Thursday, January 21, 2016

Recent Home Eats


I had a New Year's Eve revelation about microwave curries, specifically Marks & Spark's butter chicken which is totally enjoyable in the right context, and the value (emotional, really) of instant food and it is something I'm going to be exploring more in 2016. Epiphanies aside though, I cook a lot and mostly from scratch (pasta and the like aside because, personally, I think making your own pasta is for suckers and hobby cooks. If you've got a free afternoon and nothing else to do then, sure, but it is never worth the time/effort of a week night).

I love cooking and thinking about food but it is time-consuming and I go through dry spells where I can't find things I want to cook or nothing is as good as I hope will be or it is all just uninspiring and tedious. Luckily though, I've been on a hot streak recently and I've made and eaten lots of great things. For other regular home cooks and my own memories here are some hits:

Good:
  • Roasted sausage, chard and cannellini beans (Food52): I made this with cavolo nero and real English sausages (what even are chicken sausages, America?? how?) and it was so easy. No pre-cooking, just toss and cook. Protein, carb and veg in a single bowl with jazzy flavours. 1 tin beans, 1 pack of cavolo nero and 1 pack of sausages (6) served two hungry people with no leftovers as a main.
  • Beef chilli with bourbon, beer and black beans (Nigella Lawson): Not necessarily #authentic but yummy and straightforward. Black beans are amazing. I always make Heston's slaw where slaw is called for - it is very moreish. 
  • Lemon and aubergine risotto (Ottolenghi): I've made this many times as a risotto and as a soup both are good although they really benefit from an open flame which I don't have access to in the flat. Reliably enjoyable.
  • Roasted squash cobbler (Claire Ptak): I wouldn't recommend starting this recipe at 9.15 on a Tuesday night because it is a bit time consuming but it is good and the biscuits are actually crazy easy. I always forget how quick biscuits are to make. I should make them more often.
Great:
  • Oxtail ragu with leeks and lemons over pappardelle (Ottolenghi): Man, this is great! I used shin because I couldn't get hold of oxtail and it was awesome. It felt super weird making a beef stew (basically) with white wine and lemon but it really really works. The pecorino on top makes it. The leek and chorizo pie in this column is amazing too in a really rich, luxurious way. Ottolenghi leek week forever. Leeks forever. So good.
  • Roasted pork belly with miso butternut squash and apple and walnut salsa (Nopi): Ok, I didn't make this, R did and it was a lot of work but DAMN it is good. The flavours complement each other perfectly. This is why you make all the sides and trimmings of an expert - they are more than the sum of their parts and their parts are superlative to begin with.
  • 'Boston' baked beans (ME): I decided to make Boston baked beans (or my idea of Boston baked beans - I've never been to Boston, I don't know if I've ever even really eaten 'Boston baked beans' before) on a whim and I couldn't find a recipe that did exactly what I wanted so I made one up and it was AWESOME. Easy, delicious, amazing for after work. The fanciest instant food ever.
Chuck's Pretend Boston Baked Beans
  • 1 tin cannellini beans (I realised afterwards that baked beans are normally haricots but whatever)
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 pack of lardons/sliced bacon (I wouldn't waste pancetta here but do as you wish)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp black treacle (in place of molasses)
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • Cheeeeese, maybe a nice moderately mature Cheddar?
  • (Baked potatoes)
  1. Preheat the oven to 200-220oC.
  2. Stick the onions, lardons and spices in a roasting tin and cook until the onions soften and the bacon has browned. 10 minutes?
  3. Stir the mustard and treacle through the onions.
  4. Throw in the beans and tomatoes and mix it all up.
  5. Bake until the tomato sauce thickens and is all dark and sticky and irresistible.
  6. Dollop out some beans into ovenproof cookware, top with cheese and stick back in the oven until the cheese has melted and everything is bubbling.
  7. Add a baked potato and call it a meal.
  8. Wrap yourself in a nice blanket and re-watch The Office US.
So there you go. Some food. Clearly winter is the time for beans and squashes. Yum.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Reading Wokely

I read Jia Tolentino's piece about noisy literary resolutions yesterday and I feel conflicted. I had been planning to do a (typically late) #DiverseDecember post but now I'm worried that I'm just being self-righteous and reinforcing binaries. I don't think I'm interested in scoring points for my own open-mindedness but I suppose that I wouldn't think that. And I do think it is a positive thing to make a concerted effort to read outside your own milieu and to read/buy/support authors and stories who have historically been overlooked and excluded from literary circles...

