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.

Posted in History, Memoir, Reading the Year | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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

Orwell in view

George Orwell, 1945, Wikipedia Commons

Remind me never to buy roses from any vendor other than the farmer who grew them.

In Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit’s 2021 biography and appreciation of George Orwell, she devotes a chapter of the book to her visit to a site in Colombia where roses are factory-farmed — and where the problem is not the treatment of the product, but of the workers. They sort and trim plants treated with pesticides, putting in long hours for minimal pay, so that fresh flowers can be flown daily to the US and Europe — something like 6 million roses for Valentine’s Day and another 6 million for Mother’s Day.

Solnit’s report on this visit is an homage to Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), wherein the essayist examined the lives of workers in the industrial north of England. At one point he crawled underground to reach the coal face, which was more than a mile from the base of the elevator shaft, the air filled with choking coal dust, his hands and knees filthy within minutes, his clothes soaked with sweat. When back above ground, he could never stop thinking about what was going on below ground, all the time, to support his life of comparative ease.

As Frances Wilton wrote in her review of Solnit’s book*, that factory in Colombia “is Solnit’s coal mine, and her aim, like that of Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, is to make ‘visible what had been invisible.'”

My edition cost $1.95

Reading Solnit made me want to revisit Orwell’s essays, a small collection of which I still have from a university course I took in spring 1971. I was pleased to be reminded of his anger, his commitment to democratic socialism, his disgust with the excuses made by people in power in defense of their obviously self-serving actions. He saw quickly through the lies people told themselves about the Soviet Union under Stalin — what they were willing to ignore in support of a dream that anyone willing to accept the truth could see had become a murderous nightmare.

Orwell wrote frequently about other writers and artists: Kipling, Dickens, Yeats, Dali, Mark Twain, Henry Miller, Arthur Koestler, and other less recognizable names (for instance, Charles Reade, and the comic postcard artist Donald McGill). For most of the authors Orwell showed admiration tempered with dismay at lost opportunities. For instance, Orwell believed that Twain chose to court popularity rather than challenge wealth and power: “[Twain] had in him an iconoclastic, even revolutionary vein which he obviously wanted to follow up and yet somehow never did follow up.” Orwell pointed out that Dickens’ writing is recognizable from the “unnecessary detail”, that Yeats had “Fascist tendencies”, whereas Kipling was not a Fascist.

Orwell had blindspots, which Solnit points out: he examined neither the lives that women led nor the patriarchy under which they lived, and he used homophobic epithets (“pansyish”, for example) to characterize male behavior of which he disapproved.

And yet: Orwell enjoyed puttering around a garden. He planted roses and fruit trees at a house he knew he would be leaving within just a few years. He planted them so that people in the future could enjoy their beauty. In one of his essays, he recommends such actions as penance for one’s sins. “[E]very time you commit an antisocial act, … make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.”

So, keep an eye out for acorns that need a shove in the right direction. You may frustrate a few squirrels, but, as Orwell wrote, if one out of 200 such acorns sprouts and grows, you could “end up as a public benefactor after all.”


*”‘Invitations to Dig Deeper'”, The New York Review of Books, February 24, 2022.

If you don’t mind reading on your computer or smart phone, you can find an extensive gathering of Orwell’s essays here, courtesy Project Gutenberg Australia.

Posted in Am reading, Essays, Nonfiction | 2 Comments

A quick recommendation

Perhaps you already know about XKCD, Randall Munroe’s wonderful “webcomic of romance,
sarcasm, math, and language”. If not, check it out here. If you visit the site, try the random button a few times. It’ll give you a good sense of what this guy can do. (You can also follow him on Twitter, which brings his thrice-a-week webcomic right to your Twitter-feed.)

I have my all-time favorites (this one, from 2007, followed by this one, from 2010). But the other day, via a worm-hole on Twitter, I found that one of his comics was actually a series of images that changed regularly over the course of several weeks in 2013 (from 25 March to 28 July) until all 3102 (!) images had appeared. It’s called “XKCD 1190 – Time”, and you can find the first image here.

And then, go here for the full 3102-page story (it took me about 40 minutes to “read” it manually, but you can flip through the images at whatever speed works for you via the PLAY function).

