Tuesday 29 November 2011

Guest blogger!

Today is quite the Red Letter Day for me. I've risen to the exalted status of Guest Blogger!

I was So Very Excited recently when the opportunity came up to write a guest post for the wonderful and esteemed Whispering Gums. I loved the opportunity to showcase five of my favourite Aussie children's authors and illustrators. There are many more out there of course. There was no particular rhyme nor reason for my choices, just my love and admiration for their works.

My Guest Blogger post is here.

A celebratory Red message!

Sunday 27 November 2011

Kidnapped, or Adventures with Porridge

It's been a number of months since I finished my first ever read of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure story Kidnapped. My memory of the specifics is perhaps fading, but I have some very strong notions of the book that remain with me. 

Firstly, I found this a rather hard book to get through. I was surprised to read in his Dedication that RLS intended this as a book for boys to read at bed time.
This is no furniture for the scholar's library, but a book for the winter evening school-room when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near...
I'm not sure that that many boys could get through it any more. Some classics still seem modern and vibrant despite the passage of time, and differences of language. I found this quite hard going as an adult. It must be said that I don't have a vast knowledge of the politics of Scotland in 1751. I tried to learn some as I went along with my reading, but well, didn't get all that far. Perhaps child readers would just let that part of the story wash over, but politics is rather integral to the action. A lot is made of the warring between the Highlanders and the Lowlanders, about  the Whigs and Jacobites. Still, it is amazing to learn that in order to suppress the Highland clans it was "a sin to wear a tartan plaid, and a man may be cast into a gaol if he has but a kilt about his legs." A footnote informs us that the "relatively mild" Disarming Act of 1715 outlawed the possession of Highland dress or bagpipes upon pain of transportation. 

The story at it's heart is relatively simple. David Balfour, a poor young lad of 16, has been recently orphaned. He sets out from his village to find his only known relative, who turns out to be the miserly, and awful Ebenezer, who sells David into slavery and tricks him onto a ship heading for America. The ship famously sinks on the remote west coast of Scotland. David miraculously survives the shipwreck and heads back towards civilization.

I hold somewhat romantic notions of Scotland as my ancestral homeland. The Scotland RLS portrayed here is dank, drab, murderous and very cold, where the existence of a few hearty individuals is tenuously maintained only by their intake of porridge and drink in various forms- gills of brandy, wine and spirits, strong ale. 
Ye may keep a man from fighting but never from his bottle

Naturally it was not our modern day luxurious warm cooked porridge drizzled with maple syrup, and maybe some bananas or caramelised macadamias that they were eating. David, and his companion, the rebel Alan Breck, subsist on drammach as they journey through the isolated wilds of Western Scotland- an uncooked mixture of oatmeal and cold water. This sounds completely unappealing, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Gaelic has a word drammag meaning foul mixture. 

Somewhat surprisingly a google search did not turn up an image of what I could take to be drammach. So I headed to the kitchen to make some myself. Normally for making porridge with heat I just use rolled oats. Clearly Scottish oatmeal looks more like this

Not knowing how to make drammach, and expecting not to like it, I put a little bit of oatmeal in a bowl, with a small amount of water. After a minute or two it looked like this

and tasted like bland, awful, texturally bad soap

it did get slightly better after about 10 minutes

a final taste after 20 minutes was all I could stand
 I have no idea how people could fight wars, farm their fields and live their lives fueled only on this stuff.

dogs like drammach!

Och aye, you've gotta love the Scots, and their love for all things porridge. They hold a World Porridge Championship each year, called the Golden Spurtle. A spurtle is the implement you need for making porridge, and here I've been making my porridge all along without a spurtle! Wonder if a spurtle would have helped my drammach? I suspect not. 

Another intriguing food reference is about buying butter in France.

