Saturday 31 July 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: Potato Salad

God, I love potato salad.  I mean, I REALLY love it.  I could sit and eat this whole bowl, steadily, picking away at it, until every last bite was gone.  Not that this is actually my potato salad - I just spent about ten minutes drooling over all the pics on Google!  Me and my stepdad make our potato salad the same way - he showed me his secret a few years ago - and it's absolutely delicious.  Though I must confess, nowadays I just tend to wait for him to make a big batch and then pop round and steal it all!  Less washing up...  Anyway, we (the royal We) boil a whole pan of baby new potatoes until they're nice and tender, then drain them and leave them to cool.  Then we cut them into bitesize pieces, add a load of mayonnaise and chopped chives and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper... et voila!  Heaven in a bowl!

Thursday 8 July 2010

BTT: My Life in Libraries

This is my first ever BTT, and when I was browsing through old questions, waiting for today's post to go up (the original "Booking Through Thursday" meme can be found here here), I came across this one from August 2008... well, since I've just finished Library Confidential it seemed like a perfect topic!

Whether you read off your own book pile or from the library shelves NOW, chances are you started off with trips to the library. So...

What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have any funny/odd memories of the library?

My very earliest memory of a library is the one at the parish hall in the village we lived in until I was 11. I learned to read very early on - I was enjoying Enid Blyton by the time I went to primary school - and I think my earliest memory is actually of my very first trip to the library. I have vague recollections of flipping through the big four-compartmented stand filled with storybooks - like a cube divided into four on the top, with books slotted down into them like a storage box, each load of books facing a different direction so everyone could have a look. I don't remember what my first 'borrowings' were, but I remember my mum taking me to the desk, buried under a heap of books, and helping me put them all on the counter where I handed over my little brown cards and watched enviously as the librarian stamped each one... That library was where I would discover my first teenage books, aged around 9 or 10, and I THINK I read my first Anne McCaffrey book from there. The Dolphins of Pern, if I'm not much mistaken. I immediately wanted to start a collection and read them all, but I didn't have enough money to buy them very often and only ended up with about three!

My primary school library wasn't up to much really - just a few shelves scattered through the corridors: a section for the smallest kids (with one of those cubey storybook boxes again!), a twisty corridor of non-fiction for the older ones, and a couple of shelves near the offices for fiction. I don't remember using them much really - I think I was starting to amass my own collection by then, as well as going to the village library on a regular basis. I was quite chuffed to be allowed to go, with a couple of the other top students in the class, to the 'oldest' shelves when I was still a bit younger, bringing books by authors like Michelle Magorian back to the classroom for our post-lunch reading hour. Jeez, those were the days!

Our move to a new house about half an hour away, when my mum remarried, brought with it a whole new library to explore. There was a single tall bookshelf of teen fiction that I attacked with delight, and in the corridors I picked out random things like anorexia autobiographies (before the rise of the misery memoir - I was so ahead of my time!) and books on music and the Red Arrows, quickly becoming known by the librarians for staggering to the counter under the weight of 16 books on a near-weekly basis. I could see them laughing as I peered over the top, trying to wedge my chin above them to hold them all in place, hastily shovelling them into a carrier bag as each one was stamped. I never really went into the 'adult fiction' room - in the old library there had been a natural progression because it was all one big room - but one day my mum appeared with a couple of books she thought I'd like. And so I read my first Jeeves and Wooster book, and a lesser-known Alcott novel, The Chase, which I would find myself searching for more and more hungrily a few years later, not entirely sure whether I had imagined the book in the first place!

My secondary school libraries (one at one site, one at another) were definitely promising. There I read my first Douglas Adams novel and delved into the non-fiction areas every time I hit a particularly interesting topic in my lessons. The librarian, Mrs Parker, a sweet but firm little woman on the verge of retirement, became a friendly face on the most rubbish of days. A good librarian is definitely vital, especially in a library for children, where kids might otherwise be too shy to explore and ask questions. I will forever be grateful to her for taking me across to the history section one day and pulling out The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. She pressed it into my hands and told me I MUST read it, and that she just knew I'd love it. Over ten years later, it remains one of my favourite books of all time, one that never fails to move and inspire me.

As the years went by I tried my hand at working in the library. My volunteer lessons in the school library didn't last long. By this time Mrs Parker had retired and another librarian had taken her place. I didn't get to use those endearing library cards or feel the satisfaction of the date stamp under my hands. I had to sit sticking columned stamp sheets into books, or taping up broken pages. Towards the end of school, I approached the town library to do a week's work experience - and it was wonderful! I talked books with patrons and librarians alike, sipped coffee in their little upstairs sitting room, tidied the children's books, photocopied activity sheets, and spent a whole memorable day out with one of the women taking books to housebound people and local nursing homes. I got to scan piles of books, and I finally got my hands on that date stamp!

