Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Books I Read In May

'The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories' by Rudyard Kipling
In many ways I should not have been surprised by this book.  I know Kipling as an author of stories set in British-ruled India; it was published first in 1888.  Though I have not read any of his books before, I have seen movies of 'Kim' (novel 1901; movie 1950) and the movie of the main story in this book released in 1975; I have seen extracts of the cartoon version of 'The Jungle Book' (stories 1894-5; movie 1967 and 2016).  Perhaps, as a result I expected more action and even humour from this collection of short stories.  The humour that is tried seems very contorted and specific to a very particular time and place. I could imagine it would not have gone down well even with readers of the time who were not associated with colonial rule in India or with the military.  Overall in the first part of the book in particular, you get a very narrow focus and a great deal of repetition.

Many of the settings in Simla, the hill town that British officials, officers and their families would retreat to when the plains of India became too hot.  They are largely set in the 1880s and the first third of the book features stories primarily about extra-marital affairs rendered in similar ways. They are largely tedious and made inaccessible for a modern reader by a combination of Victorian grammar and slang mixing both English and pseudo-Hindi terms.  As the book progresses there is a move to ghost stories which is an improvement, though the first of these, 'The Phantom 'Rickshaw' itself stems from an extra-marital affair.

There is the eponymous story but it is presented very differently to the movie in that we only hear it third hand with one of the heroes recounting it to a British journalist in central India.  It has all the elements but so far removed from the action lacks a sense of tension and conversely is rushed.  There are three stories about various adventures, misadventures and poor treatment of small boys which may have been Kipling reflecting on his own childhood and probably was an element of him preparing for 'Kim' and 'The Jungle Book Stories' but lacking the charm of those; the confused battle involving two drummer boys, 'The Drums of the Fore and Aft' takes this another step.

You do learn quite a bit about this very small slice of British society abroad and even the geography of Simla and the surrounding area.  However, the short stories, even when trying to be humorous say very little.  I can contrast them sharply with the short stories of Herman Charles Bosman, best known for 'Mafeking Road and Other Stories' (1947) that my girlfriend is currently reading to me.  Now, these were published sixty years after Kipling's collection.  However, by focusing on rural Transvaal in the 1900s they provide a similar context of a small society in the latter phase of British imperialism, with a mixture of specific slang, in this case old Afrikaans words.  Yet the quality of Bosman's short stories put Kipling's in the shade.  Bosman is able to take the small incidents that appear in the restricted context and turn out both humorous and wistful stories that are excellently crafted.  Having both books on the go at the same time has shown me the poor quality of this particular collection of Kipling's.

'The Piper on the Mountain' by Ellis Peters
This was one of six novels written by Peters not featuring the 12th century monk Brother Cadfael.  The book was published in 1966 and sort of centres on the amateur detective, Dominic Felse.  In this story he is a 2nd Year undergraduate English Literature student at the University of Oxford.  He gets drawn into the investigation by 1st Year student Theodosia Barber (affectionately known as 'Tossa'!) into the death of her former step-father while walking in the Lower Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, at the time in Communist Czechoslovakia.  Though the Cold War was in full flow when the book was written Peters seemed to expect growing detente.  The story, while in London and Oxford is perfunctory, there is nothing to really show you the time or the place and it could be any one of a hundred novels of this era.  It becomes far better when Dominic and Tossa go on a touring holiday with other students, female/male twins.  Peters really conjures up the setting of that area of Slovakia; its wildlife and people, while avoiding stereotypes.  She seems far better informed about this rural region than she does about towns in Britain.

Though there is a death and a murder, this is really more like a spy adventure featuring bright young things, charging around.  The story effectively becomes a modernised Dornford Yates (1885-1960; published 1914-56) book, especially the Richard Chandos stories (published 1927-49) which were often in Central Europe.  Peters does well to produce a sense of jeopardy, which shows how people writing short (it is only 162 pages), adventure stories can do this, something lacking in spy stories I have read recently.  The twist is pretty good.  In many ways it was an old fashioned story even at the time it was written, but if you are willing to accept it, that is fine.

The main flaw in the early part of the book is that Peters jumps between a number of points of view, sometimes even on a single page.  It is only after the halfway point that Felse becomes the clear hero, that this situation settles down.  I am surprised an editor did not pick this up at the time.  It is not a bad book and the scenes where the heroes are pinned down by a sniper are handled notably well.  I do not expect to be stretched by the other five books, but I certainly will not throw them away at this stage.

