Another quick recommendation

Hernán Díaz, In the Distance (2017) and Trust (2022)

Hernán Díaz’s latest novel, Trust, is the May selection for the NYPL/WNYC Virtual Book Club, which aims to get New Yorkers reading (and, obviously, discussing) new books. I heard an interview with the author, and Trust‘s structure (4 novellas within one novel, a sort of Rashomon in book form) intrigued me. The NYPL has multiple copies available, so there was no wait to check it out, download it, and start reading.

As soon as I finished it, I moved on to Díaz’s earlier novel, In the Distance, which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.

Within a week, I had finished both. Yes, they’re that good. Incredible stories and beautiful writing. Who could ask for more?

Trust is the story of a Gilded Age financier and his wife, told and retold through the 4 novellas. Each version is different enough to make you doubt the earlier narrator/s, so each version raises questions about trust. How do the characters in this novel learn to trust one another? Should they? Whose purposes are served by each of the varying narratives? Do we all tell our own stories as a means to justify questionable behavior?

Underneath the obvious trust issues are others, about the sources of vast wealth (trace any wealth to its origins, and you’ll find theft and enslavement, rapine and pillage, human trafficking and environmental destruction), and how it’s so easy to hide this, to lie to ourselves, as we (and here I mean the ‘wealthy’, which I’m not, but I’m close enough) go about our lives in our bubbles within only slightly larger other bubbles.

The most admirable character in Trust is the anarchist, a printer who, as the Great Depression inflicts misery throughout the land, interrupts his usual anti-capitalist lectures to his daughter, to scoff at the lazy ‘modern’ printers who have never handled metal type and composing sticks.

In the Distance, Díaz’s first novel, is his version of the Great American Western. And it is brutal. Set in (approximately, for Díaz provides no exact dates) the 1840s to 1870s, the action ranges across the western side of the country, from San Francisco to the Great Plains and back, encompassing salt flats, desert, mountains, canyons, and forests. Díaz makes oblique references to the California gold rush, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Civil War, but for the most part his hero, Håkan Söderström, a Swedish immigrant, wanders a seemingly empty land that rockets between hell and paradise and back again each time he meets other people.

Håkan and his brother, both barely old enough to travel alone, must emigrate to America, but at the wharf in Sweden, they’re separated, and Håkan lands in San Francisco instead of New York. Years and years of lonely wandering follow, filled with violence, kindness, beauty and horror for Håkan. Each encounter with others ends in tragedy, usually violent, bringing physical and mental anguish to Håkan and killing others; I came to find relief in the months and years when he was on his own, wandering, or holed up in a canyon or cave. Meanwhile, his reputation as a violent and unstoppable monster grows, and he’s eventually known throughout the West as the Hawk. His size (he’s abnormally tall and strong), red hair, and outfit (hand-sewn cloak that includes a cougar’s skin) make him immediately recognizable and thus a threat whenever he’s seen.

Díaz is quoted in an interview for The New York Times, reacting to his own amazement about how there are plenty of popular novels in the Western genre (Zane Grey) and plenty of anti-Western novels (Larry McMurtry), but no literary Western novels:

“It’s weird,” he said. Weird that the western novel was so underachieving, given how tightly the genre embraces America’s most potent myths about itself. Westerns, he said, glamorize “the worst aspects of the imperial drive of the United States” — brutality against nature, genocidal racism, “the whole macho thing, the place of women, the frivolous violence, it goes on.”

Lawrence Downes, “A Debut Novel. A Tiny Press. A Pulitzer Finalist.” The New York Times (May 2, 2018).

So, if you’re looking for something different, something challenging, perhaps something to keep you awake at night, either of these books will do.

Posted in Am reading, Fiction, Historical fiction | Tagged | 2 Comments

May brings flocks

May brings flocks of pretty lambs, 
Skipping by their fleecy damns. 

Well, nothing so pastoral as lambs cavorting around the ewes in the May image from the Limbourg brothers’ Très Riches Heures. It’s the Duke with his lords and ladies who are cavorting, their gorgeous gowns and cloaks competing with the gilded reins and bridles draped across their horses. It’s the colors that make these images so “rich”. I particularly love the fern-green of the ladies’ gowns.

But on to the main part of this post, my comments on the three books that include chapters set in May. For Peter Mayle, May begins with a short bicycle ride that he and his wife expect will be easy — after all, other cyclists (wearing spandex, which should have been a clue) whipped up and down the tiny hills of Provence all day long. The ride starts well, the two of them wheeling easily along the quiet roads, but 5 miles later, after making the climb to Bonnieux, they stagger into a café and drink beer “in the comfort of chairs designed for human bottoms”. They have still another few miles to reach their goal, and then, of course, the ride home.