Finally, why you should bother: Story-telling is as old as human kind, and Munroe offers a story that pulls together the future and prehistory. There’s adventure, danger, suspense, mystery, even a hedgehog. It’s sweet, beautiful, funny, with moments that surprise with how they reveal what it’s like to be human. And it won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.

I’ll end with a screen shot of one of Munroe’s gorgeous images:

I Xed out the frame number, to prevent spoilers.
Posted in Comics | 5 Comments


Image courtesy DepositPhotos

You may already know that 2022 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I first read about 50 years ago, while a senior at university. The professor organized the class so that we read a “chapter” of Ulysses, paired with another American or British novel from the 1920s — novels by Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, etc.

Since I (along with a few other bloggers I know of) plan to reread Ulysses this year, I thought I’d repeat my professor’s approach. Very conveniently, my bookshelves (both virtual and analog) hold these other books celebrating their centennial:

Willa Cather, One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Hugh Lofting, The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, which one the second Newbery Prize for children’s literature.

Also, E. F. Benson, Miss Mapp. Elizabeth Von Arnim, The Enchanted April. Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood. P. G. Wodehouse, The Girl on the Boat. Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit. E. R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros. Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party.

Beyond the world of fiction, I have T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land”, and E. E. Cummings’ autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room (one of the books that my college English professor paired with Ulysses so long ago).

Finally, in a category all on its own, is the English translation of Wittgenstein’s challenging Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which begins with the proposition, “The world is all that is the case.”* (The original, in German, was published in 1921.) That sentence still stumps me, but I’m hoping the internet will help me parse Wittgenstein’s dense prose.

If I give myself a year to read Joyce, with one other book from above for each month, I’ll have a baker’s dozen — a reasonable goal. I don’t promise to blog regularly about this project — just random posts as the mood strikes. And as this project has only just occurred to me, I’m already a month behind. Time to get going.

If you care to join me in celebrating this year of ULYSSES+, you can find a more extensive list of 1922 publications here. Let me know what you’ll be reading.


*Translation by D. F. Pears & B. F. McGuinness.

Posted in Am reading, Fantasy, Fiction, Humorous, Newbery Award, Poetry, short stories, ULYSSES+ | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

February brings the rain

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, early 1400s

February brings the rain, 
Thaws the frozen lake again. 

The Cloisters, after Winter Storm Kenan

Sara Coleridge’s couplet for this month describes what’s happening outside my window as I write. Yet this rain, which has washed away all traces of Winter Storm Kenan, could turn to ice as the temperatures drop tonight. To be expected. Fitting that the shortest month of the year could bring the widest variety of weather. But at the end of four long weeks, our reward.

Snow is at the forefront of the February chapters in A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle) and The Stillmeadow Road (Gladys Taber). Even Dorothy Hartley, in Lost Country Life, reminds us of the challenges medieval farmers faced during “the most uncertain month of the year when urgent work on the land may be hindered by bad weather.” For Taber and Mayle, in their modern homes where the worst calamity is a frozen pipe or inefficient heating, heavy snow is a minor inconvenience.

Mayle, in the midst of a major kitchen overhaul, decides to order a stone table-top for his rear garden — he wants a table large enough to seat eight comfortably — and upon delivery it looks like something from Stonehenge. An unexpected challenge arises: how to move the slab from the front to the rear of the house. It weighs more than 600 pounds, and can’t even be rolled because it is rectangular. Days later, he realizes the half-dozen workmen remodeling his kitchen could do it, but by now the porous stone has filled with water and frozen to the ground. The six of them together can’t budge it at all. It will have to stay in situ until a thorough spring thaw.

He also feels the isolation of his location, near his small town: “Deep winter in Provence has a curiously unreal atmosphere, the combination of silence and emptiness creating the feeling that you are separated from the rest of the world, detached from normal life. We could imagine meeting trolls in the forest or seeing two-headed goats by the light of a full moon.” At the end of the month, with the work on his kitchen nearing completion, he feels a mild breeze and hears dripping water. Outside, he “found that the seasons had changed. The stone table was oozing water, and spring had arrived.” We have yet to learn how the table-top is relocated.

