Karl Larsson

The Victorian Christmas fascinates me for many reasons. During this period, there was the redefining of Christmas as a private family time although a previous obsession with Stuart style public, baronial feasting was reinterpreted as the family table groaning under the weight of home-produced meals. What was eaten during national festivals gained a totemic significance with certain foods depicted as British and imbued with nationalistic qualities, such as plum pudding. I’m  also interested in the contrast between religious prudence and more earthly pleasures and appetites in the farmhouse Christmases depicted in literature. It seemed to me that a Victorian Christmas had the potential to become a spiritual battleground in the minds of the devout, torn as they were between sparing the rod and spoiling their children with gifts, stories and the gift of un-boundaried time, versus the drudge of a farm and their own daily religious rituals – and the need to protect their livestock from any changes to the routines that keep them healthy and productive.

This was never more obvious than in Alison Uttley’s ‘A Country Child’, a lightly fictionalised account of her own Derbyshire childhood in which she appears as Susan, a ‘most fanciful child’, never happier than when she is head down in a book, and born a ‘snow baby’ in December. Her farmhouse home went all out for Christmas, described over the course of a whole chapter: cheeses with layers of sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ and stone jars of white lard sat on the pantry floor, similar in shape to those which hid the forty thieves. The wine chamber stored bottle after bottle of elderberry wine and golden cowslip wine whilst great platters teetered under the weight of mince pies, slabs of fruited cake and jam tarts. Susan and her mother went into a frenzy of decorating:

”Holly decked every picture and ornament. Sprays hung over the bacon and twisted round the hams and herb bunches. The clock carried a crown on his head, and every dish-cover had a little sprig. Susan kept an eye on the lonely forgotten humble things, the jelly moulds and colanders and nutmeg graters, and made them happy with glossy leaves. Everything seemed to speak, to ask for its morsel of greenery, and she tried to leave out nothing.”

Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley's The Country Child
Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley’s The Country Child

The farmhouse kitchen was the heart of the home and especially during festive times when visitors would be received, fed and sometimes kissed if they were family and “everyone who called at the farm had to eat and drink at Christmas time.” The successes of the Victorian age, their colonies, trading strength and central place in global politics were commemorated too in the choice of decorations:

“In the middle of the kitchen ceiling there hung the kissing bunch, the best and brightest of holly, made in the shape of a large ball which dangled from the hook. Silver and gilt drops, crimson bells, blue glass trumpets, bright oranges and red polished apples, peeped and glittered through the glossy leaves. Little flags of all nations, but chiefly Turkish for some unknown reason, stuck out like quills on a hedgehog. The lamp hung near, and every little berry, every leaf, every pretty ball and apple had a tiny yellow flame reflected in its heart.“Twisted candles hung down, yellow, red, and blue, unlighted but gay, and on either side was a string of paper lanterns.”

The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.
The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.

Uttley told of Christmas Eve embroidered texts (‘God bless our home’), guising and folk tales: The Mistletoe Bough was read each year by Joshua, one of the elderly farm hands, as Susan sat unseen in the corner of the kitchen, frightened eyes dark of pupil, until her mother notices and sends her to bed with a candle. As she prepares for sleep, she muses upon another tale told her- that at midnight all the livestock goes down on bended knee in honour of the newly born Christ child. Similar to a tale my own grandfather told me, I lived in hope of catching the creatures outside doing the same, from the hedgehog that visited us nightly to the mistle thrushes that lived in the high trees surrounding my grandparents’ garden. Do hedgehogs have knees I’d ask and ever since,  in the minutes approaching midnight, I stand in my own garden wrapped in a blanket, looking at the stars and wondering…

Lately I discovered that Thomas Hardy wrote this: “Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock./ “Now they are all on their knees,”/ An elder said as we sat in a flock…” and published it on Christmas Eve 1915 in the London TimesThe Dorset superstition was that oxen used to kneel every Christmas Eve, honouring the holy birth so Hardy told readers that were he to be invited by a farmhand to witness this miracle: “I should go with him in the gloom,/ Hoping it might be so.”

Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the 'Perfect Christmas'
Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’

We are treated to a wonderful description of Susan’s Christmas Eve bedtime ritual, set in the darkness of the Little Chamber bedroom where the wood furniture lies staunch still and dour in the blue of the early morning light, reflected from the snow fields of the Peak District and the starry skies outside. We are privy to conversations between Susan and her mother as they ponder what stars are during an evening walk to church: “other worlds” according to a STEM-gifted Susan or, as her mother replies, “worlds or angels’ eyes or visions of heaven.” We discover her stocking contents alongside her as she explores by touch in the dark, pulls out a flat square object and sniffs its cardboard scent (it’s a new book!), finds an orange and crunches into a yellow apple from her favourite tree. Reaching deeper into her stocking, she shakes out a handful of knobbly walnuts from Bird in Bush farm, a tin of confits and a sweet sugar mouse. It is, what Rose Henniker Heaton, in her 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’, would approve of: “a tangerine wrapped in gold paper, in the toe…to help preserve the shape” and Susan’s inability to wait until it is morning proper is perfectly captured by poet John Mole:

Nuts and marbles in the toe,
An orange in the heel,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is wonderful to feel.

Shadowy, bulging length of leg
That crackles when you clutch,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is marvellous to touch.

Susan’s Christmas supper is resplendent, a table piled high with the hard earned fruits of her parents labours. There is a cake iced and sprinkled with red, white and blue hundreds and thousands, topped by a union jack paper flag with a tumbling clown on its other side. A ham is handsomely cloaked with brown raspings and a paper frill and a pie stuffed with veal, ham and eggs is surrounded by brown boiled eggs in a silver egg stand which “stood like a castle with eight stalwart egg cups and eight curling spoons around the tall handle, bread and butter on Minton china plates with their tiny green leaves and gold edges, a pot of honey and strawberry jam and an old Staffordshire dish of little tarts containing golden curds made of beastings, filled with currants. “ The cream in the Queen Anne jug is so thick it barely pours out and the beestings are what we’d know as colostrum, milked from a newly delivered cow, and often used to make luxurious curd tarts after being left to set.

Almanzo Wilder was the future husband of Laura Ingalls, of Little House on the Prairie fame, and like Susan, he too found the wait for the day to start proper, excruciating. He was born into a farming family with no access to any artificial light other than candles or kerosene and they had to conduct their early morning and evening animal husbandry in the dark. Such an exhausting regime in the deep cold of upstate New York rendered those hours of warm sleep doubly precious. Almanzo awoke his family very early indeed at 3:30 am with his childhood impatience- “ children, have you thought to look at the clock?” asks Father, in Ingalls Wilder’s account of his boyhood, ‘Farmer Boy’.

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Compared to Laura, Almanzo ate very well indeed as the son of prosperous horse farmers. Take this description which reads now as the longings of its adult author, deprived of good food by the Depression of the thirties, when she wrote it: “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham, he bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”

Barbara Walker, author of The Little House Cookbook believes that “after a childhood filled with near-starvation experiences,” Farmer Boy became “‘her [Laura Ingalls Wilder] own fantasy of blissful youth, surrounded on all sides by food.’” As a young child Laura’s Christmas Days were full of love, family gatherings, song and religious observance but they were times of material deprivation too: she was fortunate to receive a corn cob doll, a twist of candy in a paper bag and a penny in her stocking whilst Almanzo received livestock, sleighs, clasp knives, toys, a plush store bought cap and ate oodles of doughnuts, cookies, bushels of fruit from a never empty cellar buried under a stream of thick golden cream and maple syrup from their own trees, oh and let’s not forget- popcorn and milk every night.

And yet the descriptions of Laura’s Christmas are just as compelling. Take this Christmas stocking scene from Little House in the Big Woods:

“They plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long, long, sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at that beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn’t even take one lick of her stick.

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“Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.”

Later on, when they were both approaching their teens the family moved away from the big woods and their wider family to a dug out in the banks of Minnesota’s Plum Creek. Here, times were harder and the family had to rely on the charity of the local church: Laura got the tawny gold little fur muff she coveted from the Christmas church barrel and her sister is given a delicate china dog. The first Christmas at Plum Creek came after a late Summer plague of locusts had decimated their crops and that of their neighbours and the next Christmas was riven with their fears for Pa’s life when he got lost in a blizzard on his way home to them. Yet all’s well that ends well and as readers we are heart warmed by our glimpse of the family through their lace curtain-edged dugout window as they listen to Pa play fiddle, sing, dance and they all luxuriate in the close presence of the people they love the most. At times I did wonder whether Pa was somewhat selfish in his unrelenting desire to go west which constantly uprooted the family and left Ma terribly isolated at times.

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That’s not the last time a barrel saves them from a Christmas famine either. In a later book, Laura recounts the travails of a long winter where the family slowly starves along with the rest of their small town. When the train finally gets through after months of blizzards in The Long Winter, it is not a moment too soon and it brings their long awaited Christmas barrel, filled with presents from eastern relatives and one solid-frozen turkey complete with cranberries. In a timely celebration filled with relief so tangible we can feel it, the Boast family arrive to celebrate a belated Christmas dinner and they all feast upon stewed cranberries with sugar, bread made from soft winter wheat, sugar-frosted cakes, fruit pies, bread stuffing and roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and Mrs Boast’s home-made butter. The soft breeze and spring air comes through the open windows and Mrs Boasts’ smile is lovely despite her thin face, made anxious from worry and cold.  “The doors were open and both rooms could be used once more. Going in and out of the large front room whenever she wanted gave Laura a spacious and rested feeling, as if she could never be cross again.”

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Pa sat out his first blizzard, curled up in his musquash fur coat as many other creatures do deep underground, awaiting the drip and unfurling of spring but for Katy and Clover Carr, sent away to school in eastern USA, blizzards and the severe winters there mean they must sit out Christmas Day in school and, quite possibly, without their Christmas boxes which have been snowed in. We’ve already shivered with them through pages of impossibly Arctic conditions where they wake daily to “toothbrushes stiff with ice in the morning”, “thick crusts of frost on the windowpane and every drop of water in wash bowl or pitcher turned to solid ice”. The windows have been covered in thick dark cloth to preserve heat and the Nunnery, which is what local boys refer to their school as, has become as parsimonious in nature as the most closeted of religious orders. Katy has been long disabused of her previously held idea of winter survival as ‘romantic’ and has struggled to find the part of her soul which might respond in a Christian way to Christmas deprivation when, (oh joy!), a kerfuffle in the dormitory corridor leads to the delivery of their boxes, the only ones in the school to get through.