Mayle usually took his house guests to the Sunday markets, where “Faded sepia postcards and old linen smocks were jumbled up with fistfuls of cutlery, chipped enamel signs advertising purgatives and pomade for unruly mustaches, fire irons and chamber pots. Art Deco brooches and café ashtrays, yellowing books of poetry and the inevitable Louis Quatorze chair, perfect except for a missing leg.” And so on. Then they would drive another 30-60 minutes for lunch. He writes that because the French love and respect good food, even an obscure little restaurant in a tiny village will have its devoted customers. He found one whose owner/chef was happy exactly where he was and hoped to still be there in 25 years. Mayle writes that he and his wife “hoped we would still be in a fit state to totter up and enjoy it.” (I checked against the publication date, and 25 years later would have been 2016; Mayle died in Provence in 2018, so I like to think that he did.)

Cutting and carting wood, Dorothy Hartley (1979)

May at Glady Taber’s home in rural Connecticut is for starting the garden, when she begins to wonder if they’ve over-committed themselves with their seed purchases. “Now it is planting time,” she writes, “and all the packets of seeds that seemed so small in February take on huge proportions.” It’s a thin line between not enough and whoa, there, too many! Anyone who gardens, or with neighbors who garden, understands the challenge. What do you do with all the tomatoes, squash, and beans? There’s only so much preserving a person can manage.

Yet Taber, who quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay (“I am waylaid by beauty”), can’t resist the glories of this month. “After a thunderstorm, it is an opalescent world.” I’ll look for this pearly effect on leaves and grass and sky the next time it rains.

Finally, in her May chapter on medieval life in England, Dorothy Hartley tells us all about sheep, including sheep dogs, shepherds and their crooks, and musical pipes. First she explains that “A flock is just a lot of sheep; a herd is a lot of sheep of the same breed; a hirsel is much larger, and more mixed, than a herd and is sometimes an entire breeding settlement.” That last phrase explains why it was still, at the time of Hartley’s writing (1979), illegal to sell off a hill’s entire hirsel. Sheep don’t wander aimlessly; they know where and when to find feed, shade, water, and protection from inclement weather. Without old sheep to show them the pathways, new arrivals would starve or die of exposure, because sheep are not adventurous.

No more highlights for this month. Get out and enjoy whatever weather comes your way, and keep safe! See you in June.

Wikipedia says the spork was patented in the US in 1874, but could this illustration be evidence of medieval sporks? Because Hartley doesn’t acknowledge any illustrator, I assume the drawings are her own, what she is drawing from, whether a real object or some other illustration, is usually not provided.
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Soup and Salad, April

Brother d’Avila likes cooking with eggs, and not just because it’s spring. His book of salad recipes offers 45 salads that use eggs, nearly four per month, and many of his soup recipes call for beaten eggs or egg yolks. This should come as no surprise, since eggs are cheap, easy, and quick sources of protein, not to mention handy for thickening a broth or adding richness to a thin soup. So if you feel there’s an overabundance of eggs in these posts, it isn’t completely my fault.


Cream of Mushroom Soup, with Northern Italian Bean Salad (recipe below)

When my siblings were young, our mother used canned cream-of-mushroom soup as a thickener for all kinds of sauces, whether for chicken, beef stew, vegetables, and cassseroles. She now regrets all those recipes, for she can’t stand the sight or smell of c-of-m soup. That’s a shame, because when made from scratch, it can be quite tasty, and d’Avila’s recipe, Cream of Mushroom Soup à la Romaine, succeeded. Blending the cooked vegetables before reheating hides one secret ingredient: a carrot, chopped and sautéed with the mushrooms, onion, and garlic before simmering it all in water thickened with a roux. Add cream, seasoning, and then garnish with grated or shaved Romano cheese. I believe when I make this again, I’ll try adding some kale or spinach.

Sour Cream Soup

The surprise success, though, was the Sour Cream Soup. I often garnish soup with a dollop of sour cream, so there’s nothing surprising about sour cream as a garnish. But stirred into the soup and simmered for 10 minutes? This was a first for me. Two large potatoes, chopped very small, are cooked in a broth flavored with bay leaf, caraway seeds and salt until just done. Add a roux to thicken the broth, then the sour cream and simmer several more minutes. Garnish with chopped scallions and parsley. Perhaps the next time I make this, I’ll add a bit of heat — chili flakes instead of caraway seeds at the beginning, or mix the scallions and parsley with chili oil. Options!