At Taber’s house in the Connecticut countryside, there is so much snow that her dogs must be rescued after sinking to their eyeballs. Then a thaw, which she calls a miracle. “It is the curtain going down after Act I in New England,” she writes, “for we shall have more winter up to April. But now snow melts, icicles drop from the well house, the air is suddenly silken soft. Out we go wearing no mittens and wearing our summer jackets. A kind of intoxication sets in.” The thaw lasts only a day; overnight, “the long hand of Arctic cold reached out,” temperatures dropped, and the stove is once again lit and running non-stop.

I like the detours Taber takes, following thoughts as they meander. On one such tour, she looks at her fire and imagines our “earliest ancestors” struggling to keep warm and sheltered through long winters. She mentions the art in the Lascaux caves, amazed that these people found time to create it. Then a brief story involving her father, who was a geologist, and another about her mother, one of whose rare gifts was “not contradicting people even when they were wrong.” On she goes, to consider “No people” (i.e., nay-sayers), her own weakness as a “Yes person”, the art of conversation, and her preference for Keats over Shakespeare as an imaginary companion. There’s more, but I’ll spare you. The leaps from topic to topic are dizzying yet enjoyable, and reading her chapters is a bit like helping myself to a spoonful of each item laid out at a tremendous buffet.

But back to Hartley and those medieval farmers. Her February chapter is about “keeping the land in good heart”, with a long section on manure and other soil treatments such as chalk, lime, or marl (a soil mixture of clay and lime). Horse, cow, and sheep dung were especially valuable, and even guano, where available, would be used.

Dike and hedge, from Hartley, Lost Country Life

“One waste product,” Hartley writes, “that was not wanted on the land was goose dung.” Land grazed by geese could kill sheep, and only modern research revealed the cause: liver fluke, carried by water snails who lay their eggs in the grass near rivers. I’m not certain where geese come into this cycle unless it’s just that they also graze near rivers — but whatever the reason, their dung was not used as a fertilizer, and sheep were kept off land where there were goose droppings.

Hartley provides some interesting details on building hedges and dikes as boundary markers, including who owns which side of the hedge built between two properties. Complicated, but it comes down to whoever built the hedge owns the whole thing, including the off-side, where the builder probably shoveled some dirt from his side. But, more interesting to me, is Hartley’s comment that hedges (and, although she doesn’t say so, stone walls) are the result of the enclosures. Starting in the mid- to late-1500s, landowners found they could increase their profits by removing the tenant farmers and raising animals rather than crops. This trend increased drastically during the mid-1700s to late 1800s, resulting in vast numbers of tenants losing home and livelihood in a matter of days. If you want more information about how the trend affected farming, poverty rates, industrialization, emigration, etc., just search for Enclosure Acts. I guarantee, after reading about the enclosures, those tall hedges that line English country roads will never look the same to you.

from d”Avila-Latourrette, Twelve Months of Monastery Soups
Posted in History, Memoir, Reading the Year | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Mary Stewart’s Heroines


January’s author-in-focus is Mary Stewart (1916-2014), who wrote romantic suspense novels, as well as a romantic fantasy series based on the King Arthur tales, and several children’s books. A year ago, a dozen of her romance novels found their way to my bookshelves, and last October I began reading them. Having finished 11 of them*, I take this final day of January to focus on what I loved — and didn’t love — about them.

Stewart, born in County Durham, the daughter of a vicar, began writing stories before she reached school age, and published her first poem at age 5 (in her father’s parish newsletter). An English major, after 1938 she taught various age-levels until her marriage in 1945 to a geologist from Scotland. After her first novel was published, she and her husband moved to Edinburgh, where she continued writing until her husband’s death in 2001.

There’s no question that Stewart’s books, although beautifully written and, I have to admit, enthralling, would be classed by many as “escapist” fiction. Stewart felt no shame in that description of her books. According to the Mary Queen of Plots blog, Stewart was convinced there is a place for such work, as a refuge against the realities of everyday life, against what she described as some people’s version of facing reality: “doing the washing up or cleaning the drains or watching scarifying TV documentaries about the vilest aspects of human nature”. Ironically, those vile aspects appear in many of these stories, but that’s a minor cavil.