So rather than chase my own, anxious tail indefinitely I'm going to shout out some great books by BAME authors that I have read over the last year.

  • We Need New Names - NoViolet Bulawayo: Child protagonists can be risky but Bulawayo's Darling is a delight - joyful, sharp, unsentimental. The book is alternately glowingly happy and deeply scary in its depiction of Darling's childhood in Zimbabwe and her emigration to Michigan.
  • The Turner House - Angela Flournoy: Big families are full of love and trouble. The lives of the Turner children are beautifully drawn and woven together here. And the book is especially good on both Detroit and our current economic sitch. (More from me.)
  • Negroland - Margo Jefferson: A fascinating and unexpected (to me) memoir of upper-middle-class black life in America. Growing up as part of the black bourgeoisie seems remarkably emotionally complicated and Jefferson recalls her own experiences and the history of this subsection of society with sly elegance.
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N. K. Jemisin: In terms of fantasy this was a little trad for me but that might be your cup of tea and I want 1000% more awesome POC fantasy heroines. 
  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie - Ayana Mathis: This novel has a similar basic premise to The Turner House - a large black family in a rundown American city - but it has a wider historical and geographical sweep. If I could only pick one of the two I would go with The Turner House but I don't have to choose either/or and neither do you. Spoil yourself, read both. (More from me.)
  • Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I have said it once, I have said it twiceAmericanah is FIRE. If you're one of the seven people who hasn't read it yet I would suggest you remedy that sharpish. Ride the hype or overcome it, depending on your own disposition.
  • The Woman Next Door - Yewande Omotoso: You know what is awesome? Sharp-tongued, short-tempered old women hating each other and gradually becoming friends. One to watch in 2016.
  • Men We Reaped - Jesmyn Ward: A crushing memoir of black death in America. Not pleasant but beautiful and very moving. A powerful book in its own right and your daily reminder to read Salvage the Bones like yesterday. I don't know why you're even here. Why aren't you reading Salvage the Bones right now?? (More from me.)
(Also, these kind of exercises, while imperfect, can be useful. In putting together this list I realised that none of these are British authors. That is shocking and something that I want/need to correct. Recs, specifically fiction, very welcome.)

Friday, January 1, 2016

My 10 Favourite Books of 2015, I Think

This is an inconclusive list in every possible way. I read 92 books in 2015 and there were so many that I loved, liked, disliked and forgot. I read many great books that aren't on this list. Most of these weren't published this year. These are the books that I enjoyed the most or felt most strongly about (see The Blazing World - liking doesn't always come into it); they are the most interesting and important to me at this specific moment in time. That might well change. Maybe when I look back in ten years these won't be the ten books I remember. Who can say?

If I could push any two books I read this year into the hands of everyone I do and don't know, though, they would be The Country of Ice Cream Star and All My Puny Sorrows. Please read them.

Most of the books I read before September are well documented on the blog and the best way to find them is my fiction tag. September-December has been very busy and I would like to promise that I'll catch up the highlights but, really, that seems unlikely! Anyway. Books.