'Mourning Raga' by Ellis Peters
This is another book by Peters featuring Dominic Felse and Theodosia Barber who are now girlfriend/boyfriend and a further year on at University of Oxford.  Being in the mid-sixties (the book was published in 1969, which being three years after the first book they would have finished their studies by now if it was contemporaneous) they do not sleep together.  Peters is able to produce a sound reason for sending them to New Delhi to accompany the 14-year old half-American/half-Indian daughter of a movie star back to her father in India.  The girl, Anjli, is kidnapped and the bulk of the story is about recovering her.  There are numerous big male Indian characters whose personalities dominate the book and push Felse and Barber into the background, it is far less their story than 'The Piper on the Mountain' though perhaps that was intentional to have Indian characters in the lead.  While Peters does draw characteristics of different types of Indians, notably contrasting Punjabis and Bengalis, she does seem intent to show India as a modern country.  As in the previous novel she clearly knows her location well and gives immense detail of New Dehli, not simply the tourist sites but how it was growing and developing in the 1960s.  It is a twisty plot and at times the number of characters can be a little overwhelming.  This is not aided by her repeating the tendency from the previous book of abruptly switching points of view often on the same page and you can be uncertain whose eyes you are seeing through, further adding to the two 'lead' characters seeming to be pushed into second place.

Despite the references to fashion of the late 1960s, this feels like a modern book which you could present as a television drama now.  I admire the effort Peters puts into the panoply of characters and her largely avoiding taking a Western-tinted view on India.  However, this would have been a more pleasant read if she had kept tighter rein on the perspective.  I know it can be useful when trying to put twists in the plot, but by the closing chapter you are left rather breathlessly bewildered.  I suppose for a mystery writer that is not too bad a thing, but as a reader despite this being a short book (159 pages in my edition) you have to really pay attention.

'Nine Tomorrows' by Isaac Asimov
I have not read any books by Asimov before even though he published tens of them.  I think I was put off by expecting them to be very much 'hard' science fiction about pondering the vastness of space in dreary spaceships.  This is a collection of short stories originally published 1956-58.  They compare favourably with the John Wyndham collection of roughly the same era that I read last month.  On occasion there is a feeling that they are dated, especially in referring to miniature film and taped books, though these would have seemed feasible even just twenty years ago.  Indeed the development of computers on to molecular processing still seems ahead of its time.

Some of the concepts Asimov covers have become very common in writing since he explored them, but I think it is his skill as an author that keeps them seeming fresh in how he looks at them.  He does ponder big issues but without the stories becoming ponderous in the way I feared.  'Profession' looks at young people in a society in which your profession is decided, a theme taken up in many dystopias and indeed had featured in 'Brave New World' (1931) well before this story.  Yet Asimov shows the challenges of this approach and what a society might need.  'The Feeling of Power' could easily be produced today and actually echoes something I have experienced in the past two years.  With a long-running interplanetary battle reaching stalemate, the humans come up with a new 'invention' that rather than relying on computers to calculate everything humans can be trained to do it, so introducing elements to thwart their opponents and at a cheaper price. A couple of years ago, I was challenged to do some cubed numbers in my head and did them faster than a colleague could type them into their phone, so this kind of issue remains current.

There are a couple of almost science fiction detective mysteries.  'The Dying Night' is clever in that the murderer is detected as a result of the behaviour they exhibit resulting from the planet in the solar system they have been based on.  'I'm in Marsport without Hilda' feels more dated really in the way it shows the investigator having an extra-marital affair rather than how he decides which of the three businessmen is a drugs smuggler.  I wonder if there are other such detective/SF crossovers; I can only really think of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968).

'The Gentle Vultures' with its obsession with nuclear war might seem dated, but it does provide an interesting alien view of Earth, different to those who simply come in peace or those who just want to conquer and is good at getting the alien mindset across.  'The Troubles of the World' turns out to be cleverer than you might first expect.  It seems to combine aspects of what would had featured two years before in 'The Minority Report' (short story 1956; movie 2002) with something like the computers in '2001: A Space Odyssey' (novel and movie, 1968) and 'Dark Star' (movie, 1974).  'Spell My Name with an 'S'' again shows its age because of Cold War references but also establishes tropes that now often feature in science fiction about how destined we are to live a certain life, whether out future is predictable and if a small change can bring about a very different outcome; the 'Back to the Future' movie trilogy (1985-90) is just one among many that build on those questions.

'The Last Question' is a bit more of what I expected - big questions about the universe across millennia and a rather trite ending.  'The Ugly Little Boy' about snatching people and objects from the past to study them in the present is another theme which is now common but fresher when this story was written.  Towards the end you might expect the outcome but it has a welcome humanity about it.