And so it was time for university. The J.B. Morrell Library at the University of York was one of my favourite places on campus. Rather tragically, one of my favourite uni memories is from the beginning of my second year. I had moved into our new student house, and was staying there alone at the end of the summer while I researched a big essay. Every day I would walk to campus and install myself in the near-empty library, wandering the stacks, carrying books back and forth to my little table, basking in the circle of bright light from the lamp. In the afternoon I'd sit out in the fresh air with a sandwich then head back in with some sweets and a bottle of coffee milkshake hidden under my coat, and carry on until teatime. It sounds so dull but it just felt right. Like this was what university was all about, and this was absolutely where I should be. Another day I was caught in a massive thunderstorm on my way onto campus and arrived at the library dripping wet and utterly bedraggled. It was marvellous, sitting up on the top floor looking out over the black sky and flashing lightning, safe in my little pool of lamplight amidst the gentle studious hum. I only went to the city library once or twice - it was quite grand but it didn't capture my imagination in the same way. Besides, with so little time for recreational reading, an addiction to buying books online just so I'd get post, and such a lovely library right there on campus, there just wasn't any need...

When I left university and came home with agoraphobia, one of my bravest early endeavours to get out and about was a trip to the nearest large town and their main-branch library. It's much bigger than our little local ones, several floors packed with all the things I couldn't find elsewhere. I made a list of books I wanted to read, trawled the online catalogue to find out if that library had copies on the shelves, and bustled happily up and downstairs for quite some time seeking out all these promising titles. It felt warm and safe, and I was so proud of myself for having made it there and actually enjoyed myself instead of panicking and ruining it!

Now I run a bookshop I don't have as much need for a library - but I still head over there every now and again. The library here, a different local branch again, is unfortunately always sweltering hot, which definitely discourages browsing and lingering. Up the stairs I go and within minutes I'm gasping for air and feeling like I'm going to keel over. I make things easier for myself now by following my old university technique, looking up the books in advance so I can go straight to the shelf and pluck them out, and get back out of the heat again, as quickly as possible. Which isn't a good thing in a library, not very in keeping with the library ethos - but then again, I can browse all I want in the shop so I win all round, really!

Nowadays I'm concentrating on building my OWN library, by buying books I've already read and loved, buying yet more books to try, and slowly, through adding and removing titles, developing it into a collection that reflects me beautifully. I love drooling over the libraries in stately homes, looking through coffee table books like The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, and stumbling across libraries in novels, like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. And I still covet the Beast's Library in Beauty and the Beast - well, who wouldn't?!

Saturday 3 July 2010

REVIEW: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (5*)

(Penguin Classics, 2003), translated by Robin Buss

Firstly, a quick note on this edition: having started an old, archaic and atrocious translation to begin with, I can heartily recommend the crystal prose of Robin Buss's translation for Penguin Classics... The difference was startling, and it made it an absolute joy to read where it could so easily have become a chore!

Now, this is going to be a tricky one to review. What to say about a book so well loved, so widely read, so generally revered? Well, let's start with the basics, the bits most people already know. The novel opens with young Edmond Dantes, on the verge of becoming captain of his merchant ship and husband of the beautiful Mercedes, being betrayed by his jealous friends and thrown into jail for his alleged support of Napoleon. During his fourteen years in the terrifying Chateau d'If, he meets a 'mad' old abbe, who introduces him to the world of learning and tells him about a secret treasure that he wishes Edmond to have should he ever escape. Well, escape he does, and is reborn as the Count of Monte Cristo, using his incredible wealth, power and intelligence to bring justice down on the heads of the three men who condemned him to the dungeons.

This book is so many things: it is epic, complex and exciting; it is heartbreaking, sorrowful and romantic. It touches on the heights of emotion, society and the human condition, as well as the depths of despair, corruption and depravity. I found myself speeding along in breathless excitement as Edmond's true identity was revealed to each of
his tormentors, and felt the full horror of the tangled webs he wove to destroy them one by one. It made me ponder the relationship between wealth and power, between knowledge and power, and the way that faith can save someone's life but also, if they don't take care, lead them down a path swathed in darkness. The Count's lesson for jealous Danglars, for example, was deeply satisfying - whereas his quiet destruction of Villefort's entire family was devastating to read. Of course, all this is terribly unlikely and deeply dramatic, but that is part of its charm - this is escapism at its finest!

Quite simply, this is a masterful novel that drew me in gently then refused to let me go. The characters are wonderfully drawn - I even got a bit of a crush on Dantes, fallen angel that he is - and the story seeps forward deliciously, bringing everything slowly into focus as the scattered elements of the Count's plans draw together. This is definitely going to be one of my top reads of the year and one of my favourite books ever! Read it!

  • "... preferring death a thousand times to arrest, I accomplished astonishing feats which, more than once, proved to me that our excessive concern with the welfare of our bodies is almost the only obstacle to the success of any of our plans... In reality, once you have made the sacrifice of your life, you are no longer the equal of other men; or, rather, they are no longer your equal, because whoever has taken such a resolution instantly feels his strength increase ten times and his outlook vastly extended."
  • "Truly generous men are always ready to feel compassion when their enemy's misfortune exceeds the bounds of their hatred."
  • "All human wisdom is contained in these two words: 'wait' and 'hope'!"

Source: I bought this book from an Amazon Marketplace seller.