Monday, October 24, 2016

A Virginia Woolf Kind of Day

There are times when the perpetually blue skies and sunny weather of Los Angeles make me very happy. In fact, I would say that is the case most of the time. But there are also times when my mood craves "a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast" as Charlotte Bronte described in "Jane Eyre." This is the kind of weather that necessitates staying indoors and for me that means curling up in front of a roaring fire and reading. Or writing. Or maybe just daydreaming. There is something about the darkness of English skies that feels conducive to inner life. It may be confining, but there can be pleasure in confinement. And conversely there is the sense of promise and gratitude that comes when the skies finally clear and we can go outdoors. Something about those contrasts makes life seem a little more vivid.

Yesterday was one of those days. The sky was filled with dark clouds throughout the morning, making it truly feel like fall. The sun peeked in and out all afternoon, the temperature was in the sixties, and it was the perfect day to get some reading done.  Later that evening it rained. Fortunately I had a delightful assignment in front of me. My garden book club has turned out to be a very interesting group. We meet every other month to discuss garden books. However, as with most literature, one things leads to another and garden books have taken us in unexpected directions. For example, many of the gardens we read about belonged to writers. And so we've had some great discussions about Edith Wharton's garden and "The House of Mirth," Vita Sackville-West's garden and "All Passion Spent," and now Virginia Woolf's garden and "Mrs. Dalloway."

Yesterday I started reading "Virginia Woolf's Garden." This book is very special to me because I have visited Virginia Woolf's garden at Monk's House, Virginia and Leonard's country retreat in Sussex (go here to read more). It is a modest house filled with atmosphere and reminders of the lives lived there: the sitting room painted in Virginia's favorite shade of green (despite her sister Vanessa's disapproval) where the Bloomsbury Group would gather for late night conversation, the dining room chairs with their needlepoint cushions stitched by Duncan Grant's mother, and Virginia's bedroom filled with her beloved books and a mantlepiece decorated with a lighthouse painted by her sister Vanessa. The garden is the biggest surprise. It was Leonard's gift to Virginia, a haven where they could both relax and she could work on her books. From the overgrown land behind the house, they created a brilliant patchwork of garden rooms, linked by brick paths, secluded behind flint walls and yew trees. Virginia wrote most of her major novels at Monk's House. She worked in a little writing hut nestled into a corner of the orchard. She could often be seen walking the grounds as she spun her narratives and created her characters.

The Foreward to "Virginia Woolf's Garden" was written by Cecil Woolf, Leonard's nephew. He recalls a time before the Second World War when he stayed at Monk's House with his uncle and aunt. He spent an entire weekend there and remembers arriving, pushing open the creaking wooden gate, and being greeted by Leonard and his pack of excited dogs. Virginia, interrupted by the barking of the dogs, came strolling across the lawn from her little writing cabin. He writes,

"It would take an horticultural epic -- for which my abilities as a poet and my knowledge as a gardener are unequal -- to do full justice to the little Eden I remember. Leonard and Virginia had no children: their books and garden were their children. My recollections of the garden are inevitably somewhat impressionistic. From the overgrown land behind the house that the Woolfs bought twenty years earlier, they had created a spectacular mosaic of brightly coloured flowers...merging into vegetables, gooseberry bushes, pear trees, apple trees, figs. Here and there on the lawn were scattered goldfish ponds. Beside the flower garden and orchard, there were the beehives and the greenhouses, where Leonard had an extensive collection of cacti and succulents. Unlike the grand and formal gardens at Sissinghurst, created by Virginia's close friend Vita Sackville-West, the Woolf's garden was organic, delightfully informal and less self-conscious."

