Thursday, 24 November 2011

One For The Sweet Tooth. . .

One of my weaknesses is definitely the marshmallow.  I once had dreams of opening up The MarshMellow Cafe, a place devoted to hot chocolate, s'mores and rice crispy squares, and where urban dwellers could gather around a roaring fireplace and roast their marshmallows all year round without worrying about mosquitos.  Then someone pointed out that it would never pass fire codes.  Oh well, another dream dashed.

So you can understand why I got excited about the latest recipe posted by Smitten Kitchen for Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Biscuits. Take a look - honestly, they look really good!

My favourite marshmallows in Toronto are the passionfruit ones made by Bobbette & Belle located in Leslieville.  Their toasted coconut ones are also delicious (not to mention their cupcakes and lemon meringue tarts).  If you order a hot chocolate they will toast a marshmallow with a blowtorch and add it on top. Brilliant.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

When a Great Story Calls. . .

     It's getting chilly and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is the perfect one-sitting read on a couch, huddled under a blanket with a cup of tea close by.  Reading this amazing book full of thrilling writing and storytelling, I really felt transported to my younger bookworm self. The kid in me was scared and seduced; the adult in me was an emotional wreck by the end.
     Conor is a thirteen year old going through a tough time.  His mother is getting treatments for her cancer and doesn't seem to be getting any better, his father has moved to the U.S. with his new wife and baby, he's getting bullied at school and his brash and opinionated grandmother is coming to stay. Worse of all are the nightmares he keeps having.  One of them involves the yew tree he can see outside his window.  This tree turns into a raging monster at night, breaking windows to enter his room and insisting that he will tell Conor three tales. After he's finished he promises that Conor will have to tell one of his own, whether he wants to or not.  Conor wakes up convinced it's all a dream.  Until he sees that his floor is covered with a carpet of the tree's needles. . .
     I'm not going to reveal anything further except to say that the monster's stories have wonderfully unexpected and ambiguous endings.  I love books that challenge the reader's imagination without being overly didactic. This is also a gorgeously designed book with menacing illustrations used to great effect by Jim Kay. Make sure you take the dust jacket off if you get your hands on a copy. The book was "inspired" by Siobhan Dowd, a favourite YA author of mine  (her novel A Swift Pure Cry is terrific) and there's an added layer of sadness that she died - also from cancer - before she could write this last book.  Patrick Ness has paid an excellent tribute to her.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A Must Have. . .

Lusting after this. Table of contents located here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Grass is Always Greener. . .

Westwood is completely different from Stella Gibbons' classic novel Cold Comfort Farm, but it is still an enjoyable read; the wit is less employed (though very welcome when it is) and the subject matter and main character more sober in outlook and temperment, but Gibbons has still crafted an original and unusual book populated by a wacky set of characters. There may be nothing nasty in the woodshed but there's certainly a lot of uncomfortableness in both Westwoods, two dissimilar houses in different parts of London representing two possible (and fantastical) options for Margaret Steggles, a plain, bookish schoolteacher, only twenty-three but resigned to the fact that she will probably never get married. She is an observer more than an object of attention, a woman, "still far from the peace of middle age, which has learned to enjoy gardening more than people, and people were what interested her, not wheelbarrows and secateurs."

This 1946 novel is set mostly in London during the blackouts of the Second World War, which intrudes periodically but stays mostly in the background. Margaret lives with her parents - an opinionated and bitter mother, and her frequently absent father who likes to escapes his unhappy home life by having affairs. Margaret too longs to flee permanently and she enviously eyes both Westwoods. One is a sickly sweet house in the suburbs belonging to her father's friend Dick Fletcher, who has a young daughter "not quite like other children", who needs looking after when his housekeeper is hurt in a raid.  The other is the far grander Westwood of famous playright Gerald Challis, father-in-law to a famous painter and grandfather to three children that Margaret also gets saddled with taking care of.  He too has a roving eye and it doesn't alight on Margaret but on her best friend, the vivacious Hilda who knows him only under an assumed name after a chance meeting in the fog.

