Monday, November 13, 2017

Embracing Winter

It seemed appropriate to sit down with British food writer Nigel Slater's wonderful new book "The Christmas Chronicles" on a cold November day. The temperatures had finally dropped and we just turned back the clocks. The days are gradually drawing in as they make their steady march towards the winter's solstice and the holidays are right around the corner. Nigel Slater was exactly what I needed to complete the picture. He has mastered the fine art of cultivating coziness. Just listen to the opening lines and you will know what I mean:

"I loved the crackle of winter. The snap of dry twigs underfoot, boots crunching on frozen grass, a fire spitting in the hearth, ice thawing on the pond, the sound of unwrapping a Christmas present from its paper. The innate crispness of the season appeals to me, like newly fallen snow, frosted hedges, the first fresh page of a diary. Yes, there is softness in the cold months, too, the voluminous jumpers and woolly hats, the steam rising from soup served in a deep bowl, the light from a single candle and the much-loved scarf that would feel like a burden at any other time of the year."

Nigel Slater loves winter. I love it as well. In Los Angeles we have very different winters from the ones he grew up with in England. And very different winters from the ones I grew up with in New England. There's something nostalgic about his evocation of winter in this book that appeals to everyone I think. Even if you didn't lived through those winters they are the winters of our imagination. So many classic films like "A Wonderful Life" and books like "A Christmas Carol" draw us into their winter scenes. I will now have to add Nigel's new book to  my winter/holiday collection. Because it is so much more than a cookbook. Like some of my favorite authors, he paints the most delicious scenes of escaping into a cozy interior on a frigid day:

"You hang up your coat, tug off your boots and light the fire. You will probably put the kettle on or pour yourself a drink. Not so much as a way to get warm, more to welcome yourself home. Home means more to us in cold weather. Making ourselves comfortable is a duty. Making friends and family comfortable is an art. 
'Come in.' Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You'll be safe here, toasty and well fed. 'Come in.' They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear."

He writes of the foods of winter which he calls "The food of fairy tales":

"Gingerbread biscuits with icing like melting snow, steaming glasses of wine, savoury puddings of bread and cheese and a goose with golden skin and a puddle of apple sauce. There are stews of game birds with twigs of thyme and rosemary; fish soups the colour of rust and baked apples frothing at the brim. Winter is the time for marzipan-filled stollen, thick with powdered sugar, pork chops as thick as a plank, and rings of Cumberland sausage sweet with dates and bacon."

He captures some of our most beloved holiday traditions such as looking at Christmas windows at our favorite department store:

"To see Fortnum & Mason's Christmas windows is to step into the pages of a book of fairy tales. Each year they glisten and sparkle, like the frost on a topiary garden, a scene of wonder and delight. The designs are cluttered in the loveliest sense, like looking into a kaleidoscope."

His chapters have the most delicious titles. Here are just a few:

Panettone, a love story
A Christmas list and a fig tart
Frost fairs and braised brisket
A tale of two polentas
Decorating the tree and a lamb roast
The prospect of soup

And we can't forget the recipes. Don't these sound delicious?

Pork Chops, spinach polenta; Apricot and tomato chutney; Bread pudding with ham, Comte and Tallegio; Orange and poppy seed stollen; Banana cardamom cake; Dark chocolate spice cake; Mulled wine

If you are looking for a book to help you get in the holiday spirit look no further than Nigel Slater's "The Christmas Chronicles." Filled with recipes, fables and quick fireside suppers, it will be your trusty companion from November to February. It is filled with so many good ideas for how to make our homes a cozy and welcoming place for the holidays. Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reading and other Fall Pleasures

I am very happy to say hello to November. Fall has officially arrived in Los Angeles and what a relief it is. Last week we were in deep, deep summertime heat. The temperatures hovered in the eighties throughout most of October and for several days even in the hundreds. Finally the heat wave has broken and we are enjoying some cool weather. Autumn has arrived!

For me fall is the cozy season. It's all about cooking, nesting, having friends over, making the first fire of the season, and getting ready for the holidays. It is my favorite time of the year. I would also add reading as one of my favorite activities when the weather gets cooler. I tend to read more ambitious books at this time of year, often selecting a classic which I can sink into on a chilly afternoon.

Right I am rereading "The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton. This book still takes my breath away. Edith Wharton was a superb writer, story teller, and observer of society. This book is definitely one of her masterpieces and an excellent example of literary fiction, an interesting category that has been on my mind lately. I recently went to a Writing Retreat in Italy (an amazing experience!) and we discussed the difference between literary and commercial fiction. Here is what I learned: in literary fiction character comes before plot, the prose is rich and finely crafted with line by line brilliance, and reading is a deeper experience, one in which the novel's events say something about what it means to be human and what it takes to get by in this world. "The House of Mirth" covers all those bases. Commercial fiction is much more about plot. It is fast-paced, page-turning, and offers instant gratification. I wondered which recent books fall into the literary fiction category? I think the books of Ian McKewan, such as "The Children Act" and "Atonement," would count as literary fiction. I also thought "The Essex Serpent" by Sarah Perry would qualify as such.

And maybe the book I just finished -- "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman. I read it on the flight home from Rome to Los Angeles. I was riveted and couldn't put it down. I'm not sure how to categorize this book except to say it is one of the freshest and most original voices I have read in a long time.

That voice belongs to Eleanor Oliphant, the main character, who may be the loneliest woman in all of literature. She has no friends or family and goes for entire weekends without speaking to a soul. When we first meet her she is leading a very solitary life. She goes to work each day and talks to no one except out of necessity. There is no water cooler chitchat for Eleanor. She goes home each night, eats her dinner, and drinks enough vodka to knock herself out. She wakes up and does the same thing all over again the next day. She is very bright and inadvertently funny. Because she is isolated from most people and out of touch with what they get up to she makes comments about cultural norms and customs that are very humorous. She lives alone and is occasionally visited by a social worker who wants to know how she is doing. Eleanor tells her she is completely fine but even the social worker knows this isn't true. For one thing, one half of Eleanor's body is covered in scars. The reader knows it from the very first sentence of the book and the mystery we want to solve is why Eleanor is the way she is. Fortunately hope comes in the form of an unkempt but kind tech guy at work who takes an interest in Eleanor.

The story of how this successful debut novel came to be written is fascinating and very inspiring. Gail Honeyman, who is in her forties, wrote the novel while she worked at Glasgow University. She wrote it in bits and pieces whenever she wasn't at work. She entered it in a writing competition where it was discovered. Much to her surprise it ignited a bidding war on the eve of the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair. It sold to Harper Collins for a high six-figure sum and has subsequently been sold to 28 publishers around the world. Reese Witherspoon's production company bought the film rights. Gail Honeyman is still reeling from this fairy tale ending. It's the kind of story that gives aspiring writers hope!

I would love to know if you have read "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine."
Also, please share anything else you are reading and can recommend. The cozy season has arrived.
Happy Reading!