The whole thing was declared a ‘marvel of packing’ and brimmed over with gifts, flowers and all manner of American home baked goods. Shared out with the other girls, they all sat in bed, wrapped in shawls and fingerless mittens to enjoy their Christmas food. Parcels were filled with ginger snaps and Debbie’s jumbles (circular sugar cookies in in the shape of entwined rings, originally called gemmels which is German for ‘twin’), the German crullers beloved of the Mittel European immigrants to the Midwest and a “splendid frosted plum-cake”. The second box was full of delicate flowers, slightly drooping in their bed of cotton wool which Katy set about reviving. Katy was sorry to have left this box until last although she didn’t identify with these delicate blossoms, finding the cold more bracing than depressing. “There was something in her blood which responded to the sharp tingle of frost.” Her sister Clover was not so fortunate though as ‘a chilly creature’, requiring hot bricks at her feet and many layers of blankets to stay warm and even the hated Miss Jane, a teacher at the school, was visited by Katy with gifts when she was ill in bed and ignored by all the other pupils who couldn’t forgive the cruel way she had behaved towards the Carr girls. The Christmas spirit indeed….

Thomas Mann, 1926
Thomas Mann, 1926

For snowbound wintry reading, little beats Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War. When Hans Castorp, a young engineer, travels to the International Sanatorium Berghof high up in the Swiss Alps to spend time with his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, we’re not totally clear whether he develops a form of Stockholm Syndrome which sees him identify to the point of displaying symptoms of illness himself. He intended to stay a few weeks and ends up remaining there for years as he is diagnosed with TB and assumes his rightful place on the veranda, coughing up his lungs in the face of magnificent Alpine sunsets. Each night he would take to his room with a pile of books, and a glass of creamy evening milk with a shot of Cognac, living a dream-like life where absence from the everyday human trials and responsibilities is a given and they hear of them at a remove, via whispered confidences, letters from home and newspapers bought from ‘below’.

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In the sanatorium dining room there is much talk of snow, the start of the ski season and the onset of Christmas, the latter well before Advent, which startles Hans because he had not considered that this might form part of his conditions of treatment: his usual habit was to spend it with loved ones and tries to cheer himself up: “He said to himself, think of all the places and conditions in which Christmas had been celebrated before now!” Quite.

Hans had not yet developed the habit of seeing Christmas as a a kind of vaulting pole which he could use to leap over the intervening endless days of confinement in their visually arresting mountainous sanitorium. He could appreciate how the accelerated metabolic effects of TB might affect the way one viewed time itself and the landscape, freezing cold yet burning of breath and well upholstered with snow, is perfect metaphor for the febrile thinness of the consumptive. The “arch of the loggia, which framed a glorious panorama of snow powdered forest, softly filled passes and ravines, white sunlit valleys and radiant blue heavens above all”, the crystal and diamond world that lay near the black and white forest under the night skies embroidered with stars, all conspired to seduce patients into seeing Christmas as a state of grace and a short interlude from reality, full of frost and fire like their own fevered state. In What Katy Did at School, its author, Susan Coolidge, addresses us thus: “Do any of you know how incredibly long winter seems in climates where for weeks together the thermometer stands at zero?”…”There is something hopeless in such cold” and it is this I remember when reading Mann’s novel, a reminder to be tolerant and kind towards characters who sometimes become preoccupied with concepts I might consider self-indulgent.

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Back in the sanitorium, mail grew heavier as the festive season drew closer; marzipan, Christmas cakes, apples and spiced nuts, all “carefully packed remembrances from home” in the manner of those received by Katy Carr. Their dining room tree crackled in the firelight and spread its fragrance and these distressingly ill people wore their jewels, cravats and evening coats to dinner in a poignant facsimile of festive life back home in the grand cities and towns of Europe. They were “gay at the Russian table” where the first Champagne corks popped and Clavdia wore a Balkan style dress with tinkling ornaments on the bodice. Ending the choice meal with cheese straws, bon bons, coffee and liqueurs, it is significant that the food is represented by titbits, those little morsels that are more easily consumed by illness-affected appetites.

As the room dies down and the tree candles burn to stumps, there is an air of let-down as Christmas Day dawns misty and then was all over, leaving the holiday in the past. The sumptuous breakfasts served in the sanitorium,  “pots of marmalade and honey, basins of rice and oatmeal porridge, dishes of cold meat and scrambled eggs; a plenitude of butter, a Gruyere cheese dropping moisture under a glass bell. A bowl of fresh and dried fruits stood in the centre of the table” and a “thick, dark, and foaming brownly Kulmbacher beer” aren’t mentioned on the holiest day of all.

This same sense of anti climax permeated Dylan Thomas’s description of Christmas dinner and what came afterwards, a sated afternoon when relatives sleep off their engorgement and children attend to the gifts that were opened with giddy speed earlier on, then discarded in the haste to get to the next thing:

“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.”

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In a literary sense, it can be challenging to move a story on from the giddy escalation that marks the month of December. Take Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, his largely autobiographical short story first published in 1956 and eclipsed by his brasher output until it was adapted for screen and stage productions. Truman writes fondly of Sook, his cousin who befriended him in Alabama and whose mischief is central to the tale:

“it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

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Together they haul a straw buggy down to the pecan grove to forage for the nuts which go into their esteemed fruitcakes which are sent to barely known acquaintances or people they have never met at all, including President Franklin Roosevelt. They finance this operation with money that they have accumulated through the year in their Fruitcake Fund and make and gift wrap home brewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting” for relatives. They spend hours preparing the pecans they picked: “Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves.”

Then there’s more delectable descriptions of food as they settle down for the evening:

“We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home” and the next day they procur the whisky that state law prohibits from a certain Mr Haha Jones who operates out of a ‘sinful’ fish fry and dancing cafe.

The prized whisky will flavour their cakes and, as a reward for his help, Mr Jones will get an extra cupful of raisins stirred into his. The actual labour of baking thirty one cakes sounds delectable:

“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.”

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The pair share the leftover whisky with the inevitable mild inebriation, moving two other relatives to scold Buddy’s cousin for corrupting a child. The next morning sees Buddy and his cousin search deep into the woods for their Christmas decorations, gathering wreaths, chopping down a tree and laboriously dragging everything home in their old buggy. The description of the Alabama woods are breathtaking:  “A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam.

Come Christmas Day, a good old southern breakfast hits the spot: “just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.”

But it is inevitably followed by anti climax as Buddy opens his gifts:

“Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

“This is our last Christmas together,” and for a few more years, ‘fruitcake weather’ continues until the November when she does not get out of her bed to bake…

Seasonal recipes

Alison Uttleys Christmas possets from Recipes From an Old Farmhouse:

“A starved child was a very cold child and I often came home from my long walk from school starved in the winter nights. A posset of hot milk and bread cut into small squares with a dash of rum and some brown sugar brought colour into my cheeks. Milk was curdled with ale to make a christmas posset. Spices were added, cloves and cinnamon, and a grate of nutmeg and brown sugar. The posset was mulled on the hot stove, in a pewter tankard, and poured into smaller mugs of pewter when ready. The ale curdled the milk and made a froth like lambs wool, the old froth of roast apples once used in possets.

Black Cake:

I’ve written about my favourite boiled fruit cake here. It makes an excellent Christmas cake too and another recipe that I’ve made for years is Laurie Colwin’s Black Cake. Also mentioned by Nigella in How To be a Domestic Goddess, Colwin’s black cake came to her via her daughters Caribbean babysitter. Colwin  died in 1992 and whilst alive, gained a reputation as a novelist of short stories. Since her death, at the age of 48, her books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking” have rightfully gained her a new following because of her warm and confiding manner. She encourages readers to try their hand at cooking and uses the tribulations of her own life to reassure them that failure is an amusing and life enhancing part of the process. Here is Colwin on that black cake:

“There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. … Black Cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated, and intense. It has taste and aftertaste. It demands to be eaten in a slow, meditative way. The texture is complicated too—dense and light at the same time.”

The Black Cake calls for burned sugar essence which is essentially melted and browned sugar made the way you would for a caramel, but thinned down with water at the end of the process. There are many recipes for it online but Nigella substitutes molasses. This produces a lovely cake but not THE black cake so if you want to make the real thing, hunt down the technique.

Pecan tassies, inspired by Truman Capote:

Pecan tassies - http://www.thingness.org
Pecan tassies – http://www.thingness.org

These gorgeous little mouthfuls are a classic Southern holiday favourite, also popular at church socials, weddings and the like and provide, as Wendell Brock once said, “a combination of flavours that are the greatest of autumn’s comforts- butter, pecans and brown sugar”. A tassie is a Scots variation of “cup” and a pecan tassie is a small cup packed with pecan pie filling, using a nut (although technically it is a ‘drupe’) which grows abundantly across the South. In his book ‘My Mothers Southern Kitchen’, the eminent food writer James Villas includes a favourite recipe from his mother, Martha, who serves them at her guild meetings and I would be amazed if Truman and his cousin didn’t eat tassies regularly.

Villas knew Capote: in his own words, he “hobnobbed on royal banquettes with Capote, the King of Spain, Dali and a contingent of other gold plated swells.” and got “smashed after cocktails at the Plaza Hotel” with him and Don Erickson, the legendary executive editor of  Esquire. The beauty of Southerners is that no matter how rarefied the air they breathe in celebrity-soaked circles becomes, they retain a connection with the food they grew up eating and seem to countenance no snobbery towards it.

The recipe uses the US cup system but its not hard to convert.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, combine butter, cream cheese and flour and mix with hands until dough can be formed into a soft ball.

