The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. — Adam Gopnik

November 24, 2015

Food from books

There were at least three other pastry shops as good as hers, in a town perhaps more noted for them than any other in a country dedicated to the gastric hazards of almond paste, chestnuts soaked in sweet liqueurs, and chocolate in all its richest and most redolent forms...
      The shop always smelled right, not confused and stuffy but delicate layered:  fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated nutmeg, vanilla beans, old kirsch, newly ground almonds....
from M.F.K. Fisher's Provence, with photographs by Aileen Ah-Tye

Found this lovely new book in the library at lunchtime, read it in one bite, now longing to read more of her.

      Often, after I left Aix the first time, I thought about the brilliant sights and smells of that rhythmic parade through the pastry shop windows. It was exciting. It was based on the main supplies of the rich dry land, the almonds, the colors of all the fruits and fishes, the spring floods of eggs and cream and syrups. Religion took it over, with pagan rituals behind the altars:  spring, marriage, birth and rebirth, the miracles of Christmas and Easter.

November 22, 2015

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

The took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Someday ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

This book — a close, unexpected reading of a poem we know so well, except that we don't — appealed to me the second I heard about it, and if I hadn't had to wait so long for it at the library, I think I would rather have read it at a less busy time.  But no matter, because even knowing how book leads on to book, I want to  read it, and think about it, again. :)  (But of course, me being me, there's a biography of Frost that I want to read first... :)

The essence of the book is that this a poem that we know, and many of us love, and misquote, but it's also one that we fundamentally misunderstand, Our reading of it might change as things are pointed out to us:  that these are roads (not paths or trails), the question of which is the road not taken (the one the speaker chooses, or the one that he doesn't), the problem of whether you can be the same person {be one traveler} after you have made a choice {any choice}, the questionable nature of choosing between two things that are 'really about the same,' the false conviction that we can know how we will feel about something, ages and ages hence, and the open question of what the difference is that has been made.

But there's also the story of Frost's friendship with an English poet, and his reputation as a 'monster,' and philosophy, and psychology, and selling jam, the sense of there being a national character,different in different countries,, and how we create, or possibly uncover, our sense of self... packed in 177 pages, all from 20 lines of a hundred-year-old poem. It's very rich and little dizzying, but very readable and so intriguing,

We can't accurately tell the stories of our own choices, Frost might say, but they are nonetheless ours, and there is something pleasing — or at any rate fascinating — in the way we fall short of understanding them consciously, and in the hope that we might somehow not fall short. In our reaching and failing we create a life, a story, an art.

November 10, 2015

One more (because I couldn't resist...)

      Then there was the question of her annual birthday present, a dress which he duly bought without her, and then watched proudly as she tried it on. The trouble was that the dress was nearly always too large for Elizabeth, never very tall, and like everyone else she becoming smaller with age. And one year, the year of the Giant Red Dress, it was truly enormous. Out of curiousity, I asked my father how he chose the dresses, 'I go into that shop on the King's Road, and ask for a dress from the nearest girl I see. When she asks, 'What size?' I always answer:  ' 'Your size.' And it always works.' He paused. Even Frank had noticed the overwhelming size of the Giant Red Dress. 'The trouble was that the girl in the shop this year was rather a fattie.' Frank gave his sweet smile. 'But it would have been unkind not to give the same answer.'
from My History:  a memoir of growing up, by Antonia Fraser

OK, I know. But remembering (bittersweetly, now) that my Dad always sincerely tried, but still we could see that the present he chose wasn't always quite right. And thinking of him with love, and reading this, and ending the day with much more of a smile than I started it with. :)

November 9, 2015

Books and food

      My cousin Henrietta Lamb worked for Peter Quennell doing picture research for History Today, a similar world to my own. Friends since birth, it seemed an obvious move for us to share a flat together, She earned eight pounds a week and I earned six.
      Once we were installed in the flat beneath my parents' house in Cheyne Gardens, we busied ourselves enjoying a London of a very different sort. These were Basement Days. The flat was dark and rambling, with a bathroom at the back that it took some time to discover... At the front the tiny kitchen, more of a galley than a room, seemed already part of the dustbin area. To our relief, a man found lurking there in the early morning turned out to be a policeman in quest of unpaid library fines (mine) rather than an official from the Council complaining about the unsightly jumble. The sitting room also had a good view of the dustbins out of its murky windows. In short, this seemed to us to be an ideal place to give dinner parties, especially as the great Elizabeth David had recently published A Book of Mediterranean Food

Only a little of this book left...I'm going to miss her!