The world swirls energetically around Margaret as she longs for a more interesting life and I will admit to being frustrated around the middle of the novel with her refusal to see how easily she's taken advantage of by selfish people that don't deserve her adulation, much less respect. But I was still intrigued to see how Gibbons would resolve the story and I'm glad I stuck with it. This is not the WWII London of Patrick Hamilton or Elizabeth Bowen,  Sarah Waters' Night Watch or Mary Wesley's The Camomile Lawn, but Westwood shares that universal search for happiness and human connection, made more urgent during war - at least in this case -  by the drabness of the homefront and the narrowing options for husbands, deceivers as they may be. If there's a message - and this pops up in a lot of women's fiction from this period - it's to find your own type of happiness that doesn't necessarily rely on the opinions of others.

I'm glad this novel was brought back into print. Vintage UK have also released Gibbons'  Starlight, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, and Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm.  I'll also have to get a copy of Nightingale Wood, re-issued two years ago by Virago.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Lest We Forget. . .

Today I'm going to start reading The Beauty and The Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund, translated by Peter Graves.  It's the history of twenty ordinary people during the war but with a real international perspective that I think will be illuminating, thought-provoking and unlike any other history of the war that I have read. Dwight Garner has a review  here in the New York Times in which he notes that the book, "has the most devastating ending I can remember in a piece of nonfiction".

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Into the Brilliance. . .

It's been a magnificent week so far for filling my head with awe and admiration for some of Canada's incredible writers and thinkers.  On Monday night, I headed over to Wade Davis's event at the Toronto Public Library. His new book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest is definitely in my top 10 books of the year.  He's an incredible speaker and accompanied by a slide show, he really brought the stories of the twenty-six men who were part of the Everest expeditions in 1921-1924 to life, particularly the horrors they'd suffered in the First World War.  The book is incredibly detailed and researched (he's been working on it for over ten years) but after hearing him speak, it's clear that his mission was to really honour the incredible lives of these men, each of whom could have had a biography all to themselves; attempting to climb Everest in many cases was the least of their accomplishments.  The grandson of Arthur Wakefield, a military doctor on the expedition who had spent a number of years in Canada working in the isolated communities of Newfoundland and Labrador, was in attendance and he brought a pair of thick mittens and Wakefield's wooden ice pick/pole that had gone to Everest with him. I got to handle the latter and it gave me goosebumps. Wakefield's story is really heartbreaking; he was working in a casualty station just behind the front lines during the Battle of the Somme where the Newfoundland regiment - many of whom he knew personally - was decimated during that horrific day.

Davis, who holds the wonderful title of Explorer-In-Residence for the National Geographic Society, also wanted to tell the story from the Tibetan point of view and he spent a couple of months living and researching in Tibet. It's as much a book about the arrogance of British imperialism as it is about exploration and the post-war culture of England. And yes, even the Bloomsbury set shows up. What I found engrossing about the talk was Davis' excitement at the strange turns his research took him. After all, this is definitely not the first book on George Mallory.  But by delving extensively into the war records of all these men, he was able to bring new perspectives to their motivations and actions. AND he was able to unearth the diaries of Canadian surveyor Oliver Wheeler who he credits with finding the approach to Everest that the expedition eventually used.  If you don't have time to read the book, you can hear the whole of his amazing talk (accompanied by slides) in three parts, Part One, Part Two and Part Three.  Well worth a listen.

Have you been listening to this year's Massey Lectures by Adam Gopnik ? (American born, but Canadian raised, so I'll claim him for this country).  His theme is Winter: Five Windows on the Season and while I've only heard three of the lectures so far, I know I'll definitely be buying the book.  Tuesday's lecture on Radical Winter and the culture of the polar expeditions, from the race across the Arctic of Frankenstein and his monster, to Apsley Cherry-Gerard's The Worst Journey in the World,  was fascinating, particularly in light of thinking about how heroism and exploration changed between those Antarctic journeys of Scott and Shackleton, and the Everest attempts outlined by Davis just a decade later, but with the horrors of the First World War sandwiched in between.  Davis notes interestingly, that several survivors of Shackleton's trip actually applied to join the Everest expedition; others of course had enlisted and been killed in the trenches. 

I think I need to go and buy Davis's The Wayfarers, his 2009 Massey Lectures.  Heck, in honour of the 50th anniversary I should go back and read them all.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Loving Online Magazines. . .