Pinch off 24 pieces of dough, and press each piece firmly onto bottom and sides of two greased 12-cup muffin tins.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, beat egg with sugar and salt and stir in pecans and vanilla. Spoon filling into lined cups and bake till the pastry is golden, about 25 minutes. Let the tassies cool and carefully unmold on a large plate.

 

Give a book for Christmas- an annual gift guide

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When it comes to buying gifts, I’ve become stuck in a very pleasant rut- my number one choice will always be a book and compiling my regular biblio-gift guides will always be one of my very favourite things to do. So here’s the latest and whether you are buying for Hanukah, Christmas, Diwali or for no reason at all, I hope you’ll find something to please you from my selection of wonders, both newly published and a few older classics.

Culinary words-

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 Essential Turkish Cuisine by Engin Akin is a timely reminder of a country, culture and cuisine possessed of riches, magnificence and generosity of spirit. “Turkish cuisine marries palace finesse with rugged nomadic traditions” explains Engin Akin as she folds and pleats delicate boreki pastries and the reader is taken on a magical and thorough exploration of the way that geography and culture has influenced what is eaten, by whom and in what way. Engin owns a cooking school in Ula and this means her recipes are well tested and possess cultural veracity. They work.

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This Autumn has seen the release of cookbooks by Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, an embarrassment of riches indeed. Simply Nigella was reviewed more extensively here but, simply put,  Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and kitchen via her usual well tested, humorous and alluring recipes which are liberally scattered with useful micro-recipes and tips to help you eat well. Slater’s latest in his kitchen diaries series, A Year of Good Eating: The Kitchen Diaries III reflects the “endless delight I get from giving people, loved ones, friends, complete strangers, something good to eat” as he stated. His recipes are understated, economical of word and deeply reflective of seasonal time and place, collated into a diary form recipe per day structure.

Creole Kitchen
Creole Kitchen

Creole Kitchen by Vanessa Bolosier is fabulous in every way from the fabulous jacket design to the recipes and words which tell of joy, brightness and life. Her cuisine is drenched in history and is birthed from the ancestry and migration of island people. Starting with an explanation of the term ‘Creole’, Vanessa tells their story and then instructs us as to how best to equip a kitchen Creole style. These are perfect little vignettes in themselves and we then move onto the recipes and a pattern emerges of bold bright flavours infused with a sophistication born from the authors skill and ability. Bolosier has a Guadeloupian, Martinique Creole background, worked as a model and moved to London where she now runs a food company, cooking school and supper club so she makes a great mentor.

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Not a cookbook but containing some recipes which are closely tied to its story, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal is a mother and daughter coming of age novel set against the food and culture of the American Midwest. We meet Eva, grower of chilli peppers in her wardrobe, effectively an orphan and now looked after by her aunt and uncle. Eva is heart and soul of a story which both skewers and celebrates the emerging global food culture and plays with opposites, placing the authentic (Eva) against those who posture, postulate and pontificate about food in a totally unauthentic manner. Eva is destined to sing through food, becoming a culinary goddess and this lovely novel tells her story and that of the people she meets along the way.

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The revival of old homesteader crafts such as pickling, fermenting and smoking has resulted in a slew of books showing us how to do this safely because ignorance of hygiene (among other factors) can result in some pretty nasty consequences. And that is where Olympia Provisions by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson comes in because although it is an American book, the meat preserving techniques it demonstrates are universal. There’s a great balance between the European origins of a lot of the charcuterie and recipes that show the American versions of such- the frankfurters, sausage, salami and confits that have made their store and restaurant so popular.

Inspired by jägermeisters, the charcuterie makers who smoke, cure, and can animals that they’ve hunted or raised on their farm which the author met during her 4 year apprenticeship in the Swiss Alps (before the opening of Olympic Provisions, known as OP), this is a hearty, muscular exploration of the craft. Illustrated with stunning shots of places, food and people the book is not just a coffee table tome for those of us *thinking* about *one day* curing our own meats, it is a call to action because it balances the glossy aspirational aspects of food writing with the practical how to side that is vital in ensuring readers actually get off their butts and DO it.

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For those of you who like cookbooks inspired by hot new restaurants, the following books should provide you with plenty of inspiration.  Nanban: Japanese Soul Food by Tim Anderson is a sensory delight with bold recipes and unexpected flavours and ingredients by a Masterchef winner. His take on Japanese cuisine resulted in a restaurant from which these recipes are based whilst the restaurant Hartwood in the Mexican Yucatan inspired the eponymous Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry. Hartwood cooks with local ingredients over an open flame, on the grill or in a wood-burning oven. The fish is all freshly caught from nearby waters, the produce is purchased from Mayan farmers, and technique marries the eclectic with timeless ancestral methodology.

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The Brodo Cookbook was written by Marco Canora who has been the owner and Executive Chef at Hearth Restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village since its opening in 2003. After revitalizing his health by integrating bone broth into his diet, Marco began to make his nourishing broths available by the cupful to New Yorkers from a small window in his East Village restaurant, drawing sell-out crowds virtually from the beginning. No longer just a building block for soups and sauces, bone broths are now being embraced for these perceived health benefits and in Brodo, Marco shares the recipes for his flavorful, nutritious broths and shows how to serve them year round as well as incorporate them into recipes and as a daily health practice. For those people interested in perfecting technique, this is the perfect book.

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The appeal of a cookbook starts with the words and images for many of us and although it is highly likely that many purchasers of Sea and Smoke by Willows Inn chef Blaine Wetzel, Joe Ray and photographer Charity Burggraaf, might not cook from it, judging a cookbook by this kind of misses the point. The descriptions of food are wistful and beautiful: A broth of roasted Madrona bark,” “Nootka rose petals and salmonberries” and serve as jewelled treasure map to the tiny Lummi Island, a few hours north of Seattle, which can only be reached by an open-air ferry. Ray spent a year here and his words capture the four distinct seasons of Pacific Northwest cuisine without losing any of its wildness, spirit and fleeting beauty.

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If you are a fan of everyday French cooking, In a French Kitchen: tales and traditions of everyday home cooking in France by the author of the now-classic memoir, “On Rue Tatine” Susan Hermann Loomis will keep you comforted entertained and informed. Loomis introduces the reader to the busy people of Louviers, the ingredients available locally and what to do with them. Eighty five recipes and a multiplicity of stories later, Loomis learns that delicious, even decadent meals don’t have to be complicated. Definitely one to read on the darkest of winter evenings, curled up by the fire with a glass of wine: I first read her back in the very late eighties when I was learning to cook for my family and she has been a reliable and warm companion ever since.

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For the sweet toothed among you, Sweeter Off the Vine: fruit desserts for every season by Yosy Arefi will provide you with a collection of heirloom-quality recipes for pies, cakes, tarts, ice cream, preserves, and other sweet treats. From raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet, ruby red rhubarb pavlova, juicy apricots and berry galettes with saffron sugar to blood orange donuts and tangerine cream pie, Arefi shows us how to incorporate seasonal ingredients with the more exotic (such as rose and orange flower water from her native Iran), all photographed sumptuously by her.

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The publication of the Groundnut Cookbook followed a successful Guardian Cook residency where authors Timothy Duval, Folayemi Brown and Jacob Fidio Todd wowed readers with their witty, fresh and culturally intriguing collection of recipes. From Jollof Rice, Butterbean Terrine and Pork in Tamarind to Cardamom Mandazi, Yorkshire Pudding with Mango Curd and Puna Yam Cake, the clear instructions, easily sourced ingredients and sumptuous photography will ensure you’ll cook from it again and again.

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Finally, if you have a small child keen to get involved in cooking, then this lovely picture book which focuses upon all those lovely festive scents will make a perfect post lunch read. The Sweet Smell of Christmas is about Little Bear who knows that Christmas is nearly here because of all the amazing scents floating in the air. From soft gingerbread men to sweet mint candy, there are so many smells to accompany the festivities; it’s hard to choose a favourite. The book contains six different scratch-and-sniff scents, so kids can interact with the story and smell some of the things that Little Bear smells too. And for older kids, teens and adults who like a bit of GBBO style creativity, The Great British Cake Off by Harriet Popham will encourage them to put sprinkles and cake tin aside and pick up a pencil in order to tackle over seventy colouring in designs. Beautiful illustrations of favourite cakes and bakes are just waiting to be brought to life alongside colouring ‘technical challenges’ to push you just that little bit harder.

Words of Adventure, art and history

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Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in Atlas of Cursed Places.  Accompany him to 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death, including the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most ‘popular’ suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.

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In Sidewalking, David L. Ulin offers a compelling inquiry into the evolving landscape of Los Angeles. Part personal narrative, part investigation of the city as both idea and environment, Sidewalking is many things: a discussion of Los Angeles as urban space, a history of the city’s built environment, a meditation on the author’s relationship to the city, and a rumination on the art of urban walking and psychogeography. Exploring Los Angeles through the soles of his feet, Ulin gets at the experience of its street life, drawing from urban theory, pop culture, and literature. For readers interested in the culture of Los Angeles, this book offers a pointed look beneath the surface in order to see, and engage with, the city on its own terms.

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Paul Theroux turns his travelling eye on America’s Deep South in his latest eponymous book and this well seasoned traveller of over five decades roams through Tennessee, both Carolinas and Alabama then wades through the slow moving bayous, low country rice fields and marshy Delta backwaters, all of them way below the Mason Dixon Line and still haunted by Mr Crow’s ugly decision. This is a place which is still chained to the past: from older people who cling to the misnomer ‘the war of Northern aggression’ to the problems with who ‘can’ use the ‘N’ word, to multiple losses of industry to ‘abroad’. The book relates the sum total of four trips over eighteen months as opposed to a single linear voyage of discovery and for that reason, the reader has a sense of thoughts revised and cumulative impressions laying on top of each other like the leaves of a book. Yet there is the other side of the South too: the literature and music which Theroux writes of; the food, and hospitality, We go to potlucks and dinners on the ground with Theroux, we see the gun fairs and football and febrile religious observances which divide as much as they enjoin. This is not an especially cheerful book but how could it be? Much of what we believe about the South is not yet a cliche but what we end up with is still a fascinating, frustrating and haunting account of one of the worlds most culturally distinctive places.