Regarding the value of escapist literature, I agree with Stewart, especially since her own writing is not just enjoyable, but masterful. Her descriptions of woods and rivers, farms and fields, cities and villages, castles and barns — all so natural and full of sounds, scents, colors and motion, I’m convinced that Stewart has been to the places she describes — from Northumberland near Hadrian’s Wall, south to the Pyrenee Mountains, the vineyards of Provence, the Alps of France or Austria, further south to Crete, and then east to Damascus and Syria. (She might well have visited these places with her husband, while he conducted geological research.)

Strong on plots as well, Stewart knew how to start gently but then move quickly into the central mystery. Red herrings are everywhere, but also carefully planted clues, with some surprises in her plots, misdirections that lead to stunning twists, weather and terrain that help or hinder the heroine, people not who they first appear to be. There is violence, and a couple of her heroines are beaten up, but the violence makes sense given the various characters’ motivations. There are also some thrilling chase scenes involving cars, or boats, or even a cog-wheel train up an Austrian alp. Everything happens quickly, and within a week all is resolved, with villains exposed and carted away, and the happy couple united and ready to lead what I assume will be a quiet life.

Each book features a strong, intelligent and brave young woman who meets and falls in love with a man she soon learns is already deep in some mystery. Could be a troublesome relative about to die, with an estate to dispose of; could be missing jewels or smuggled art work; could be murder planned (of a child, no less!), or murder already committed. She might initially believe the man is a villain, but fall for him anyway (Why?) and spend several chapters wondering is he? or isn’t he? (Invariably, he isn’t.)

What makes me cringe is how each heroine suddenly becomes helpless and weak, wishing her love would come get her out of this mess, and then grateful because he comes just in the nick of time to rescue her (or, in one case, just after a horse beans the villain before he can kill her). These women seem to melt, turning soft and almost gooey. The heroes, in turn, become even more manly (i.e., protective and bossy) as they fall in love with the heroine. It’s almost sad to watch these strong women stand back and let the men handle things. One heroine explains, as she and the hero are closing in on the villains, “It was not simply that as a man he wasn’t prey to my kind of physical weakness and fear … He was, quite positively, enjoying himself.” (my italics) Another notes how she no longer resents the hero bossing her around, watching herself fall more deeply in love with him as he takes charge and tells her to stand back.

I don’t even want to think what that’s all about.

Final assessment: I’ve enjoyed these books, and I’m holding on to them for now, but I may send them to a Little Free Library later this year. Except for The Moonspinners. It was the first Mary Stewart novel I read, soon after the movie came out in 1964, and I still love it, despite the tiresome weakening of the heroine towards the end.


*Novels read for this review (with US publication dates): Madame, Will You Talk (1955), Wildfire at Midnight (1956), Thunder on the Right (1957), Nine Coaches Waiting (1958), My Brother Michael (1959), The Ivy Tree (1961), The Moonspinners (1962), This Rough Magic (1964), Airs Above the Ground (1965), The Gabriel Hounds (1967), and Touch Not the Cat (1976).

Want to read more about Mary Stewart? Check out Mary Queen of Plots, an extensive blog with answers to nearly every question you could think of. This is where I found reference to Stewart’s comments about writing escapist books.

Posted in Adventure, Romance, Thriller | Tagged | 9 Comments

January brings the snow

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

“January brings the snow, / Makes our feet and fingers glow.” Sara Coleridge

Perhaps I’m pushing the theme a bit, placing a gorgeous illumination from Les Trés Riches Heures de Duc de Berry next to a couplet from the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but, as the Duke commissioned 12 incredible works of art for his Book of Hours, and Sara Coleridge wrote 12 couplets that take us through the year — well, you know what you can expect for 11 more posts.

Quick reminder: I’m taking a year to read The Stillmeadow Road, by Gladys Taber; Yorkshire Cottage, by Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley; This Common Ground, by Scott Chaskey; and Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley. Each book is organized around the months or seasons. (For details, see my earlier post here.)

