Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Art Recently

If you can ignore the crowds, long weekends are a great time to catch up on some art. Although, to be fair, neither the Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern nor the Joshua Reynolds at the Wallace Collection were that busy. I mean, they were busy, of course, but they weren't unbearable. The Wallace Collection isn't quite such a tourist hub and their exhibition space is discretely separate from the main house but I was surprised by the Tate Modern. I can't remember the last time I visited and it wasn't a total scrum. It was very refreshing. The John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery was completely packed on a weekday morning though so, really, you never can tell.

I love me some Reynolds and the WC exhib is only two rooms but the selection is excellent and it is free. I find his 'fancy' paintings of small children rather cloying but the larger of the two rooms is dedicated to actresses and courtesans and it is awesome. The focus of the exhib is on Reynold's technique (what he put in his paint, how he used his canvases etc.) and there are some interesting x-rays but I would happily take a hundred annotated rooms of 'Reynolds and the Bad-Ass Ladies of the Late 18th Century'. There's a free idea for you, art folks. Kitty Fisher, Mary Robinson, Nelly O'Brien, Mary Nesbitt, I admire your hutzpah and I'm sure you must have been pleased by these portraits.

The Sargent is the best thing I have seen recently even if the viewing experience would be much improved by a drastic visitor cull. I love him so much and the NPG have put on a truly fab exhib. He was the first artist I really clicked with as a child and then I went off him because I decided that his work was too neat and pretty and polished but now I'm back! Clearly I can be fickle but my fandom has held steady for the last few years and it shows no sign of shifting. Across artists and styles I love a portrait and this exhib is nothing but people. And so many interesting people - Henry James and W. B. Yeats and Ellen Terry and Auguste Rodin and Vernon Lee... The Yeats is a pencil sketch and I'm not sure if I've ever seen a Sargent pencil drawing before and it is remarkable. He captures beauty and character with such apparent ease, it's marvellous and baffling. The exhib really highlights his technical skill and it's fascinating to see him playing with styles. Impressionism? Yeah, I can do that too, nbd.

I liked the Delaunay least but it left my brain the buzziest. I don't think the exhib is very clearly narrated; Delaunay had a very varied career and turbulent life and I still don't understand how a lot of her work and history interacted. She was born in the Russian Empire, raised by a Jewish uncle and lived in Nazi-occupied France, which is a LOT of context, but the exhib still felt strangely ahistorical. I also don't necessarily care for her abstract paintings which is just personal taste. But her early portraits are very strong, she has an amazing eye for colour and pattern, I would happily have seen and read more about her graphic design work (lots of book/magazine/album covers) and when you come to her textile work it all falls into place. This exhib raised so many questions for me.
Delaunay clearly had a natural talent for textile design but did she find it satisfying? What are the risks vs. benefits of a very varied career? Would Delaunay have been more successful if she had been more focussed? Should you focus on the thing you love or the thing you show aptitude for? Did Delaunay's eye for products (fabrics, magazine, fashion, costumes, books) 'mean' anything? What might she have achieved if she hadn't put her energy into her husband's legacy after his death? Why did someone who made such a massive jump in her early artistic development (between her portraits and her abstract work) not make another jump later in her work? Was abstract art her end point or was she just exhausted by her commercial work?
The exhib doesn't really attempt to answer those questions and may or may not have intended to raise them but I can't help thinking about women-and-art and commerce-and-art and the nature of a career/portfolio. That's probably me though. Or maybe it was The Blazing World which I finished last week and which I will be living with for months. I'd recommend any of these if you are in London with time to burn and a friend/family member with a guest card. If you can only see one then I would rep the Sargent but there is food for thought all round.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April Menu

I made a celebratory Sunday lunch last weekend. Because food. Because why not. I was pretty pleased with how everything turned out.