My 10 Favourite Books of 2015, I Think (alphabetical order):
The Blazing World - Siri Hustvedt: Repulsive, Infuriating, Fascinating
City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett: Complex, Fully-realised, Fantasy
Euphoria - Lily King: Atmospheric, Elegant, Anthropological
Forty-One False Starts - Janet Malcolm: Precise, Brilliant, Essays
Physical - Andrew McMillan: Moving, Gay, Poetry
The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness: Diverse, Imaginative, Young-adult
The Country of Ice Cream Star - Sandra Newman: Epic, Creative, Dystopia
Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Real, Sharp, Undeniable
All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews: Funny, Tragic, Mind-changing
The Interestings - Meg Wolitzer: Human, Inevitable, Bildungsroman

Honorable Mentions:
Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald
We Need New Names - NoViolet Bulawayo
The Girls - Emma Cline
The Turner House - Angela Flournoy
Fates and Furies - Lauren Groff
Negroland - Margo Jefferson
A Sense of Direction - Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Gold Fame Citrus - Claire Vaye Watkins
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

Graphic Favourites:
Step Aside, Pops - Kate Beaton
Hyperbole and a Half - Allie Brosh

Bonus - Great reportage and unforgettable creepy crawlies:
The Lost City of Z - David Grann

Bonus - Book I didn't really like but think about often:
Green Girl - Kate Zambreno

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Paris Bits


We were in Paris over the weekend and it was total bliss so I thought I should make a couple of notes. It would be very easy to let the long weekend blur into a single soft-focus impression of loveliness and I would like to capture some specifics for future reference.
  1. We booked the trip the week before the attacks and obviously our discomfort was the least bad repercussion of the tragedy. We were outsiders and we were only in town for a few days but it felt like the city was beginning to recover. The people directly affected will probably never recover and there will be many physical and psychic scars but Parisians were drinking in bars and restaurants and it felt like the atmosphere would have been notably more strained if we had visited even a weekend earlier. I think that a lot of tourists had cancelled trips and the city was quiet when the locals were at work but it was beautiful and we didn't feel uncomfortably tense.
  2. We stayed in a nice hotel by the Pantheon. Nice hotels are still rather alien to me. Historically I have stayed in hostels and shit holes and, more recently, I have stayed almost exclusively in Airbnb apartments. I like the feeling of living in a place and having access to a kitchen and personal space. For a number of reasons, though, a hotel was the right choice for this trip. We slept for many many hours in a clean, comfortable bed, there was a nice bath, check-in was totally stress-free and we could wander out the door and around the Left Bank. Email me if you need a hotel rec.
  3. Bistrot l'Estrapade: Blackboards, earthenware carafes, poached pears and chorizo in a warm sloop of Roquefort cream.
  4. Walking over the Pont de la Tournelle, admiring the flying buttresses of Notre Dame and making tired, happy, deeply silly jokes.
  5. Musée Picasso: The renovated museum opened last year and the museum is gorgeous. They've done a really lovely job on the building. Exhausted and sleepwalking through the exhibitions, though, I had to admit that I care for very little of Picasso's work.
  6. La Maison Plisson: This fancy deli is delightful and ridiculous in much the same way as Dean & DeLuca. The food sorts they sell are beautiful and exquisitely packaged but it is inconceivable that anyone would do any actual shopping here. I was in self-indulgent heaven browsing 15 difference €15 gourmet Nutellas (I didn't buy any) and an interesting aspect of this trip was acknowledging my tastes and weaknesses. I have types and preferences and they are admirable and despicable and quite thoroughly engrained.
  7. Le Bon Marché l'Arbre de Noël: My sister deserves all credit here. Le Bon Marché is a wonderful department store - perhaps the nicest I've ever been to? - but that is besides the point. Their Christmas tree/bauble area on the top floor is out of this world. I think it is fair to say that R and I LOST OUR SHIT. It was only through severe applications of common sense that we managed not to spend thousands of euros on hand-blown and hand-painted glass ridiculousness. Somehow I resisted Father-Christmas-riding-a-dolphin and scuba-diving-Father-Christmas and various flamingoes but the vegetables were too much. I nearly asphyxiated with joy. Our Christmas is going to look so fucking weird - I cannot wait. I don't know when I last felt a childlike joy so pure.
  8. Mamie Gâteaux: French-Japanese rustic kitsch, excellent goats' cheese and courgette tart, red wine with lunch having earned no such luxury.
  9. Musée de la Vie Romantique: Another success from my sister. This house in the 9th arrondissement is adorable, well preserved and containing a strange mixture of George Sand and romantic memorabilia. I'm not sure what I learnt but it is exactly what you might wish a Parisian museum to be.
  10. Sept Cinq: I don't know who taught the Parisians the term 'concept store' but it is being enthusiastically over-applied across the city. This is a nice shop in a Brooklyn hipster mode and Christmas presents were bought.
  11. Sleep is an underrated component city breaks. I suppose that this is easier to admit when visiting a city that you know moderately well and will, in all likelihood, visit again. City breaks are more fun when you're not on your feet all day trying to do or see everything.
  12. It can be bliss when someone makes a decision for you. You might have made a better decision for yourself but the not-making is a true gift. Note to self: be generous, make decisions for others. Note to note: Obviously read the room and don't override other people's choices, only assist the indecisive.
  13. Holybelly: Hate the name, love the food. Brunch options are scarce in Paris but this cafe comfortably meets Australian/London/New York/LA breakfast standards. I spent time on this trip worrying about globalisation and standardisation and the costs of everywhere becoming like everywhere else and I think those are valid concerns although I also think that they can impose unnecessary discomfort on others in the name of antiquated/aesthetic tastes... I don't know, there is no simple answer but good coffee and fried eggs with home-made hashbrowns, sausage patties and mixed beans shut my brain up for a while.
  14. Saint-Étienne-du-Mont is a very beautiful church.
  15. Wine bars and cured meat, saucisson, standing room only. Chez Nous is elegant but L'Avant Comptoir is chaotic fun. A bar loud enough to lean in to speak but quiet enough to hear, white tiles and the menu hanging from the ceiling, croquettes, always croquettes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Life Snapshots


