Monday 31 October 2011

The Invention of Morel - Adolfo Bioy Casares

Despite the tidal waves of books that come into my possession, and the fact that I rarely leave the house without buying at least one book (I've bought five since I did the meme on Friday) only relatively rarely do I buy a book on a complete whim.  Usually I've read other things by the author, or heard good things, or am following up a blog review etc.  These links can be tenuous, and tend to create an ever-widening field of gosh-yes-I-think-I'd-like-that books.  But occasionally I buy one, knowing nothing whatsoever about it or its author.

And that, dear reader, is how I came to buy The Invention of Morel (1940) by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated from Spanish by Ruth L. C. Simms. 

I was lured in by the fact that it was an NYRB Classic, and they're always beautifully produced, whatever else may come inside.  And I was further tempted when I saw that it was a 'fantastic exploration of virtual realities' (thus potentially useful for my thesis) and had apparently inspired the film Last Year in Marienbad, which has been in Amazon basket for years.  Apparently it was mentioned in 'Lost', too, but I didn't see any of that.

This novella (only a hundred pages) should probably be classed as science fiction, and there is definite allusion to H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau in Bioy Casares' title - but this isn't a tale of robots and computers, but of one lovestruck, bewildered man.  He isn't named, and seems to be known as The Fugitive, since he is hiding on the (fictional) island Villings to escape the death penalty in his home country of Venezuela.  The Invention of Morel takes the form of his diaries.  The opening paragraph flings the reader into the catalyst of the novella:

Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time.  I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time.  The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again.  As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record.
Despite having appeared to be a deserted island, complete with abandoned chapel and museum, suddenly the shore is filled with people - eccentric people, dressed in clothes of the past, dancing and socialising in the unseasonal heat.

The Fugitive is most interested in one of the women, whom he names Faustine.  She (although the narrative does not explicitly say so) resembles Louise Brooks and was inspired by Bioy Casares' fascination with that film star.  The Fugitive follows her, watching her sunbathing and spying on her activities and - as people do in novels - falls besottedly in love with her, without ever engaging her in conversation.  His rival for her affections, who does have conversation with her and everything, is the Morel of the title.

And then all the tourists disappear.

It's always difficult to tell how much a novel's style is due to its author, when it comes in translation.  Either Bioy Casares deliberately wrote most of The Invention of Morel in a disconcerting, imprecise style, or Simms didn't do a great job translating.  The novella is quite difficult to read.  It certainly doesn't flow.  It is disjointed, not entirely chronological, meandering through speculation and confusion in between scribbled declarations of love.  All of which certainly echoes The Fugitive's confusion, thrusting the reader into the same bewilderment he must be feeling.  What makes me suspect that this is deliberate is this paragraph, about Morel explaining his 'invention' (fear not, I shall tell you when to look away, if you want to avoid spoilers!)
Up to this point it was a repugnant and badly organized speech. Morel is a scientist, and he becomes more precise when he overlooks his personal feelings and concentrates on his own special field; then his style is still unpleasant, filled with technical words and vain attempts to achieve a certain oratorical force, but at least it is clearer.
Although this refers to Morel's speech, it also reflects upon the style and structure of The Invention of Morel itself.  After this point, it becomes much more lucid and readable.  Which means Bioy Casares is being rather clever, but doesn't make the first two-thirds of the novella any easier to read...

Ok, now I'm going to tell you what Morel's 'invention' is - so run away, if you don't want to know.


Ok, still with me? Here it is: Morel has recorded all of their actions for the week - but not simply audio and visual, but all five senses.  What The Fugitive has been witnessing is one of the endless replayings of the week, which keeps that group of visitors to the island in some curious form of immortality - and which explains all manner of other strange phenomena.

The Invention of Morel has been filled with all manner of clues from the outset, which make sense looking back, but merely seem confusing upon first reading them.  I especially liked this one:
I went to gather the flowers, which are most abundant down in the ravines.  I picked the ones that were least ugly.  (Even the palest flowers have an almost animal vitality!)  When I had picked all I could carry and started to arrange them, I saw that they were dead.
What originally seems to hint towards The Fugitive's delusional or deranged state (and can that interpretation ever be ruled out, in fantastic works?) slots into the reader's new understanding of the novel.

Giving away this device shouldn't prevent you having a rewarding reading of The Invention of Morel.  The book doesn't rest upon the power of a twist, as many less intellectual books and films do - rather, Bioy Casares explores themes of isolation; what constitutes immortality; what rights ought scientists to have over humans; even the power of love.

The final third of the novella, being so much less stylistically confused and confusing, allows these themes to come to the fore and it was definitely this section which I most valued and enjoyed.  Perhaps a slow, thoughtful reading of the first two-thirds would prove equally rewarding.  As it was, I did feel rather like I was battling through quicksand, never able to settle into a comfortable reading rhythm - but, after all, probably that was what Bioy Casares intended...?

Others who got Stuck into it...

"It's the kind of read that's slightly unsettling and not with a lot of closure." - Amy, My Friend Amy

"I was delighted to find The Invention of Morel to be such a quick and engaging read, and yet one that has depth if I chose to read it on a deeper level in the future." - Rebecca, Rebecca Reads

"As a mystery it’s engaging, and all the threads come together in an intricate weave with no frayed lines to tug on." - Stewart, BookLit

Sunday 30 October 2011

Song for a Sunday

I bought Juliet Turner's album Burn the Black Suit on a whim in 2004, whilst on holiday in Devon, getting ready to face the big, scary world of university...  Well, seven years later I'm still a student, and I'm still listening to Juliet.  This song, Belfast Central, is rather lovely - I especially like Juliet's authentically thick Irish accent while singing.

There isn't an official video - this was homemade by someone on YouTube.

For other Sunday Songs, click here.

Friday 28 October 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four... and Five (again!)

A while ago I made up a quick little meme which enabled bloggers to run through recent books of interest - and it rather caught on, with dozens of bloggers (including, rewardingly, many I'd never heard of) following suit.   It was such fun seeing snapshots of different people's reading and buying - and a nice easy post for bloggers to write!

So, guess what?  I fancy doing it again.  Do have a go yourself, if you like - whether or not you did it last time.  And if you do, pop a note in the comments so I can go over and have a gander!

1.) The book I'm currently reading:

The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor - everyone and her husband seem to have read and loved this, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.  Will you all hate me if I say I'm not bowled over yet?

2.) The last book I finished:

Two is Lonely by Lynne Reid Banks - I re-read all three of the L-Shaped Room trilogy recently, in fact.  The first one is still brilliant - the other two not quite as good as I remembered.

3.) The next book I want to read:

Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth - to be honest, it's been my 'next book' for months, but somehow other things always slip in front of it.  That doesn't diminish how excited I am about reading Jenn's novel!

4.) The last book I bought:

Gentleman into Goose by Christopher Ward - yes, believe it or not Lady into Fox by David Garnett led to a spoof version!  Not many copies around, so had to get this shipped over from the US of A.

5.) The last book I was given:

The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton - came courtesy of lovely Rachel/Book Snob, accompanied by threats if I didn't read it quick-smart.  And I didn't.  But I will...

