The Sunday Salon – this week’s books

I was away from the Salon last Sunday, but I did lots of reading – although it wasn’t my usual choice of book – to my granddaughter, mainly Dora books, which she loves, oh yes and Peppa Pig.It’s been a mixed week for reading. On Tuesday I finished reading C J Sansom’s Revelation, a marvellous book, possibly the best in his Shardlake series. I wrote about it here. After that every book I picked up seemed a bit flat and I struggled to come up with another book to read. I’m still reading Eat, Pray,Love. It seems as though I’ve been reading it for ever as I’m only reading a few pages a day, probably not the best way to read it. So far I have mixed feelings about this book. This morning it made me smile though. Elizabeth Gilbert is now in Bali with Ketut,the elderley medicine man who she hopes will teach her to find God through Balinese meditation. She has spent months in India studying Yoga – intense and heart searching – and now Ketut tells her

” …Yoga too hard. … To meditate only you must smile. Smile with face, smile with mind, and good energy will come to you and clean away dirty energy.”

It took me until Friday to decide that Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost was the right book for my frame of mind; it’s a complete contrast to Revelation. I think that when I’ve read one book that makes me ‘live’ in the story I need something completely different, so I’ve moved from historical mystery to present day memoir. In Hilary Mantel’s book she looks back over her life, so different from mine and from Elizabeth Gilbert’s too. This is one of the things I like about reading – the access that it gives into other people’s lives, thoughts and experiences. Some would say that it’s not real life and you should get out and live life rather than read about it. As for me I’d rather read about Hilary Mantel’s experiences with her family, school teachers and doctors than live them and I’d much rather read about life in an ashram in India than go there myself, but it’s good to know about these things. I read yesterday that Melvyn Bragg has published a new book – Remember Me …. You can read a review of the book at the Times Online where there is a link to to Melvyn Bragg’s talk about Remember Me … at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.This is the fourth novel about Joe, now grown up, based on Melvyn Bragg’s own life. The first three, The Soldier’s Return, Son of War and Crossing the Lines, tell the story of Joe from age 6 when his father returns at the end of the Second World War up the time he left home to go to Oxford University. As well as beng good stories these books bring to life what it was like living in the post war period. I’m looking forward to reading Remember Me … with eager anticipation.

I hope everyone has a good day today – keep smiling!

After Work Cookbook

After Work, by W H Smith, published by Octopus Publishing Group Ltd 1999.

I’™ve had this book a few years and have made several of the recipes. As the title suggests all the recipes are for making quick meals from fresh ingredients plus some storecupboard items. Each recipe is illustrated with a photograph. Some dishes need more preparation than others, but none of them are difficult to make ‘“ just what you need at the end of a busy day.

There’™s a good mix of recipes divided into sections:

· ‘˜light bites’™ ‘“ sandwiches, salads and soups
· ‘˜international flavours’™ ‘“ a selection from around the world ‘“ pasta, stir-fry, curry, chow mein etc
· ‘˜quick fish dishes’™ ‘“ fish cakes, fish casserole etc
· ‘˜’™meat and poultry for dinner’™ ‘“ family meals and special occasions
· ‘˜sweet endings’™ ‘“ using fruit and chocolate eg double chocolate brownies

Today I made Two-Tomato Mozzarella Salad, one of my favourite recipes from this book. Really all you do is put it all together and eat it. It only takes a few minutes to prepare.

two tomato mozzarella
For 4 people you need:

· 500g fresh plum tomatoes sliced ‘“ or as many as you like
· chopped oregano
· 375g mozzarella cheese sliced ‘“ or use as much or you like – buffalo mozzarella is the nicest
· 12 sun-dried tomatoes preserved in oil and cut into strips. I don’™t cut them up unless they are very large ‘“ again you can use as many as you want
· fresh basil leaves
· salt and pepper ‘“ I use rock or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing, whisk the following ingredients together in a small bowl or put in a screw top jar and shake well to combine:

· 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
· 3 tablespoons oil from the sun-dried tomatoes
· 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
· ¼ garlic clove crushed – I usually use a whole clove
· pinch of sugar

1. Arrange the plum tomato slices in a single layer on a large plate and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste together with the oregano.
2. Arrange the slices of mozzarella on top of the sliced tomatoes and tuck in the sun-dried tomatoes between them.
3. Scatter the basil leaves over the top and drizzle on the dressing.

Sometimes we just have this with maybe some crusty bread. Today we added some Parma ham, pasta shells with green pesto and asparagus tips ‘“ simply delicious.

Also posted on Soup’s On! blog.

Just the Right Book?

I still can’™t decide which book to read next. I’™ve picked up The Sixth Wife, by Suzannah Dunn but it seems wrong somehow; another time might be better for that book. I’™ve read three of the short stories in Ian Rankin’™s A Good Hanging ‘“ they’™re OK but not riveting. I don’™t fancy Dante’™s Descent into Hell (Inferno) today ‘“ I want something more cheerful, and not historical. They’™re not the right books just now.