The latest edition of Five Dials, the literary magazine published by Hamish Hamilton, has landed in my inbox and it's filled with all sorts of goodies.  You can sign up here and it's free. This issue has a number of writers looking at London in light of its Occupy Movement, including a piece by Daniel Swift that reflects on Virginia Woolf's journal entries during the Blitz.  There are also some great reading suggestions and excerpts from favourite books recommended by musicians, including a cookbook  (in which you'll find out which vegetables to eat if you are angry and tense, and which to eat if you want to fuel productive creativity) and a funny piece that made me laugh, titled "The Needle and the Damage Done: What Is The Best Title For a Book On Knitting?" in which Jenny Lord, author of The Purls of Wisdom, enlisted the help of other writers in choosing a suitable title.  I like "The Yarn and the Restless" and "Knit Gonna Happen" myself.

Another online magazine that I love to read is Covet Garden which focuses on home design and features really beautiful homes of ordinary and creative people in Toronto.  You can subscribe, again for free, here.  They also have a blog that showcases local designers such as Toronto artist Julie Moon who created this gorgeous ceramic poppy pin. Read more about her at this post.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

November Knitting Books. . .

Today sees the release of Vogue Knitting by Art Joinnides.  I had access to an early copy  and have been browsing through this for the last two weeks. While most of the patterns call for far more experience than my knitting skills, it's still a fascinating look through the last thirty years of knitted fashions. There are 80 patterns taken from the magazine and each is accompanied by an overview of the themes and ideas behind each issue. And I've definitely added the challenge of completing one of these patterns to the bucket list.

This month also sees the release of  Melissa Leapman's Stashbuster Knits which I've really enjoyed reading through because who doesn't have a stash of yarn crying out to be used? I like her colour wheel tips and the fact that her projects are divided by yarn weight. They are very doable projects as well, including a short cardi made from bulky wool that I'm going to attempt, and I also like the wrap shown on the cover which cleverly uses the yarn ends as fringe so no weaving is involved. Brilliant idea.

Monday, 7 November 2011

2012 IMPAC Longlist Announced. . .

The incredibly long longlist (147 titles) for the 2012 IMPAC award has been announced.  Nominated by librarians, this is an award that I always look forward to as it usually produces a very worthy winner and has personally introduced me to the writing of Per Petterson and Gerbrand Bakker. I always hope to have read at least ten titles on the list; I'm doing well this year with having read fourteen, and of those, I'd cast my vote for David Grossman's To The End of The Land , translated by Jessica Cohen which I was delighted to see was nominated by the Toronto Public Library, or The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, translated by Polly Mclean, both very powerful and emotional books about the long-term effects of war.  You can see the full longlist by title here or by nominating library here.

Fall Back. . .

How did you spend your extra hour today?  My friend K. and I went for a long walk in Toronto's ravines enjoying the mild weather, lovely sunshine, fall colours and the crisp leaves scrunching under our feet.

But all roads these days seem to lead me to French pastry! I'm greedily devouring Pastry Paris: In Paris, Everything Looks Like Dessert by Susan Hochbaum.  She's cleverly travelled around the city photographing famous buildings and beautiful architectural details along with French art and fashion, and pairing them with equally delectable shots of creative French concoctions complete with a culinary history of each.  You can see a slideshow of her work here (but don't click on the link if you're hungry).

In Toronto, nothing really looks like pastry but I did my best.

If you squint a bit, these leaves look like the grapefruit slices that top this beautiful tart with Earl Grey and almond mousse, purchased at Nadege.  At any rate, it was the closest I could get to edible fall colours and it was a delicious (and well earned)  reward at the end of a long walk.

Friday, 4 November 2011

New Persephones! . . .

It's always a special day when I open my mailbox to retrieve that white envelope from the U.K. with the newest Biannually magazine from Persephone Books. I've been collecting and reading their beautiful books for ten years now (I so admire their committment to keeping every title in print), and I'm lusting after their latest.  In particular, I really want to read No Surrender by Constance Maud, a suffragette novel first published in 1911 that covers multiple aspects of the movement and includes a character based on Lady Constance Lytton.  Persephone has dug up a review of the book by Emily Davison, the woman who fatally threw herself under a horse to bring attention to suffrage, in which she writes, ". . . but for vivid realism, the pictures of prison life, of the Hunger Strike and Forcible Feeding, are difficult to beat. It is a book which breathes the very spirit of our Women’s Movement."