Roasted beetroot with goats' cheese and ricotta mousse, toasted walnuts and cumin oil

Roasted pork belly with roasted new potatoes, home-made sauerkraut and watercress salad

Plum slump with vanilla custard


Plenty of slump was eaten but it wasn't necessarily my cup of tea and I wouldn't make it again. A slump is cooked on the hob and doesn't get a chance to brown or crisp up and it was a bit too gummy for me. Although it is classic Southern, the slump reminded me of Ye Olde Englishe dumplings and, although my dumpling tolerance has increased over the years (gyozas! wontons! pot pie!), I still found it too stodgy. Should you wish to investigate further I used the Baked Sour Cherry Slump recipe.

I got into pickles while I was in the States. I have been in love with pickled chillies for a while but I am now totally committed to most pickles (in moderation - I'm still an amateur pickle eater). Exceptions: pickled garlic and pickled eggs, these are too advanced for me. Since I've been back I have pickled my own chillies and made sauerkraut. I haven't tried the chillies yet but the sauerkraut is good and crazy easy. Small batches ferment quickly and I was very pleased with how mine turned out. Salty and crunchy and interestingly weird. A perfect accompaniment to fatty pork.

Skye Gyngells' roasted pork belly recipe is infallible. I have cooked it a couple of times and it is never anything less than freakin' delicious. From How I Cook, one of my most favourite cookbooks.

I cheated and bought a tub of custard because, imo, supermarket custard is amazing. Gone are the days of custard powder - the pots are cheap and awesome. Like pasta, home-made custard is something I think is rarely worth the extra effort.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What I Read: March 2015

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

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Recent Bookshops I Have Enjoyed

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles, Skylight Books

Flickr: Kent Kanouse

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

San Francisco, Dog Eared Books

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

Portland, Powell's City of Books

Flickr: Scott Beale

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

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

This is my message.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Georgia O'Keefe and Ghost Ranch

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What I Read: February 2015

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Conquering Hero Returns

Los Angeles / Big Sur / Yosemite / Death Valley


It was an amazing trip.

The petty irritations of travel are already fading from my mind and the whole trip is crystallizing into a single vision of perfection. Portland, Seattle and Vancouver were all lovely, liveable cities where I felt almost immediately comfortable and ate excellently but the sheer scope and variety of California is incomparable. All of the above pictures are California (!!). I don't understand how a single state can encompass the extremes of LA, Yosemite and Death Valley but I'm not complaining. It was a remarkable pleasure to explore and I can't wait to return one day.

My diaries/ramblings/dispatches from our great adventure are all available here: http://tinyletter.com/roadtripping/archive. There will be a few more photos and I'm going to put together a list of food eaten (very important - obviously). I will also be retreating to the mountains and valleys of California in my mind forever.

*happy sigh*

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On Hiatus

R and I are running away to America.

For five weeks at least.

We will be travelling from Los Angeles to Vancouver and we have spent the last two months planning our itinerary. Honestly, it doesn't feel real yet but we are flying tomorrow so that should change. There is a very small pile of clothes on my living room floor and a very large pile of books. I am not planning to blog while we are away but should you wish to follow our progress you can do so here: http://tinyletter.com/roadtripping.

If you have any recommendations for the west coast do hit me up at chucksmiscellany@gmail.com. Otherwise, I suppose, I will catch you on the flipside (where I will continue to nail youth slang and will also be very fat from the enormous amount of delicious food I have consumed).

California inspiration c/o Ansel Adams.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Issue 24: Nests and Homes

Issue 24 of Oh Comely is out now and I have a piece in it about home making and nesting and my nomadic years. The piece is called 'the more my houses change, the more my bedrooms stay the same' and you can buy the magazine at WH Smith in the UK and from independents internationally. I love my bedroom(s).

Other highlights:
  • Liz Ann Bennett on lostness, love and childhood, and children's literature.
  • Jason Ward interviewing Ana Lily Amirpour about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night which I cannot wait to see. I think it may be getting a UK spring cinematic re-/release and I am happily awaiting the sullen, skate-boarding Iranian teen vampire heroine.
  • Sarah Miller's excellent piece on why not to cook.