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For cycling fans, What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is an exhilarating and well written account of the life of a cycle courier in London. We experience vicariously, her six years of pain and pleasure-both mental and physical-of life on wheels: the hurtling, dangerous missions; the ebb and flow of seasonal work; the moments of fear and freedom, anger and exhaustion; the camaraderie of the courier tribe and its idiosyncratic characters; the conflict and harmony between bicycle and road, body and mind. I feel in turns, both frightened for her and envious of her unique bikes eye view of the city.

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Near the top of Mount Everest, on 10 May 1996, eight climbers died. It was the worst tragedy in the mountain’s history and Lou Kasischke was there. After the Wind tells the harrowing story of what went wrong, as it has never been told before – including why the climbers were so desperately out of time as the rogue storm struck. His personal story tells about the intense moments near the top and these moments also revealed the love story that saved his life.

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Long evenings are pefect for getting to grips with a good historical biography and Cleopatra by Ernle Bradford takes a more balanced view of the last Ptolemaic Queen whom history has traduced and maligned as an infamous woman, given to sexual excess and capable of every perfidy. Bradford depicts her as a woman of infinite courage and political resource who, from the age of eighteen until her death, fought to free her country from the iron dominance of Rome and to secure its inheritance for the son of her first lover Julius Caesar. It was right that she should be buried in Alexandria, for in her spirit and in her ambition she was worthy of Alexander himself. The subject of biography and tragedy, Queen Cleopatra remains a subject to which historians are attracted two thousand years after her glorious but doomed life.

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What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  is the perfect book for any science enthusiast with a penchant for big questions and a side of humour. What if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by signature xkcd comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with updated and expanded versions of the most popular answers from the xkcd website.

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For those of you hooked on Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire is an in-depth history of the Seven Kingdoms, sumptuously detailed to clear up any gaps in knowledge. We go from one world peopled with thrones, swords and fantastical themes to another with our next choice because many of us have grown up with tales of glass slippers, evil queens, and magic spells, but where did they come from and what inspired them? Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale explores these famous stories, their origins, and their modern film, literature, and stage adaptations. In addition, if you are studying literature or have a child in the middle of an English GCSE course, this is such a useful contextual read.

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There are days so crepuscular, wet and cold that even the most dedicated gardener will baulk at going out in them: this is the time to curl up with Dear Christo: memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter by Rosemary Alexander, a lovely commemoration of a book where well known  garden writers and celebrities such as Alan Titchmarsh, Anna Pavord, Helen Dillon, Hugh Johnson, Simon Jenkins and Mary Keen remark upon their memories of Great Dixter and the great man who gardened here. Or escape the cold by taking yourself off on an imaginative odyssey and literary exploration of Sicily in the capable hands of John Julius Norwich. “Sicily,” said Goethe, “is the key to everything.” It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, the stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, the link between the Latin West and the Greek East. Sicily’s strategic location has tempted Roman emperors, French princes, and Spanish kings. The subsequent struggles to conquer and keep it have played crucial roles in the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful dynasties. Sicily: an island at the crossroads of history is the first to knit together all of the colourful strands of Sicilian history into a single comprehensive study.

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If you are looking for another peaceful, meditative and thoughtful space inside the pages of a book then The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury will please: it has been one of the best books I have read all year and destined to be re-read. Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions and what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

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Wood has provided a worthy subject for this years surprise runaway bestseller: Norwegian Wood: chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way by Lars Mytting, so when we found Robert Penn had written a lovely book about using ash wood to create a myriad of items, we had to suggest it as a worthy companion. Ash is the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history so Penn decided to fell one and see how many things he could make from it. Journeying from Wales across Europe and Ireland to the USA, Penn finds that the ancient skills and knowledge of the properties of ash, developed over millennia making wheels and arrows, furniture and baseball bats, are far from dead. The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood and reading it is deeply calming.

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If you have a Wes Anderson film buff in your home then what better gift to give than this? The Wes Anderson Collection is the first in-depth overview of Anderson’s filmography, guiding readers through his life and career. Previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera complement a book-length conversation between Anderson and award-winning critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The interview and images are woven together in an intricately designed book that captures the spirit of his films: melancholy and playful, wise and childish and thoroughly original. And for those of you who appreciate the art of a great interview, The Smith Tapes by Howard Smith gathers together the best of this journalists revealing interviews with the likes of Jagger, Dennis Hopper and Andy Warhol. Unedited transcripts are published here for the first time in all their counter cultural glory.

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Other people’s letters are always fascinating and in this digital age, the epistolary arts risk being lost to us all. Feast upon Letters of Note then, a gorgeously designed collection of over one hundred of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the popular website of the same name – an online museum of correspondence visited by over 70 million people.

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From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression ‘OMG’ in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.

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At a time of busy domesticity, this next book might seem like an odd and possibly even insensitive choice after weeks of gift shopping, turkey stuffing and tree decorating, but Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson makes riveting reading. Giving voice to women at a time when domestic politics often rendered them unheard, the pain, lack of fulfilment and frustration behind the popular image of a world where women wore little frilled pinafores and kept themselves and their home immaculate is revealed. Betty Halbreich is a legendary New York City figure and I’ll Drink to That, her amazing life story is also in development by Lena Dunham for HBO. Halbeich is a personal shopper and stylist and now in her eighties, she has spent nearly forty years at the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman, working with socialites, stars and ordinary women. She has led many to appreciate their real selves through clothes, frank advice and her unique brand of wisdom; she is trusted by the most discriminating persons – including Hollywood’s top stylists – to tell them what looks best. But her own transformation from cosseted girl to fearless truth-teller is the greatest makeover of all, best read in this wonderful autobiography.

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If you need to ramp up your personal grooming or feel you are floundering when it comes to the make up arts, then Face Paint by top makeup artist Lisa Eldridge will become your friend. This glossy history of cosmetics from the early days of bodily adornment to the present day machinations of the giant beauty industry is explored by a pro who is also known for her excellent YouTube beauty vlogs and practical down to earth assistance.

Fiction

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From Jane Lotter comes The Bette Davis Club, a madcap road adventure with Margo, a spirited woman in the prime of life whose adventures are triggered by a double martini on the morning of her niece’s wedding.

When the young bride flees—taking with her a family heirloom and leaving behind six hundred bewildered guests—her mother offers Margo fifty grand to retrieve her spoiled brat of a daughter and the invaluable property she stole. So, together with the bride’s jilted and justifiably crabby fiancé, Margo sets out in a borrowed 1955 red MG on a cross-country chase. Along the way, none of what she discovers will be quite what she expected. But it might be exactly what she’s been seeking all along.

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I’m always pleased by fiction set in less familiar places and in The Private Life of Mrs Sharma we meet Renuka Sharma, a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law holding the fort in a modest rental in Delhi while her husband tries to rack up savings in Dubai. Working as a receptionist and committed to finding a place for her family in the New Indian Dream of air-conditioned malls and high paid jobs at multi-nationals, life is going as planned until the day she strikes up a conversation with an uncommonly self-possessed stranger at a Metro station. Because while Mrs Sharma may espouse traditional values, India is changing all around her, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she came out of her shell a little, would it? A new voice in Indian fiction, Ratika Kapur writes with an equal dose of humour and pathos and her novel is a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity.

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Secrets and family estrangement lie at the heart of Kelly Romo’s Whistling Women, set against the backdrop of the 1935 World Fair in San Diego, a city where everything went terribly awry for Addie Bates. This is all the more heartbreaking because of the tentative hopes Addie had about a new start as she arrived there from the Kansas orphanage she had previously lived in before travelling to live with her newly married sister, Wavey. Years later, Addie flees to the Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony which provided her with a safe haven for her for 15 years, until she starts to realise that the loss of her more nubile younger body will cause the colonies owner, Heinrick, to eject her. Addie must make her way in a world for which she is ill equipped to live in and following the example of some of the other colony performers, she realises that family is her best hope.

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A little bit of horror doesn’t go amiss in the Winter either and the stunning ‘lost’ horror novel of the late William Gay is deeply unsettling.  Little Sister Death is inspired by the famous 19th Century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee and follows the unraveling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to try and find inspiration for his faltering work. There’s no irony or post modern trickery in Gay’s novel: it is a classic Haunted House tale and written by a master of the genre.

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Horror and confusion of a more contemporary kind in Tim Washburn‘s Powerless where a massive geomagnetic solar storm destroys every power grid in the northern hemisphere. North America is without lights, electricity, phones, and navigation systems. In one week, the human race is flung back to the Dark Ages. This is something many of us contemplate: can we manage without the sophisticated and interrelated technological matrixes we’ve become dependent upon? Only one man–army veteran Zeke Marshall–is prepared to handle a nightmare like this. But when he tries to reunite with his family he discovers there are worse things in life than war. And there are terrible and unthinkable things he’ll have to do to survive.

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Just out in cinemas is Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and this book which was first published by the London Review of Books has been re-released. In 1974, the homeless Miss Shepherd moved her broken down van into Alan Bennett’s garden. Deeply eccentric and stubborn to her bones, Miss Shepherd was not an easy tenant. And Bennett, despite inviting her in the first place, was a reluctant landlord. And yet she lived there for fifteen years. Altogether darker in tone is David Mitchell’s Slade House which was born out of the short story he published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabits the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks. 

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Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies. A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. More mysteries abound in the newly published The Master of the Prado by Javier Sierra as he takes readers on a grand tour of the Prado museum in this historical novel that illuminates the fascinating mysteries behind European art—complete with gorgeous, full-color inserts of artwork by da Vinci, Boticelli, and other master artists. Historical figures are brought to life and dazzling secrets, conspiracies and prophecies hidden within artistic masterpieces are uncovered in this intriguing story.

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I loved Purge, the earlier novel by Sofi Oksanen and her latest, When the Doves Disappeared ( translated by Lola Rogers) doesn’t disappoint. Her plot is fast paced and explores Estonia’s terrible wartime history of mass human displacement, collaboration and occupation, shining a light upon a part of the world which is often neglected by writings about the Second World War. The translation is superb too. Another well translated novel is A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman which became a sleeper hit over the late Summer via word of mouth. The titular Ove is a cantankerous Swedish misanthrope, constantly cross and combative with neighbours, shop assistants and everything, to be honest. But beneath this gruff exterior is a decent man with a generous spirit. Read and smile as he becomes an unexpected saviour to the unfortunates who come his way.