Eat/See/Do

This is a bad picture of one of the most delicious things I have eaten at home in 4 eva. Thomasina Miers' Smoky-roasted vegetables with whipped goat’s cheese and toasted nuts. We're talking beetroot, leeks, paprika, hazelnuts, goats' cheese, lime, harissa... It sounds like a bit of a hot mess but it is ridiculously good. R made it for me and I died.

Walthamstow is a thousand million miles away but the William Morris Gallery is free and well worth a visit. I am working on a Morris book at the moment so I am predisposed to be interested but he was a legitimately fascinating dude. A craftsman, a traveller and a socialist. There's plenty of information at the gallery and miles of his wonderful design. Also a beautiful garden.

Walk around London. Obviously. But when you live in a place it is hard to remember that it exists. The weather is getting ever more unreliable but one of my new favourite ways to catch up with friends is to meet them for a walk. Pick a start point and an end point or whatever who cares; put your feet in front of each other and look around. I found a Nancy Mitford plaque. Speaking of, these new Fig Tree editions are goooorgeous.

Read

The Mother of All Questions - Rebecca Solnit: The magnificent Solnit on child rearing, life choosing and Virginia Woolf. This is a wonderful essay.

Ina Garten Does it Herself - Choire Sicha: I find the Barefoot Contessa more or less unwatchable but I like that it exists and I like its enthusiastic fan-base. I also like Ina Garten and this is a great profile of an interesting and very successful women.

The Semiotics of Rose Gold - Rebecca Mead: What a dream! I love a close analysis of an apparently superficial fashion trend. I could have read 12,000 more words on the history and economics of 'rose gold' and our current obsession with it.

Anne Hathaway Can't Win - Anne Helen Petersen: I am a rampant trier, I work very hard at almost everything I care about and I make approximately nothing look effortless, and even I can't suppress the instinctive dislike of other strivers. Or, at least, I find it hard to like/not squirm at Anne Hathaway. I wish her well but I also don't want to see her doing embarrassing shit. "Anne Hathaway is nothing if not a woman-shaped aggregation of trying." - AHP is great on our gendered judgement.