Eggs Tonnato, with a side of veggies

This month’s salads were simple, with ingredients coming almost ready made. The Northern Italian Bean Salad (pictured above with the mushroom soup) of cannelloni beans and chickpeas as well as chopped celery, carrots, and scallions needed just a simple vinaigrette.

And for something completely new, I give you Eggs Tonnato (left). These are hard-boiled eggs served with a tuna-based sauce: mayo, ketchup, capers, shallot, and canned tuna, run through the blender. Even just one-fourth of the recipe made more than enough sauce for my one hard-boiled egg, so now I’m trying to decide how to use the remainder. (Since I used only 1/4 of the can of tuna, I added what was left of the Northern Italian Bean Salad — a good choice.) (Update: Instead of mayo, I used the rest of the tonnato sauce in a tuna salad, and it worked perfectly.)

This month’s recipes have a decided Italian flavor, something I hadn’t noted until writing this post. I’ll try to go further abroad next month, but it all depends on what Brother Victor-Antoine offers.

Bon appetit to all!
Posted in Cooking, NOT a food blog, Reading the Year, Soup and salad | Tagged | 2 Comments

A quick recommendation

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), The White Road (2015), and Letters to Camondo (2021).

A gift from a good friend, The Hare with Amber Eyes arrived as I was working slowly through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (by the way, 12 years later, still not finished). When de Waal inherits a collection of 260 netsuke from his Great Uncle Iggie Effrussi, he decides to learn how these gorgeous tiny carvings came to be in the Effrussi family. The book traces his family from its origins in Odessa to Paris and Vienna, then London and, eventually, Tokyo, where Iggie Effrussi lived for half a century.

My friend knew what she was about, because Iggie’s cousin, Charles Effrussi, had known Proust, and been at least part of the inspiration for Charles Swann. Other real-life people also inspired characters, and de Waal never hesitates to point them out.

But that’s just a piece of this book, which ranges across European history (mid 1800s to mid 1900s), anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, art and architecture, Nazi theft of artworks, and the role the ultra wealthy played in building art collections and endowing museums in Vienna and Paris.

A current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City displays about 150 of the Effrusi netsuke until early June. These are the ones remaining in de Waal’s possession. Others were auctioned to raise funds for refugees, or donated to museums. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large number of people at the museum, bent over display cases to examine the tiny carvings. The photos below, which I took, give you no idea of the size of these pieces, but each of these could easily fit inside a 3-inch cube.

De Waal revisits Paris of the Belle Epoque up to WWII in his third book, Letters to Camondo, about the wealthy Camondo family, whose mansion in Paris is now a museum, donated to France in 1936 by M. Camondo. (It was this donation that saved the building and its contents from the Nazis, and today it remains almost completely unchanged.) The Camondos and the Effrussis lost all their wealth after the Nazi invasions of Austria and France, and the Camondo family didn’t survive Auschwitz. Both books are heart breaking.

I’m only just now reading de Waal’s second book, The White Road, in which he traces the history of porcelain clay. He calls himself a ceramics artist who also writes books, and most of his work is with porcelain. His interest, then, comes from his work, and I expect to learn much as he tracks down the origins of porcelain, starting with China.

Forty years ago, I took some pottery classes and tried working with porcelain clay. It was lovely, smooth and light. Yet too delicate for a beginner like me. None of my pieces survived the wheel. Reading this book will probably make me want to try again. It will be easy to resist, since the nearest studio and kiln are miles away. But we’ll see.

Posted in Am reading, Artist profile, History, Memoir | Tagged | 4 Comments

ULYSSES+ Quarterly Report

NYC has had its usual share of rainy weather since the start of the year, which means that I’ve been making good progress on my ULYSSES+ project. In just 3 months, I’ve read 5 of the 12 books-published-in-1922 chosen as partners for my reading of Joyce’s tome. The 5 are all re-reads, which may be why I’ve started with them. And, in no particular order, here they are:

Lamb House, Rye. The Garden Room on the left is a mock-up for the Mapp & Lucia series Photo © Lizzie Ross, 2014/2022

EF Benson’s Miss Mapp. Set in Tilling (Benson’s fictional Rye, where Benson lived for many years), this novel introduces us to Miss Elizabeth Mapp, who later serves as foil to Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (Lucia). Benson wrote dozens of novels, but none so wonderful as the 6 in the Mapp & Lucia series. The squabbles over bridge games, golf games, food hoarding, recipes, and dress designs never fail to draw me in. And Mallards, the home where we first find Miss Mapp and which Lucia much later buys from her, is based on Lamb House, in Rye, whose residents included Henry James, Rumer Godden, and Benson himself. Another resident of Rye, Joan Aiken, lived just around the corner; The Haunting of Lamb House is her homage to Rye, that house, and Henry James.

Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Enchanted April. I saw the movie before I read the book, and I love both. I also read Elizabeth and Her German Garden, an early semi-autobiographical work by Von Arnim, who certainly had an interesting life. Here’s one interesting tidbit: her cousin, Katherine Mansfield (with a short story collection on my ULYSSES+ list), thought Von Arnim was patronizing and got a type of revenge in her short story, “A Cup of Tea” (which you can read online here), first published in 1922.

TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. The poem’s first line begins, “April is the cruelest month”. For densely-packed obscurities, you can’t beat Eliot. Latin, German, Italian, French, Sanskrit. References to Wagner, Shakespeare, the Bible, folk songs and tales, English history and geography — even Bram Stoker, according to Wikipedia. You can find a thoroughly annotated version here, but I can’t guarantee that the annotations will help you make sense of the poem, but 100 years later it’s still a distressingly apt view of humankind.

Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. A bit of a palate cleanser here. Nothing but pure frivolity. This book won the Newbery Award (the second in the award’s history).

Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. Perhaps some day I’ll write a lengthy essay about my history with this book. I had it on my shelves for decades and then added it to the list of readings for this project. But when I went to look for it, it was gone. I vaguely remember thinking, “I’ll never read this book again”, before sending it off to my local Little Free Library.

As for Ulysses, I haven’t made much progress. Reading that book is too much like work! It’s chock full of references, just like Eliot’s The Waste Land, and how much time did I want to spend tracking them all down? Turns out, not much. I’m enjoying the idea of thinking that I’m reading Ulysses, but not the act of reading it. It’s how I feel about Proust, although Proust gives a much bigger pay-off.

But never fear. I will finish Joyce’s masterpiece in good time. And then disappear it from my bookshelves, for I’m certain I’ll never want to read it again.

Posted in Am reading, Animal tales, Castles and towers, Classic, Fantasy, Humorous, Newbery Award, Poetry, ULYSSES+ | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

April brings the primrose

April brings the primrose sweet, 
Scatters daises at our feet.

Spring at last has arrived in the pages of the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, where the wealthy can celebrate a betrothal outside their enclosed garden. Pollarded trees shoot up new branches, blossoms burst open in the orchard, fish run in the nearby lake, and young ladies can look lithe and delicate as they gather daisies.

Idyllic, right?

But check first with people who actually have to work for a living. Dorothy Hartley, in Lost Country Life, devotes April to dairymaids, cows and calves, milk, cream, butter and cheese, and pigs (who, while piglets, fell under the dairymaid’s care). Dairy work, begun in early April with the birth of first calves and then piglets, continued until the end of November. Winter’s ease, such as it was, had ended.

If you’ve ever wondered why dairymaids don’t cart the full milk buckets in a wheelbarrow or horse-drawn vehicle, you’ve never seen the insides of those buckets at the end of the trip — contents churned into butter. A good dairymaid could carry two full buckets yoked across her shoulders and spill very little before emptying each bucket into a wide, shallow pan so that the cream can rise. After skimming the cream for butter, the leftover milk was fed to the pigs.

Meanwhile, the farmer was either spreading manure across his fields, or cutting old timber and planting new trees. As Hartley explains, the farmer had to work quickly because “[o]nce frost was out of the ground the land became soft and cartage by ox team with a heavy load would destroy any land already in cultivation.”

And here’s a little item that pleased me no end (and answered a question I raised in a recent post): “In Wensleydale, when cows were released for the first bite [of fresh grass], the alder growing by the stream … gave the special flavor to Wensleydale cheese, which could only be made to perfection in the early spring. Even today in Wensleydale they disparage winter-made cheese, calling it ‘hay cheese’ and opine it is ‘only good enough for Lancashire folk to make Welsh rabbit.'” Just as I suspected. Only inferior types of Wensleydale cheese are exported.