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Two Serious Ladies - Jane Bowles

This is another fairly long review, but a few of you were kind enough the other day to tell me not to apologise for long reviews - so I shan't!  I certainly enjoyed writing it, and formulating my thoughts.

Eighteen months ago John Self very kindly offered me a copy of Two Serious Ladies (1943) by Jane Bowles, in its beautiful reprint by Sort Of Books (responsible for the recent Tove Jansson editions too, most of which are newly-commissioned translations.)  He thought it might be my sort of thing - and he was definitely right.  It just took a while for me to get around to reading it...  (By the by, Sort Of Books - I love you, I love your production standards and your choice of titles - but... only one lady on the cover of a book called Two Serious Ladies - really?)

I know John Self read the novel, but can't find a review of it on his blog, so perhaps it never got that far.  In fact, despite being a celebrated novel, there isn't a great deal of coverage of it in the blogging world - perhaps because it is essentially a very strange book.  You know I love me some strange, now and then, so I was more than happy with that - but it isn't one that I would recommend to everyone.  Bowles writes quite like Muriel Spark, but without the ironic authorial comment.  The unsettling dialogue never settles into the expected, the sparse narrative offers very little guidance, and the whole novel is deliciously disconcerting and unusual.  And yet it's still often very funny.  If you like beginning-middle-end and naturalised conversations between characters, then look away.  If you like Muriel Spark, Barbara Comyns, or even Ivy Compton-Burnett - then you could well be in for a treat.

The females of the title only meet twice, briefly, in Two Serious Ladies - towards the end of the first and third sections, of three.  The ladies in question are Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield - always called, by the narrative, Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield; one of the novel's most subtle strangenesses.  Lorna Sage's excellent introduction reveals that there was once to have been a third serious lady, Senorita Cordoba, which might have made the unusual structure less striking - but would have thus robbed Bowles.

We first see Miss Goering as a child, attempting to inveigle a straightforward friend into an elaborate and invented religious ritual.  The reader might, not unnaturally, expect to follow Miss Goering throughout her life - but we quickly fast-forward to Miss Goering as a "grown woman" (age unspecified) and stay there.  She is unsociable, uncompromising, selfish and violently honest - yet not truly malicious.  Her character is so open and amorally direct that she reminded me of Katri from Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver.  Oddly, suddenly (so much in this novel is odd and sudden) Miss Goering invites Miss Gamelon, the cousin of her governess, to live with her.  They are never amiable companions, and although they depend upon one another to an extent, their relationship is never reliable and neither even attempts to understand the other.  It is a mystery why either would want to live with the other - but a mystery neither of them care to address.  Here is the sort of conversation they have:

"I don't like sports," said Miss Goering; "more than anything else, they give me a terrific feeling of sinning."

"On the contrary," said Miss Gamelon, "that's exactly what they never do."

"Don't be rude, Lucy dear," said Miss Goering.  "After all, I have paid sufficient attention to what happens inside of me and I know better than you about my own feelings."

"Sports," said Miss Gamelon, "can never give you a feeling of sinning, but what is more interesting is that you can never sit down for more than five minutes without introducing something weird into the conversation.  I certainly think you have made a study of it."

I know I shouldn't be attempting a piece of close reading, as that's not what you've come to read, but I think that excerpt would be fascinating to analyse.  One example - that word 'certainly' in the final sentence.  How many authors would have included that?  And what a transformative effect it has on the sentiment, and on the character speaking it - she becomes that much more combative, and idiomatic, and faux-dramatic.  She is speaking for effect, for drama, rather than with simply honesty.  Even if I'd only read these sentences, Miss Gamelon would stand fully-formed before me.

Nearly all the characters and their conversations are piercingly honest, unswervingly self-absorbed, and insistently irrelevant.  Rarely do they seem to have paid the remotest attention to what their interlocutor has replied.  If they have, it is solely as a means of flatly refuting it.  Forster's Howards End is renowned for the mantra 'only connect' - Two Serious Ladies proffers the opposite doctrine, especially where Miss Goering is concerned.  She does go out with a weak man called Arnold, whom she openly despises - although, again, without intending malice.  Jane Bowles excels at portraying awkward conversations and unhappy exchanges - if they lean too much towards the morosely disjointed to claim verisimilitude, then at least it makes a change to the neat patter of many novels.
"Since you live so far out of town," said Arnold, "why don't you spend the night at my house?  We have an extra bedroom."

"I probably shall," said Miss Goering, "although it is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it."  Miss Goering looked a little morose after having said this and they drove on in silence until they reached their destination.
Miss Goering bumps into her acquaintance Mrs. Copperfield at a party, and the narrative passes the baton on.  Mrs. Copperfield is about to embark on a trip to Panama with her husband.

This section of the novel is equally interesting, although I jotted down fewer notes while reading it... where Miss Goering is indifferent and jaded, Mrs. Copperfield has an ingenuous lust for experience.  She is not an intelligent woman, but is easily captivated, and dashes around Panama - befriending the inhabitants of a brothel along the way.  Here she has just met a flighty girl named Peggy, whose appearance in the novel is fleeting:
"Please," she [Peggy] said, "be friendly to me. I don't often see people I like. I never do the same thing twice, really I don't. I haven't asked anyone up to my room in the longest while because I'm not interested and because they get everything so dirty. I know you wouldn't get everything dirty because I can tell that you come from a nice class of people. I love people with a good education. I think it's wonderful."

"I have so much on my mind," said Mrs. Copperfield. "Generally I haven't."
How are these ladies serious?  Lorna Sage suggests that Bowles uses the word to mean 'risking the possibility that you were meaninglessly weird'.   I think perhaps it is these ladies' choice not to laugh at life, but determinedly to live it, and see what happens.  But, truth be told, Jane Bowles doesn't seem to have a grand theme to Two Serious Ladies.  Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield are not part of a philosophical quest; there is no sense of purpose or conclusion.  Questions are not answered; they are scarcely posed.  In many ways the novel doesn't follow any progression at all - the ladies merely experience a great deal, whether grasping at it enthusiastically or raising an ambivalent eyebrow at life.  Bowles' astonishing talent is creating a dynamic that, if not unique, is highly unusual - strange, surreal, and yet grounded to the mundane.  Her ear for dialogue is astonishing - dialogue which is almost never realistic, but always striking.

And Two Serious Ladies is a brilliant novel.  As I said, it would not suit many readers - but anybody who chose writing style over plot in my recent post on the topic would be quite likely to appreciate this book.  It is a huge shame that Bowles only wrote one novel.  The one she has created ought to be enough to assure her a sort of immortality - Bowles is one novelist we should be taking seriously.

Others who got Stuck into it:

"There’s something interestingly off in the way the characters in this book make choices; they are all inscrutable." - With Hidden Noise

"At its heart, it is a book about people who feel quite often unrooted and alone, even in their own parlor, surrounded by friends." - Margaret, The Art of Reading

"It's essentially an absurd tale and not one I really got into." - Verity, Verity's Virago Venture

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Appius and Virginia - G.E. Trevelyan

Keep the titles coming on yesterday's post, folks - I'm really enjoying them.  And well done for spotting my oh-so-subtle allusion to one in my post title (but nobody spotted the deliberate mistake!)

Onto other matters.  One of the best things about blogging is, as we all know, collecting recommendations from other people's blogs and comments - so many wonderful reads we wouldn't have encountered otherwise, and I love to do my bit in recommending, since my reading tends away from the popular and well-known.  But I also love to hear recommendations from you lot, the more obscure the better, and was delighted when Virginia told me about Appius and Virginia (1932) by G.E. Trevelyan, because she thought it might be useful for my thesis (which it is) and added that the book is interesting but not brilliant.  I agree with her assessment - but I think it is still interesting enough to warrant blogging about.  Also, someone pointed out a while ago, in a comment here, that unless readers of obscure books blog about them, there will be no online record of a book.  Currently there are quite a few copies for sale online, but no synopsis or opinion on it (unless you count the ebay seller who assures the reading public that it is a 'very good book' and - coincidentally! - one he is selling.)

Appius and Virginia concerns a youngish woman, but confirmed spinster, who decides to experiment by raising an ape as a human.  I'm not a scientist and I'm not especially interested in whether or not the events of the novel could take place (I'm fairly sure they couldn't - Appius learns a lot of spoken language very quickly; I've read about apes using a form of sign language, but not verbal communication) but I'm very happy to take these things on sight, disbelief suspended.  If you would find that too tricky, this definitely isn't the novel for you!

(Incidentally, I can't see any similarities to Webster's play Appius and Virginia, nor the real-life Appius, but I am garnering my info on them from Wikipedia - step forward if you're better qualified than me to comment on the topic, and you really couldn't be less able than me.)

Virginia is rather an unsociable woman, earnest and persistent and not especially likeable.  Nor, however, is she dislikeable - her whole being seems occupied with the raising of Appius, and the reader sees very little of her character outside of this experiment.  Although I never really notice description of people's appearances, and thus cannot swear to this, to my mind Virginia looks rather like the photo I later found of Trevelyan herself (below).

In many ways, Trevelyan's novel relates to Edith Olivier's wonderful little book The Love-Child - a spinster longs for the child she cannot have through traditional avenues, and so finds a creative way to fill this void.  For it becomes clear that Virginia, although interested in the pragmatics of an experiment, is motivated chiefly by loneliness - as she explains herself, to Appius:
"I was so lonely.  I wanted you to grow up as my child.  I wanted you to be human.  I wanted you to be something even more than a child, something I’d made with my own brain out of nothing, and shaped as I wanted it, and watched grow."
Which makes it sound as though Appius becomes capable of understanding complex sentences.  I shan't spoil the direction the experiment eventually takes, although I will hint that it takes somewhat disturbing steps, but most of the novel follows his increasing understanding of language and communication - but slower than Virginia hopes.  He follows some of what she says, but not all - the progression from concrete thoughts to the abstract, for instance, takes time.  Some of Trevelyan's more experimental (and, to my mind, least successful) passages attempt to reflect the internal workings of Appius' mind:
Hand on white line above him.  Fingers won’t go over it.  Why not?  Something there; the pale blue stuff.  Hard and cold.  Try white wisps.  Hard too.  Can’t be held.  Funny.
That, by the way, is the sky seen through a window.  I can see where she is going with these sections, which flit between the primitive and the avant-garde, but ultimately I don't think Trevelyan is a good enough writer to get away with this approach.  And it is an approach which requires a very able writer - the dismantling of sentences and experimentation with language can so easily irritate, and even people like James Joyce irk rather than impress me.

While Trevelyan treats her topic in an interesting manner, she obviously has difficulty keeping the momentum going.  Each chapter adds a couple of years to the experiment, but very little changes - all the scenes take place in the house or the garden, and that gives
the novel a claustrophobic atmosphere.  Some of the scenes are done very well - when Appius first sees a mirror, for example, or his inability to distinguish between sentient and insentient objects leading to a battle with the fire - but what Appius and Virginia really lacks is humour.  Earnestness can kill a novel for me, and although Trevelyan's novel didn't die, it was a little bit wounded.

So - if this were available on shelves easily, I would probably recommend it as an interesting and unusual read.  There are the rudiments for a fascinating novel, although sadly Trevelyan doesn't have the charm or poignancy of Edith Olivier and The Love-Child.  But since it's so difficult to track down in the UK, I could only really recommend US readers hunt this out.

But I will end with possibly the most accomplished paragraph from the novel, or at least the section which met most with my approval.  Virginia imagines what her life will be like if she fails in her attempt to humanise Appius, and what follows is as striking a portrait of the lonely spinster as I have encountered.  If only the rest of the novel had been at this level.
She would go back to Earl’s Court and her bed-sitting-room – gas fire and griller, separate meters; to her consumption of novels from the lending library; her bus rides to the confectioner’s; her nightly sipping of conversation and coffee in the lounge: to middle-age in a ladies’ residential club.  Each year a little older, a little stouter or a little thinner, a little less quickly off the bus – “Come along there, please, come along,” and the struggle with umbrella and parcels through the ranks of inside passengers, and the half compassionate, half contemptuous hand of the conductor, grimy and none too gentle as she clambers down the swaying steps on to the sliding pavement. – Each year a little less bright in the after-dinner conversation; a little less able to remember the novels she has read; a little less able to find a listener; a little less able to live, yet no more ready for death.
Thanks for telling me about this, Virginia!

Monday 24 October 2011

Best Laid Plans

I intended to spend my weekend either reading lots or reviewing lots, and in the end... I did neither.  I think I only managed about ten pages of Great Expectations and ten of Nella Last's Peace all weekend, and didnt' write a word of a review.  Tut TUT.

So, instead, I shall just direct you to Darlene's lovely review of Helen Thomas' As It Was.

And, in honour of that review, ask you to suggest a good book which has a title borrowed from elsewhere (Helen Thomas' being from the Book of Common Prayer).

Here are some of my suggestions:

Mr. Weston's Good Wine by T.F. Powys (title from Jane Austen's Emma)

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (title from Henry Longfellow's 'The Fire of Drift-Wood' which is melancholy and beautiful and is here)

Told By An Idiot by Rose Macaulay (from Shakespeare's Macbeth)

Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (from Francis Bacon's 'Of Marriage and Single Life')

Faster! Faster! by E.M. Delafield (from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass)

Thanks Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield (from Shakespeare's As You Like It)

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (from Milton's Samson Agonistes)

That was good fun.  Over to you!

Sunday 23 October 2011

Song for a Sunday

I can't believe it's taken me this long to feature Beth Orton...  To be honest, Beth Orton sounds best when listened to for a whole album - and I reckon Central Reservation should be on every discerning listener's CD rack - but to give you a taste of it, here is the first track from the album: Stolen Car.  Enjoy!

All previous Sunday Songs are here.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Time for a weekend miscellany, I think you'll agree, what with it being the weekend and all. I've been tidying my books lately (for which read: moving them around the room in the futile hope that this will create more space, and shoving all non-book items under my bed, in drawers, or at the bottom of my wardrobe). Anyway, it has revealed that I have thirteen books that I've read, waiting to be reviewed... all will hopefully be revealed soon, but for today I'm going to give you a few great reviews and some interesting bits and pieces.

1.) I always love it when new blogs start up, especially ones which show the promise that Open a Book does - Geetanjali writes some very persuasive reviews, such as this one on Watership Down, and she's also keen to find a Reading Challenge to adopt - if you have any good ideas, go here and help her out.

2.) My friend Katie has set up a baking blog, so pop over and visit if you're a fan of baking...

3.) There can be few more delightful blogging experiences than seeing a beloved book being appreciated by a much-admired blogger.  Recently I've had that pleasure two-fold, since both Eva and Rachel have recently reviewed one of my favourite novels, The Love-Child, on my 'recommendation'.  (Those inverted commas are for the pressure I exerted upon Rachel, which was akin to harrassment.  Eva went and surprised me by reading it, unpressured!)  Click on their names to read their very wonderful reviews of this exceptional little book.

4.) I think I'm going to address the Literary Merit vs. Readability debate in another post, mostly because I haven't decided what I think and will need to ramble on a bit to find out.  But go and prepare yourself by reading Simon S's post here, and join in the flourishing debate in the comments box.

5.) And finally the annual 24 Hour Readathon is running in memory of Dewey [thanks for telling me about this, Jackie], and although it's rather more hours than I could cope with , do pop over to Sasha's blog and see what she has planned.  It's pretty ambitious!

I had intended to feature some recent books too, but this feels like enough to be getting on with.  Perhaps next weekend I'll just do a round-up of books which have found their way to me in the past few weeks... for now, enjoy a bit of clicking around the blogosphere!

Thursday 20 October 2011

How To Sing (Virginia Graham)

Here is the first chapter from Virginia Graham's wonderful Here's How - 'How To Sing'.  I learnt a lot...

In order to be able to sing it is necessary to be able to do so.  Many people, eager not to be left out of things - things such as weddings or the dedication of British Legion huts - open their mouths hopefully in the chanting of "Oh Perfect Love" or "Jerusalem" yet, though enunciating the words with commendable clarity, remain, musically, on one note.  This, though the note be ever so loud and ever so pure, is not singing, and it is wise, before embarking on a strenuous vocal course, to discover from friends whether you are or are not deaf.  They will only be happy to provide the information which, strangely enough, may come as a surprise to you.

Having ascertained that your rendering not only of "Night and Day", which happens all too conveniently to be on one note, but also of "Oh for the Wings of a Dove" or, damn it, "God Save the King" is recognisable, you should, if you want to sing properly, do exercises.  Singing in the bath, in a cheerful "savonard" fashion is no use at all for, as you will have learned at life's knobbly knee, the road to success is invariably painful.  To achieve anything worth while you must experience discomfort and get thoroughly depressed.  (This does not apply to asparagus which can be procured simply by being rich.)

The whole secret of singing is not to breathe.  You should therefore educate your mind into believing the life does not depend on breath alone and that air, whether on a G string or not, isn't in the least important.  Not only must the breath be constrained but practically everything else as well should be rigidly disciplined, particularly the stomach.  It is then, when the body deprived of air and activity, begins to become atrophied that musical notes, rebelling against this unnatural state, force their way with a plaintive whining noise to the surface.  The neck, being shaped on narrower lines than the bits below it, forms an obstacle, indeed a bottle-neck, to ascending scales, and the tongue is, of course, hopelessly redundant.  So that while most portions of the body should be kept tightly under control the neck and the tongue should wave loosely, like a demi-mondaine saying goodbye to Tosti.  To be tight below the shoulders and loose above them calls for biological ingenuity but if you spend a few hours every day holding your breath and waggling your head from side to side with your tongue hanging out you will soon get results.  These vary from falling in a faint on the floor to being sick.

The vowel sounds, ah, ee, oh, oo (but not, I think, y) form the basic language of all singing practice, and it is usual to run up and down the keyboard, metaphorically speaking of course, to these words until the top of the head blows off.  Notes, if one is thoroughly musical, are constantly seeking freedom, but it is a singer's duty to keep them in a condition of perpetual frustration, making giant efforts to deter them from doing what they want.  This, owing to the peculiarities of the human torso, is to come down the nose. Every note that would fain rock the chandeliers with a fine nasal bellow must be squashed back on to the vocal chords and re-directed round the teeth.  It takes an infinite number of years to establish ascendancy over these wayward breves, and anybody who thinks he can ah, ee for a week and then sing "Verdi Prati" to a Mothers' Union is a fool.

Having produced, after many months of abdominal and laryngitical exercise, a sound that can be called a note, you should permit yourself to sing a song; and this must, it absolutely must be sung in front of a looking-glass.  Even though the sounds are being squeezed up from God knows where and squeezed through God knows what the process of compression must not show on the face.  Distorted mouths, semaphoring eyebrows and great big agonised eyes should be severely strictured.  You should aim to look serene and unbreathing like some beautiful pink and white instrument draped in lace or, of course, a starched dickey.  There should be no signs of struggle save in the furtive wiping of hands on pocket handkerchiefs in the intervals.

I am assuming that you are confining your vocal operations to the concert platform, for opera singing is a very different affair. During the required dramatic exertions the face can of course get as anguished as it likes, the hands can wring themselves like rags and great generous gestures of despair can swept the carafes right off notre petite table without anybody becoming embarrassed.  Only when opera singers knock down whole pieces of scenery or take a peeler off Valhalla on to the stage are they considered to have gone too far.

It is possible - people are so idiotic - that you may fancy yourself as an opera singer, visualising splendid nights at Covent Garden when you knock them for six with your Butterfly, mow them down with your Wotan; but before indulging too deeply in dreams it is well to pause a moment and consider.  Not only will you have to sing loud but also long, memorising your roles in French, Italian and German so that the English versions, which you will invariably use, puzzle and confuse you.  You will have to learn the art of making love in a tender way to a colleague who is, as are you, looking at the conductor, and you will assuredly have to die, propped up on one elbow on a very draughty stage for a very long time.

Many are called to enter opera, but few are chosen and these are usually rather fat.  So unless Joan Hammond AND Joan Cross tell you you'd make a ripping Mimi; unless Walter Midgeley AND Walter Widdop cry "By jove, here's a smashing Siegfried!" my advice to you is to stick to the platform.  Platforms can be hired for quite a modest sum and they can be sent back and forgotten about the following day.

It is a good thing for a singer to sing in tune.  Difficult as it is to reach a note it is doubly difficult to stay there, and indeed I would suggest that should you lose more than a tone and a half in the course of an aria you should think seriously about pursuing some other vocation.  Many singers also, while aiming at a particular note, become waylaid by others en route and this, which is called in musical circles, a "scoop", caused a certain amount of pain to purists who prefer to reach B flat in one go.  In crooning, of course, everything is inverted, and it is very bed form to find the note you're looking for straight off.  It should be approached obliquely and slid up on (and sometimes over) like a main road on a wet day.  But then, crooning is not singing.  It is much too natural and much too easy.

An incessant tremolo is also to be avoided, as not only is it very ugly but it is associated in an audience's mind with nerves, anything that wobbles, be it knee or epiglottis, giving an impression of doubt and insecurity.  Already anxious relatives may easily panic and make for the doors if your quavers oscillate too freely.  A coloratura soprano, which you most certainly will not be, does, it is true, rush about the top register in acrobatic trills, but she invariably sounds as though she were doing it on purpose, not as though she couldn't help it.  That will be the difference between you and her.

Enunciation of words, however silly they may be, should be crystal clear, and this is by no means an easy task since composers rarely bother with the words of their songs and expect singers to sing phrases such as "My love is a singing bird" or "Where can I go to find my rest?" on bat-high notes.  It not being possible to sing A and say I at the same time the result sounds like this: "Mah lahve eez ah see-ning bahd" and "Wha cahn Ah gaw to fahned mah rahst".  An effort must be made, however, to overcome these carelessly contrived hazards, and it is a good thing to practise with hot potatoes in the mouth so that when, on concert day, they are removed, it will not sound as though they were still there, if you get my meaning?

For those of you who are intelligent enough to realise, quite early on, that you are wasting your time, there are always Choral Societies.  In order to join one of these it is only necessary to be able to sing any scale in any voice you happen to have on you at the moment.  No one, since the larynx was first fully fashioned, has ever been rejected, on musical grounds, from joining a choir, and it is comforting to know that not only is it easy to become a member of some such organisation, but that apart from drunkenness or sedition there appears to be nothing on earth that can get you out once you're in.  There was once a famous choir, the master of which sought to purge it of its older members; but it was discovered that all but six of the choir were older members, most of them over seventy and none of them able to sing within the meaning of the word.  The fact that there were 500 of them accounted for the volume of sound they made and the fact that they had sung Handel's "Messiah" forty-five consecutive years accounted for their accuracy in hitting the right notes.  In any case their hearts would have broken had they been superannuated, so on they went till death brought them to the last chord.

A word of warning.  While the ability to sing well is of no importance in choral singing, to be able to read music is, if not absolutely necessary, certainly useful.  Choral works are commonly divided into four parts, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and as these are all written on top of each other it is usual, on turning the page, to get lost.  Sopranos are all right because they are singing the tune, but altos who should, several notes lower, be repeating "Oh my luv, oh my love, oh my luv" may get seduced into tagging along with the tenor who has advanced to "is like a red red rose".  You will notice I say tenor in the singular?  This is because tenors are tremendously handicapped by never being there.  They are as elusive as a demmed pimpernel and at most choir practices they number one with a slight head cold against thirty sops., twelve alts. and four basses.  Somehow basses seem to be more reliable, perhaps because they tend to be elderly and have really nothing better to do than spend an evening holding on to bottom C.

For those with modest vocal ambitions choir singing is a delightful pastime, for there is safety in numbers, and providing the mouth is open and closed at correct intervals little else is demanded.  Ambition, however, burns in many breasts, so on with the gargles and the gusty breaths, the diaphragm exercises and the first fine lamentable bashes at Percy Quilter's songs!

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Here's How - Virginia Graham

One of the best, and certainly one of the funniest, books I read in 2009 was Virginia Graham's Say Please, a faux etiquette guide from 1949.  (I wrote about it here.)  Foolishly, I did not investigate whether or not Graham had followed it up - and it was a joyful coincidence that I happened across Here's How (1951) in London a while ago, and an even more joyful discovery that it's perhaps even BETTER than Say Please.

Rather than a guide to etiquette, Here's How purports to be an instruction manual on many and various activities - from singing to redecorating to playing the piano to laying a carpet.  Needless to say, Graham has very little of great use to impart on these topics, but the voice she adopts is one of unswerving self-confidence, coupled with a devastating lack of confidence in the abilities of her reader. It's all deliciously tongue-in-cheek and her tone is expertly judged. Sadly Osbert Lancester doesn't do the illustrations for this one, but Anton's are amusing too - as shown by this DIY Henry Moore impersonator, on the cover.

I could chirrup on forever about how much I enjoyed reading this, but I think instead I'll simply give you some excerpts. There are quite a few, but I couldn't resist. If they meet with your approval, I'll type out a whole section tomorrow (probably the first, 'How To Sing') rather than just the sentences/paragraphs which caught my eye.

How To Play The Piano
However beautiful a melody may be it requires bolstering with an accompaniment, and this does not mean, as so many people seem to think, hitting bottom C repeatedly in the hope that it may, on occasions, coincide with the tune.

How To Ride
In a clash of wills between horse and man it is imperative that man should win; otherwise horses will just go browsing about eating grass in a nonchalant fashion instead of taking people places and pulling things.

How To Paint
Unless you are made of some steely inhuman stuff or unless you have a stingy and really not very attractive streak in you, you will insist upon giving yourself a very beautiful, heavy wooden box, smelling richly of cedar, satin to the touch and containing dozens of tubes of paint.  Separate from these rotund and glistening torpedoes will be ranged, in neat compartments, brushes, turpentine and oil.  If you are zealous in your work and really want to get on you will find, in a few weeks' time that the tubes have not only become misshapen but that most of them exude paint from both ends; that all their screw caps are lost and that the orifices thereby exposed to the open air are clogged.  In consequence the box refuses to shut and, having primarily been a portable asset becomes an encumbering fixture.  Now is the time to go out and buy the capacious mackintosh shopping bag which you could have bought right at the beginning if you hadn't had such ridiculous delusions of grandeur.

How To Skate
In recent years, since the knack of freezing chemicals into a passable imitation of ice has been acquired, skating has become very much the vogue.  Even the "lower orders" who, in more natural circumstances would be employed sweeping snow from the pond's surface or feeding coke into braziers are now able to skim like birds from one end of Earl's Court to another, only pausing on their way to circumnavigate an orange.

How To Plumb
Lagging pipes is one of those things you read about in the weekly magazines and it isn't normal for a householder to get around to lagging his own. Indeed it isn't normal to do anything until it is far too late, and even then action is often confined to ringing up one's mother to ask if one can go along to her and have a bath.

Obviously this isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it is very much mine - and I think Here's How would make a fantastic present for anybody like-minded. This is exactly the sort of book which doesn't seem to appear any more (I suppose the nearest comparison are those quick-flick books flogged at Christmas - how much more wonderful Graham's collection is!) and exactly the sort of book I love to discover and stack up on my shelves.

Monday 17 October 2011

Bloomsbury Reader

I briefly mentioned Bloomsbury's latest project the other day - Bloomsbury Reader - and now I'll hand over to their press release to tell you a bit more, before recommending the titles which have Stuck-in-a-Book approval...

Actually, I'll save time.  Here is their Press Release.  To summarise: it's a good idea.

And it's all very exciting for those of you who have e-readers.  I'll be cheering from the sidelines.  And now for my subjective bit... amongst their many upcoming titles are many I know nothing about, but also some books I think are brilliant, but which haven't previously been the easiest to track down.  Here is my brief selection from Bloomsbury Reader...

Faster! Faster! by E.M. Delafield
One of my favourite of EMD's non-Provincial Lady books, this novel tells of career-woman Claudia and her mid-life crisis.  Some sad scenes, some of EMD's irrepressible humour, and a title taken from Through the Looking-Glass to boot.  If you buy one Bloomsbury Reader title, make it this one.  (They're also doing Women Are Like That and No One Now Will Know, but I've not read those yet...)

Told By An Idiot by Rose Macaulay
Ok, being totally honest I haven't actually read this, but I've read enough of RM's other novels to know that she's all-round great.  Very dry, very witty, and generally needs more attention from the blogging world and the reading world at large.

any of the titles by Ivy Compton-Burnett
It's no secret that I adore Dame Ivy and, to be honest, her books are all so similar that it doesn't really matter which you read.  They are mostly in dialogue, and are constantly surprising and unusual and deadpan-hilarious.  People will debate the proper use of a verb for pages, and then drop into conversation that someone is dead.  You'll either love Ivy or hate her - most seem to hate her, but if you love her then you'll really love her.

Ok, that's quite a brief glimpse at what they've got going on, but click here to read the whole list, and let me know what you've got your eye on.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Song for a Sunday

You might well recognise Darren Hayes' voice as being one half of Savage Garden, but this song isn't hugely like their stuff.  I think this song is quite moving, and I like the lyrics of the second verse especially.  Have a listen on your Sunday!

Friday 14 October 2011

Pieces of Eighties

When I compiled my suggestions for A Century of Books (here), Thomas rightly pointed out that I'd pretty much cheated for the 1980s.  Six of my ten suggestions for that decade really relate to different periods - because they're biographies or lit crit or whatever.  Although I think titles like A Confederacy of Dunces and The Bean Trees earn their right to be there, it's fair to say that my knowledge of 1980s literature is pretty lacking.  I didn't read my first proper book until 1991, after all.

For some reason, when I think of the 1980s all I think of is Bonnie Tyler, looking a bit like this:

So, although I won't be compiling a list for my challenge, I would still like some suggestions to get me in the right mindset for the 1980s next year.  Which books would you recommend from the 1980s, fiction or non-fiction?  You can suggest any, but I'd especially appreciate it if they were in some way 'zeitgeisty'...

I know you'll do me proud!  Over to you...

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

37. Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

I am very grateful to Erica Brown for giving a paper on Elizabeth von Arnim's excellent novel Christopher and Columbus (1919) at the conference I attended recently, as it was the incentive I needed to read it.  Not that I needed a lot of incentive - I loved both The Enchanted April and The Caravaners, as clicking on those titles will attest.  The former was very sweet, almost sentimental, in its depiction of the changing powers of a beautiful place; the latter was a bitingly ironic first-person account of an unpleasant, war-mongering German on a caravanning trip in England.  It would be difficult to think of two more different novels coming from the same author, and I wondered where my third von Arnim experience could possibly take me.  As it turned out, right in between the two - Christopher and Columbus is often very cynical, in an incredibly funny way, and yet also very endearing.  And it has twins in it.  So obviously it goes straight onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.  (We're getting quite close to the end now, aren't we?)  Prepare yourself for a fairly long review, since I got carried away... 

Christopher and Columbus are, in fact, nineteen year-old twins Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas von Twinkler.  I'll have to forgive their mother for giving her twins essentially the same name, because she is dead - as the novel begins, these half-German, half-English girls are living with their abhorrant Uncle Arthur and long-suffering Aunt Alice, and war breaks out.  Uncle Arthur can't stand opening his house up to enemy aliens (even if they are his wife's relations) and so packs them off on a boat to America, neutral in 1916 when this is set.  They don't really see themselves as German, as they explain to Mr. Twist, an adorable young man they meet on the boat - and the rich inventor of Twist's Non-Trickling Teapot.
Anna-Rose watched his face. "It [our surname] isn't only Twinkler," she said, speaking very distinctly.  "It's von Twinkler."

That's German," said Mr. Twist; but his face remained serene.
"Yes. And so are we. That is, we would be if it didn't happen that we weren't."

"I don't think I quite follow," said Mr. Twist.

"It is very difficult," agreed Anna-Rose. "You see, we used to have a German father."

"But only because our mother married him," explained Anna-Felicitas. "Else we wouldn't have."

"And though she only did it once," said Anna-Rose, "ages ago, it has dogged our footsteps ever since."
The most delicious thing about this novel (and it is a very delicious novel) is undoubtedly the twins' dialogue.  It's such a delight to read.  I don't quite know how to describe it - maybe as though it had been translated into German and back again?  But not just that, they both have such a captivatingly unusual outlook on life.  Their logic swirls in circles which dizzy the listener; their conversations would feel at home at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party - and yet they are lovely, kind, fundamentally good people - and without being remotely irritating.

Those of you who've been reading Stuck-in-a-Book for a while will know I like twin novels - but I also like to judge 'em.  The cardinal sins of putting twins in a book are (a) making them exactly like each other, (b) making them exact opposites of each other, and (c) having them ever be surprised at the fact that they are twins.  You'd be surprised yourself at how often the third of these happens - as though being a twin weren't something completely ingrained in the characters, and they happened to forget that they looked like their sibling etc.  Personally, I find the idea of not being a twin incredibly weird.  Your sibling doesn't share your birthday?  Didn't start school when you did, or have the same bedtime and pocket money?  Very strange. (!)

Sorry, sidetracked.  As I was saying, Elizabeth von Arnim was being put the test - and passed with flying colours.  Well, nearly.  I got irritated by them dressing the same as each other at the age of nineteen (THIS WOULD NOT HAPPEN), but we'll let that slide.  They are very believable as twins - wrapped up in each other's worlds, but with their own personalities.  While Mr. Twist may think of them 'as one person called, generally, Twinklers', this is not how they see themselves.  Anna-Rose is a little more sensible and also more sensitive; Anna-Felicitas is dreamy and other-worldly and yet often the most tenacious when it comes to arguing a point.  They make such a wonderful duo, and carry the heart of Christopher and Columbus - even if the rest of the novel had been drab and dull (which it is not) they alone would make it a worthwhile vibrant read.

For the majority of the novel they are being hurried from pillar to post.  The ocean voyage takes up a lot of the narrative, as they meet their fellow-passengers pleasant and unpleasant, and most significantly Mr. Twist, who (by the end of the journey) considers them akin to sisters.  Whether or not the good people of 1916 America will share this outlook is more open to debate - he has a particularly tricky time in Clark, at the home of his self-delusional, tyrannical mother and put-upon sister.  Elizabeth von Arnim's portrait of small-town life hasn't dated much in a hundred years (although I still love small towns and villages):

It was the habit of Clark to believe the worst.  Clark was very small, and therefore also very virtuous.  Each inhabitant was the careful guardian of his neighbour's conduct.  Nobody there ever did anything that was wrong; there wasn't a chance.  But as Nature insists on a balance, the minds of Clark dwelt curiously on evil.  They were minds active in suspicion.  They leapt with an instantaneous agility at the worst conclusions.  Nothing was ever said in Clark, but everything was thought.
But before they arrive in Clark they travel all over America, bad luck meeting them at every turn.  While von Arnim relies heavily on coincidence for the events of this section of the novel (including a very amusing section where a taxi-driver thinks the Annas are dressed for a funeral, when they have no knowledge that their host is dead) it's all done so endearingly that it doesn't matter.

Part of the amusement comes from the girls' unfamiliarity with the brave new not-really-so-neutral world they have entered.  They are not accustomed to the American practice of tipping, nor the absence of afternoon tea, as is evinced after they have been instructed in the art of the former by an insolent hotel employee:

"He might have said thank you," she said indignantly to Anna-Felicitas, giving a final desperate brushing to the sulphur.

"I expect he'll come to a bad end," said Anna-Felicitas soothingly.

They had tea in the restaurant and were the only people doing such a thing, a solitary cluster in a wilderness of empty tables laid for dinner. It wasn't the custom much in America, explained Mr. Twist, to have tea, and no preparations were made for it in hotels of that sort. The very waiters, feeling it was a meal to be discouraged, were showing their detachment from it by sitting in a corner oof the room playing dominoes.
It is, in fact, the lack of afternoon tea which spurs them on to their next project.  And, frankly, I can think of no better reason for doing anything.  They decide to set up a tea room called The Open Arms, specialising in expensive afternoon teas.  I shan't tell you any more of the plot, because there is plenty in the 500 pages to discover for yourself (including an ending which I felt did let down the tone a little), but I did want to mention The Open Arms as a means of introducing you to Mrs. Bilton.  She is the cook hired, ostensibly to cook, but mostly to lend an air of respectability to the endeavour.  Mrs. Bilton is a hilarious creation.  She does nothing but talk.  No interruptions - save screaming in her face - have the least effect on her.  Mrs. Bilton is every talkative older lady you have ever known, multiplied by a thousand.  Mostly she talks about herself, her thoughts, and the varying state of her psyche.

The twins were profoundly bored by her psyche, chiefly because they didn't know what part of her it was, and it was no use asking for she didn't answer; but they listened with real interest to her concrete experiences, and especially to the experiences connected with Mr. Bilton.  They particularly wished to ask questions about Mr. Bilton, and find out what he had thought of things.  Mrs. Bilton was lavish in her details of what she had thought herself, but Mr. Bilton's thoughts remained impenetrable.  It seemed to the twins that he must have thought a lot, and have come to the conclusion that there was much to be said for death.

Oh, how I love E von A's turn of phrase, which slips so quickly from the merely ironic to the ever so slightly biting.  It is this stream of cynicism which prevents the general ebullience of the twins from ever becoming wearing, and which makes the novel so wonderful.  She really is a brilliant writer, and has been underappreciated - she seems to be remembered (if she as remembered at all) chiefly as a whimsical, fey writer.  But like Austen, her tongue can be as sharp as it is charming.

I'm taking a bit of a risk, putting Christopher and Columbus on my 50 Books list when there are so many other E von A titles I've yet to encounter.  Perhaps I will end up preferring one of her others, but I will still believe that this particular novel has been unjustly neglected and want to do my best to create fanfare for it.  I promise you'll be enchanted by Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas, and probably repeat fragments of their dialogue aloud to anyone who will listen.

And now I turn over to you - which E von A ought I to read next?

Things to get Stuck into:

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
(1942) - I haven't blogged about this, because I borrowed it and had to return it, but it's absolutely wonderful as an accompaniment - serendipitously, I read it immediately after the E von A novel.  It's non-fiction, about a 1920s trip around Europe by two excited, somewhat green American girls.  The transcontinental trip is thus the other way round, but their experiences are equally amusing and eye-opening.  This book is an absolute scream, and would also be loved by fans of the Provincial Lady.

Monday 10 October 2011

Cakes galore!

Thanks for your advice about focaccia - I did all those things, and it was far *too* wet.  Like, actually liquid.  So that's the last time I trust Paul Hollywood.

Luckily I have no such trouble with sweet things (is this the kitchen's way of telling me to steer away from savoury?) So today I thought I'd share some of my baking creations with you - through photos and recipes, if not actually in edible form. Here they all are:

Obviously I didn't make the crisps, but the rest are products of my hours in the kitchen. Some of you were asking for recipes, so I thought I'd make this into one of my absolutely-simple-easy-baking posts, which can be ignored by those of you who are either (a) much better bakers than me, or (b) wholly uninterested in baking. But everyone likes looking at pictures of cake, right? I'm only actually going to type out one full recipe today, but will link to another two, and explain a fourth.

First things first, and the thing which went down best with the dozen or so people who came to eat cake, we have mini chocolate orange tortes. I basically put together elements of three different recipes from Afternoon Teas by Valerie Ferguson, and added the twist of orange zest. I've made chocolate torte before, but I thought it might be fun, and easier to serve, to make lots of mini tortes. I think it worked better - more pastry in the pastry-to-ganache ratio, which makes them feel a little less rich. I'll list the ingredients in various measuring forms at the beginning, and then just in grams as I go on. It's annoying to have to scroll up and down a webpage, if you're making them from a computer screen...

Mini Chocolate Orange Tortes

Makes about 18

For the Pastry
225g/8oz/2 cups plain (all-purpose) flour
115g/4oz/half a cup butter/margarine
Two tablespoons icing (confectioners') sugar
1 egg
teaspoon vanilla essence

For the Filling
335ml/11 fl oz/one and a third cups double (heavy cream)
350g/12oz dark chocolate
Zest of an orange

You'll also need a fairly shallow cupcake baking tray - if that's the correct name for one with 12 inlays for cupcake cases! (Or, in this case, tortes.) Until I learn a better word for those things, I'm calling them 'inlays' - which sounds ridiculous, but I have to call them something. This is the one I used, which I think came from Robert Dyas:

1.) Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6 (imagine degree signs there, would you?)

2.) Sift 225g plain flour into a bowl, add 115g diced butter/margarine, and work with fingers until it's breadcrumby.
I always use a wooden spoon to start with, because I hate putting my hands in mixture at the best of times - once the margarine is worked in a bit, it's less unpleasant.

3.) Stir in two tablespoons icing sugar, then add an egg (which you should have beaten in a mug or similar first). Also add a tablespoon of water, or slightly less. Better less than more at this point. Work into a dough.

4.) Roll out into a dough.
Those five little words sound so easy... I hate using dough, which seems to delight in getting stuck everywhere. So I put flour all over the counter and the rolling pin and my hands and EVERYTHING. It should be rolled pretty thin, but not so you can see the counter through it.

5.) Cut into circles with a cookie-cutter. I didn't have a cutter big enough, so used a tupperware container. Crucially, the circles have to be big enough to go up the sides of your baking tray inlays, otherwise the filling won't work... Once you've cut your circles, put them in the pre-greased tray.

6.) Prick the bases with a fork, line each one with baking parchment (squares will do) and ceramic baking beans.
If you don't own ceramic baking beans (and you should!) then any dried beans will do, or rice, or anything heat-proof to weigh the pastry down so it doesn't rise while baking.

7.) Bake for 10 minutes - then remove paper and beans, and return to oven for another 5 or so minutes, until they're golden. Remove from the tin and put on a cooling rack.

Depending on how deep the tray inlays are, you may have to bake some more cases now (I did) - reusing the baking parchment, of course.

You might need a bit of a break before you do the next step, as the filling doesn't take long and the pastry cases need to be cool before you add it.
So... go and have a cup of tea and read a book.

Ready? Ok, let's make the filling.

8.) Bring 335ml double cream to the boil in a pan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and stir in 350g chopped dark chocolate and the zest of an orange. Keep stirring until it has all melted.
For those in the UK, I actually find that Sainsbury's Value dark chocolate works and tastes the best here. Not sure about the ethics of the chocolate production, but it's definitely cheaper and better than their other ranges.

9.) Spoon the mixture into the cases, and leave to set - putting them in the fridge when they're room temperature.

10.) The filling is *very* rich and quite smooth, and I find a topping of a cracklier chocolate is nice - I used Cocoa Nibs from Divine Deli's Decorate! which I've now sadly finished. Must find some more... don't seem to be available from their website, but you can browse their range, and now I want it ALL.

Ok, you're done. Enjoy! (I find they're at their best if they've been in the fridge overnight, so these can be made in advance of a party, maybe...)

This is looking like a long post, but the next two won't take very long, promise...

These profiteroles came from Mary Berry's Baking Bible, borrowed from Verity. It's more or less the same as this recipe here, only in the Baking Bible she doesn't leave them in the oven quite as long - the last ten minutes are optional, post-splitting of profiteroles. I didn't bother with a piping bag to put them on the tray, which is why they're a bit misshapen. My twist on the recipe was to add some Bailey's to the cream, pre-whipping, which was (though I say it myself) rather a stroke of genius. Mmmmmm. Plus, it would keep my brother away from them...

For the brownies, I followed this recipe, with no twist at all! (Measurements only in cups, so I had to do lots of online conversions.) Oddly I found it while searching for date brownie recipes, but it wasn't until I started baking that I realised they don't actually have dates in them. So now I have a packet of dates to use later!

Finally, the miniature Victoria sandwiches - this was an idea lovely Jo used on Great British Bake Off, and I thought it sounded fun. I'm not going to give the full recipe, because it's just a normal sponge cake - the difference is the presentation. Bake it in a deep, rectangular baking tin, rather than circular one. Once it cooled, I got my Holly-from-Bake-Off on, and whipped out a ruler. These are 5-by-3.5cm rectangles, but basically do sizes which look sensible. Pick cuboids of cake which look about the same size as each other - spread jam on one, butter icing on the other, and sandwich together! (For butter icing, use twice as much icing sugar as butter/marg.) A fun way to make (almost)bitesize pieces of cake which doesn't involve a lot of knife-wielding during a party. (They will, of course, go stale more quickly - but I don't know of any houses where that's really an issue...)

Phew! We're done. Hope you don't mind such a long baking post, I'll be back to books next time. Do let me know if you plan on trying out any of these recipes!

Sunday 9 October 2011

Song for a Sunday

I spent most of my waking hours yesterday baking (pictures and recipes to follow - but not for Paul Hollywood's foccacio which did not work, chuh) and quite a few of them listening to this song.  Florence and the Machine aren't (isn't?) as obscure as most of the artists I feature here, at least in this country, but this new song 'Shake It Out' is too good not to share.  Enjoy!  (And don't try to delve too deeply into the horse metaphor... I had no idea what she was singing about.)

Friday 7 October 2011

(4) All of the above...

I've been meaning to ask this question of y'all for ages, and today seems as good a day as any.  Quite a while ago, Harriet and I were discussing (in person, no less) how we ranked the three main components of what makes a novel good.  Of course, 'what makes a novel good' is subjective, and the answers are as many and varied as there are readers, but perhaps the criteria we consider when making this evaluation can be listed more succintly.  (Succint, me?  Yes, I know...)

Anyway, broadly speaking there are three things readers ponder on when evaluating how good a novel is.   They are plot, character, and writing style.

With me so far?  Are we all agreed?  Doubtless we aren't, but let's assume (for, ironically, the sake of argument) that we are.

Well, then - what order would you put these in, in terms of priority?  Ideally, a novel would have an engaging plot, well-drawn characters and accomplished writing style - but not every novel can be Pride and Prejudice, can it?  If you have to rank them... how would you rank them?

Long-term SiaB readers might not be surprised at the order I choose:

1.) writing style
2.) character
3.) plot

Yes, plot comes a long way third for me.  If I find a book to be badly written, nothing can save it in my eyes.  I could just about forgive a book for having lacklustre characters if it is beautifully written (this is my experience with, say, Virginia Woolf's The Waves) but I can happily, contentedly adore a novel where nothing happens - so long as the writing is good and the characters well-drawn.

All this, of course, requires sweeping generalisations... over to you, grab a broom, start sweepin'!

Thursday 6 October 2011

The Tiny Wife - Andrew Kaufman

Rebecca at The Friday Project, an imprint of Harper Collins, very kindly sent me a copy of a teeny tiny book called The Tiny Wife, by Andrew Kaufman - who is apparently famous for All My Friends are Superheroes, of which I have to confess ignorance.  It immediately ticked a lot of boxes for me.  (1) it's short, (2) it's fantastic-but-not-fantasy, and (3) it has attractive silhouettey pictures which remind me of that wonderful scene in the penultimate Harry Potter film where the story of the Deathly Hallows is told.

The novella kicks off with a bank robbery - of sorts.  As the opening lines say:

The robbery was not without consequences.  The consequences were the point of the robbery.  It was never about money.  The thief didn't even ask for any.  That it happened in a bank was incidental.  It could have just as easily happened in a train station or a high school or the Musée d'Orsay.
The thief takes, instead, takes the item of the greatest sentimental value to each person - be it a photograph, a watch, a Camus book or even a calculator.  The thief explains that these objects contain some of their possessors' souls.
"Listen, I'm in a bit of a rush, so let me conclude.  When I leave here, I will be taking 51 percent of your souls with me.  This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives.  But more importantly, and I mean this quite literally, learn how to grow them back, or you will die."
And he's quite right.  The strange consequences occupy most of the rest of this slim volume.  One woman's lion tattoo leaps from her ankle and chases her everywhere, a man's office fills with water, another man's mother keeps subdiving into smaller versions of herself... and Stacey, the tiny wife of the title, is gradually shrinking.  She and her husband, who occasionally takes the first-person narrative, must discover how to halt the process.

I loved the idea, as I said.  It's just the kind of off-the-wall thing I like when I'm not curled up with a cosier 1930s novel.  And I did enjoy it - Kaufman obviously has an incredible imagination, and even a touch of sentimentality which is all too often missing from surreal works (the final line of The Tiny Wife is brilliant).  His style is great - deadpan in the way I love.  The more fantastic a story is, the more matter-of-fact the writing should be.  Yet sometimes the story itself all seemed a bit too off-the-wall - as though he were putting down the next zany idea to pop into his head.  The overall concept was great, but the details didn't seem to wholly cohere - why were certain things happening in relation to certain objects being given?  What role did the thief play?  I don't need everything to be explained in a book, far from it, but I like to know that the author has everything under control - that his imagination won't escape his grasp.  Take the ur-text of all fantastic books, for example: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.   It's totally mad, nothing makes sense or seems to relate to anything else - but somehow Lewis Carroll weaves a distorted internal logic throughout, and is obviously in control.

But it's a faint criticism of a short, enjoyable (mad) read - I would love to read more of Kaufman's work, and I can only see him getting better.

Others who got Stuck into it:

"Fun, cute, quirky and well worth a read." - Boof, The Book Whisperer

"[...]what might have come across as overly whimsical instead becomes real, and carries the dramatic weight of a problem to be solved[...]" - David, Follow the Thread