      We grappled with its revolutionary concepts and argued about the details as explorers in the South Pacific must have discussed unknown flora and   fauna. For example, what was one to make of this enormous stone at the centre of a so-called avocado pear? Was the stone to be left in place as a sort of noble centerpiece or thrown away?  Going for the centerpiece was only one of the many decisions we were to get wrong. Then, stuffing an aubergine seemed an awful effort for very little result; I did not fancy the taste of either aubergines or the new favourites, peppers, but was far too anxious to keep up with the times to admit it.
      Courgettes were delicious but presented a different problem; if these were the miniature version of something called a courge, might it not be simpler and more economical -- we were always on the lookout for that -- to buy one large courge?  Whatever that was. When it turned out to be a form of vegetable marrow, there was disappointment, since wartime cookery had contained all too many insipid marrow dishes. As for real mayonnaise, the memory of my struggles to whip it up still embarrasses me, as well as the unacknowledged fact that all the time I longed for that reliable old bottle of Heniz Salad Cream we were supposed to be replacing. The Goncourt Brothers once wrote that the time of which one does not have a dinner menu is 'a time dead to us, an irrecoverable time.' All I can say is that for me the Basement Days will never be irrecoverable so long as the last aubergine remains to be stuffed.  

      from My History: a memoir of growing up, by Antonia Fraser

November 8, 2015

Bringing herself out

      In the summer of 1950, there were lunches given by debutantes' mothers at which important social matters were ironed out; it was of course out of the question for Elizabeth to attend such things. Dances were arranged by also cocktail parties for those who could not afford a dance; some of these were shared conveniently between two families. The problem I faced was how to get myself onto the invitation list. There was only one answer. Since my mother was no help, I would bring myself out.
      I did not realize at first, that, as a future student at a university, with an assured place, I was a rarity among the debutantes. I was to discover this when I began to acquire some dancing partners who would politely ask me about my autumn plans: 'Are you going to the shoot at Stately Home X on November twenty-fifth...?' 'No,' I would answer brightly, 'I'll be shooting down undergraduates. I'm going to Oxford.' After a few uncomprehending stares, I abandoned that line of chat and let it be understood that I was going to take a secretarial course, like the others. All the same I began dimly to understand the inestimable advantage I had in 1950 in having an ambitious mother — ambitious for her daughter academically, that is, and not like Mrs. Bennet seeking an advantageous matrimonial bargain. ...
      So it was a challenge that was all about winning and losing, although I did not attempt to scale the heights of the fabled Queen Charlotte's Ball, where debutantes were said to curtsey to a cake in the absence of the monarch. ... That, I felt, would be a step too far for my mother and even, to be honest, to me. Sometimes I won when I managed to get to a dance because I had been at school with the girl concerned and discovered a spurious past intimacy between us. Sometimes I lost through trying to scale the heights, as when I failed to get to the ball at Holkham for Lady Anne Coke, a modern Gainsborough beauty. I won when I was invited to a shooting weekend in Hampshire by one John Baring, a quizzical fellow with a good sense of the ridiculous. He would have appreciated the entry in my diary noting the future event, with its order of priorities: 'I am terrified of doing the wrong thing,' I wrote. 'Also of getting shot.'
      ...Fortunately at least one event followed conventional lines of mother and daughter bonded together in attendance and that was my presentation at Buckingham Palace. ... I was even able to boast later of exchanging a few words with the Queen herself. This honour could hardly have been accorded to every single debutante at the packed occasion, although I'm sure the perpetually smiling queen did her best. I was evidently the beneficiary of my father's official position as a Labour minister. Once again, this was something to set against his basic disinclination to attend any social occasion designed for my self-promotion.
      'What would be point, darling?' said Elizabeth sensibly. 'Dada would only go to sleep.' This was so obviously true that I had to hold my peace. ...

      'So you are going to Oxford,' said the well-primed Queen Elizabeth in a friendly manner, after I had made my curtsey. 'Well, you must have a fling first.' Actually, a fling was the last thing I wanted; on the contrary, I wanted True Love, the sort I read about in books, not all of the high standard of Pride and Prejudice.   It is a fact that, being a quick reader, apart from enabling a person to study good books such as Macauley and Gibbon, enables a person to read a lot of bad books as well. It would however be ungrateful to pick out the titles that gave me such pleasure and stigmatize them as bad books; besides, I would maintain that such books can teach you narrative skill, which certainly never comes amiss in writing History.
from My History:  a memoir of growing up, by  Antonia Fraser

November 5, 2015

Only connect: Antonia Fraser and Christine Longford and Flora Fraser and Elizabeth Longford

This is something I started wondering about on the bus ride home. I'm currently reading, and greatly enjoying, My History:  a memoir of growing up, by historian and mystery writer Antonia Fraser (a.k.a. Lady Antonia Margaret Caroline Pakenham), who mentions that she is the niece (by marriage) of Christine Longford (a.k.a Christine, Countess of Longford), who wrote Making Conversation, one of the Persephones on my someday list. And, as it turns out. she's the mother of Flora Fraser, who wrote a book about the daughters of George III that I bought (but haven't read yet) after I read this one, and the new book about George and Martha Washington that I just brought home from the library and hope I'll have time to read next.  And then there's Elizabeth, Antonia's mother, who became Countess of Longford when her husband and Antonia's father and Flora's grandfather Francis Aungier Pakenham became the 7th Earl of Longford upon the death of his brother Edward, husband of Christine. As Elizabeth Longford, she wrote biographies and a memoir, The Pebbled Shore, which I've now also put on my list after meeting her in her daughter's book. This is the kind of thing I love: when  my books are related. :)