Scott Chaskey, in This Common Ground, quotes Whitman frequently in his Spring section. Whitman’s love of the land and even the compost that feeds it, is something Chaskey understands. Over the course of 15 years steady feeding of the soil on his Long Island organic farm, he and his co-owners have improved it so that they can raise more than potatoes. But these farmers also respect the wildlife, watching for fox dens and quail nests as they plow so as not to disturb the new life. It makes sense. The foxes won’t eat what the farmers raise, and the birds help control the insect pests that will.

Rebuilding the soil — that is, putting life back into it — is a years-long, complicated process, and doesn’t rely just on adding the big three, NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium); other macronutrients include “carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium and sulfur.” Chaskey warns us that not only are chemical fertilizers harmful in the long-run, but NPK alone aren’t enough, on top of which, “the energy from burning 2,200 pounds of coal will produce 5.5 pounds of usable nitrogen.”

For Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley, spring’s arrival means they can finally lay out pavement around their Yorkshire Cottage, discovering two layers of paving under the visible one. They couldn’t help but wonder who had laid that first paving stone, when he’ done it, and what he’d been like.

Pontefract also kept busy planting food (WWII had just started, and food rationing threatened). Potatoes were their main crop, but also cabbages, beans, turnips, carrots, peas and even tomatoes. Their growing season was short, so they had to judge the end of hard frosts and place plants carefully. They were lucky: only the tomatoes failed.

Down in Provence, Peter Mayle made weekly visits to the local market, where one Sunday he and his wife bought “red peppers to roast and big brown eggs and basil and peaches and goat’s cheese and lettuce and pink-streaked onions.” Except for an oafish visitor and a broken septic tank, all was going well for the two of them.

As for Gladys Taber at her house on The Stillmeadow Road, April also meant visitors, people from the city (in her case, that would be New York City) who felt “the ancient urge of mankind to be close to nature again.” Fortunately most of her visitors were good friends and family members. But a town meeting revealed a dismaying future. Developers hovered in the background, and her rural setting was destined to become more densely built and settled, despite local opposition. She had seen the loss of old-growth trees and bemoaned the fate of the lovely woods around her. She knew, from experience, that “people who live in developments do not expect to live there always or to hand the house down as a heritage for their children. So they seldom plant for fifteen or twenty years ahead, they plant quick-growing annals, put in a few shrubs they can take with them when they go.”

So, your lesson for today: plant trees for the future. As the Greek saying goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

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Soup and salad, March

As I continue with Brother Victor-Antoine’s soup and salad cookbooks, I’m beginning to suspect that the various recipes aren’t necessarily organized by seasonality of ingredients. This month’s recipes feature ingredients normally at their best in the fall (squash, potatoes, apples). And as cold rain poured down throughout the month, it was a challenge to serve myself a salad made with icy cucumbers and apples. More appropriate for a hot summer day, I’d have thought.

Just as an aside, in his salad cookbook Brother Victor-Antoine took some time to explain why so many of his recipes are named for saints. It isn’t that the saints created these salads. Instead, as he explains, “there are many ways of honoring the saints and keeping their memories alive. One of my ways was to name recipes after them, so that others might think of and remember their legacies.”


I skipped a beer and mushroom soup (named for Saint Lioba, an Englishwoman who helped evangelize Germany), lentil stew and onion soup, and a minestrone, to try d’Avila’s Everyday Potato Soup — just onions, potatoes and milk. I added chili powder, and garnished with lots of parsley. A simple soup, perfect as an afternoon snack.

Then, to use some roasted butternut squash I’d frozen from the fall, I tried his Butternut Squash Soup Portuguese Style. Cooked with onions, garlic, potatoes, and carrots, this puréed soup was the highlight of the March recipes. I had it with the second salad below, where you’ll find the image.


I could have made salads with caviar, papaya, or salmon. I could have made Etruscan, Dutch-Style, Sicilian, or Farnese Salad. But I skipped them all and chose the following:

The Salad Picarde made an excellent light meal, even better the next day. Roasted cauliflower, chopped cucumber, minced red onion, shredded red cabbage. Garnished with toasted walnuts, blue cheese, chopped hard-boiled egg. I had it with some leftover butternut squash risotto.

Despite the recipe’s French origins, I used one of my favorite English blue cheeses, a Shropshire blue. Its gold color contrasted well with the red cabbage. If you like blue cheese, keep an eye out for that Shropshire blue. I used to be able to find it in fancy food shops just before Christmas, but not for quite a few years. And then, out of the blue, this month, there it was at my local store. I bought way too much of it, but I don’t care. It could be another 4-5 years before I see it again.