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Finally, 2015 saw us saying goodbye and thank you to Jackie Collins who died far too soon of breast cancer. In tribute to a writer who kept me entertained and helped to educate me about what kind of men I needed to avoid, I’ll be rereading two of her novels: Hollywood Wives and Lovers and Gamblers, both classics of the sex, shopping and backstabbing genre. The former provides hours of fun trying to identify the thinly disguised real life Hollywood people who inspired her characters and the latter is a romp involving beauty queens. a male hero who is a priapic hybrid of Tom Jones and Rod Stewart and a plane crash in the South American jungle. Enjoy.

Seasonally themed books

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Christmas themed books are a yearly tradition in our house and the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is where we recommend you start. Scrooge actively hates Christmas and he’s not shy about spreading his misanthropy. A timely visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future remind him about life, love and priorities. Another favourite of mine is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and set in Alabama during the great depression. We meet seven-year-old Buddy whose parents leave him with relatives over Christmas whose gift-buying imagination doesn’t stretch to much more than a religious magazine subscription. His friendship with an elderly cousin saves the day as they both get drunk on whiskey, bake cakes and decorate trees after a muddy cold expedition to find one.

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For young children, Chris Judge’s The Snow Beast is jolly Christmas whodunnit because Beast has been robbed and so has the whole village. Without tools the villagers can’t put on their legendary Winter Festival, so Beast sets off to solve the mystery. Discovering that a stranded Snow Beast is behind the robbery, Beast has to decide whether to help this odd-looking stranger.

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For both children and adults, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss tells of the journey towards love, acceptance and forgiveness which the Grinch, whose heart is two sizes too small, undergoes, after stealing everyone’s gifts because he hates Christmas. Closer to home, A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is based on his own experiences, growing up in a small Welsh town and ideal for reading aloud. Christmas in the country provided Laurie Lee with plenty to write about in Village Christmas, a moving, lyrical portrait of England through the changing years and seasons. Laurie Lee left his childhood home in the Cotswolds when he was nineteen, but it remained with him throughout his life until, many years later, he returned for good. This collection brings to life the sights, sounds, landscapes and traditions of his home – from centuries-old May Day rituals to his own patch of garden, from carol singing in crunching snow to pub conversations and songs.

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For those in need of humour after spending hours servicing the needs of others, the writings of humourist David Sedaris might do the trick of putting you back together again (along with a large gin). Holidays on Ice boasts six humorous short Christmas stories impregnated with the sardonic and darkly dry humour Sedaris is known for. If reading about such things as the banality of life working as a Christmas elf in Macys amuses you, because life could always be worse, this is the book for you. Known for her sardonic nature in real life, Fox in the Manger by  P.L Travers has been reissued in a whimsical new edition by Virago. This charming retelling of the Christmas story by the author of Mary Poppins. Printed on board, with beautiful illustrations, this will be the perfect gift book for Christmas.

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Finally, how can it be Christmas if someone hasn’t been murdered? Bring Poirot to the rescue with  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie or enjoy the recently reissued Mystery in White: a Christmas crime story by J Jefferson Farjeon who was highly acclaimed back in the day. Read on as heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near a tiny village, leaving passengers at the mercy of a murderer in the deserted home they shelter in. Good classic stuff.

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Fiction of the south west and western United States

Reading my way around the USA has always been a goal of mine but I do find myself drawn to particular regions more than others- the Deep South, the Southwest, West Coast and Hawaii being my current obsessions. To this end, here are some recommendations for books with a strong sense of place- a quality that is vital for me as a reader and something all these authors excel at. From the soon to be published to old favourites, I hope you will find something to transport you, wherever you may live.

‘The Never Open Desert Diner’ by James Anderson (Caravel books- to be published Feb 2015)

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James Anderson divides his time between the Four Corners region of the American South West and the Pacific North West and is well placed to showcase Utah as a setting in his first novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, with its shades of Lit-Noir. Reminiscent of TC Boyle’s ‘The Tortilla Curtain’ (reviewed below) in its strong, sparse characters, Anderson uses place as character itself, from the sunbleached and parched desert that bursts into life after the rains, flash flooded arroyos that first appear safe and then kill with mud, stone and water and a spectrum of light not seen anywhere else. Anderson rewards the patience of his readers with a slowly unfurling insight into his characters and their lives and the ways in which they coexist with the might of their surroundings. This novel is haunting, well woven and accomplished.

The initial unfamiliarity of the desert is reflected in the taciturn nature of Ben, a trucker come delivery driver; a lone wolf operator in a nation of large transportation companies. His route is Highway 117 where he delivers goods to those who live along it, and for various reasons choose to live as off grid as possible. From farm machinery to butter brickle ice cream (never has ice cream sounded so tempting as Anderson makes it!), Ben barely makes a living but more lucrative work elsewhere incites guilt in a man all too aware of the service he provides and of his own need to live as semi detached a life as is possible. This part of Utah is sparsely populated, with miles of desert stretching out along both sides of the tracks, towns and settlements rising up out of the dust and then falling away again as do the telegraph poles that carry power to only the most accessible areas.

As he drives along, he notices an archway leading down into an abandoned housing development, goes to explore it and ends up spying on Claire who is playing her cello, alone in her home. His rule to give a wide berth to married women fleeing their husbands is put to the test. As the story unfolds we meet a cast of characters who all have their secrets- secrets they only give up when the choice to keep them is no longer there. Ben must wrestle with impending bankruptcy, a desert environment hostile to those who fail to respect its dangers and a forty year old crime with repercussions for all.

Encounters with the seventeen year old pregnant daughter of a past lover, a Christian traveller dragging his literal cross along the highway and the elderly, forbidding owner of the Never Open Diner show the softer side of Ben. Like the desert, you will break through his reserves if you persevere. By making Ben a trucker, Anderson dips into a powerful cultural image, that of the man without ties, maybe psychically wounded (there must be a reason for all that roaming), independent yet still following a well worn route and, in him, we find the modern day equivalent of the cowboy.This trucker sees a lot from his lofty position- he is an observer of the country he travels through and his transient nature means he can take on and shed responsibilities as he/she wishes. The essential tension then develops between his job and his human need to be known, be loved and to receive these back too.

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T C Boyle 

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Tackling middle-class values, illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty, the American Dream and entitlement, TC Boyle’s prose is as spiky, muscular and mysterious as the cacti that populate his corner of the world. The title refers to both the physical wall, or border, between Mexico and the United States and the cultural wall or division between the people of these two nations and between the classes in the United States, no matter their colour or race. Backdrop to this is the unforgiving west in all its sparse beauty. Boyle’s descriptions of the desert are poetic and realistic- once again we see the unforgiving nature that goes hand in hand with the sparse beauty of this landscape.

Two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a white upper-middle class liberal couple who live in a gated community on the outskirts of Los Angeles; and Cándido and America Rincón, two Mexican illegal immigrants in desperate search of work, food and shelter are brought into intimate contact after a car accident and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy filled with error and misunderstanding. The contrasts between the poor and rich are stark: Delaney’s wife, Kyra, is so afraid that her dogs will be eaten by wild coyotes that she orders an 8-foot high fence to protect them, while America, destitute and living in the shelter of a canyon, has no money to seek the medical aid she needs during her pregnancy. As the story unfolds we are left to wonder what ‘wild animals’ the fencing and life of privilege is designed to keep out. The flight of the monied white classes from Los Angeles has led to an urban sprawl into the wilds of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains especially and the creation of a hybrid eco state where “wild” and “urban” butt heads- they do not meld. As we see in the behaviour of coyotes (and in our own British urban foxes) wildlife becomes more urban while humans become more feral.

The hollowness of the American Dream is painfully filleted- as Lou Reed once said “Give me your poor, your tired, your hungry. I’ll piss on ’em” and desperation is criminalized whilst the term ‘illegal alien’ is depicted in all its literalness and metaphor. The book may be over twenty years old but the recent release of statistics showing the huge increase in children attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the USA means this story, sadly, is still relevant.

  The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

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Human struggle, a resourceful and moral instant mother and against a backdrop of Native American culture, Taylor Greer, grew up in poor in rural Kentucky trying to avoid pregnancy and heads west with high hopes and a barely working car. By the time she arrives in Tucson, she has encountered and taken responsibility for a child, coming to terms with both motherhood and the need to put down roots both personally and culturally.

Taylor lives in a community of women who tend to live their lives independently of men yet nonetheless we see the shared burden of femaleness in Taylors first comments about Turtle. When she sees the little girl she says that the burden of being born a woman had already affected her.Turtle is both real child and symbol of women in general, all of whom face difficulties because of their gender.

Two of the greatest influences in The Bean Trees are the the Sanctuary movement, designed to help Central Americans flee oppressive governmental regimes and relocate — usually unlawfully and secretly— in the United States and the Cherokee Trail of Tears – the route the Cherokee Nation was forced to make when it was moved to the Oklahoma territory from the southeastern United States. Serving as backdrop to the book, the journey of baby Turtle and Tailor from Oklahoma to Arizona, many of the novel’s characters are members of the Sanctuary movement. Respect for the land is depicted as inherent within the Native American population and their vulnerability is equated with that of the environment- both will be hunted and destroyed if they fail to find quarter or sanctuary.

 The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

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Tobar is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the LA Times and has written extensively about the Latino experience in Los Angeles and the United States generally. Tobar knows Los Angeles, its nail bars, the hipsters in Silver Lake and high end sushi bars in generic roadside malls, the tract houses and sprawling estates on bluffs overlooking the Pacific.  In this second novel, he returns to the issues dividing Southern California- race, class, immigration and economics.