I had to go to the dentist yesterday as a filling had come out. Fortunately he was able to replace the filling and I didn’™t have to have an injection, which I really dislike ‘“ I have a needle phobia, I think. Anyway to reward myself I went to the library for a mooch. I had only just got passed the returns desk when I saw The Maytrees by Annie Dillard on a display stand. I’™d read somewhere that this is a good book and as I’™ve read several of her books, particularly Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I hoped this would be just the right book.

Then I saw Going into a Dark House by Jane Gardam on another display stand and thought that might be the right book. This is a collection of short stories, maybe as good as The Sidmouth Letters and Old Filth. But maybe not just the right book yet ‘“ I’™m not really in the mood for short stories.

Further into the library and I came upon the autobiography/biography section, where I picked up two books by Joan Bakewell. Now I like Joan Bakewell, so I had a look at both of them. The Centre of the Bed is about her life from her childhood in Stockport, growing up during the war, life at Cambridge University and with the BBC as a radio and television broadcaster ‘“ called ‘œthe thinking man’™s crumpet’, no less. Stockport is near where I was born and that was enough for me to borrow this book, that and the description on the book cover that said she ‘œprovides a fascinating record of the changes in British society and culture over the last seventy years.’ That should be good.

Right next to that book was The View from Here: Life at Seventy, which promises to be ‘œan exhilarating, funny and always thought-provoking take on the human condition that most of us dread and yet count ourselves lucky to achieve: old age.’

I’™m not as old as that yet, but I hope to get there, so it’™s best to be prepared. This may be Just The Right Book.

Then again, maybe now is the right time for The Needle in the Blood, by Sarah Bower – it’s been sitting on my bookshelves for months now …?

Vocabulary – Booking Through Thursday

Suggested by Nithin:

I’™ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’™ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

A short answer today -it varies depending upon what I’™m reading. If I come across a word I don’™t know sometimes I try to think what it means by the context, especially if I’™m engrossed in the book and it would spoil it if I stopped to get the dictionary out. I may try to remember the word and look it up later to check I’™ve understood it properly. Other times I jot it down and look it up later, or if words keep cropping up that I don’™t know I’™ll get the dictionary out and have it handy for reference.

Sometimes I think I know just what a word means, but if you ask me for a definition I’™ll become a bit vague and say I’™ll have to look it up.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth (published in the USA as Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance), John Murray Publishers Ltd, 2008, 355 pages).

I suppose you could call this book an ‘historical whodunit’. It’s set in 1889 – 1890, fin-de-siècle London and Paris and the mystery begins with Oscar Wilde finding the naked body of Billy Wood, a 16 year old boy in the candle-lit room in a small terraced house in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament. Billy’s throat has been cut and he is laid out as though on a funeral bier, surrounded by candles, with the smell of incense still in the air. It’s a combination of fiction and fact, with both real and imaginary characters. Wilde with the help of his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard sets out to solve the crime. Sherard (the great grandson of William Wordsworth) who wrote poems, novels, biographies (including five of Oscar Wilde) and social studies is the narrator.

The story reads quickly (so quickly that I didn’t want to stop to make notes as I read) and is full of colourful characters such as Gerard Bellotti, who runs an ‘informal luncheon club for gentlemen’. Bellotti is

‘grossly corpulent’ giving the impression of ‘a toad that sits and blinks, yet never moves’ wearing ‘an orange checked suit that would have done credit to the first comedian at Collins’ Music Hall and on the top of his onion-shaped head of oily hair, which was tightly curled and dyed the colour of henna, he sported a battered straw boater.’

Wilde is a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories so much so that as the mystery is unravelled he picks up clues in the manner of Holmes, observing and deducing, exclaiming when questioned by Conan Doyle ‘Come, Arthur, this is elementary stuff -Holmes is where my heart is.’ I think it is this combination of fact and fiction that I enjoyed most in reading the book. I knew little about Wilde or Doyle and nothing about Sherard before reading it, but I think I learned a lot about all three people, about their characters, their views on life and love, and their works, as well as about the society in which they lived.

According to The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries website the book is peppered through with quotes from Wilde, or Brandreth’s versions of Wilde’s words, together with Brandreth’s own inventions. I couldn’t tell which was which, as I’ve only read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and seen a TV production of The Importance of Being Ernest, but it all seemed perfectly in character to me. I found the details of Wilde’s love for his wife Constance particularly interesting in contrast to his trial for gross indecency in 1895. In fact I came away from the book really liking Wilde and wanting to read more about him and by him. Fortunately the biographical notes at the end of the book give more details of works by and about Wilde, Conan Doyle and Sherard.