Which makes me wonder — what’s happened to Cotswold cheese (a lovely double Gloucester with chives) that I used to see everywhere? And can someone tell me why plain Wensleydale is never available in the US? Are the manufacturers just being churlish and keeping all the good stuff local, sending out only the batches flavored with apricot or blueberry or cranberry?

Served in my Copeland Spode ‘Chinese Rose’ dishes

Finally, that recipe more suitable for a hot summer day, Madagascar Date-Nut Salad. I tried it as much for the dressing (citrus and yogurt) as for the crunch (apples, slivered almonds, cucumber, red peppers, and celery). There it is in the image on the left, just below the Portuguese butternut squash soup, which I garnished with an excessive amount of chopped parsley and a few drops of chili oil.

The two together make a good soup-and-salad combo, with plenty of crunch in the salad and that extra bit of heat in the soup, to help me feel better about the rain that raineth everyday.

And now I’m worried about what’s going to happen in April, the month that is supposed to be full of showers. Well, as Charles Dudley Warner once quipped, everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

Keep smiling, nonetheless!

Posted in Cooking, NOT a food blog, Reading the Year, Soup and salad | 5 Comments

This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors*

Occasionally a book cover grabs me, and it turns out the book is #5 in a 12-book series, or something like that. This has happened three times with one particular author, Alexander McCall Smith, who wrote the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I read one of those, but didn’t feel the urge to keep going. Nothing against the books, but I’m not often drawn to detective novels.

But then, nearly 10 years ago, I discovered his 44 Scotland Street series and read the first 8 books in about 3 weeks (there are now 15, but I’m not ready to jump into that one again). Much like a soap opera, time passed very slowly in these books, with parallel stories of characters connected only by their address in Edinburgh. The best character, a young boy whose mother closely follows Melanie Klein’s ideas about how to nurture a child’s emotional and psychological development. It’s all bunk, but the boy, Bertie, is incredibly resilient. His internal life saves him, and when he manages to escape his mother, his joy and curiosity are wonderful.

On a recent trip, I ran out of things to read, and there, on the NYPL ebooks recommendations page, was Portuguese Irregular Verbs. It’s the 1st book in another McCall Smith series, about Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld and his colleagues at a German linguistics institute. I did some quick research and found there were only 5 books in this series, all available from the NYPL, and all fairly short. In the time it took to download the first 3 books, I was reading, and this series I can absolutely recommend. McCall Smith hilariously parodies academia, German formal address, and the petty jealousies of academics who work in an institute — whose office is largest? whose has the best view? whose is furthest from the noisy men’s room?

Von Igelfeld himself is a wonderful creation. Proud, vain (about his intellect and standing in the linguistics community, not his looks), hapless, as prickly as a hedgehog (igel is German for hedgehog), and happy in the knowledge that he has chosen the best career for himself. Yet he continually finds himself in trouble, usually while at a conference where he is to present a paper. At one point, he accidentally is responsible for a colleague’s pet dog losing 3 legs — cringe-inducing yet incredibly funny. In another one, he ends up president of a country in Latin America that has just survived a revolution. I found myself giggling through all 5 books, and I hope there are more to come.

The third McCall Smith series to get my attention is the Isabel Dalhousie series, set in Edinburgh and full of philosophical musings with a few minor mysteries that need solutions. I’d been avoiding this series (13 books) for a while, but after reading the Von Igelfeld books, I thought I’d give this one a try.

I’m still not sure if I like the main character, a philosophy journal editor who spends much of her time pondering what she owes to others. In the first two books, her conflicts center around how she should interpret a person’s request for help. If Isabel’s niece, Cat, expresses doubt about the man she’s dating, then Isabel feels morally obligated to let Cat know that the man is involved with another woman. When a heart transplant patient shares his woes with her, she feels morally obligated to track down the donee’s family, despite their request for anonymity.

My main complaint here is that Isabel’s internal struggles struck me as a disguise for her nosy curiosity about others. Of course that gets her into trouble, and there’d be little plot without it. For someone who spends so much of her time thinking about moral philosophy, she has a curious blind spot about her own motivations.

Things change a bit in the 3rd book — she’s less nosy, struggling instead with whether she should allow herself to fall in love with a much younger man.