Overall I was presently surprised by this collection.  It was not as heavy or gloomy as I had anticipated and Asimov shows off a skill in short story writing that maybe contributes a great deal to that.  Even though the collection is now so old, it still has a lot to say to many of the issues we are facing today as all the best science fiction does.  I certainly am more likely to pick up an Isaac Asimov book if I come across one in the future, especially if it has short stories rather than a full novel.

'My Legendary Girlfriend' by Mike Gayle
This book published in 1998 was billed as a male version of 'Bridget Jones's Diary' (1996),  There are similarities.  One is that it is broken up in chronological chunks, though unlike Helen Fielding's book covering months, Gayle's does it over a matter hours stretching from a Friday afternoon through a weekend to a Monday morning. This is part of the problem with the book and makes it unattractive.  It is horribly claustrophobic.  The lead character, Will Kelly spends a lot of his time in a shabby flat which he takes no care of, with brief journeys to convenience stores and a pub in the Archway area of London and to Highgate Cemetery with unpleasant or desultory interactions with almost everyone.

A lot of the book, as the title suggests is about relationships.  He has lengthy telephone conversations with a range of people, not many of whom are sympathetic characters.  The lack of other social media dates the book.  Kelly obsesses over the girlfriend who dumped him three years earlier, after three years together; the anniversary of the relationship is on his birthday, the Sunday of the weekend.  Though it is a short book (215 pages in the edition I had which has very small type), it drags terribly.  You become angry with Will Kelly for being such a slob and being so lazy with his life.  Unlike with Bridget Jones, there is very little humour in the situation.  Perhaps, Gayle, being a former agony uncle felt unable to raise humour from problems facing many young people in London, notably appalling accommodation at expensive rents and the loneliness especially in Britain in which people are so busy 'networking' that they have no time to be with their 'friends'.

The ending is rushed and has a resolution which seems incongruous given how gloomy the rest of the book has been.  You may say I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it when in my 20s, but I think it would have been impossible then to face up to this story which echoed so much of the problems of my own life and without the happy ending that Kelly gets.

'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' by J.K. Rowling
By the third book in the Harry Potter series you feel that Rowling has really got into her stride in writing novels and this is very polished, especially if set alongside the first book.  For those, like me, who know the Potter stories best from the movies, this one diverges even more than the previous two.  The broad outline of events are the same, but many of the details are very different.  In some ways I think the movie line is less jerky and makes better use of the time travel aspect.  The climax with Harry, Ron and Hermione finding out who is lying is much messier in the book and leaves you rather confused; it is clearer in the movie.  The Divination teacher, Sybil Trelawney, gets a far bigger role in the book than the movie and she predicts many things accurately, to some degree putting Hermione in a dimmer light than she otherwise has.  Her classroom is also very otherworldly in the books.

Overall, the flavour of this book is darker than the movie version.  This gets you ready for the aspects which become increasingly apparent as the book persists.  The complexity of adult relationships, notably friendships, is not skirted over.  The dark flavour is added to by the fact that the humour of the movie is rather overshadowed in the book and as before, Harry's treatment by the Dursleys, however much light is made of it, still grates as abuse.  I suppose this is somewhat of a plot device to make Harry happy to spend more time at his boarding school, even during the holidays.  As before in the books, the working of the school seems to be Rowling's central focus, much more than is apparent in the movies.  In particular in this story where the climax is a revelation rather than battling a monster, what is the focus on action on screen, is only a small piece of the book and indeed the aftermath continues well after this climax is concluded.  I enjoyed the book but am increasingly conscious that I am reading what is primarily a school novel rather than a fantasy novel.

'The Knight and the Merchant' by Grant Uden
In my childhood in the 1970s school libraries often had many books written in the 1950s and 1960s which featured great people and great events of history.  Some would have a fictional story involving children encountering these people or being present at the events.  With an eagerness for history I was often directed to read such books.  I remember 'The Grey Apple Tree' by Vera Cumberlege (1965) about the Battle of Hastings and the work of Geoffrey Trease, unsurprising given that he published 113 books in a career stretching from 1934-97.  Also numerous were books which lacked the fictional element and were a biography of some famous person's life.  However, even in these, the language was often very descriptive and at sometimes bombastic and even a little jingoistic, in a way referencing the sense of 'New Elizabethan' Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, proud of its history but looking to the future too.

