Saturday 16 October 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: The scent of tomato vines

Mmmm, there is just something about that scent!  Look at those fuzzy vines and that light powdering over each tomato - can't you just smell it?  We don't have a greenhouse any more so now I buy Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Vittoria tomatoes on the vine, just because when I open the carton they smell like tomatoes should, fresh and green and delicious.  They taste pretty darn good too!  I've even discovered a 'tomato vine and bergamot' shower gel for sale somewhere - the RSPB charity Christmas range I think - and Mum's bought me one for Christmas so I can see how it measures up.  Maybe the bergamot will overpower the vines, I don't know, but it sounds yummy anyway.  Now, excuse me, I think I need to go eat a tomato or two and hang my nose over the carton for a minute!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

REVIEW: Wesley - The Story of a Remarkable Owl, by Stacey O'Brien (4.5*)

(Constable, 2009)

I am a huge barn owl fan, so I knew I had to buy this book as soon as I saw it! I've already adopted a barn owl called Gilbert from the National Falconry School, and see him most weekends at their display outside our bookshop (and yes, I do talk to him!), so a whole book about someone who raised a barn owl from a baby sounded wonderful!

Stacey O'Brien's life changed forever the day she was given the opportunity to adopt a baby barn owl from Caltech's owl research department, where she had been working for about a year. The owl was only four days old, looked a bit like a baby dinosaur and hadn't even opened its eyes yet, but she fell head over heels in love and agreed to take it home. Although Wesley had an injured wing and could never be released into the wild, he settled right into life with his new mum. This is their story...

Wesley is a wonderful character, and the intense bond between human and owl shines out from every page. I giggled at so many of O'Brien's stories - of Wesley's first attempts to fly and his outrage when she dares to laugh at his tangled crash-landings, of his unprecedented love for water (which gets particularly interesting when he decides he wants to share her bath), of his attempts to woo her by building her nests and trying to feed her mice - and teared up a few times too. O'Brien really knows her stuff, so on top of the Wesley's story there is a whole lot of interesting information about owls, as well as a few wider titbits from the natural sciences as a whole and a tantalising insight into what it's like to work for a big research institute like Caltech.

Wesley and Stacey learned a lot from each other over the nineteen years they spent together, and their close partnership helped bring about a new understanding of elements of barn owl life that had never been accessible before. It is a charming, heartwarming and amusing story, as well as an informative look at the world of the barn owl, and it might just be one of my favourite books this year!

  • "Like all barn owls, the baby smelled like maple syrup but not as sweet, something closer to butterscotch and comfy pillow all in one.  Many biologists at Caltech, where I both worked and took classes, would bury their faces in their owls' necks to breathe in their delicate, sweet scent.  It was intoxicating."
  • "... owls mate for life, and when an owl's mate dies, he doesn't necessarily go out and find another partner.  Instead, he might turn his head to face the tree on which he's sitting and stare fixedly in a deep depression until he dies.  Such profound grief is indicative of how passionately owls can feel and how devoted they are to their mates."
  • "His 'tribe' had been here, probably living very close to where we were at that moment, for some 1.6 million years.  What really blew my mind was that, in all that time, every single one of his ancestors had successfully bred and had a baby survive to breed.  For 1.6 million years.  There wasn't a single break in the chain, or he wouldn't have been here.  Of course, this is true for every one of us who is on the planet - which seems like an incredible miracle."

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.

Saturday 9 October 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: Gerbera Daisies

Well, look at them...  They're sunshine in a vase!  A friend gave me a beautiful bunch for my birthday a few years ago and I've never looked back.  They can lift my spirits and put a smile on my face even on the worst of days!

Thursday 7 October 2010

BTT: Books and travelling

A bookworm went a-travelling...

When you travel, how many books do you bring with you?
Has this changed since the arrival of ebooks?

Ah, that age-old question.  How many books do I take?  Well, let's take a week's holiday as an example.  Now, I am extremely lazy when I'm on holiday.  My ideal vacation means seven days of lying in the sun or curling up on a sofa, a stack of books by my side and a large amount of delicious food and plentiful beverages of my choice on hand.  As a general rule, for a seven day holiday I'd probably take eight books.  That way I've got the best-case 'book a day' scenario covered, as well as having a spare or two should one of the titles fail to take my fancy when the time comes.  