Snow is a prominent feature in only 3 of the 5 books (the cookbooks barely nod to the weather) I’ve read for January. For Taber in the rural Connecticut home described in The Stillmeadow Road, the worst challenge of the first big snowfall is what kind of tires are best for driving over icy roads. Her fireplace is large enough to hang a pot over the flames to cook the evening roast, and a full woodshed provides smug comfort. She puts out feed for the birds, astonished at the tiny chickadees that “whacked away at the suet, SITTING DOWN.”

Taber’s writing is lovely, and she knows how to “see” the winter:

There is a time of enchantment in January when the snow stops falling and there is a pale blossom of color in the sky. Over the frozen pond it is lemon color, over the hills delicate green. As the sun sets, the smooth sea of snow has blue shadows on it. Shadows from the top of the hill flow to the bottom in a long pattern.

The cottage, by Marie Hartley

Set across the Atlantic and 30 years earlier, Yorkshire Cottage begins with the tale of acquiring and renovating a stone house just as WWII begins. In 1938, Pontefract and Hartley, who long had wanted a cottage in the Dales, fall in love with one in barely habitable condition and commit to a project that involves moving and expanding the kitchen and bathroom, adding a two-story wing, knocking out walls to install larger windows, and much more.

They also, in a fit of supporting local businesses, commit to hiring only local workmen — their mason, joiner, glazier, plumber, carter, and others involved in improving the cottage were all from the Dales area. As such, the workers had other clients needing their help (especially the plumber, who spent much of the 1938-39 winter dealing with frozen pipes throughout Wensleydale). The tub had to be installed before the bathroom walls were completed. Changes in floor and ceiling heights in the sitting room led to problems with installing the firescreen there. When war was declared, work throughout slowed down, but finally, “two and a half years after we bought the cottage, we settled in it as permanent residents.” During Pontefract’s and Hartley’s first winter in their house, the village filled with soldiers and evacuated children (including a three-year-old from Belgium), adding interest to the daily round of drills, bandage-rolling, blackouts and ambulance-driver training sessions. (And now that the second season of the new version of All Creatures Great and Small is airing, I hasten to point out that Pontefract and Hartley were about to buy their house as Series 2 begins. They weren’t exactly neighbors, but James Alfred Wight (James Herriot) could have been their vet!)

I like to think of winter as the time of potentialities. “The spirit unseen,” as Scott Chaskey writes in the brief winter section of This Common Ground, is all around — not hiding, just biding. Chaskey includes a story from the Chandogya Upanishad:

When Svetaketu, at this father bidding, had brought a ripe fruit from the banyan tree, his father said to him, “Split the fruit in two, dear son.” –“Here you are. I have split it in two.” –“What do you find there?” –“Innumerable tiny seeds.” –“Then take one of the seeds and split it.” –“I have split the seed.” –“And what do you find there?” –“Why, nothing, nothing at all.” –“Ah, dear son, but this great tree cannot possibly come from nothing. Even if you cannot see with your eyes that subtle something in the seed which produces this mighty form, it is present nonetheless. That is the power, that is the spirit unseen, which pervades everywhere and is all things. Have faith! That is the spirit which lies at the root of all existence, and that also art thou, O Svetaketu.”

Like Pontefract and Tarber, Chaskey finds the poetry in the land, but he goes further, reminding us explicitly of how closely tied we are to it. Every choice a farmer makes affects the land, the crops, the animals living on and around the crops, the people who grow the crops, those who buy and consume the crops — not to mention the future of the land itself. Yes, we’ve heard this all before. But it astonishes me still, to see how hard it is the make changes to reduce the misuse of land, given all we know (and how long we’ve known it).

But I have Hartley’s Lost Country Life to cheer me up. Her chapter on January covers water-courses, lambing time, field names, crop rotation, and even something called “camping” (a ball game a bit like hot potato, but on a much larger field) — the players, running barefoot or in soft shoes, helped level a field, so the game was encouraged. A farmer’s life today is not necessarily easier, but at least there’s no need to encourage crowds to trample the fields. Imagine the insurance risk!

by Marie Hartley
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Soup and salad, January

I believe that’s a rabbit hanging on the wall. Nature, red in tooth and claw.