If you are a parent, you will have one of two reactions to this story: (1) I can see how this might happen or (2) these are terrible parents who don’t deserve children. Whichever it might be, this tale has at its heart a ruptured, strained marriage and the drudgery of paid domestic servitude by immigrant workers- Pepe who maintains the lushly designed garden whose installation catalyses the argument between the couple and Araceli who is then housekeeper of the lushly equipped house with its expensive toys and ornate decor. This garden with its banana palms and ferns and mini stream is an incongruous botanical anomaly in arid Southern California, dependent upon Pepe’s ministrations. Artifice in a city of artifice in a house on a street with an overwrought and inauthentic Spanish name- Paseo Linda Bonita means beautiful pretty street. Not so good they named it twice, either.

The Torres-Thompson family lives in a fabulous hilltop home with ocean views on Paseo Linda Bonita in Orange County. Middle class and seemingly affluent, Maureen and Scott are hit by the recession meaning they have to dispense with all their staff apart from Araceli who finds herself in charge when after an argument, Maureen and Scott leave the home. They both assume the other remains at home in charge of the children. After four days without hearing from either parent, Araceli takes the children in search of their grandfather in a distant LA suburb. When the parents return to an empty house they panic – police helicopters are dispatched and borders closed and we meet a wide and varied cast of characters as the mistake becomes public.

Misunderstandings both situational and linguistic lie at the heart of this black and bleak tragi comedy from the title which reflects both the nurture of plants and children (both chores often performed by paid immigrant staff) to the odd, bilingual concoction” of the Torres-Thompson surname. We have a Mexican grandfather who refuses to speak Spanish and an indocumentada who does not speak Spanish very well. We also have Spanish left untranslated so the reader is left to experience the frustration and helplessness experienced by people living far from their native lands trying to make the best of a difficult situation. 

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I’m a bit of an Ameri-lit junkie, especially of writings set in the Deep South. If it has fireflies, mad as a fish Southern relatives and moccasin snakes, I’ll read it. If it has Spanish Moss, palmetto, piney woods and a drawl as thick as sorghum, I’ll probably read it more than once. I have been known to seek out online recordings of screeching insects (Cicadas no less) to accompany my readings for that authentic touch and my allotment shed even has a porch built onto it. All we need now is humidity levels saturated enough to send a dog mad and a red clay road dried to cracks so deep you could lose your aunt down them and I’ll die happy. I am aware that I am hopelessly outdated and a dinosaur, clinging onto a vision of the south that is trying really hard to disappear in a cloud of dust down an old track; I am also aware that it is not ‘my’ south to make demands upon. I am, at best, a fascinated onlooker.

The New South is a term that asks us to refashion these older constructions and explore the duality of the Old South. As people acknowledge and face the horrors of Jim Crow’s laws of segregation and the slavery and crop sharing that predated it, it is to be hoped that literature will both reflect this and also move forward in a more progressive and inclusive manner.

Fred Hobson in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World has said that the problem for the new neo-gothic writers of the contemporary South is that southern social reality no longer so dramatically supports a writerly fiction. Read this excerpt from ‘Deep South: memory and observation‘  by Erskine Caldwell and see what I mean about an evocative portrayal of a South that may no longer exist except in our own imaginations:

“Along the trails and footpaths in the ravines, out of sight of paved roads and highways, shacks and cabins tilt and sag and rot on the verge of collapse in the shadow of the green summer thatch of white oaks and black walnuts. The faces of the old people are saying that all is lost and tomorrow will be like yesterday and today- unless it is worse”

The poetry in Caldwells writing is subdued but lucid, it doesn’t get between the reader and the story but instead offers a series of vignettes, scenes, that infuse our minds eye with vivid imagery whether we have been to this place or not- but it does feel ‘old’. It induces within me a nostalgia for the childhood I never had in a place I never grew up in and exists within me as a habit, an evocative Southern tic.

The inimitable Bailey White is author of what is perhaps my most favourite line ever. Her collection of short stories and family vignettes,Mama Makes up her Mind’ – is sublimely hilarious and creepy, saturated with left field weirdness which stays in your head, coming out to torment in the dark of night. Writing about her hardscrabble collection of gothic bizarre family members and the family home, slowly collapsing onto its own foundations, subsiding into a crawlspace literally and metaphorically invokes a terrible fear of creepy crawlies and what she describes as “The high knobbly kneed scrambling gait, a scuttling sound and then the worst thing of all…The watching silence of spiders”

More Carson McCullers than Steel Magnolias, White’s cast of characters inhabit a world of man eating clam shells, bellowing alligators that perform on command, sinkholes that bear resemblance to the Gardens of Eden and an Uncle called Jimbuddy who is slowly and accidentally chopping off bits of his body. The formidable Mama, customer of a North Florida jukejoint so intimidating it frightened Hemingway is the fulcrum of all the zaniness. The tales spill over into volume II ‘Sleeping at the Starlite Motel’ and ‘Nothing With Strings: NPR’s Beloved Holiday Stories‘ whilst her first novel ‘Quite A Year for Plums’ continues in a similar dialectic – about a peanut pathologist called Roger and the various small town women in hot pursuit of him.

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The phrase ‘Woman of Letters’ (whilst originally referring to a more scholarly approach) could be applied to my next love, Julia Reed whose light hearted and throaty accounts of life down South belie her fierce intelligence and journalistic pedigree. Contributing editor at Newsweek, Vogue and The New York Times Magazine among others, Reed has a long and noble history as once political correspondent, flying around the South covering the three times Governor of New Orleans, Edwin Edwards’ final comeback, and managing to make it sound as if she gaily thrived on a diet of Galatoires oysters, chicory coffee and the fumes of chicanery when in fact it was a gruelling tour around the political stumps. Any woman who can survive three weeks with a politician who states “To fall out of favour with the voters of Louisiana, I’d have to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy” and not knock his smug block off, deserves the utmost respect.

Reed has an encyclopedic knowledge of the South and New Orleans in particular- the food, culture, music and politics and having spent many years travelling the world for work, is possessed of anecdotes extraordinary in their breadth and hilarity. This is the woman whose account of Hurricane Katrina and her response to the devastation and political mess was in turn moving, confusingly flippant and self centred. Anna Wintour (her editor at Vogue) even told her to cut some paragraphs out because they made her sound like Marie Antoinette (oh the irony of that). Yet the love she has for New Orleans shines out and she managed to evade the National Guard to re-enter the closed off city after the hurricane to rescue friends pets, empty out their stinking fridges and feed the hungry young men and women sent to enforce curfew and rescue citizens because she couldn’t bear to think of  them subsisting on MRE’s in a city known for its fine food. After peeling enough tomatoes to feed the thousands of  folks evacuated to her parents home in Greenford, Mississippi and transporting pounds of home fried chicken to troops, we see the blitz spirit is not solely the preserve of the British.

Her book ‘The House on First Street’ is an  autobiographical  love letter to a city and then to a house – the Greek revival home she made in the Garden District after decades of unsettled roaming from place to place. Alognside her love of art, architecture and interior design, Reed is healthily obsessed with food, a source of amazement to me considering the fact that she is a long time American Vogue editor- a place not known for eating heartily. Littered with accounts of restaurants and functioning as part travel and gustatory guide, the descriptions of her appetite evolution, times with the famous, the notorious and the notable provide enough anecdotes to keep a chat show host employed for a century. I have read and re-read all of Reed’s books – ‘Queen of The Turtle Derby’, ‘But Mama Always Puts Vodka in the Sangriaand ‘Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns & Other Southern Specialities‘ and I couldn’t choose one over the other -you’d best read them all.

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Patrick Dunne, the owner of Lucillus, a culinary antiques shop is a close friend of Reed and in his book ‘The Epicurean Collector’ he distills a soupcon of the sumptuous and epic set like charm of his store into this wonderful and informative coffee table book. Originally a series of articles written for Southern Accents Magazine, he expands upon these combining primary historical sources with personal anecdotes and exquisite photographs to tell the story of the objet d’art he has discovered, sold and owned – salt safes and pigs, cooking irons and a pair of porcelain chocolate pots, the latter inspiring an historical tit bit- Madame De Pompadour employed staff to ‘warm her frigid blood before conjugal visits from Louis XV’. ‘Like all of History’ writes Dunne, ‘the story of how we eat is yet another part of our long tale about being human’

The central power of the biographical form is not set in stone. There is the grand impersonal narrative of history and then there is the life lived and few have lived as fully as fine southern gentleman and food writer James Villas. Born a Tarheel and fiercely proud of it with a mamma who makes the best biscuits and ‘pimmena cheese’ (Pimento Cheese) in the land, Villas has sailed the Queen Mary in the company of Dali, eaten at La Cote D’Or as a young penniless student (without realising where he was), sang with Elaine Strich, tried to keep Tennessee Williams from drinking restaurants dry and was nursed through a bad oyster by MK Fisher. In between all this grandness, detailed in his many books (‘Between Bites’, ‘Villas at Table’, ‘American Tastes‘ and ‘Stalking the Green Fairy’) Villas is also capable of rhapsodising about the treasures to be found in wholesale shopping clubs, Dukes mayonnaise, the low rent food loves of chefs and the best way to make a Brunswick stew. He is, by far, my favourite American food writer.

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“Don’t try to out-Cracker me,” writes novelist and expert in Crackerdom Janice Owens. Those words headline a blog post on her website just below a recipe for Thanksgiving Potato Basil Chicken Soup and refer to her proud cultural identity as Queen of Florida crackerdom whose ancestors have been cooking cornbread in the state since 1767. The Florida Cracker has a complicated etymology with some claiming it as a racially and culturally charged slur (on a par with the British ‘Chav’ and ‘Pikey), however to a Floridian it has been redefined to encompass pride and cultural value. The historian Dana Ste. Claire describes a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.” The Florida cracker heritage is valued and increasingly celebrated by writers such as Owens in her cookbook ‘The Cracker Kitchen’ and her novel ‘American Ghosts’. The latter addresses intergenerational Southern allegiances and the regions dark history in this tale of a relationship between local girl Jodie and her Jewish lover and its dangerous reach into the future of the people involved.