This book is written by Caroline Zoob who lived with her husband at Monk's House for over a decade as tenants of the National Trust. During those years they tended and planted the garden as other tenants had done before them. She tells the story of how the garden has evolved since 1919, when the Woolfs bought the house, to the present day. I have read that this book will appeal equally to gardeners as well as those with an interest in Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I'm looking forward to reading it alongside "Mrs. Dalloway." It should be interesting to learn about this magical garden that formed a safe haven and inspiring environment for Virginia as she wrote one of her masterpieces. For the next two weeks I will be immersed in the world of Virginia Woolf and I am looking forward to my book group's discussion of one of my favorite authors and her garden.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Cookbook Season

Happy October! This is the month when many of us get into the kitchen in a serious way. With the holidays coming up and all the luscious seasonal ingredients available at the farmer's market, fall is a favorite time to cook. Just thinking about making that first batch of pumpkin bread puts a smile on my face. It is also the month when many new cookbooks get released. I have been looking at a lot of the new releases and have come up with a list of the ones that look really good to me. Please let me know of your favorites as well!

Simple by Diana Henry

Diana Henry is a British food writer who lives in London. Though she is not very well known here, she is one of Britain's best-loved food writers. She has a weekly column in the UK's Sunday Telegraph and writes for several other British publications. I just picked up her most recent cookbook "Simple" and I can already tell that this is no ordinary cookbook. The food looks beautiful and delicious and the recipes look easy. I've already found half a dozen I can't wait to make, such as her Moroccan-spiced chicken with dates and eggplant. I love her philosophy about cooking: if you have a well-stocked refrigerator and pantry you can throw together delicious meals with very little effort. She is admired for the originality of her recipes, especially in the creativity of her flavor combinations. Food writers such as Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi sing her praises. I can tell this is going to be one of my go-to cookbooks. 

A New Way to Dinner by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are the founders of Food 52, one of the best food websites around. If you love to cook and haven't checked out this website, please do. You will frequently find me there looking for recipes, especially those using seasonal ingredients. Now the two founders of Food 52 have written a cookbook called "A New Way to Dinner." It's all about efficiency for the modern cook. The secret is cooking ahead. It offers complete grocery lists and menus for one-week blocks. I haven't seen this one yet but, if it is anything like Food 52, I know I will love it. This book will go to the top of my wish list for new cookbooks this fall. 

Cooking for Jeffrey by Ina Garten

Of course, I have to get Ina's most recent cookbook. I have all the others and they truly are my go-to cookbooks. I probably use them more than any other cookbooks in my kitchen. Ina's recipes always work and they are delicious. I remember when her first cookbook came out (so many years ago now!) and I learned about roasting vegetables, a technique I now use all the time. The vegetables cook perfectly and taste delicious, becoming golden-brown and caramelized. If you have Ina's cookbooks and have watched her television show over the years then you know what an important role her husband Jeffrey has in all this cooking. He is her chief taster. Plus he is adorable. Now she has written a book about Jeffrey's favorite recipes. They range from Friday-night roast chicken to the prosciutto-and -Camembert tartines they first tried in Paris. I don't have the book yet, but I noticed in "Food and Wine" magazine that one of the recipes is featured: "Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower." Boy, does that one look good!

Jessica Koslow's tiny cafe Sqirl in east Los Angeles is a gathering spot for Silverlake hipsters. It features global-inspired breakfast and lunch fare with house made jam. I have to admit that I haven't been yet but hear raves from everyone who has. They talk about burnt brioche toast with house-made seasonal jam and jam-stuffed brioche french toast. They also mention delicious, power-packed rice bowls. Now after learning a bit about this cookbook I am determined to go. Jessica's food is said to surprise and engage all of the senses. It looks good, tastes vibrant, and feels fortifying yet refreshing. In her first cookbook she shares 100 of her favorite recipes for health-conscious but delicious dishes. Some of the highlights are: raspberry and cardamom jam; sorrel-pesto rice bowl; lamb merguez with cranberry beans, roasted tomato and yogurt cheese; sticky-toffee whole wheat date cake; and Valrhona chocolate fleur de sel cookies. Sqirl opens first thing in the morning and closes at 4:00 pm 7 days a week and there is usually a line of people waiting to get in. The menu features morning food, sweets, savories, salads and bowls -- the kind of food you could crave any time of the day. I can't wait to try her restaurant as well as buy her new cookbook.  