'Ye see, David, he that was all his life so great a man, and come of the blood and bearing the name of kings, is now brought down to live in a French town like a poor and private person. He that had four hundred swords at his whistle, I have seen, with these eyes of mine, buying butter in the market-place, and taking it home in a kale-leaf. This is not only a pain but a disgrace to us of his family and clan.'

It's not clear to me whether the shame is that he is buying butter in the market, or taking it home wrapped in kale. The passage of time has made such distinctions impossible I think. I don't see much shame in either. I would certainly love to be buying butter in a French market place, and wouldn't care if I had to cart it away in kale or not. 

This post is linked to Weekend Cooking, a fabulous weekly meme at Beth Fish Reads.

Saturday 26 November 2011

A Day Trip to Blackheath

We bought a new car a few weeks ago, and so last week we took it for a run up to the Blue Mountains (a lovely area 2 hours west of Sydney in the Great Dividing Range). I was doing some bizarre things with the camera that day (sometimes a weird button gets pushed whilst lugging about in my handbag, and it usually takes me a while to notice). Still even with dodgy photographic technique it's a beautiful spot and we had a lovely day. These photos are all at Govett's Leap, Grose Valley at Blackheath.

You can see why they're called the Blue Mountains

The sandstone that gives us our beautiful beaches

I know it's not in focus, but I still quite like this one- I think  it looks like an Albert Namatjira painting.

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday 23/11/11

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

Recently I read the rather fascinating The Pedant in the Kitchen. Julian Barnes always provides us with lots of new words, and this book was no exception. 

1. Matutinal. Adjective. 

But male culinary competence was clearly limited to such matutinal dabbling. 

Of, relating to, or occuring in the morning; early. 

Black swan and white geese enjoying a Tasmanian morning

2. Avuncular. Adjective.

I need an exact shopping list and an avuncular cookbook. 

i) Of or having to do with an uncle. 
ii) Regarded as a characteristic of an uncle, especially in benevolence or tolerance. 

3. Prelapsarian. Adjective.

It surprised him to discover that gardening, for all its air of prelapsarian serenity, is furiously competitive, frequently indulged in by the envious, the deceitful, the quietly criminal. 

Of or relating to the period before the fall of Adam and Eve. 

4. Midinette. Noun. 

And the more I browsed through the 300 recipes intended 'for the student, the midinette, for the clerk, for the artist, for lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers and scientists', the more the book seemed an aromatic trifle very much of it's age. 

A Parisian seamstress or salesgirl in a clothes shop. 

Picture credit

5. Umber. Adjective

After decades of cooking dauphinois potatoes the same way, I was instantly converted to his version; sloppier, creamier, the surface an eruption of umber bubbles, it took me back years and kilometres. 

i) Of or relating to umber. 
ii) Having a brownish colour. 

Also a noun. Any natural brown earth containing ferric oxides and manganese oxides, used as pigment.  All definitions from The Free Dictionary. 

Picture credit

Saturday 19 November 2011

Eurasian Coot

Another bird that I was really quite fascinated with in Tasmania recently was the rather ubiquitous Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

They have such weird feet

That let them do this:

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Friday 18 November 2011

Finding Violet Park

This author and book were new to me. I was quite keen to read it, for some reason I really liked the cover even though I knew relatively little about the book. 

Finding Violet Park is the story of a 15 year old boy, Lucas, who comes across an urn of ashes in a minicab office. Lucas becomes quite obsessed with the ashes, the mortal remains of Violet Park, and he wants to free her from the drudgery of her final resting place. Someone had left Violet's ashes in the back of a cab a number of years earlier, and they sat there, unloved and unclaimed. Lucas wants to find out more about her.

If you think about it, a person being dead isn't any barrier to finding out what they are like. Half the people we learn about in school have been dead for ages. People write whole books about William Blake and Henry the Eighth and Marilyn Monroe, and they've never met them and they still sound like they know what they are talking about. 

