Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A Woolf mystery. . .

The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron has been my bus reading for the last few days. I haven't read any of her Jane Austen mysteries, but was willing to give this a go, especially since I've been to Sissinghurst and seen the famous White Garden - and would love to return.

It was a pleasant enough read. Jo Bellamy is a garden designer who is commissoned to replicate the White Garden for a wealthy client - who also has romantic designs on her. She is intrigued by the history of Sissinghurst when she discovers that her grandfather Jock - who recently committed suicide - worked briefly as a gardener for the Nicholsons during the Second World War. When she visits the estate, Jo discovers - and borrows - half a notebook with Jock's name on it, but not his handwriting, found amongst the garden archives in a toolshed. The notebook is in the form of a diary, and she suspects it could be written by Virginia Woolf. Thus begins a madcap quest through Sotheby's, Oxford, Cambridge and Rodmell, to discover how and why, especially since the first entry takes place the day after Woolf walked into the River Ouse. Barron uses the three weeks between when Virginia left her farewell notes for Leonard and Vanessa, and when her body was found, to posit an entirely different set of events. Could Virginia, for example, have been murdered instead?

The mystery - which involves espionage, the Apostles and the Cambridge spies - is what kept me reading, despite some rather silly characters and romantic subplots, and too many British versus American cliches. I think any librarian, archivist or academic will also be groaning to see how easily Barron's characters can bring coffee into famous libraries, talk their way into historic homes out of hours, or be left alone long enough with important documents to easily steal them. Still, as far as commercial fiction goes, this was entertaining enough.

Monday, 23 November 2009

(The Boeuf en Daube was a perfect triumph). . .

My new fall toy is a slow cooker that I bought this weekend and the first recipe I had to try was Boeuf en Daube. Now, this isn't exactly Mrs. Ramsay's version (or her cook's, I should say) which took three days to prepare. My recipe only needed the beef to marinate in wine and herbs overnight. I decided to omit the optional pig's trotter. The next day it was just a matter of cutting up the vegetables and popping it all into the crockpot.

Six hours later, I had this:

And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion . . .
'It is a triumph,' said Mr Bankes, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked. How did she manage these things in the depth of the country? he asked her. She was a wonderful woman.

Shiny walls, check. Savoury brown meats, check. Yellow meats - no (maybe the pig's trotter?), but I did add some potatoes even though the recipe didn't call for them. So there is some yellow. Hmmm, no bay leaf in the recipe but there is parsley. And white wine. It was rich, the vegetables were very tender; the meat, just a tad overcooked, but still delicious. I managed in the heart of the city and I feel quite full and wonderful. I certainly have lots of leftovers and I'd definitely make this again for a dinner party. One tip - have some crusty bread on hand; there are lots of tasty juices to mop up.

The recipe was taken from this book.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Unspoken Truth. . .

Bloomsbury fans will be interested in an upcoming work of fiction by Virginia Woolf's niece, Angelica Garnett who is still alive and in her nineties. I've had a chance to read an advance galley of The Unspoken Truth (out in the U.K. in January and in Canada in February) and while I don't want to write too much about it until it's published, I can say that it seems very autobiographical and is painfully moving to read - rather beautifully so. It's a collection of four stories all revolving around artists - one in particular told from a child's point of view. I read her memoir Deceived With Kindness a number of years ago (which I also recommend) and there are very similar themes between the two books. It also reminded me very much of A.S. Byatt's recent novel A Children's Book, in its depiction of the unhappiness and sometimes damage inflicted on children by a boheminan and artistic lifestyle. I shall be very interested to see the press coverage on this in the new year, and also the reaction of Woolf scholars. I'm also looking forward to seeing the physical book itself - it certainly has a very beautiful cover.

Monday, 16 November 2009

A passionate weekend: Lorca and Flamenco. . .

I love weekends that aren't necessarily planned around a theme but just end up that way.

I'm a season subscriber to the Tarragon Theatre and often go with my friend K. We'd booked a Saturday matinee of their latest production - Rocking the Cradle - a few weeks ago, but being busy, I didn't really read up on the play ahead of time and didn't realize it was an adapation of Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma. And then I happened to buy a ticket for Toronto's Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company which coincidentally just happened to be offering a program of flamenco dancing inspired by Lorca's life - on the evening of my matinee. It was perfect serendipity. Then Tarragon called to let me know there would be a pre-play talk by a York University professor who had directed a student production of Yerma. I went to that too - he gave some good background on the playwright and stressed the importance of the poetry, primitivism and social commentary in Lorca's plays.

I hadn't previously read or seen any productions of Lorca, so in preparation, I spent the morning reading three of his most famous plays, all written during the 1930s - Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. I loved them - the poetic language, the intensity of the emotions, and all these powerfully strong, yet pained and desperate women characters. In the introduction to my collection, Lorca's brother Francisco writes about how Lorca drew on classical Spanish theatre traditions for his own plays: "Our ancient theatre is a holiday - a great holiday for the spirit, for the eyes and for the ears," writes Francisco. "No modern playwright has made the musical and the plastic share in the theatre to the extent that Federico did."

Unfortunately, all these poetic and passionate elements seemed to be missing in Rocking the Cradle, an adaptation that creatively tried to re-imagine the story in Newfoundland, but suffered from a rather weak cast, and a distracting and unnecessary stage scrim. So disappointing because I really was in the mood to see a powerful production.

The Flamenco dancing was terrific though and had my toes tapping throughout. Great musicians, and fiery feet combined with beautiful control from the dancers. Coincidentally, I had recently purchased Carlos Saura's Flamenco Trilogy DVD set as I loved his movie Tango. I watched all three movies this weekend as well - Blood Wedding ( a filmed rehearsal of a ballet based on Lorca's play), Carmen (in which life intersects with art as the choreographer of a flamenco version of Bizet's opera falls in love with his leading lady) and El Amor Brujo, about a man in love with a woman who can't stop mourning her dead but unfaithful husband. All three were wonderful - heart-pounding and seductive. They made me want to wear a red dress with flounces and rapidly stamp my feet. I also have his later film titled simply Flamenco and will watch it soon. I can't wait - no one films dance better than Saura. The office is going to seem completely colourless and dull by comparison tomorrow morning.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

On not blogging. . .

Oh dear, it's been so long since I last blogged.

I wish I had a more interesting or original excuse than work and a personal life taking up my time, (the latter more than ever lately, but in a good way), but it's just a fact that blogging is time-consuming and I have another blog that I contribute to that's a bit more work related (though not exclusively) and I have been focusing more on that lately, especially since I'm in the midst of a big reading challenge. And since there's a lot of crossover in terms of my interests, it doesn't make sense to blog twice about the same subject. But I'm going to try and keep this one more focused on the original idea behind it - to explore this amazing literary, artistic and historical time period of Woolf's lifetime and highlight not only new books in this category, but those new to me at any rate, as I continue to read my way through the vast literature - my ongoing lifetime project. I'll continue to comment on new and relevant art exhibits, movies and theatre productions that come my way too.