Let me begin with this warning: I am not a food blogger, and this is not a cooking blog. Also, I’m lucky to have no food allergies or restrictions.

That said, I give you the results of my reading of d’Avila’s January recipes in Twelve Months of Monastery Salads and Twelve Months of Monastery Soups: two soups and two salads. I’ve cooked from his books before, so I already know a few adjustments — for instance, his soups are sometimes watery, and nearly all of his recipes could use more spice.

So, shall we?


Saint Basil Soup, with a hefty amount of mushrooms

I started with Saint Basil Soup, the first recipe in d’Avila’s book. Its combination of mushrooms, carrots, celery and onions builds a mild but satisfying broth full of perfectly cooked vegetables. I cut back on the water, added a dash of lemon juice and chili flakes, and was quite satisfied with the result. A bowl of this soup, with toast, made a perfect breakfast for a chilly morning. Chopped parsley for garnish gave a dash of bright color.

This recipe made enough to last for several days — it could easily serve six, with perhaps a bit remaining for leftovers. And don’t forget the rustic bread.

Spicy English Parsnip Soup, in my Spode Chinese Rose cream soup bowl

Next, I bypassed several recipes, including Artichoke and Potato Soup and a Cauliflower Velouté, and found Spicy English Parsnip Soup. It was lovely, and I have several servings stashed away in my freezer. I’ve marked this as a recipe to make often.

Onions, parsnips, potatoes and garlic, seasoned with curry, fresh ginger and chili flakes. d’Avila’s recipe calls only for 1 tsp of curry and 1/2 tsp ginger powder — I tripled the curry amount and used fresh ginger instead, and tossed in a small amount of chili flakes.

Purée in a blender, add some cream and there you are. Piping hot, it’s another excellent dish for a cold day. I made mine with chicken broth, but vegetable broth or plain water will work, and you can easily omit the cream.

Again, perfect the next morning for breakfast — easy to reheat (don’t let it boil!), and easily supplemented with buttered toast.


I forgot the walnuts!

This being the traditional season for citrus, I decided to go with Baby Spinach and Orange Salad. Combine spinach and fresh orange segments with a few thin slices of cucumber, chopped red onion, toasted walnuts and a honey-mustard dressing (easy to make). A good accompaniment to any main dish.

A former neighbor who now lives on the West Coast makes a similar salad — fresh orange slices, sliced red onion, greens — so I knew the orange and onion complimented each other. Because I’ve never been a fan of raw onions, I chopped them very fine and used much less than the recipe calls for. Clearly, salad recipes are infinitely adjustable, depending on one’s preferences. (I had toasted the walnuts but then forgot about them — found them the next day, still in their bowl, waiting for their cue. So I just ate them plain.)

Cucumber sandwiches on the right, bowl and plate by Nazari earthenware from Portugal

My final recipe this month is for Pear, Endive, and Brie Salad. I’ve often had pears with stilton and walnuts, so I was curious how the salad would work with the milder brie and with pecans instead of walnuts. The endives, pear and brie are all rather quiet, but the toasted pecans added crunch and spark. Topped with a fresh vinaigrette, it was delightful — and it paired well with the cucumber sandwiches I made.

I suspect it’s the pear that makes this a winter salad. In a normal world, pears would be available only in the fall, ripening into sweetness just in time for the holidays. These days, you can get them year-round in grocery stores here in the US. Query for my international readers: do you also have year-round accessibility to all fruits and vegetables?

I don’t like to think about where all these always-in-season items are coming from — South America? Africa? Central America? Florida or California? What’s the carbon footprint for on-demand fresh veg? I buy local as much as I can, but sometimes I really need a couple of lemons. (Please don’t make me buy lemon juice!)

I’m reminded of a shopping expedition I made to a farmers’ market in Oxford, way back in the 1980s. I looked and looked but couldn’t find any turnips. So I asked one of the sellers where they were kept. “Isn’t their season, is it, dearie?” she said. “Come back in the fall.”

More to come in February. And if you’d like any of the recipes, email me.

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