I do have a soft spot for books written in an engaging first person narrative. While I wasn't completely swept away by Lucas, as I was by Cedar B. Hartley recently, I did enjoy it very much. As with all young, quirky first person narrators, Lucas is somewhat precocious in his observations. And naturally Lucas's life is fragmented, his father has disappeared several years ago, and Mum is doing her best to keep the family together.

The book deals with some serious subjects, but has a great sense of humour mixed in. There is a wonderful anti-smoking rant quite early on which starts with Lucas railing against the fact that tobacco 

"doesn't get you high. What's the point of being addicted to something that will kill you and doesn't even make you laugh or feel good or anything?"

Which makes a great deal of sense when you think about it. In one of my favourite sections Lucas is talking about his grandmother, Pansy.
Pansy has a dog called Jack (Russell) and sometimes I have no idea if she's talking about the dog or Grandad.
"He's been under my feet all day and his breath smells terrible." (Dog)
"he's not been for three days. I think he needs a good walk." (Norman)

Lucas ponders the pivotal moments in a life "chance happenings that end up meaning everything." And wonders if "all most people do when they grow up is fix on something impossible and then hunger after it."

We learn a number of interesting things along the way- such as Agatha Christie famously disappeared for 11 days in 1926. Was she really in a fugue state? Or did she deliberately run away? And thugs as a concept comes from 14th century India!

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday 16/11/11

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

My words this week are from some unusual sources. I'm pretty sure this qualifies as the first word I've ever learnt from facebook!

1. Murmuration

i) The act of murmuring; a murmur
ii) a collective noun for starlings- a murmuration of starlings. The Free Dictionary.

My second word came from Stephen Fry's wonderful show QI. It was the 2010 Christmas edition. 

Stephen said something like "Do you have a trick or a jape?"


A jest or a joke. 

To joke or jest (about). The Free Dictionary. 

Saturday 12 November 2011

The Pedant in the Kitchen

I have a growing respect and admiration for Julian Barnes. We didn't get off to a good start because I read his England, England book first. And hated it so much I can't explain. The only reason I ever picked up another of his books was because I read and absolutely loved Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. So I tentatively picked up Flaubert's Parrot. And loved it so much that I bought my own copy after I took the library copy back (I'd borrowed it expecting not to like it, and gave myself permission to stop reading it within the first few pages if I hated it- and I always make myself push on!) Anyway, I Absolutely Loved Flaubert's Parrot. And so I started to hope that perhaps England, England was an aberration.

Somewhere along the way I accumulated The Pedant in the Kitchen, and in an idle moment last night I picked it up. I've had a wonderful break in my scheduled reading over the past 10 days and have actually been able to pick up books on a whim! I've been very keen to read his recent Booker winner The Sense of an Ending, but have remained strong and not bought it yet.

The Pedant in the Kitchen appears to be a collection of 17 newspaper columns about Barnes' relative OCD nature  in the kitchen. He starts off telling us rather matter of factly that he is a late-onset cook. He didn't learn techniques and measurements at his mother's side as a young child. It was only as an adult, in his twenties that Julian was forced to try and prepare his own meals. With some initial disappointments of course. I think most of us go through that stage really. Wondering how your mother did very simple things, when it had just always appeared in a perfect form previously.

Julian isn't without ambition or hope in his cooking efforts though. He uses cookbooks, and relatively complicated ones at that and comes to take on some rather challenging dishes. Chocolate Nemesis from the first River Cafe Cookbook. A smoked haddock souffle from Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book. Autumn Pudding (apparently much superior to Summer Pudding- with a mix of elderberries, blackberries and crab apples) from Susan Campbell's English Cookery New and Old. Jane Grigson's Salmon in Pastry with a Herb Sauce.

Julian wants things to be extremely precise whilst creating his haddock souffle. "Why should a cookbook be less precise than a manual of surgery?" He is an "anxious pedant" in the kitchen. Should that tablespoon of currants be heaped or rounded? In truth, I'm sure it matters not. I don't think Julian has ever truly heard, and certainly hasn't internalised the wisdom conveyed in the phrase "we're not building a piano".