My copy of 'The Knight and the Merchant' (1965) certainly fits the latter pattern.  I see that it comes from a library and has been cancelled.  Where I got it from, I have no idea, perhaps from a jumble sale at a school.  The book narrates in rich terms, the lives of Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers (1440-83) and William Caxton (1421-91).  Woodville was very much involved in the Wars of the Roses and became brother-in-law to King Edward IV (1442-83; ruled 1461-70 and 1471-83).  Both men had very interesting careers which is presumably why they were selected.  The Woodville family rose from being poor knights to serving the king directly.  Anthony was involved in battles of the Wars of the Roses, but was also a keen jouster and later a vigorous pilgrim.  Caxton was a successful cloth merchant who lived in Bruges for much of his adult life and became the leading representative of British merchants in the Low Countries.  He attracted the attention of the court of the Duke of Burgundy and through this of Anthony Woodville.  Caxton changed career at the age of 50, setting himself up as a printer in London and some of his early work was commissioned through Woodville.

Various incidents from the lives of the two men, especially when their paths crossed.  Through it we learn a lot about the Wars of the Roses and life among the merchant and noble classes of 15th century England and the near Continent.  It does not pull its punches in terms of death and execution.  However, it is written in a style that really carries you along.  It is reinforced through quotations taken from texts of the time.  As a popular history book, despite its age, it works well and very effectively highlighted some facets of late medieval history that I was not overly familiar with.  I certainly feel I have a better grasp of the Wars of the Roses and indeed of early printing in England and I guess that was the point of the book.

'The Fire and the Rose' by Arthur Bryant
This is a digest of chapters from a number of history books written by Bryant in the 1960s.  This edition published in 1972 was offered as part of a promotion by Shell petrol stations, March-May 1972.  It may have come from my grandfather who enjoyed popular history books and getting deals from petrol stations; I still use plates he got through petrol station promotions in the 1980s.  Bryant like Uden is part of that mid-20th century tendency to try to interest the general public in history through presenting it as dramatic narrative.  Bryant takes less of a patriotic approach than the Shell packaging and seems influenced at least to some extent by the 'everyday history' approach which reached its zenith in the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Despite all the chapters being written by the same man, they vary considerably in quality and interest.  The chapter on the escape from Dunkirk by the British and French forces in 1940 is the weakest, saying very little about what happened or why, just going on about the psychological impact which Bryant sees as the basis of the Allied victory.  The chapter on the Battle of Crécy and the one on the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 are both good in concisely giving the background, in the first in military developments in the second in terms of socio-economic ones, that allow a good understanding of why the outcome was as it turned out.  The narrative carries you along without being melodramatic. The same can be said for the chapter on the 1842 northern uprising a less well known element of British history, but here giving the context of deprivation in factory towns it is comprehensible and the changes Bryant shows it initiated might be unexpected.

The chapter on the escape of King Charles II could have been engaging but really becomes a list of locales he visited.  It is interesting to see how far he ranged.  The blind obedience to him by Royalists and his minimal concern about the fate they might have faced for aiding him is galling for a modern reader.  The fact that he let them kiss his hand as a supposedly fine reward, sums it up.  The chapter on the Great Fire of London from Samuel Pepys perspective is alright, though really tells us more about Pepys the philanderer than the course of the fire, though it shows the impact clearly.  The Retreat to Corunna chapter is the longest.  It raised the perception of the commander Sir John Moore in my eyes.  It is highly disparaging of the Spanish and Portuguese being overly obsessed on martial spirit.  It portrays the very bleak circumstances of the country and the retreat but detached from how people behaved as a result.  The chapter on the Battle of Waterloo is reasonable and brings out how close the British, if not the Prussians, came to losing.

Overall a curious book that would not be produced nowadays and certainly would not be promoted by petrol stations, whether patriotic or not.  There is some good historical writing here but on occasion too many of Bryant's hang-ups intrude and weaken significantly chapters that could have been far better.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Omelette Exploration 2: Good Eggs

You can make omelettes out of almost everything that is a liquid.  I have known people who have made coffee omelettes when all they had in their house was instant coffee and butter.  I have heard stories from the Second World War of people short of food making omelettes from the blood of livestock.  I have never tried anything beyond the use of eggs.  However, strictly omeletting is as much an approach to cooking as what goes into it.  Thus, it is almost entirely free in how you interpret it, hence my exploration of at least some of the paths you go down with omelettes.