Listen

Kendrick Lamar - King Kunta



Nicki Minaj - Truffle Butter



KStewart - Ain't Nobody



Jabilough/Wilough - Whatislife?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Food Reviewed: Primeur

I have been honing my platonic ideal of a restaurant for years. My perfect restaurant is warm and buzzing with quiet conversation and laughter. It isn't too loud and it has nice cutlery and gimmick-free plates. Personally, I like mismatched crockery but that isn't a deal-breaker. I don't mind a restaurant that's a little overcrowded, that doesn't want to turn a group of friends away, but I don't want to be sitting in my neighbour's lap and I want to maintain some privacy. Comfortable chairs are essential and I like a soft furnishing, cushions or plush fabrics. I like wood but never pine.

I want the food to be brain-meltingly delicious without being fussy. I appreciate food that looks like art, food that has been painstakingly assembled with brushes and tweezers and an eye for the aesthetic, but I don't find it relaxing. I don't want silver service - I just want friendly, relaxed discretion. I want someone who is going to be able to translate my garbled wine speak and help me find something that I'm in the mood for without foisting the most expensive bottle on the menu onto me. I want a menu small enough that it pushes me to try something new and large enough that I don't have to eat salmon or cauliflower. I want good quality ingredients that haven't been messed about and food that tastes like love. I don't think it is too much to ask.

There are restaurants that come close to this ideal. The buzz and the homeliness of the food at Bocca di Lupo. The simultaneous perfection and lack of pretension at The West House. The warmth and seasonality of The Gardener's Cottage. The wood-fired oven, chaotic plants and smoky goodness of Ned Ludd. 10 Greek Street, Les Enfants Perdu, Mayfields (tragically deceased), Green Man & French Horn (tragically deceased). None of them are quite everything I'm searching for but all of them are wonderful and I always keep my eyes open for the next.

Primeur ticks a lot of my boxes. It is going on my favourites list with the above. It feels like a neighbourhood restaurant. The chairs are upholstered in a grubby mustard velvet and the tables are long and wooden. There's only a blackboard menu and on a wintery Friday night it is warm from the heat of happy bodies and an open kitchen. Candles flicker across the room and your wine tastes better in the gentle gloaming. Our wine was excellent for which Laura must take most of the credit. She is an excellent chooser of wine and a top notch restaurant companion - 10/10 would recommend. I have no idea what the wine was or who made it but it tasted strange and apply and oddly delicious with red meats that I can't imagine it was intended to be paired with. It had a drawing of a girl on the bottle. She was the daughter in an imaginary family, I think, and the wine tasted like her, like an awkward teenage girl in all her idiosyncratic magnificence. I want to say that her name was Therese but I am only about 15% confident on that and no amount of googling wine + girl + therese + german? is proving successful. She had a grandmother and a brother and other family members and now I want to collect them all like alcoholic, liquid Pokemon.

We had a terrine, I think, and some fried fishy thing. There was a strange, sweet puddle of sweetcorn mush that could, conceivably, have been a pudding and which was still somehow moreish and enjoyable. There was a pork belly that was delicious in the way that pork belly always should be, fatty and salty with shards of crackling and greasy fingers, and green beans and, perhaps, a lemon-mustard sauce thingy. All of this was good but it was eclipsed by the perfection of the beef rump with roasted onion puree and brown butter. It was a perfect dish. I could have eaten five. Laura could have eaten five. Our other dining companions seemed less emotionally involved with their dinner but I can only imagine that, given half a chance, they too could have eaten five. I haven't studied maths in many a year but I'm pretty confident that between us we could have put away at least twenty. The beef was tender and well cut, the onions were sweet and sticky and a little smoky. The brown butter was a dark pool of nutty glory. Together they were rich and warm and a little syrupy and a little ferrous and a lot irresistible. It was a dish to remember and if there wasn't enough room at our table to use my knife and fork and if I heard far too much of my neighbour's conversation then those were relatively small prices to pay.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Selected Reads: August 2015


