I’m reading my way through the remains of winter. While intellectually I know that in eight weeks time I’ll probably be swimming in an outdoor pool, right now it feels as though winter will never end. Most evenings I change into an enormously baggy Aran jumper, a pair of equally baggy home-made flannelette pyjama pants and some faux sheepskin slippers that drop fluff everywhere (really, I can’t think why I’m not on the cover of Vogue) then I huddle in front of the fire with a book. It’s the only way to survive. Here’s what I’ve been reading.
Imagine you’re in Russia. It’s 1922 and you’ve just been designated a Former Person. But you’re in luck. Instead of being shot or sent to Siberia, you’re placed under house arrest in a rather fine hotel. This is the situation facing Count Alexander Rostov, who is now without doubt one of my favourite characters in literature. I so enjoyed his intelligence, charm, good humour and resilience. Within pages of starting to read A Gentleman in Moscow, by the wonderfully named Amor Towles, I found myself exclaiming, “Oh, this is so lovely!” The book is everything it says on the tin and more.
People say of good books “I couldn’t put it down.” Well, this one I literally couldn’t put down. I found myself carrying it all around the house. I even changed my routine and started driving to work, instead of catching the bus, to allow extra reading time in a cafe before the busy-ness of the day took over. This is a book to savour, like a good meal, enjoying every mouthful, every sensation. I started to feel sad two-thirds of the way in, because I knew it would have to end. It’s an utterly delightful story.
Towles’s other book, Rules of Civility, is another recommended read. Initially I thought, “Hmm, am I going to like these characters?” They seemed at first glance aspirational, vapid and annoying, until I realised I’d got them completely wrong. Then I was hooked. But throughout the book, which is set in New York in the 1930s, I held my breath as if watching a crystal martini glass balance on the stone parapet of an uptown roof terrace, waiting for it to topple and shatter.
This might seem like an odd trio, but each book in its own way is a mirror of who we are. Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird is a re-read for me. It made a big impression when I first read it and just recently I decided I needed to own a copy. It’s a book on how to write in an engaging, truthful way—and I’d go so far as to say it’s the best guide to writing there is—but it’s also a very funny commentary on life:
We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.
Lamott also talks about becoming quiet, observing, and getting out of your own way in order to let creativity flow, which ties in with the themes of Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are. Chödrön is a Buddhist nun and there are a lot of Buddhist terms in her book, which I skipped over because they’re unfamiliar words and if I started thinking about them then I missed the gist of the text. But basically what she says is very helpful: lighten up. Be gentle with yourself as well as with others. We all suffer. We all carry burdens. Don’t run away from them. Be open to any situation and learn from it. Get out from under your own ego.
Ego played a major role in the feudal society of France in the 12th century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine was more controversial than Madonna in the 1980s. According to Alison Weir’s book, Eleanor was headstrong and wilful, with a reputation for scandalous behaviour and unconventional conduct. I’ve been interested in Eleanor since I saw her tomb at Fontevraud Abbey when I was a child. I remember wishing I could slip through the veil of time and see society as it was back when she was alive.
Now, decades later, I’m plodding through this book and realising that even if I had been able to travel through time to meet her I wouldn’t have liked her very much. Human beings, for all our intelligence, wit and creativity, have always been…well, dunderheads, it seems. But once you get to the section of the book where she becomes queen of England it’s an interesting look at life in the late 1100s. For example, in London in 1180 there was a shop by the river selling ready-made meals to take away! And wine was produced in England but was of such poor quality that it “had to be drunk with closed eyes and clenched teeth”! I love finding out facts like that.
I don’t know whether Eleanor of Aquitaine liked gardens, but if you do then you’ll love this book. It gives you good ideas about what to plant and where, all gloriously photographed, but it also features people who work with plants in different ways. There are articles on artists, scientists, horticulturalists and landscape architects. It’s lovely to look at and very inspiring. I have a tendency to plonk plants in the garden willy-nilly, but this book is helping me to think about the overall look.
Marit Hovland’s Bakeland brings the outdoors in, with cookies decorated to look like birch bark or autumn leaves and cakes that look like spruce trees or snow-covered mountains. If you want to make a cake to wow people, this book has some great ideas. I like baking but I’m not much of a cake decorator. This book makes me want to have a go, though. I think I’ll start with something easy, like pistachio marzipan pears. Anything with the word “marzipan” in it gets a tick from me!
Have I made you hungry? As well as devouring books, over the past couple of weeks I’ve also been making a delicious sauce/dressing and putting it on EVERYTHING. (Well, everything except cereal, but never say never.) It’s very good on fish, roast veggies and steamed veggies and it’s sublime drizzled over avocado and/or eggs. I got the recipe from The Simple Things magazine, which is also a great read. Here ’tis:
1 generous pinch each of saffron, cumin, powdered ginger and salt
1 teaspoon of paprika
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
3 tablespoons of olive oil
Whisk together and drizzle/pour over whatever you fancy. I’ve made it with tahitian lime instead of lemon. Divine! Orange juice would also be a good substitute. You can increase the amount of citrus if you like more tang. I don’t recommend upping the amount of paprika, though. I did it once and realised that you really can have too much of a good thing.
Bon appetit and happy reading! And do let me know what you’re reading. Winter isn’t over yet. I need some recommendations…