We don’t tend to think of the Jewish experience when we imagine life in the South and that is why I love Roy Hoffman’s ‘Chicken Dreaming Corn’. The title is derived from a term used by the authors Romanian Jewish grandmother to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary  and the book recounts the American dream of its protagonist Morris Kleinman as he runs his clothing shop in the southern port city of Mobile, Alabama. Praised by Harper Lee for its “lean and clean prose”, Hoffman was inspired by works like ‘Ragtime’ to blend both real and fictional names whilst retaining a storytelling ethos- 50% imagination and a blend of research and family stories.

It took a Hawaiian-Japanese friend to introduce me to the joys of Michael Lee West. Her early book ‘Consuming Passions’ was at there at the start of my love for southern writing when it arrived one day on my doormat via the USAF at Lakenheath. Anyone with a mamma whose leaving home gift to her daughter is a jar of Vaseline to rub on the fire escape to foil burglars (especially when her first home did not have a fire escape) and an Uncle called Bun who went to Brazil and married a South American nymphomaniac is destined to be a writer. It would be a crime against the literature loving masses to NOT commit these vignettes to paper. Each chapter is rounded off with an authentic family essay, predominately food driven (How to season a cast iron pan, ‘How to make perfect iced tea) although you do not have to be food obsessed to find them absolutely charming and riven with fun. Lee West has written quite a few fiction novels to but it is this food memoir that I love the most.

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Now I know that West Virginia is not the ‘Deep South’- I was traumatised enough when I discovered that Walton’s Mountain in ‘Virginia’ was, in fact, part of the back lot of Warner Bros in Southern California so I am not going to tolerate any more southern geographical tall tales. Falling below the Mason Dixon Line is a southern qualifier and although he lives and teaches just outside of Chicago these days, Glenn Taylor is a West Virginia storyteller at heart. The author of the 2008 NBCC Award Finalist novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and the recently published The Marrowbone Marble Company is one of the finest storytellers I am reading today in the true tradition of the term. Taylor clearly follows in the footsteps of his father who, dedicated to the preservation of the heritage and stories of the West Virginia hills, has spent years taping the oral histories of the older members of the community. In a Guardian feature, Taylor has this to say about the way Southern literature is categorised, after a conversation he had with a store manager at a recent signing:

“When I finished signing the stack of books, the store manager took them off to be shelved. I browsed. She called to me from two aisles over: ‘Do you want to be shelved in fiction or Southern fiction?’ I laughed. I thought of all the things I always think of when folks wonder about southern West Virginia’s regional designation. The civil war. Lincoln’s presidential decree. The creation of my home state in the year 1864. Violence. Blood. Cuisine, culture, storytelling. A slow ease to things. I answered her: ‘I’ll let you decide. I’m just happy to be here. West Virginia is not the South. Yet, as soon as I write that, I have to question what South we’re speaking of. Are we talking about maps or music? Are we talking about parts of speech, burial custom, family gatherings, cornbread, religion? Coal or cotton? Hill or field? In the end, I get tired of thinking about it. I get tired of labels on literature, of categorising fiction by region or race, of trying to figure what Southern voices New York likes and doesn’t like. Yet, at times, I freely embrace such cataloguing.”

The story of the south, its food and heritage cannot be told without acknowledging that it is also the story of the people forcibly immigrated there to work as slaves and their story needs to be told via their own mouths, not refocused through the lens of white writers although they, of course, also have their own experiences to tell. The south is not just the land of Mayberry despite my own cliched fantasies and I am aware that in part, some of my literary loves pander to the literature of bigotry by memorializing an old south which has little fond memories for a lot of those forced to live and raise their families there. There has been controversy surrounding the publication of books like ‘The Help’ which went on to become filmic best sellers and their representation of southern black vernacular. As columnist Clarence Page who is African American, said

“There is an old saying, ‘You can joke about your own crowd, but not about someone else’s. Whether you are writing for yourself or a poetic work of fiction, you take a risk; like if I tried to write a book with a Yiddish dialect.”

The books author Kathryn Stockett has gone on record as saying that ‘The Help’ addressed, in part, the lack of the female perspective in southern Civil Rights literature but in fact the book still fails to address the paucity of first person oral testimony from black women, whether fictionalized or not. We have the voice of Abileen, a black maid, heard through the narrative lens of the white author but what we also have is the noble white protagonist, there to navigate us through the troubled waters of the Civil Rights Movement. For me, that is the biggest flaw because it infantilises African Americans and re appropriates their Civil Rights struggle as one led by white people, or at the very least, guided and legitimised by them. When we have post war southern writers addressing the troubled relationship between whites and blacks and also drawing attention to the dehumanizing effects of the Jim Crow laws, is it (an albeit well meaning) extension of that dehumanisation to speak in dialect as a black character, apparently drawn from a real living person when you are a white writer?

There is a heritage of hatred and prejudice and fear but also one filled with enormous richness and beauty to draw from- southerners have been placed, as Camus said, “Halfway between the sun and misery’. Writers and commentators walk different pathways with respect to this- they can cope with dehumanization by straddling the two conflicting worlds with their ugly message of ‘separate but equal’ or they can instead, rehumanize their experiences by creating dazzling works of literature that focus solely upon their own lives, framed solely by it and independent of much of that from which they are excluded.  Zora Neale Hurston in ‘Dust Tracks’ chose not to focus solely on the inheritance of oppression (although it cannot be totally ignored) but instead draws upon a rich and complete black folk culture as the story of her move from the rural poverty of her youth to the intellectual jazz crowd of the Harlem Renaissance unfolds.

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This in itself caused some disquiet and criticism because how can any child grow up alongside Jim Crowe and appear so beautifically unaware of it, especially when many other writers were using the zoom lens on racial oppression? Young Zora contends that she did not realise she was black until she was nine years old and having experienced the death of her mother, was sent to Jacksonville to live. Life away from the prism of her previously familiar surroundings precipitates a more outward looking existence. Hurston’s use of traditional black legend and black vernacular in the speech of her characters is uncompromising- ‘This is THE world because it is MY world’ and, in a reverse of the usual power structures, we, as readers, have to adapt. You didn’t know that death is referred to as the”Square-toed one that comes from the West?” Well, work it out by getting to know the folks that people the book.

The story of people is also the story of the land and its food and is there a place generating more orgiastic hyperbole when it comes to this? It is indisputable though, that the culinary history of the south is as richly nuanced and disputed as a bowl of gumbo and in the introduction to her book ‘The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking’ Jessica Harris cites the ancestry of this as a perfect example of the southern culinary diaspora. Despite the exhaustive nature of Harris’s research, Sara Roahen is inspired to explore both it and the broader topic of the New Orleans culinary legacy taking us on a romp through the definitive NoLa cocktail- the Sazerac through Sno-Cones to Turducken, a roasted bird within a bird within a bird. Her book ‘Gumbo Tales: Finding my place at the New Orleans Table’ is a great read and introduction to this subject and a city that is one of the most mesmerising places on earth.

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The story of the south is one of environmental damage and deprivation and after Hurricane Katrina laid bare the peril to South Louisiana in particular, author Ian McNulty embarked upon a series of trips to discover more about the regions diverse landscapes and culture in ‘Louisiana Rambles’. There is Zydeco and crawfish, Boudin eating and dark smokehouses, riverine pub crawls, Angola prison rodeos and the Turnoi, a local marriage between medieval jousting, jockeying and horsemanship. There is also the story of the disappearing Cajun way of life with its fishermen and furriers and trappers, all of them inextricably linked to the welfare of the watery bayou and the Delta which are, in turn being gobbled up by the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that the southern end of Louisiana is being converted to open water at a rate estimated to be equal to one American football field every thirty eight minutes? No landmass is vanishing faster. The fragile brackish and fresh water habitats of Louisiana- home to the seafood and fish that form the majority of domestic seafood consumption are dying because the sediment carried along by the Mississippi, usually deposited along the land abutting its course is, instead, being carried far out into the Gulf and deposited there. Louisiana and the Delta are paying the price for Mississippi flood control further up its course. Only when that early bird special of all you can eat at the Red Lobster for $10 is under threat will the rest of America wake up to the environmental catastrophe unfolding ‘down below’. McNulty’s book is structured around chapters, each telling the story of a person, place of event in Louisiana. The advantages of this is that you can put the book down without losing the ‘story’ and take deep breaths to overcome the anger and frustration that will be engendered by descriptions of wanton destruction and lack of care over a place that is diverse and beautiful yet functional- a powerhouse of industry and work and activity.

You might prefer this format in fiction too which is where my next choice, ‘New Stories from the South’ comes in. Edited by Shannon Ravenel it was compiled in part in response to the ‘why is Southern literature populated with crazy old coots?’ argument yet, as the editor explains in the preface, ends up addressing ‘the temperature under the skins and inside the hearts of their characters’ for they relate universal motivations and emotions. Sixteen short stories encompassing traditional tales and more up to date stories from established writers like Lee Smith and newer voices deal with drug dealing (‘Black Cat Bone’) a politicians funeral (‘Cousin Aubrey’) and emigration from Vietnam (‘Relic’) offering a great dip in and dip out volume.

If you are looking for some true southern gothic, then Rick Bass’s short story ‘The History of Rodney‘ in the 1995 collection called ‘In the Loyal Mountains’ has a Mississippi ghost town, a young couple and a newly purchased house, romantic imagery, symbolism and beautiful prose. Or try Tim Gatreaux’s ‘Waiting for the Evening News’, an exploration of the strains of modern life through a farmer raising a baby grandchild, a man in love with his own radio voice and a train driver coping after causing a disaster, among many other voices. Set in his beloved Louisiana, they will not disappoint. Finally, Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Starting Over’ appears to take its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes or recuperate from the vicissitudes of life and reboot. Spencer is one of America’s best short story writers- her writing skewers the social niceties that underpinned racism and segregation, fed ‘The Old South’ and allowed for the maintenance of a politesse that belied the ugly, impolite truth.

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Summer Reads 2014 – we review

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Summer’s here and it’s time for some much needed escapism so we’ve compiled a diverse mix of fantastic reads to keep you busy through the summertide.

Immerse yourself in a psychological thriller, retrace memories from past worlds, be romanced by our literary classics or gasp at surprising plot twists.