I didn’t find the mystery too difficult to work out, with lots of clues throughout the book, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. On the contrary it made it all the more pleasurable. The next book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death, is due out in the UK in May and in the USA, called Oscar Wilde and the Game of Murder, in September. Apparently there are seven more in the pipeline. That should mean I end up knowing an awful lot more about Oscar Wilde!

Revelation by C J Sansom

I know who the murderer is ‘“ I’™ve finished Revelation!

I haven’™t written anything on this blog since Saturday, partly because we’™ve been staying with our son and his family and partly because I just had to finish reading Revelation. It’™s the fourth book in the Matthew Shardlake series. The first three are Dissolution set in 1537, Dark Fire set in 1540 and Sovereign set in 1541. I think they all stand alone but I like to read books in sequence. It’™s been a year since I read the third book and Revelation was well worth the wait. It’™s a long book full of intrigue, mystery and murder. (At 546 pages long it qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge.)

Revelation is set a few years later than Sovereign; the action takes place during March and April 1543. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’™s fifth queen, has been beheaded and he has asked Catherine Parr to be his wife. She, understandably, is somewhat reluctant, fearful of what that may lead to, not to mention her involvement with Sir Thomas Seymour. This is a time of the struggle for power between religious reformers and reactionaries. Thomas Cranmer is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite opposition from Bishop Gardiner and Bishop Bonner, who was pursuing religious radicals, looking for heretics. The reformers are preaching that the Apocalypse was coming, inducing ‘œsalvation panic’, with people craving certainty that they are among those whom God has pre-ordained to be saved. Parliament is passing legislation to prevent the working classes and women from reading the new English Bible Thomas Cromwell (executed in 1540) had introduced. It’™s a time of change and uncertainty.

That’™s the political and religious scene in which Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, finds himself when the murder of his old friend Roger Elliard, brings him back to the attention of Archbishop Cranmer. He is working on the case of Adam Kite, a teenage boy, who is imprisoned in the Bedlam hospital for the insane, helped by Guy Malton (previously a monk and now licensed as a doctor). Adam is a ‘˜self-hater’™ fearing that he is ‘˜unworthy of God’™s love’™. The question is, is he mad or possessed by the devil? Then more bodies are found and Matthew along with his assistant Barak joins forces with Gregory Harsnet, the London coroner is trying to find out who is committing the horrific murders.

I’™m not going to say any more about the plot. I was completely convinced of the reality presented in the book, the setting is clearly described (there are maps of the main scenes, north of the River Thames and of Westminster) and the characters are just so alive. I felt as though I was there, a spectator to everything that went on.

I particularly liked the information in the book on such topics as the state of medicine at the time, the treatment of various illnesses, how knowledge of human anatomy was discovered through post-mortems, challenging previously held beliefs. Mental illness for example was thought by some to be caused by an imbalance of humours in the brain but others were coming to think it was caused by physical disorders, such as tumours, in the brain and yet others thought it was possession by the devil, which must be driven out. There was the threat that religious-obsessives would be considered as heretics and condemned to be burned at the stake. (I found it interesting that the treatment of mental illness in the 17th century in read about in The Verneys was not much different from that in the 16th ‘“ see my post on The Verneys here.) I was fascinated by the idea of teeth set in wooden dentures, but squeamish at how the teeth were obtained and I was intrigued by the use of drugs, such as dwale (deadly nightshade) as an anaesthetic.

Another topic that fascinated me was the question of the religious beliefs of the fundamentalists. Just as Christian fundamentalists today seen signs of the end of the world, people in Tudor England were convinced that the Apocalypse was coming upon them. The Puritans were convinced of the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, accepting the violent destruction of those who were not ‘˜saved’™ without a qualm. It is of course, as the title indicates, the prophecies in the Book of Revelation that fuel the murders. Guy, next to Matthew my favourite character in the Shardlake series, looks on these subjects more compassionately. Talking of the contemporary scene he says that men have been

‘œThrown into a world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal facts, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.’

How do I rate this book? The plot had me turning the pages to see what happens next and find out who committed the murders, there was enough commentary on the political, religious and social scene for me to grasp what it was like living in Tudor England together with information on the location of the action that did not detract from the action but enhanced it, well-defined and believable characters and a fluent, readable style with a good balance between dialogue and description.

In a less analytical mode I’™d say, ‘œI loved it, loved it, loved it!’

It’™s hard to settle down now to another book, even though I’™ve plenty lined up waiting to be read. It’™s like that sometimes when I’™ve just finished a really good book. I’™m still reading Eat, Pray, Love, but I like to have more than one book on the go. I’™m behind with reading Les Miserables, so I might get back to that, but as Revelation ends with the news that Henry VIII finally married Catherine Parr in July 1543 I’™m really tempted to read Suzannah Dunn’™s The Sixth Wife to carry on reading more about Catherine Parr.