December Reads

Some lazy reads over the festive season – it seems appropriate that both books finished this month reflected how I spent the rest of my time, eating and binge watching.

Eating by Nigella Lawson

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Another in the lovely Vintage Minis series, Eating by Nigella Lawson was a treat which I enjoyed, in true Nigella style: leisurely.

I’ve always enjoyed Nigella’s recipes, her all-embracing attitude to food and eating, and usually, her television programmes – although anyone who watched the Christmas special this year will know what I mean when I say that at times the creative minds behind her shows can go a little over the top. In general I enjoy the vivacious, sumptuous style that Nigella has become hallmarked for because food is something to be enjoyed; eating is more often than not, an emotional experience, and as a result cookery shows have become exhibitions of lifestyle and interior design. While that can be a joy to watch when it comes to my beloved Nigel Slater, it can also become a bit boring. Which is why reading Nigella’s Eating was so refreshing.

This book, brought together through extracts from How to Eat and Kitchen, is pure Nigella. You will read it in her voice, you can pinpoint the moments when the camera would pan out into that pixelated haze of fairylights and aspirational living. But thankfully there’s none of that here – it’s about the food, the personal memories they hold, the trends which have fallen in and out of favour, the classics which shouldn’t go out of style, the essentials you should know, all wrapped up in Nigella’s unmistakable style.

You could probably get through life without knowing how to roast a chicken, but the question is, would you want to?”

Among the selected recipes included in this volume, there are moments of delightful prose which can be enjoyed as easily as any short story or novel. One passage which warmed my heart is about cookbooks.

As demonstrated on Christmas morning, when I receive a new cookbook I tend to sit down and begin reading it cover to cover like any other book, this is mostly to drink in the pictures because a cookbook should be a treat for the eyes, but also because I love the individual style and stories that creep into recipe writing – I’ve already mentioned Nigel Slater who is the king of this kind of writing, but I also love Felicity Cloake and Kate Young – they create atmosphere, a greater, more authentic sense of the writer’s home, their kitchen and their actual lifestyle than might be painted in their TV shows.

“…But this is the recipe that started me off. It is Anna Del Conte’s, adapted from her Entertaining all-Italiana. I have several copies of this book: one in the kitchen, where, eccentrically perhaps, I tend not to keep my cookery books; one in the study, where all books on food notionally live (in practice they are dotted on floors, in lavatories, throughout the house); and one in the bedroom, for late-night soothing reading and midnight-feast fantasising.”

I adore this. It is pure Nigella – that she self-identifies as perhaps a bit eccentric, that she midnight-feast fantasises by reading cookbooks (which you just know is the preceding scene to all those clips of her in dressing gown, illuminated in the darkness by the holy light of the fridge as she helps herself to something ‘naughty’) and that cookery books should be stacked up by the toilet. Love her or hate her, you believe her.

Howards End by EM Forster

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If nothing else, this book has confirmed for me the old adage that you should always read the book before you see the movie.

When Howards End hit our BBC screens earlier this year I was intrigued – this was an era I had a great deal of interest in, told from a side I’d not yet seen. I wanted to know more about the characters, to see the depths which had remained untouched by the time restraints of the TV series. And so no sooner than the final credits had rolled on the adaptation that I went out and picked up the paperback to discover the rest for myself. Surely EM Forster must have had more to say, there must be more to the rather vacuous characters which seemed to have so much promise. And what next? What became of Tibby? What did ‘baby’ grow up to be?

Sadly most of my questions went unanswered by the book. The quickness and sudden alteration of feeling and thought which happened scene by scene on the screen were no more delicately played out on the pages. Characters appear almost redrawn from one paragraph to the next without very much explanation as to why or how these changes came around. It is so frustrating as a reader, to find a world so inviting, characters so intriguing, which in the hands of another author, might have burst into life rather than drifting out from between the covers in a tired, spiritless way – exactly opposed to what you might expect from characters which should be so full of life. Wealthy, at leisure, well-travelled, surrounded by exciting, thought-provoking people, new movements and artists, this family live in a world where music and art are vital to their very existence because they have nothing else to do – no employment to undertake, no housework to be done, they needn’t even pursue a suitor, such is their state of comfort in a changing world. Margaret seems to a show a glimpse of this world to Ruth Wilcox, but because the latter appears to reject it, so the former inevitably does too.

It’s frustrating then that when something does press on their leisurely lifestyle (the search for a new house) it is in fact a new man which solves the problem. These are women with money, intelligence and apparently, an extended network of friends and acquaintances around London, but it is Mr Wilcox who must save them from homelessness. Why? What has this shallow, annoying character to offer Margaret that we could believe worth falling in love with?

Forster seems to suggest that women, even those who have found or inherited the means to live their life by their own measures, to seek education and explore other cultures, to broaden their minds about politics and current affairs, will still succumb to the charms or fortitude of a dominant, obnoxious man.

The collision of social classes in this book are interesting; Leonard Bast is another intriguing character yet his character development also falls short. I suspected with the TV series that too much of the essential details, the moments which counted, were happening off-screen and we were to take them for granted. But it appears the author has taken the same easy shortcuts through what might otherwise have been a masterpiece. I might return to this book some day to explore it again with greater intent, or perhaps it is just the book to be read in a group so it can be dissected and thoughts compared; perhaps I need more contextual knowledge of the era to really understand its triumph, but sadly for now, it remains a damp disappointment.

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