I adhere to gas marks and cooking times. I trust instruments rather than myself. I doubt I shall ever test whether a chunk of meat is done by prodding it with my forefinger. The only liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. 
I think anxiety and lack of self confidence is the key here. You should never trust instruments more than your own judgement. In the kitchen, or in surgery as it turns out.

When not obsessed about minor details in the kitchen Julian takes us rather far and wide. The trial brought about by Oscar Wilde against the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel. Gustave Flaubert apparently not only admired camels in Egypt on his travels but he also ate some. However, his favourite delicacies were mandarins and oysters. And Mrs Beeton died at the unfortunately young age of 28, and so was not the dowager housekeeper we all imagine.

Julian has some interesting and useful thoughts on cookbooks, which I think I will leave for another post.

This post is linked to Weekend Cooking, a fabulous weekly meme at Beth Fish Reads.

Turbo Chooks

In September I was lucky enough to go to Launceston, Tasmania for a conference. I wasn't there all that long, but had a very enjoyable few days, and got to see some new birds.

Tasmania is a funny (small) place, and I was lucky enough to have the same cab driver 3 times! The second time was planned, but the third time was pure luck. Anyway, Paul told me that Tasmanians call these birds Turbo Chooks (turbo because they run really fast, chook is Australian for chicken). More properly called the Tasmanian Native Hen (Gallinula morterii). They were certainly plentiful in the nice lake across the road from the conference centre, and also by roadways. Turbo Chooks used to be common on the mainland too, but sadly went the way of most flightless birds when man, and their accompanying predators move in.

After a day or so (yes I'm very quick sometimes), I realised that some were juveniles.

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Friday 11 November 2011

Joan of Arc

My fascination with Joan grows daily. This Junior Reader was a perfect place to start. As you may have noticed I quite like Junior Nonfiction, and believe even adults can learn something from most JNF that we pick up. I certainly learnt lots from this little book. 

Joan's basic story is so fascinating, that it would appear to defy reality, but of course it's true. An illiterate poor provinicial girl, starts seeing visions as a young teenager. The saints appear to her- St Michael, St Catherine, St Margaret. The saints tell her extraordinary things, that she is to do the work of God, and lead France to victory against the English (who control Northern France in the early 15th century, at the tail end of the 100 year war). Somehow, she gets into the royal court, the dauphin supports her, she starts fighting at Orleans, she gets the dauphin coronated as king in Rheims. Joan has a series of extraordinary victories, but is killed at the age of 19 by being burned at the stake. 

The structure of this DK reader is typical for this series. The story is in the middle of the page with fascinating little tidbits or sidestories on the margins.

My favourite tidbit

Makes me hope for a DK reader about Charles VI

I learnt lots of things from this little book.

The saints who appeared in visions to Joan, were all quite specific to her needs. St Catherine was a local saint for Joan. She was the best-loved saint of Joan's time. She would have been a local hero for Joan as she is buried near Joan's town of Domremy. She was the patron saint of unmarried girls. It reminded me that Catherine wheels are named after her, and the terrible method in which she was put to death on such a wheel. Thankfully in the modern world, Catherine wheels are pretty fireworks, but for many centuries they were a brutal method of torture, and a slow death

St Margaret was an early Christian girl who wore men's clothes to allow her to join a monastery. St Michael of course was a famous warrior who slayed the dragon.

Joan refused the offer of a sword from the dauphin, and instead used a sword that her voices told her would be at the shrine of St Catherine at Fierbois.

Orleans had been under seige by the English for 6 months when Joan led her assault. This was apparently a favourite method of the English, they would just wait, with no need for fighting, while the inhabitants of the beseiged town starved until they were ready to surrender. 

The dauphin was cowardly and didn't want to go to Rheims, in English held Northern France for the coronation.