Yet — and this is why I might read another of these books — the philosophical issues that come up are not just fascinating, but important. McCall Smith uses Isabel to ask questions about how we should treat each other and the world we live in. The one that struck me most forcefully was an interpretation of the Lifeboat Problem, to which Isabel devoted an entire issue of her philosophy journal, satisfied at last that the article writers were wrestling with some real life problems.

I had to pause a moment when I read this. “Real life”? How often does anyone have to figure out who to toss out of a lifeboat?

BUT — as Isabel points out, if you think of the earth as the lifeboat for humankind, then, yes, we are talking about real life problems here, issues that need to be resolved, and quickly.

Final word — Straight-up YES to the Von Igelfeld series, if you like academic comedy. A reluctant MAYBE to the Isabel Dalhousie series, but as I’ve read only 3 of these books, I could be completely wrong.


*A direct quote from several episodes of The Good Place. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE THAT SHOW?

Posted in Fiction, Humorous, School setting, Series | Tagged | 3 Comments

March brings breezes

Image courtesy Web Gallery of Art (

March brings breezes loud and shrill, 
stirs the dancing daffodil. 

If you look closely at the image above, another from the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Limbourg brothers, early 1400s), you’ll notice not just the plowman with his team of oxen, but also the rows of neat furrows behind him. I know that the plow is turning the green part of the field “under”, but I’d never really understood the process until I saw these images:

These, from Dorothy Hartley’s Lost Country Life*, clarified for me how the plow works. According to Hartley, until the 1700s, plows couldn’t reverse the cut from right-hand to left-hand, so you have to picture the plowman’s path as an oblong circle, running widdershins. He creates first the right-hand side of that wide furrow (called a “rean furrow”), and then comes back along the same line to create the left-hand side. I’m disappointed that no rean furrows appear in the Trés Riches Heures image, but I suppose I can’t expect scientific exactness from a mere artist.

Hartley also points out how much care the oxen require: they must be allowed rest at the end of each furrow, while the plowman shifts the yoke to ease the area on the animals’ necks where it chafes. And then a good rub-down at the end of the day’s work, with special attention to that same area. Oxen are slow but steady, walking about 3 miles an hour. Harley says they were used not just to get farm goods to market, but also to haul “heavy building stone and timber for castle and cathedral”.

Peter Mayle’s Year in Provence progresses through March, with his kitchen rehab project still unfinished, but he does manage to get the massive stone table top moved into the back garden. An ominous phone call ends the chapter: “‘How’s the weather?’ asked an unidentified voice.” A friend of a friend is coming down and expects, without even asking, that Mayle and his wife will be happy to host this complete stranger.

Before Mayle can pull himself together to say “Not on your tintype!” (or its British equivalent), the caller ends:

“Must go. Can’t chat all night. Plenty of time for that when I get down next week.” And then those awful words that put an end to any hopes of hiding: “Don’t worry. I’ve got your address. I’ll find you.” The line went dead.

Gladys Tabor, at her country house in Connecticut, describes a different kind of problem. “Travelers passing by stop and fill the trunks of their cars with stones” (from dry-stone walls marking boundaries). Neighbors “discovered one week end that their best evergreens had been dug up and taken off. Several, too big to dig up, were simply topped and the tops carried along. Another friend came home to find someone had dug up most of her best lilies.”

Is it wrong of me to take comfort in learning that there have always been horrid, selfish people?

From Country Cooking (Miss Read, 1969/1984), illustration by Sally Seymour (1984)

I end with another year-themed cookbook I found recently, Country Cooking, or To Cut a Cabbage-Leaf. The author, Miss Read (aka Dora Saint, 1913-2012), wrote dozens of novels set in small English towns in the 1940s to 1980s. (I reviewed these books here.) When I found her cookbook, I thought, “Oh, goody! Let’s see what they were eating 50 years ago in small-town England.” Organized by seasons, the recipes fall into predictable categories: fish, sauces, soups, hors d’oeuvres, eggs, main dishes, sweets, and cakes. I noted a couple to try at some point.

Miss Read admits her own interest in reading old cookbooks, with their gems of folk knowledge. As she explains, “there are many snippets of country wisdom which present-day cooks would do well to heed. Celery and Brussel sprouts, for instance, are better after frost. Blackberries are always nicer in September than October, for in the latter month, as every country child knows, the Devil trails his coat over the fruit and spoils it!” She includes her own bits of lore throughout, even quoting from some old cookbooks. She also provides an extensive list of when game birds/animals are in season.

Some of the recipes look tempting (particularly the various hot-pots and fish/meat pies), but I take Miss Read’s recipe for Macaroni Cheese as a warning:

Remember that macaroni, vermicelli, spaghetti and other pastas must be cleaned first by dropping them into fast-boiling water for about 3 minutes. Never cold water. After draining, transfer them to the vessel in which they will be cooked.

It continues: “Break the macaroni into short lengths and cook in plenty of salted water for about 20 minutes….”

I had to stop there. Either there was something very different about the pasta available in England in the 1960s, or there’s some truth behind the reputation the English have for overcooking everything. (Apologies to my British friends — I’ve had excellent meals in English restaurants, pubs, and homes — but what can you say about a “Lettuce Soup” recipe, where you sauté the lettuce first?)

Even Miss Read is aware of this reputation. She precedes a recipe for “Proper Fish Pie” with a reassurance:

The term ‘fish pie’ usually invokes a feeling of gloom. It takes us back to grisly school dinners or some appalling concoction created in war-time from one of the few misshapen and unknown objects on display at the fishmonger’s…. Cross my heart, this recipe isn’t a bit like that.”

The recipe that follows actually looks promising.

And I do want to commend Miss Read for writing the most English sentence I’ve ever seen: “The traditional time to have one’s first dish of gooseberries is Whitsuntide.”


*Since Hartley makes no mention of an illustrator, I must assume she drew these herself.

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Potage and salad, February

I recently saw fresh cherries in a local store, marked “product of Chile”. It had to cross the equator to get to northern Manhattan. Oh the carbon footprint!


For this month’s choices from my soup-and-salad-for-the-monastery books*, Brother Victor-Antoine (hereinafter referred to as d’Avila) offered some tempting options. Ruling out anything with lima beans (bad childhood memories), I could have chosen something French (lentils), Polish (barley), Mexican (black bean), Bulgarian (vegetables) or Provençal (leek), but kept turning the pages. A red bean soup called for an entire bottle of red wine (pass), and a cheese soup required tapioca (no thank you).

I chose, by chance, two pottages (d’Avila spells the word with only one t). A pottage should be thick and creamy, and the first one, Potage de Navets (turnip soup), had plenty of both qualities. Turnip, onions and rice cooked in water, then add milk AND cream and heat (don’t boil!). Before serving, stir in a pat of butter, salt and pepper. Really quite good. The turnips add a sweetness that you can’t get from potatoes; I added a dusting of sage for a bit of color and it worked well. But it still could use more color. Parsley? Diced red pepper? Any suggestions?

My second choice was Ravioli Potage, harking back to when I used to spend a lot of time in the East Village. There was an Italian restaurant where I worked on my grad school assignments while I ate a bowl of ravioli soup. The soup was basic: chicken broth and ravioli, garnished with grated parmesan. Quick and easy, perfect for a wintry afternoon. d’Avila’s recipe also uses chicken broth, but with sautéed shallots and tomatoes to perk it up. Bring to a boil, add the ravioli, and then toss in some chopped fresh spinach during the final minute. Very nice indeed. Don’t forget that parmesan garnish.

Potage de Navets on the left; Ravioli Potage on the right
Dinerware: Mason’s Fruit Basket, green; Aerin


I almost made the Wild Rice and Barley salad (might still make it, some day), and even considered the Copperfield Salad (oranges, avocados, onions; it was the name that grabbed me). But I settled for two that would be easy, not just to make, but also to size down to one serving. First, Avocado and Egg Appetizer Salad is exactly that: sliced avocado and quartered hard-boiled egg on a bed of endive, drizzled with a lemon-mustard vinaigrette. It was a bit monochromatic, so I added the chopped grape tomatoes. A grating of fresh pepper, a bit of salt, and it makes a light but satisfying lunch.

The Savory Cauliflower Salad also calls for hard-boiled eggs, but chopped fine, along with capers and minced shallot. The cauliflower is steamed, and then all are mixed together with a tarragon oil-and-vinegar dressing. (Again, the tomatoes are my addition, for color.) This dish, served with the cauliflower still warm, reminded me of a German potato salad.

Avocado and Egg Appetizer Salad; Savory Cauliflower Salad
Dinerware: Famille Verte Porcelain from Mottahedeh; red-glazed stoneware from a friend

Note to self after making these recipes — Remember to plan for garnishes! Keep parsley and fresh green/red peppers on hand for last-minute needs.


*Twelve Months of Monastery Soups and Twelve Months of Monastery Salads, both by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette.

Posted in Soup and salad | Tagged | 2 Comments