And isn't the fabric for the endpapers and accompanying bookmark wonderful?  It's a pattern designed in 1913 by the Omega Workshops run by Roger Fry and in the suffragette colours. Hmmm - it would make a great scarf wouldn't it?
Their second book for the season is Greenbanks by their favourite author Dorothy Whipple.  I'm a bit behind in my Whipplewending; I've read and loved Somewhere From a Distance but the others are still waiting patiently on my shelf. However, Greenbanks is the story of an ordinary English family both before and after the First World War, and that immediately piques my interest.

Finally, Persephone continues to bring back into print some wonderful cookbooks. Dinner for Beginners by Rachel and Margaret Ryan was first published in 1934 and contains 109 recipes and 28 menus to cook dinners for four people. 

The bookmark I received with the magazine (this gorgeous fabric designed by Duncan Grant) had a snippet on the back in which the authors take you minute by minute through the cooking process telling you exactly when to complete each step.  Now, I've never actually attempted any recipes from my Persephone cookbooks, but oh, how I love to read them!  They are endlessly entertaining, and so evocative of the historical period in which they were written.  Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll remains one of my favourite Persephones.

I'll be going to London next month and will definitely be stopping by their lovely store to pick these up along with Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, a collection of short stories by Diana Athill, and The Sack of Bath by Adam Ferguson.  That should bring my collection up to date and provide some wonderful holiday reading.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Where There's A Wool, There's a Way. . .

I love this campaign started by knitter and awesome designer Kate Davies  (you need to seriously check out her blog Needled - she creates the most incredibly beautiful patterns) and Felicity Ford, to convince the fashion industry to stop marketing campaigns using the words "wool" to describe products that actually have very little wool content in them. You can see some examples in her post here.   You can sign a petition here advocating that garments should not be called "wool" unless wool actually makes up more than 50% of the content.  But Wovember is also a month long celebration of sheep, wool and the history of textiles and knitting. The idea is to wear something every day this month that is made out of 100% wool.  You can also enter a photography contest celebrating sheep or all things woolly, open to anyone in the world. Details are here and the prize (of course) is some pretty luscious Shetland wool!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Ambition, Folly, Originality: Fascinating Women. . .

There are so many interesting fall books landing in the office these days;  Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson by Susan Hertog, is one of them. There was a time when I was completely enamoured of all things Rebecca West, working my way through her novels (The Judge, for example is quite extraordinary) and journalism, particularly during her suffrage period.   I still think she's one of the greatest writers and most fascinating women of the 20th century.  I know nothing at all about Dorothy Thompson but after reading the jacket flap of this biography, I can see why the author has paired these two together (beyond their friendship). Thompson, an American, was also a journalist and the first female head of a European news bureau. And as West conducted a tempestuous affair with H.G. Wells, Thompson had a similar relationship with Sinclair Lewis. Both also had troubled relationships with their sons, who were jealous of their mother's success.  From Hertog's introduction:

. . . the lives of these women are important, not only in and of themselves, but because they are emblematic of female consciousness at a time of great social and moral upheaval and escalating scientific discovery - when psychological survival required the redefinition of one's relationship to oneself, society and the universe, both physical and divine. Few were up to the task, and the trajectory of most lives was an exercise in experimentation, frustration and failure. Thompson and West, however, had the extraordinary advantage of raw intelligence, along with the desire to make a difference in the world.

November also sees the publication of Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes.  I was looking through her filmography and while I don't think I've ever actually seen any of her movies, her life could be a Hollywood script.  Fleeing Germany and her marriage to a Nazi arms dealer, she landed in Hollywood via 1920s Paris, and in addition to her successful career, she was also responsible for inventing technology that created a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedos; it's also used in today's cell phones and GPS devices.

And speaking of Hollywood, though I usually shun celebrity memoirs, I'm making an exception for Diane Keaton's Then Again.  I've always loved her movies and admired her original style. The focus of this memoir is really about her relationship with her mother who kept these incredibly thick journals, part scrapbook, part honest accounting of her life and thwarted ambitions, right up until she succumbed to Alzheimer's.  The book is wonderfully designed (and you'll be awed when you see the photos of these journals) but I'll probably be listening to the unabridged audio which is read by Keaton herself, if only for the trademark laugh and quirky inflections.