Today I am going to expound my views on the basic ingredient that almost all of us will encounter with omelettes and that is eggs.  There have been campaigns against battery farmed eggs for at least the past three decades.  However, it is not only the cruelty to the chickens, obviously if you have ever encountered a crippled rescue chicken, which is a bad effect of such an approach but also the quality of the egg itself.  I am not a vegetarian and I see good quality livestock products going hand-in-hand with good treatment of the animal providing them.  In terms of egg quality, barn bred hens, i.e. those free to move around but not go outside are not good enough either.

If you have owned chickens you know that often they are not the way people assume.  Many people think they are herbivores.  Many farmers simply feed them corn and/or layer's mash pellets.  In fact chickens are omnivores.  They like fresh vegetables, they like grass but they also love beetles, worms and frogs.  Chickens will fight over eating a frog.  The importance of the meat in a chicken's diet is that it puts Omega 3 into their eggs.  In the UK Omega 3 began to disappear from chicken eggs from the 1970s onwards, so eliminating an important source of this nutrient.  It is easier to get it from your egg consumption than from a tablet, especially if you are not keen on fish.

Picking up an egg you can tell a great deal about the chicken's life.  If the egg is pale in colour then, except with some breeds, it has not eaten grass.  You will expect browner eggs in the summer to those layed in the winter, but certainly you are looking at least for a tan colour to show you a chicken which has run free and eaten what it wants.  If the shell is stippled like the surface of a tiny, tiny golfball, then the chicken was stressed.  In worse cases they will lay small, constrained eggs.  However, if you see this small, hardened pattern the chicken may have been scared, perhaps from a fox attack or from seeing chickens around it stressed.  Thus, this can be a conflicting signal as it might show the chicken is out and about or among other stressed chickens.

Shaking an egg will help you learn more about what the chicken has eaten.  You want the contents to feel 'gloopy' and not watery.  This indicates a chicken that has eaten meat.  Once you open it, you are looking for a bright but dark orange yolk, rather than the yellow too often portrayed in the media.  The more watery and the paler the contents of the egg, the poorer the quality.  A proper free range egg is hard to work with.  It will need to be folded for twice as long as a barn raised chicken's egg.  However, using proper free range eggs you will understand how artists like Vincent Van Gogh used them on paintings.  If  you put a poor quality supermarket egg on a painting if would run off.  A free-range egg dries to a hard texture like Polyfilla.  You can stick things together with it and if you do not soak your plates and bowls quickly you will find you need a knife to really scrape it off.  For cooking and especially adding fillings, this works far better for you when making omelettes (or indeed scrambled, poached or fried eggs) that something sloppy sliding all over the place and lacking both the flavour and the nutrients you need.

Free range eggs are more easily available than ever.  Lidl sells them.  Also look around your area as many people are keeping chickens (though in back gardens rather than on balconies of flats as they do in Belgium) and you can typically buy from them at a very good price; recycle your egg boxes with these people and even get to know the ladies who are providing your basic omelette ingredient.

Next I will be looking at some of the different ways I have experimented with in making omelettes from the Lyons housewife approach to the mille-feuille method to mini-omelettes in a row.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Biscuit Blog: Oreo Chocolate Creme

Oreo Chocolate Creme

I am not the only person who brings biscuits into my house.  As a biscuit connoisseur, however, I am interested to try other people's selections especially ones I would not normally sample myself.  I know Oreos are a very successful US biscuit brand, to the extent that you can even get Oreo ice cream in supermarkets and fast food outlets.  I found these biscuits too harsh.  Perhaps if they were the ones with the vanilla filling they would have been better because the chocolate is very dark and so adds to the bitterness of the overall flavour.  I have failed to show it clearly in the picture, but it is a 'sandwich' biscuit, two discs with a filling. The biscuit discs are firm with a good snap and they look to be of quality.  However, the flavour of the of the biscuit element is also very bitter, meaning that combined with the filling you get something that tastes more like a digestif to aid digestion after a meal, rather than a sweet biscuit.  Yes, it might do alright sitting on the side of a strong coffee or an alcoholic aperitif, but as a day-to-day biscuit, the flavour is far too strong.


Thursday, 5 May 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Ginger Nuts

Tower Gate Ginger Nuts

These were one of the brands of ginger biscuits that seem to have been hit by the biscuit shortage earlier this year so I was glad to find them back in circulation.  For a discount supermarket these are very good biscuits.  They have what you are looking for in a ginger nut - a good snap, a clean not powdery texture and a good flavour. These have the gingeriness that I am looking for, not as sharp as the Hall ones I tried last month.  I think these are a very good biscuit, though a little small in diameter, you get a lot in a packet as can be seen above.  For me they lacked moreishness but as certainly well above many ginger nuts I have been tasting recently.