Which leads me to the real problem when it comes to books and travelling: Which books do I take?  I don't have this problem with clothes, because I have a limited number of favourite T-shirt/jeans/jumpers/shoes combinations to choose from - mainly because I spend all my money on books instead.  In go the clothes, in go chargers and pens and toiletries and sweets to nibble on the way there.  When it comes to books, however, I enter into a military-precision process we shall call Operation Holiday Reading.

A couple of weeks before The Day, I'll sit down and methodically comb through my LibraryThing catalogue, listing any likely candidates.  Things I've been wanting to read for ages, things that will be suitably light and fluffy, books I've been warned to read when I have time to get stuck right in because I won't be able to put them down...  This usually leaves me with a ridiculous number of possibilities - perhaps 200 or more.  Over the next week or so, I will return to this list a few times, each time crossing off a few more books.  When this stage is complete, it's time to roll out the big guns.  I hunt down every book left on the list and start the business of sorting through them in earnest, weeding out more books in the process.  Eventually, a couple of days before I go away, I should be left with perhaps 30 to choose from, and will usually have picked out perhaps five 'definite' titles by the night before.  The last few will be picked depending on my mood on the morning we leave.  Usually causing more stress and consternation than the rest of the holiday preparations put together...  WHAT IF I CHOSE THE WRONG BOOKS?

Happily, this has never been a problem, and since books so often take longer than you think to read them, especially when you factor in that burning-eye thing that makes you fall asleep when you've been reading for too long in one go, I never get through every book anyway!  Oh, and to answer the second question (bit of an afterthought, this) - I don't have a Kindle or anything like that, so it's not an issue for me!  Besides, it would completely ruin my oddly satisfying, geeky, obsessive list-making pre-travel book frenzy if I could just load the whole lot onto a gadget - and I'd still have the problem of deciding which books I actually wanted to read while I was away!

Do you have a similar dilemma?  Does anyone else have any slightly insane methods or habits when it comes to choosing their bookish travel companions?  

Saturday 2 October 2010

REVIEW: Eating for England - The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table, by Nigel Slater (4.5*)

(Harper Perennial, 2008)

I loved this book! It's everything I wanted, but sadly didn't get, from Toast, Slater's much-lauded autobiography. Although the format is similar, Toast veered into pretension towards the end and left a sour taste in my mouth, bringing together otherwise pleasant food memories with an altogether more unsavoury sort of anecdote. Eating for England, on the other hand, is just plain delicious!
It is split into tiny mini-essays, ranging from a few lines to a couple of pages, each celebrating an aspect of British cuisine. Whether he's commenting on modern cookery habits or extolling the virtues of some traditional teatime treat, Slater's love of food floods every page with warmth, and his humour and pitch-perfect observations made me smile in recognition. From the first crack of an After Eight to the colourful splendour of a farmer's market, chips and seaside rock on the pier to a strawberry picnic, the modern Jamie Oliver-inspired Man in the Kitchen to that annoying woman at the supermarket who insists on using every voucher she's collected that week, there's something for everyone here! And of course, toast once again features several times, in all its many guises and delights...

Highly recommended for food lovers and nostalgic souls, not to mention non-Brits who are downright confused by all the strange names, regional variations, and clashes of terminology between Britain and Everywhere Else! My advice? Make yourself a large mug of tea and a slice of cake, curl up in a cozy armchair, and enjoy...

  • On summer cooking - "While the rest of Europe breathes hot summer colours of ripe red peppers, garlic and thyme, deep purple aubergines and grilled lamb over each other, we paint an altogether more delicate picture.  One of gentle flavours and pale hues, of poached salmon and watercress, cucumber and mint, strawberries and cherries, gooseberries and broad beans."
  • On white food - "Blancmange, flummery, syllabub - why is it that so many English puddings sound like someone talking under water?"
  • On acid drops - "You can't be ambivalent about food that is so sour it makes you shut one eye when you eat it."
  • On the seaside - "Spend a day by the British seaside and you will see how very different it is from anywhere else in the world.  We have coloured buckets and spades, a refreshing breeze, and probably because of that, bright-coloured windmills on sticks.  There are long promenades full of skateboarders dodging the elderly and wobbly toddlers negotiating a walk with their first oversized cornet, and everywhere the smell of seafood.  Extraordinary seafood it is too, presented without pretension, or indeed any attempt at style, but instantly recognisable as part of the great British seaside."