It's totally still September. I'm doing fine! I mean, I'm not, it has been eighteen days since my last confession (blog post) and that is a long ass time, but if I start bringing guilt into this I will become mired down in a hopeless morass and never blog again! Maybe. I have read 13 books so far in September so August feels like a distant dream but let me dredge the memory banks.
  • Women - Chloe Caldwell: Women exploring their sense of self and their sexuality forever! I found this novella of a destructive love affair with an older woman rather insubstantial but I enjoyed Caldwell's clarity and I will continue to endorse this genre indefinitely.
  • Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 - Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: As an internet dweller with access to many recommendations, I have decided that comics are going to be a key gift for R going forward. He is gently enthusiastic about comics but lacks the time/energy to work out what to read next, I pick up suggestions without effort but lack sufficient interest to follow through; together we shall make a quiet, low key team, slowly buying and reading the best of the comic landscape 2-5 years after original publication. I bought him Volumes 1 of Sex Criminals and Saga for his birthday and he thought I should try the former. I enjoyed the very silly premise (of two people who can stop time when they orgasm and who use this gift to attempt to rob a bank) but failed to connect with the form. It is still early days in my exploration of the comic media but I have yet to really get it. I'm sure that I will continue to road-test R's presents but if you have any comic recommendations for non-comic readers do let me know.
  • My Horizontal Life - Chelsea Handler: I am becoming something of a connoisseur of comedienne memoirs. Not that I care for the term 'comedienne' but 'lady comics' seems equally clumsy. I have never seen the American comedian/talk-show host/whathaveyou Chelsea Handler in action but I knew who she was when I stumbled across her first memoir/essay collection at the library and fancied something light. And, credit where it is due, Handler knows how to tell an anecdote and she has an apparently endless array of juicy stories that the 'good girl' comics can only dream of. These raucous adventures are often pretty funny but are also surprisingly mean. The casual cruelty and all-out alcoholism of many of her stories sometimes caught me off guard and it is interesting to consider how much the landscape has changed in the last eight years. This feels like a relic of the Sex and the City era now - fun but alien.
  • The Turner House - Angela Flournoy: This book is, more or less, everything I wanted The Twelve Tribes of Hattie to be. This is another story of a massive black family in a run down American city, Detroit this time, but the structure here allows you to actually get to know some of the characters. By focussing on the children who have stayed in Detroit and their decision about what to do with their family home once their mother can no longer live in it, you can have an evolving relationship with a handful of the offspring. Cha-Cha may be haunted by a haint, Lelah is secretly homeless and struggling with a gambling addiction and Troy is a cop who doesn't think that the law applies to him. The novel is concerned with white flight and redlining and the recession as well as family and race and mental health but it wears all of its 'issues' lightly and is primarily a great book with great writing.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Life Snapshots



See/Eat/Feel
  • The mad, beautiful effusion of hydrangeas at the V&A.
  • Chocolate, raspberry scones. These have double cream in the dough because why the hell not?
  • Dramatic London sunsets.
Read
  • If You Don't Click on This Story, I Don't Get Paid - Noah Davis: I am endlessly fascinated by how much writers get paid and how they do or do not manage to make a living. This is a thorough essay that contains a lot of actual numbers. Screw your euphemistic whispered conversations about money - I want real figures and this delivers.
  • The Witches of Salem - Stacy Schiff: Speaking of sources of endless fascination; Salem. The Salem story has everything - mass hysteria, possible mass psychosis, witches, an abundance of teenage girls... The dream! This is an excerpt from a non-fiction book, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (not going to lie, I think they could have tried harder on the title), so it is quite dry but if it is your cup of tea you'll enjoy all the details.
  • Searching for Sugar Daddy - Taffy Brodesser-Akner: This is totally absurd and delightful. I'm a big fan of TBA but I'm not sure I've ever read her doing straight-up funny before and it's great. Watch out for Thurston Von Moneybags and Tigress St. Fawn.
Listen





Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Charleston, Sussex

I visited Charleston at the weekend - the Sussex farmhouse and Bloomsbury retreat. I've been meaning to go for a long time and we had a Sunday to spare. There is a lot of Bloomsbury in the air of late and it interesting to try and connect with a physical reality rather than rumour or opinion. Life in Squares was pretty but silly and I found its lack of engagement with the art, with the work that the Bloomsbury group created, not just the gossip they generated, frustrating.