Share your thoughts on these reads on the discussion boards or reviews and if you think we’ve missed a must-read off the list do let us know on this thread.

 

the_luminariesThe Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize, Catton’s 800 page masterpiece is definitely one for (hopefully) uninterrupted immersion.

Set in the wild coast of New Zealand, during the 19th century goldrush, it is a medley of mystery, thriller, historical epic and pure inventiveness. The twelve characters move in and out of each other’s stories, and also tie up with the intricate zodiac structure that oversees the entire novel. It is about greed, money, temptation, fate and human nature.

Give it a shot, while you have the time.

 

 

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The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes 

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You was a phenomena with over 3 million copies sold worldwide. (Remember the summer of 2012 when every beach across Europe was awash with people reading this or 50 Shades?) Jojo fans are in for a treat this summer with her latest novel The One Plus One out in paperback just in time for the hols.

 Jojo will be joining us for a webchat at the end of September.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlene 

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You wouldn’t think this was a debut novel, it is so accomplished and confident.

Ruth is an elderly lady living alone in a remote part of New South Wales. When a governement-funded carer, Frida, comes to look after her and slowly begins to infiltrate her life, a suspense story begins where what is real and what is imagined becomes blurred and unreliable.

A witty, menacing psychological thriller that is also a brilliant evocation of old age, forgetfulness and regret.

The Telling Room: Passion, Revenge and Life in a Spanish Village – Michael Paterniti

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During a visit to the picturesque Spanish village of Guzman, Michael Paterniti heard an odd and compelling tale about a cheese made from an ancient family recipe that was reputed to be among the finest in the world. Hooked on the story, he relocated his family to the tiny hilltop village to find out more. Before long the village began to spill its long-held secrets and Paterniti was sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery.

The Telling Room is as surprising, evocative and wildly entertaining as the world it portrays.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel will come as a surprise to those who have defined her by the blockbuster Eat Pray Love.

Set in the 1800s, The Signature of All Things weaves an epic story of adventure, love and botany. The incredible authenticity of detail and Gilbert’s master story-telling make the journey across the continents, through the centuries, and throughout the 500-odd pages, joyful and swift – making this a perfect summer read and our bookclub choice for September.

The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh

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An electrifying and titillating read where we find seduction, desire and troubled passion in the heat of the sultry summer sun.

Each summer Jenn and her husband return religiously to Mallorca’s West Coast but this year the arrival of Jenn’s stepdaughter and her boyfriend Nathan brings with it a series of unexpected events. Nathan’s beauty and youth cannot escape Jenn who finds herself recklessly gambling away stability to feed this new sprung obsession.

Walsh’s novel is undoubtedly this summer’s steamy read; suspense-filled and just dripping with passion

A Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

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‘I loved the writing and the characterisation, oh, and the plot – yeah, all really pithy. Really great’: sound familiar? How many books have you claimed to have read but never actually finished, or even started? Miller decides to rectify his twenty odd years of lies and to silence his nagging guilt to become the literate man he’s always claimed himself to be.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: ‘classic, cult and everything in-between.’

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut 

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A fictionalised and fascinating account of E M Forster’s life around the time he was working on A Passage to India.

Using extensive research, Galgut has brought in the characters around Forster (a mad maharajah, the spoilt Bloomsbury set, an adored Egyptian lover) and created a moving novel that explores the interior life of a complex, conflicted yet brilliant man.

E M Forster – A Room with a View

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Love! Truth! Beauty! A chance encounter, an impulsive kiss and Lucy Honeychurch’s world is forever changed. Torn between settling for a life of acceptable convention or the calling of her true love, Lucy epitomizes the struggle for individuality.

Definitely EM Forster’s most romantic novel, with the easy flowing passion of the Italian culture set against the constrictions and repressed sexuality of English Edwardian society.

A classic ideally suited to summer, sunshine and freedom.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys – Viv Albertine 

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“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both” so begins Viv Albertine’s remarkably candid memoir.

In it she tells the story of what it was like to be a girl at the height of punk and of what happened post-punk, taking in a career in film, IVF, illness, divorce – and making music again, twenty-five years later.

From music and fashion to family and feminism, this is a truly remarkable memoir and the story of a life lived unscripted, told from the heart.

The Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan

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Amy Tan has been writing high quality blockbusters for decades, ever since The Joy Luck Club became a huge besteller in 1989. Her latest is an intelligent saga about coutesans in China at the turn of the 20th century.

Violet, half American and half Chinese daughter of the owner of the courtsean house, is forced into this world, where (amongst the betrayal and sadness) she also discovers female friendship, loyalty and love.

A classic Tan page-turner for those who loved Memoirs of a Geisha.

Her – Harriet Lane

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Perfectly reviewed onsite by EduardoBarcelona: “If you enjoyed Alys, Always I can heartily recommend HER.

“Written by an early Mumsnetter, this is the kind of book that you HAVE to read in a day. It speaks to all of us who have ever wrangled children – in fact I was late to work after spending an hour in the bath trying to get to the end. (Bad hair day ensued).

“I did chuckle afterwards that you can imagine the whole book as a long AIBU, from two people’s viewpoints… just BRILLIANT.”

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family – Maxim Leo

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Maxim Leo was born into an East Berlin family whose story, like the GDR’s past, is one of hopes, lies, cruelties and betrayals – but also love.

Compassionate and unflinchingly honest, Red Love is a moving, absorbing and smart memoir of life in a country that no longer exists.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

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Our July Book of the Month is, as Alice Sebold brilliantly called it, ‘a dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative’.

Narrated by the jaunty, sharp and very amusing Rosemary, the novel centres around the disappearance of Rosemary’s siblings, and the impact on her and her scientist parents. It looks like a straightforwardly comic novel but underneath lies an enormous moral dilemma. Fowler sets radical experimentation against personal experience, science against compassion.

Winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award 2014, this book manages to be unusual and funny and sad and disturbing all at once.

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld 

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Like The Night Guest, this critically acclaimed novel centres on a woman living in a remote area, threatened by fears that are perhaps real or imagined.

Jake is a woman with a secret, having moved from Australia to a tiny island off the British coast. Her past and present dovetail in a beautifully crafted suspense story that is unsettling and mesmerising.

Often compared to early Ian McEwan and Iain Banks, Wyld is an absolutely exquisite writer and a highly talented young voice.

The Vogue Factor – Kirstie Clements

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In May 2012 Kirstie Clements was unceremoniously sacked after thirteen years in the editor’s chair at Vogue Australia. Here she tells the eye-opening story of life in fashion’s fast lane.

From the glamour of photo shoots in exotic locations, fashion shows and of course outrageous fashion, to the ugly side: the infighting, back-stabbing, desperation of models to stay thin. All this sprinkled with an array of glitzy slebs make this a fascinating summer read.

Mom and Me and Mom – Maya Angelou

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Having died in May this year, Maya Angelou has left behind an inspirational legacy of strength and perseverance which speaks out to many of us. We’ve selected Mom & Me & Mom as it unearths a deeper layer of Angelou’s compelling life story, revealing a more intimate and heartfelt insight into her relationship with mother Vivian Baxter Johnson.

The novel reveals why Maya was raised by her paternal grandmother and discloses the emotional turmoil Maya suffered as she began to perceive of her mother as a presence of absence.

Touchingly emotional, this story considers the bond between mother and daughter as it is at once torn apart and then reconciled

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Fatima Bhutto

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Bhutto’s debut novel centres on a single day in the life of a single family living in the tribal areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border.

A fascinating insight into both real lives and the true politics of the region, the three brothers represent different attitudes: ambition, caution, idealism.

Bhutto is a beautifully economical writer, with no waffle, and she has managed to open up the debate about this troubled area without giving any moral judgement.

A thought-provoking piece of fiction from this highly-regarded writer.

What A Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe 

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We decided to include a trip back to the 80s in our summer round-up, after enjoying reading this recent thread.

What A Carve Up was unflinchingly the book of the decade and cited by many Mumsnetters as their favourite book of all time. Coe’s classic captures the political movements of Britain in the 1980s with true humour and reflects on the blurred boundaries between greed and madness through the microscope of Thatcher’s Britain.

What he illuminates is both hilariously acute and touchingly thought-provoking, or as one Mumsnetter says, ‘Ridiculous, but an absolute hoot!’

 

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful – Gideon Lewis-Kraus

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Frustrated with life in Berlin, author Gideon Lewis-Kraus undertakes three separate ancient pilgrimages. He recounts his travels over hundreds of miles: the thousand-year old Camino de Santiago in Spain with a friend, a solo circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and finally, with his father and brother, a migration to the tomb of a famous Hassidic mystic in the Ukraine.

Both succinctly funny and movingly honest, Lewis-Kraus examines with piercing insight our search for purpose in life, and how we travel between past and present in search of hope for our future.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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We recently interviewed Norwich resident and author Emma Healey here and were blown away by the insight this young woman has into the myriad of ways by which Dementia affects not only the person, but family, friends and the society around them. Crossing genres from family drama to crime, the story unfolds via what is forgotten, half forgotten and that which can never be forgotten- the long ago disappearance of Maud’s sister and the apparent disappearance of her close friend Elizabeth.

Unruly Places: lost spaces, secret cities and other inscrutable geographies by Alistair Bonnett.

 Explore the world’s secret and underground cities, diamond mines and erotic landscapes in this delightfully outlandish travelogue. You’ll never look at a map — or your own backyard — the same way again.

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Everybody is talking about her in the UK but we have been in one the secret for quite some time now! One of the more practical and most accessible new culture critics plants her flag in topics ranging from trigger warnings to Orange Is the New Black in this timely collection of essays.  This is the text for those who constructed their feminism from the pages of teen chick lit such as Sweet Valley High and whose young daughters are currently doing feminist battle in the age of the Hunger Games. Roxane Gay is who Caitlin Moran would like to be and never will.

Check out Roxane Gay’s new suspense novel ‘ An Untamed State’ too. Described by Tayari Jones as “magical and suspenseful”, this is a harrowing novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled. Roxane Gay is an astute observer of Haitian society and a deeply sympathetic, unflinching chronicler of the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions.