“What will you be reading in Italy?”

By the time you read this blog, I hope to be on the receiving end of the gracious services of airline personnel as we wing our way to Italy on a long-awaited trip.

This trip has been four years in the making, starting with my husband learning Italian (thanks Mango Languages!), followed by library colleagues making all sorts of wonderful suggestions on what to do and where to stay (whilst others provided terrifying horror stories of things that could go wrong), and one dear colleague who helped my husband get conversation practice by meeting us for coffees and setting him up with an Italian pal for chats. Thanks one and all.

But now for the really important question on everybody’s lips: “What will you be reading in Italy?”

The Music ShopA friend’s suggestion: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. “For your trip” she said sliding it across the café table. From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I’d get home and just read the first couple of pages. Within two days I had read the whole book. It is every bit as good as Harold Fry, with the same complex characterisation, the same zingy dialogue, the same fullness of heart. But with a more complex resolution of plot. All that this book is missing is a soundtrack list. I loved it, but now it can’t come to Italy with me.

A Florence DiaryA book from my must read list: Dianne Athill is a favourite author of mine – she is one of that breed of really old women (she is now aged 99) who still writes. If you’ve not done so yet, read her book Alive, Alive Oh! which asks the question, should you live to be 100 years old, what will you remember? One of the things Diana hopes to remember is sex! I’ve had her A Florence Diary on one of my must-read lists, and it’s time has almost come. It is a small book on her trip to Florence with her cousin when she was a young woman. I shall read it in that city. Into my case it goes.

The LoversA serendipitous find: How could I resist The Lovers’ Guide to Rome by Mark Lamprell. This one crossed my path in the course of a day’s work and it felt as if it were meant to be. What I love about the first few pages is that they include quite an arty little map of Rome. My husband and I both love maps, they form part of the early folklore of our relationship. It turns out that  “the Eternal City has secrets only lovers can glimpse.” This one is coming with, and as an eBook on my iPad!

JohannesburgA book which has nothing to do with Italy at all: A possible antidote to all this Latin charm is the in-your-face 2017 novel entitled Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose. Here were my first thoughts: Nobody writes novels about Johannesburg. No-one even calls the city by its full name any more. The library won’t have this book, and even if they did no one in New Zealand would read it. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Set in Joburg in the twenty-four hours after Mandela’s death, the first few pages convinced me that this is a brilliant book.

And if I do read this book in Italy, I think we can safely say I will be the only person in the whole of that country reading an English novel set in South Africa and with the title Johannesburg. And there is something about that which I find perversely appealing!

Bloomsday

James Joyce is an author I regard with equal amounts of admiration and guilt. Admiration? His statue in Cover: Ulysses by James JoyceDublin and the jaunty angle of his cigarette holder in photographs. And I love a man (or a woman) with an eye-patch.

Guilt? Ulysses languishing on my list of books I know I should have read but haven’t. Way back in March I added it to my list of challenges for the year, smug because I could use it for both Reading Bingo (Read a forgotten classic) and A Year in Reading (In June read that classic you have never read). I know calling it a forgotten classic is a bit of a stretch, but I’ve done my best to forget my dismal failure to read it in the sixth form. The words ‘the sixth form’ indicate how long ago it was.

Now it’s  June 16th, possibly the most famous date in literature, the date when all the action in Ulysses takes place. Some say June 16th 1904 was the day Joyce and his future wife, Nora Barnacle, had their first ‘romantic liaison’. For the last 50 years it’s been commemorated as Bloomsday.

In Dublin those who have read the book (and those who haven’t) walk the route Leopold Bloom walked. They dress up, eat up, read the book to themselves and others, attend learned lectures on the book, view art and listen to music inspired by the book and, most of all, they drink. It is Dublin after all.

Nothing quite so exciting for me. Drink on a Monday and the only way is down for the rest of the week. I draw the line at kidneys for breakfast. I could give the cat a bowl of milk in a Bloomsian way but as Ulysses sits accusingly on my bedside table the only way to commemorate Bloomsday is to read a decent number of pages .

“Why don’t you write books people read?” disloyal old Nora Barnacle asked Joyce. Will Ulysses be a book this person will read? All the way through to the very end? Perhaps.

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It’s winter – let’s eat!

Cover of PieIt’s winter and I am not advocating heading for the snow, but to the kitchen. This a winter food rave. You see, for me the best thing about this season is… WINTER FOOD!

Does this grab you like it does me? Steak, Caramelised  Onion and Red Capsicum Mustard Pies from a simply named but lip-smacking cookbook: Pie, by Dean Brettschneider. It helps that the pictures are of perfectly made pastry, of course. Mine never looks like this, more of a patchwork quilt effect. Normally pastry is something I avoid as being too fiddly, but some of these pies are going to have to cross my lips and settle on the hips.

Cover of SlowI have become a bit of a cookbook stalker since working daily with library books. One I came across was Slow by Allyson Gofton. Most of the recipes I had never seen before and that’s always a huge drawcard. I’ve  been a bit wary of using the slow cooker for vege dishes, but the North African Vegetable & Lentil Stew, on page 279,  was a huge success and the eggplant held together beautifully.

Cover of Soup KitchenSmoked Haddock and Shrimp Chowder and/or Yellow Split Pea and Frankfurter Soup from Soup Kitchen have also taken my fancy. The latter sounds interesting, but could have some startling after effects. It’s one of Nigella “Who needs chocolate” Lawson’s contributions. Among the other contributors are Mr “Beep Beep” Ramsay, Jamie “Lips” Oliver, Rick “My Hero” Stein, and Hugh “Three Good Things” Fearnley-Whittingstall is the editor. It’s hard to go past soup and in my freezer there’s Tomato and Roast Capsicum Soup (blended with  a few Jalapeno peppers), waiting for suitable soup weather… and possibly the purchase of a fire extinguisher.

Cover of What's for Pudding?If there’s room, and it pays to leave some, What’s for Pudding? used to be the greeting we offered my poor mother as soon as we had finished the main meal. Two of my childhood faves, Bread and Butter Pudding, and Golden Syrup Steamed Pudding are represented in Alexa Johnston’s yummy book, but Gingerbread Upside Down Pudding or Apricot Betty sound even better.

Hungry now? What are your winter food favourites?  Much used cook books? Did you bring any family dishes from your homeland?

This leaves me feeling and probably looking like a Roly Poly Pudding!

Remembrance of festivals past

Christchurch Writers Festival 2012 logoIn the city of memories it’s hard to resist looking back. When was the first Christchurch Writers Festival I attended? I used to have a full collection of programmes so I could have checked, but not any more.

It was certainly held in the Arts Centre in the winter, because I remember the fire burning in the Great Hall. There have been so many great writers over the years; who stands out? In a quietly powerful  New Zealand way Noel Virtue and Beryl Fletcher. In a “hairs standing up on the back of your neck I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” sort of way Tusiata Avia. In a “this guy wrote a book that was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg” way Tom Keneally.

Margaret Mahy, mesmerising on the stage and asking the most amazing questions from the floor.  And Don McGlashan with the Seven Sisters in the Town Hall.

Cover: GoldEnough looking back, it’s time for some new memories and not long to wait for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2012. On my most likely to be memorable list are Emily Perkins, John Lanchester, Chris Cleave, Michael Smythe, Joanne Drayton.

Who am I kidding? I’m looking forward to all the writers. I’ll be at every session humanly possible. I won’t be in a Great or a Town Hall, but in two years’ time I might be blogging about how the Geo Dome was the most memorable of all.

What memories do you have of past writers festivals? And who are you looking forward to this time?

Winter gardening

book coverAs the morning chill creeps up on us my garden has passed what I call its jungle phase and is moving into a gentle, mildew-sprinkled decline. I love how much its landscape changes through the seasons. Soon it will be mid-winter, when the bones of the garden are exposed – save for a few clumps of hardy brassicas, beets and emerging spikes of garlic.

There’s a wealth of information about spring and summer gardening available, but many gardeners struggle with maintaining a year-round garden. It’s too late to plant many things from seed now but you can still sow broad beans and peas. Garlic cloves can go in a couple of months either side of the traditional midwinter planting time and you can still get away with some seedling punnets of winter vegetables.

The exposed winter paths and beds also turn my thoughts to landscaping and planning the plantings for the next spring and summer. I’ve got a wee (read: enormous) list of tasks in mind, in between curling up by the fire with a few good winter recipe books. Maybe I’ll let the library come to me and spend a wet day or two browsing the Gale Gardening, Landscape and Horticulture Collection on my home computer, available via The Source.

What do you like about your garden in winter? What are your inspirational winter gardening reads?