Half of France, including Paris, was held by the English at this time. Joan gathered her soldiers at the small town of St Denis outside Paris. St Denis is particularly fascinating. I learnt a bit about him during my trips to Paris. He was the Bishop of Paris in the third century. Bishops weren't treated too well at that time. Denis was beheaded, and he was said to have picked up his head and walked six miles carrying it, preaching a sermon. He is usually depicted holding his own head. 

St Denis at the entrance of Notre Dame
Joan started experiencing some losses. Her sword broke. She was captured by the Burgundians, and bought by the English for 10,000 francs. She jumped 20 metres from a castle tower trying to escape. She was tried in a French court, but tried by the English. She signed a confession, and was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment wearing dresses rather than her usual men's clothing. Joan's voices came to her and told her she had been wrong, and she changed back into her male attire. She was burned at the stake at the marketplace in Rouen on 30th May, 1431 wearing a dunce's cap which labelled her a heretic, and a dress dipped in sulphur to burn more quickly. Her ashes were thrown into the river as a final insult, instead of being collected for worshippers. 

Joan called herself Joan the Maid. She was never referred to as Joan of Arc during her lifetime, and it was only after her death, and her legend grew that she became Joan of Arc. 

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday 9/11/11

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

My words this week are taken from Caddie Woodlawn (see my review). Any book written quite some time ago (1935), about a time even earlier (1864) will have some new words, and Caddie was no exception.

1. Bully (adjective)

This comes up multiple times during the book. We all know and use bully in a modern sense, but this was a surprising usage for me:

"Caddie, they've got bully tops in the store at Dunnville," added Warren hopefully. 

"It's bully fun!" yelled Warren.

There are lots of definitions at Free Dictionary. It's really interesting how there has been quite a change in usage especially in the noun form. There is also bully beef of course!

Bully (noun)
i) A person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people. 
ii) A hired ruffian; a thug.
iii) A pimp.
iiii) Archaic. A fine person.
iiiii) Archaic. A sweetheart.

Bully (adjective).
Excellent; splendid. 

2. Haycock (noun)

I, myself, remember the long walks and the slim dinners and sometimes nights spent under a haycock, when we could not find a tavern which wanted decorating. 

Chiefly British. A conical mound of hay. The Free Dictionary.

Picture credit

3. Tow- headed (adjective)

An exciting game became much more exciting when, on coming out of hiding, one felt that he might find himself face to face with a redskin instead of tow-headed Maggie or gentle Sam.

i) A head of white-blond head resembling tow. 
ii) A person with such hair.
iii) A sand-bar or low lying alluvial island in a river, especially one with a stand of trees. The Free Dictionary.

It's pretty funny that I didn't know this word, as I believe I would qualify as tow- headed. And what is this tow that we tow-heads resemble? Tow is coarse broken flax or hemp fibre prepared for spinning. 



4. Arbutus (noun)

One day, when the three adventurers were in the woods hunting for arbutus to take to Teacher, they heard a roaring on the river. 

i) Any of the broad leaved evergreen trees or shrubs of the genus Arbutus, including the madrona and strawberry tree, that are native chiefly to the warm regions in the Americas and Europe. 
ii) The trailing arbutus. The Free Dictionary.

What wiki has as a representative picture

5. Hogshead barrel (noun)

So they came to his farm one day and got him and put him in a big hogshead barrel.

Any of various units of volume or capacity ranging from 63 to 140 gallons (238 to 530 litres), especially a unit of capacity of liquid measure in the United States, equal to 63 gallons (238 litres).
A large barrel or cask. The Free Dictionary. 

6. Haymow (noun)

"You wanted to turn somersaults in the haymow, didn't you, Cousin Annabelle?"

i) Hayloft.
ii) The hay stored in a hayloft. 
iii)  Archaic. A haystack

Picture credit

7. Hoyden (noun)

But that a daughter of mine should so far forget herself in her hospitality to a guest- that she should be such a hoyden as to neglect her proper duties as a lady!

A high spirited, boisterous or saucy girl. The Free Dictionary.