Charleston is not set amongst notable country and, truly, it is in the middle of nowhere. Even in August the house smells and feels damp. It was good to get a sense of the very real isolation of the place, even now, and the discomfort that must have been felt in the name of freedom. Which isn't to say that I have limitless sympathy for those involved. I enjoy the sexual liberty but shy away from the selfishness, applaud the distrust of patriotism but flinch from the unwillingness to engage with political realities, admire the artistic devotion but loathe the snobbishness. It's difficult - I love the disregard for sexual stigmas and much of the work but I don't always like the actions or the players.

Charleston - Bloomsbury

I suppose that is the thing about reality. Not always straightforward or pleasant. But fascinating. And Charleston is strangely gripping. From the outside the farmhouse is unremarkable, except for a lovely garden, but inside it is tardis-like, beautiful and original. The commitment to colour and pattern and books and art is inspiring. It is a world fully imagined and I wandered around in something of a daze.

Tickets are very expensive and it's in the middle of nowhere so I can't recommend the trip unreservedly but if you are interested in Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, their siblings, lovers and friends, and you happen to be out and about in Sussex it is certainly worth a visit.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Selected Reads: July 2015


The new job means that I am going to have to reassess my book posts. I've done six months of completist posting, everything I've read whether or not I enjoyed a given book or even felt strongly about it, but that isn't going to work any more. Partially this is a question of discretion but mostly it is just because a lot of what I'm reading at the moment isn't yet published. In the interest of accessibility I'm going to pick a couple of titles that I found particularly interesting/will be published in the UK within the next few months/are in print internationally to highlight each month.
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald: Little of what I read can be comfortably described as charming but this novel is light, pleasant and good natured. I suspect that heavy readers cannot fail to enjoy a story about fellow book worms - it appeals to our interests and our narcissism. Here are pen pals and shared books and small towns and introverts and gentle friendships. What's not to like?
  • Green Girl - Kate Zambreno: Green Girl is neither charming nor easy but over the last nearly five years it has become something like a modern classic. Although it has been publicly disliked it seems to have become a kind of touchstone for a new wave of idiosyncratic young female narratives. I didn't especially enjoy reading this, it is intentionally alienating, but I did find it interesting and my desire for possible mirrors is almost endless.
  • Men We Reaped - Jesmyn Ward: This memoir is brutal. Ward lost five young men in four years and 'lost' is such a euphemism. America is killing its young black men. This isn't a simple story about gang violence or police brutality or drug addiction although all of those things play their part. Ward is concerned with poverty and institutional racism and systematic violence. I didn't find this quite as overwhelmingly moving as Salvage the Bones but StB might be the best book I've read in the last five years so that is a crazy high bar.
  • Freedom - Jonathan Franzen: I spent the first third of this monster feeling quite defensive on J-Franz's behalf. He takes an unbelievable amount of stick from the interwebz but I thought the rape scene was handled surprisingly well and there is no doubt that he has an eye for detail. But then this book just went on and on and on and I lost a lot of sympathy. It felt flabby and the Lalitha character made me nervous all the time because she always felt a hop, skip and a jump away from horrible, tone deaf racism. Also, all of the sex stuff is so weird. If I never encounter another J-Franz sex scene again it will be too soon.
  • The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts - Edmund de Waal: Moment of truth here... I never got around to reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes. I guess I was doing other things in 2010. So I didn't know that Edmund de Waal isn't primarily a writer - he's a potter/ceramicist/artist. When I eventually joined the dots I recognised a lot of his work and his fascination with white. This book is a history of porcelain and a travelogue across key sights in the production of porcelain and a memoir of EdW's career and his obsession with the mysterious material. It is quiet and thoughtful and the production on the book is beautiful. Also, it desperately made me want to track down a community pottery class...