Small Victories by Julia Turschen

I love the sound of this cookbook: "recipes, advice and hundreds of ideas for home-cooking triumphs." Julia Turschen is a writer, recipe developer and co-author for best-selling cookbooks such as Gwyneth Paltrow's "It's All Good," and Dana Cowin's "Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen." She shares more than a hundred lessons she's learned in the kitchen through a lifetime of cooking thousands of meals. She celebrates the "aha" moments, the epiphanies of cooking. One example is when she discovered that for a chicken skillet pie recipe she could substitute store-bought creme fraiche for homemade bechamel sauce, saving a lot of work. Each recipe ends with "spin-offs" so that cooking one thing can lead to another meal. Ina Garten has written the foreword and highly recommends this book. It is said to be a beautifully curated, deeply personal collection of easy and delicious recipes. One of the highlights is brisket with apricots and prunes, a dish that can be make entirely ahead of time and reheated in the oven. Sounds perfect for fall!

Happy cooking!  

Monday, October 3, 2016

"The Essex Serpent" by Sarah Perry

Every now and then a book comes out that you know is something special. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is that kind of book. It truly stands out. In fact, there is talk that it will be nominated for many literary prizes. I wouldn't be surprised as it is a book of stunning originality. What I love most is the vivid portrait that emerges of Victorian England at the crossroads of science, religion, and superstition. It is a book that helps us understand what a complex and fascinating time this was. The events of the plot occur under the shadow of a legendary monster that has supposedly returned to Essex, England. This gives the novel a gothic quality and creates an eerie mood that permeates the entire book. While telling her tale, Perry conjures up some of the most memorable atmosphere you will ever encounter.

The story begins in 1890's London where Cora Seaborne has just lost her husband. She is relieved as he was a cruel and unpleasant man and she is happy that her life can start anew. Like so many other Victorians, she has caught the scientific fervour of the age and rushes off to Essex in search of the rumored Essex Serpent which she thinks may be a previously undiscovered species. She heads to Aldwinter where she meets the rector William Ransome. He has been struggling to calm down his parishioners who are terrorized by tales of the serpent's carnage. She is accompanied by her autistic son Francis and her socialist companion Martha. Cora arrives as the the community's fear is at its height and witnesses mass hysteria amongst the people in the village. The clash between superstition, science and religion has riled everyone up.

Cora and William develop a powerful friendship borne out of mutual respect, though they disagree on almost everything. She is a wealthy amateur naturalist and he is a man of faith. They come at the world from opposing viewpoints. They form a relationship based on ideas and vibrant discussions. There are many scenes with the two of them striding though the countryside in heated argument. It's not hard for the reader to imagine sparks will begin to fly between these two. Cora grows fond of William's wife Stella and his children. Stella is dying of consumption. Her illness is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Be sure to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book to learn about the vast research Sarah Perry did on every element of Victorian life she writes about, including consumption. It's very impressive. As Cora becomes entangled in William's family life, the two of them fall in love.

There are other love stories in the book, though mostly unrequited. Doctor Luke Garrett, aka "The Imp," is in love with Cora from page one, but she sees him only as a friend. He is the doctor who took care of her husband during his illness. He is the most talented surgeon in London and the description of him performing experimental heart surgery is riveting. His character is beautifully drawn in an almost Dickensian way. As are all of the other characters; they are eccentric, fascinating and complex people whom you won't soon forget. And like Dickens' books, this novel deals with the social issues of the time, including poverty and the slums of London.

I loved this book. Through its incredible characters and haunting atmosphere the late Victorian era comes to life. So many stereotypes are challenged by this story and Cora Seaborne may be one of the great Victorian heroines. The fears and emotions stirred up by the mythic serpent are symbolic of deeper things, all of which get addressed. As in real life, there are no easy answers for the characters, but their search for the meaning of life is the universal bond that unites us all. The way Sarah Perry sees it, the Victorians were not so very different from us.