Source: I bought this book from a remainder store in an outlet village.

REVIEW: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (4*)

(Wordsworth Classics, 1999)

"It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

I've had this book sitting on my shelf for years, meaning to start it every October as a Halloween read and somehow never quite getting round to it. As it happens, I'm glad I didn't, because I don't think I'd have appreciated it nearly as much a few years back.

Let me start by saying that it was nothing like I expected. Having never seen a movie version of Frankenstein, my only exposure to the story has been through the general references that have been adopted into our culture. The crazed scientist, the twisted assistant, the sweet little girl, the lightning bolts and electricity. None of which actually appear in the book! Not that it really matters, because this is a beautiful story.

Victor Frankenstein is an ambitious young man obsessed with 'natural philosophy' - the natural sciences. When his interest turns to theories on reanimation and 'the spark of life', his devotion pays off and he builds a being, a giant of sorts, and succeeds in giving him life. But as this huge creature stirs for the first time, Victor awakens from his single-minded working frenzy, and flees in horror from this primitive monster he's created. What follows is a battle for freedom, happiness - and vengeance. The Creature, left to develop alone, outcast despite his capacity for love, becomes bitter in the face of his loneliness and the hostility of society. He blames Victor for his woes, for deserting him so cruelly - but Victor, in turn, is terrified of the 'demon' he fears he has unleashed. It becomes an all-out war which can only lead to tragedy...

For the reader, there can be no winner in this battle for dominance. Frankenstein, chasing his monster through the bleak landscape of the North, tells his story to the captain of a ship that has rescued him from the ice. The Creature, in turn, tells his own sorry tale to Victor within this narrative. Frankenstein is self-obsessed and blind to his responsibilities, yet perhaps he is right to condemn a being who has caused so much destruction. At the same time, the 'monster' has acted in vengeance against what he perceives to be great injustice, but underneath he is just a man, albeit an outwardly frightening one, looking for companionship and happiness.

The themes are deeply complex and very much of their time. There is the question of scientific ethics, of balancing progress against negative consequences, of setting morality against ambition. This is, of course, still relevant today in the ongoing debates on topics like cloning, GM foods and artificial intelligence. The book also explores the futility of revenge, as each man's growing obsession with destroying the other ultimately becomes their undoing. It discusses what it means to be human, and the effects of rejection on a fragile mind. It combines ideas on the responsibility of parenting and the development and wellbeing of an infant - essentially, Victor is the Creature's father - bringing together the theories of popular thinkers such as Locke (a personality is born of experience, not innate qualities) and Rousseau (a child is innocent until corrupted by society).

The Romantic origin of Shelley's novel is apparent in the beautifully descriptive prose, particularly regarding the natural world. The mountains of Geneva come alive under Shelley's pen, the glaciers and pools and rock faces taking on a life of their own. There are numerous references to the work of other Romantic poets - the reader can almost feel the influence of Mary's husband and friends shining through - and the whole novel is filled with life-threatening fevers, dramatic encounters and passionate madness. Sometimes there was a little too much melodrama for my taste - hence the dropping of one star - but all in all I found this to be a moving and thoughtful story that will definitely be a keeper for me. Highly recommended!

  • "I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven; for nothing contributes so much to tranquillise the mind as a steady purpose - a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye." - Walton
  • "Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property.  I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome...  When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me.  Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all man fled, and whom all men disowned?" - The Creature
  • "The agonies of remorse poison the luxury there is otherwise sometimes found in indulging the excess of grief." - Frankenstein
  • "Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment.  Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.  I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion.  But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal.  No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.  But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.  Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone." - The Creature

Source: I bought this book from... somewhere.  I don't even remember, I've had it so long!