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Unexpected

 

 

I really didn’t mean to make these today. I got out the flour, and the soya spread and all that with the intention of making a nice big, luxurious cake for discussion group tomorrow night. And then I sort of let my mind wander off and I was halfway through cutting out the wee stars before I realised that this really wasn’t cake. Like when you’re walking to work and you are at your friends door or the comic book shop before you realise ‘ah…..this isn’t right’.

They are, however, absolutely delicious little lemon and ginger shortbreads. I’d love to give you the recipe, but for the life of me, I’ve no idea how I made them.

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Chocolate Cherry Scones

Since the scone challenge for Daring Bakers a couple of weeks ago, scones have become a bit of a go-to bake for me. When I’m feeling like playing with flavours, rather than wondering how they’d go in a cake or cookie, I’ve started thinking about how to make them work in a scone. I wanted to try something a bit more decadent with a scone, and I’ve been aching over playing around with chocolate and cherry since the joy of these cupcakes in December.

These are definitely along the decadent scale for a scone, especially as the texture verges on the heavy side. They are particularly good when they are just out of the oven, or reheated a little bit and the chocolate is melting out of the scone. Recipe after the jump. Continue Reading »

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Lessons from Childhood Part One: The Virtue of Re-Reading

As a child, there was one book that I read over and over again. I don’t just mean that every summer I’d pick it up and have another, if slightly disinterested flick through. No, I really re-read it. I’d read through the whole thing from start to finish at least once a month, with dedicated concentration to every word. Most evenings, I’d pick out a chapter that had sprung to mind and I’d slowly, delicately pick through it. I’d go through the dramatic scenes, each time imagining myself as a different character, feeling my emotions, lip-synching my words, and wondering if perhaps I could have found another option to the inevitable outcome on the page. I’d imagine other adventures I’d have as one of the characters, inventing my own spin off series for a minor character, or sequel for the main players. I read it until the pages fell out, and then I read it some more. I read it until my parents decided it was best to disappear the book from my room, and then I saved up my pocket money and bought it again, diligently refolding the corners of the best pages.

 

In some ways, it really matters what that book was, because that story obviously captured my imagination in a deep way. However, in the point I want to make here isn’t about the power of that particular book, and so I won’t mention it because I’ll get caught up in it again! The point I want to make is about the joy and practice of re-reading. When I re-read that book, it wasn’t that I was absorbed in it to the denial of all other stories or all other characters; I continued to read widely and voraciously…really I read any printed text that was nearby. Yet now, I rarely re-read, no matter how much I have enjoyed a book. There are several novels that I’ve read in the past few years that, as soon as I finished, I wanted to sit down and read again….Cloud Atlas, American Gods, The Tiger’s Wife, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to name a few.  They are stories that have a depth and complexity to them, and are written in a style that I could never be bored by. I absolutely believe that I would enjoy these books as much if not more the second, or forty-second time through, precisely because it takes that much time and re-reading to imagine yourself as each of the characters, or as the author, or to come across ideas and thoughts in your interaction with the text that you had previously overlooked.

I re-watch films that I love. I regularly re-read academic articles or books, especially if I want to make sure I’ve understood the meaning or to re-interpret it in the light of another text or event that I’ve come across since.

 So why don’t I  re-read my favourite fiction books any more?

I know that there is an element of time involved – there are so many books I want to read that I haven’t yet read that it would seem silly and rather indulgent to return to a familiar story. It’s also because most of these books as quite long as well and I tend to like reading these books in as few sittings as possible. Yet that seems like a rather feeble excuse for not doing something that will perhaps take a few days, and that I know I will undoubtedly enjoy.

So I’m going to pick up one of these books again, and learn from my younger self about the practice of re-reading.

Any guesses on the book? (Some of you will already know…)

Do you have a book that you re-read as often as possible? Do you re-read books at all? 

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Winter Warmer: White Hot Chocolate

 

There’s been a bit of a cold snap here recently – which has made for beautiful views of early morning rays of sun on frozen white branches on my commute to work. However, it has also made for very chilly toes and fingers, especially after the realisation that my winter wear won’t hold together a moment longer but I’m reluctant to purchase more boots and snugly jackets when I (foolishly) believe that spring isn’t too far away.

 However, I have the perfect warm up (and pick me up) for frozen February days when we all just want winter to be over. The white hot chocolate. For the sake of you, my dear readers, I have been testing this out on the coldest of days after long walks, just to check that it will warm all the way down to your little toes. And after rigorous research, I can say that it does. (It’s a tough life being a food blogger!)

 The recipe calls for a pinch of instant coffee powder, which I was sceptical about at first, but it really does add a depth of flavour and ensures that the white chocolate isn’t overpoweringly sweet. However, if you remain unconvinced, I’d say just reduce the white chocolate by a tiny amount instead. Another great alternative is the peppermint white hot chocolate, which you can make by replacing the vanilla essence with peppermint essence, and adding crushed peppermint sweets to the top.  They are so delicious that I may even have started to hope that winter will drag on a little longer, you know, just for the excuse to make more! Recipe after the jump.

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The Unread Alphabet I and J: The Comfort Zone of Apocalyptic Dystopia

There are some genres and topics in fiction writing that somehow just make you relax and enjoy yourself, no matter whether the book is well written or the characters well rounded. For me, that’s dystopia. I’m definitely a concept girl, I love any work that seeks to explore the impact of one significant cultural or scientific phenomenon on human life and society.  However, as much as I love sci-fi, there is always the risk that devotion to the concept or the technology can obscure the impact on the individual and the personal narrative can be lost.

 What I really enjoyed, then, about getting into Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and P.D. James’ The Children of Men was that both of these novels find a good balance between the exploration of the apocalyptic or scientific event and a character-driven narrative.

*Kazuo Ishiguro

With Never Let Me Go, the scientific advances that have taken place, and the ethical conundrum accompanying such advances, are very much the backdrops of a story about the lives of three children as they grown into adulthood. What is particularly effective about this is that the nature of the scientific advances are kept obscured for the majority of the book and are used as a discovery/revelation about who the young people really are, which is used to shock the reader into a much stronger emotional response to the scientific-ethical side of the book.

 The Children of Men takes a slightly different approach, in mixing diary writing with third person narrative centred on the main character, Theo Faron. The diary provides a good balance between getting to know Theo and his life, as well as his perspective and analysis of the political events after the apocalyptic event of mass infertility across the world. James certainly explores the political implications in greater depth than Ishuguro does, aided by the fact that Theo is the cousin and former adviser to the tyrannous Warden of England.

*P.D. James

 Both books also involve a plot to change the current circumstances. The Children of Men sees a badly thought out political plot to overthrow the Warden, or at least to make him see reason on some of the worst human rights abuses that are taking place under his regime. The plot seems realistic, undertaken by a few would-be revolutionaries who have all the right rhetoric but are confused as to how to go about it. In the midst of this, one woman becomes pregnant, showing that political revolution cannot be achieved without a sense of hope.

In Never Let Me Go, the plot is personal, taken forward by the two main characters who seek to delay their unfortunate destiny by a few years by pleading with their former school teachers. I found this quite gut wrenching; although their teachers have dedicated their lives to better ethical treatment of these kids, their immediate response is to say ‘don’t you know how hard we have worked for you already?’ That the young people demand more and demand to be treated as more fully human than they are already being treated is an affront to these teachers sense of ‘charity’. This hit me squarely between the eyes as I work in the voluntary sector, and it is so easy to consider your own sense of charity and goodwill as more important than who you are actually working with and how you treat them. I see everyday that it is so easy to become self-orientated due to burn out after years of campaigning and work.

 

All in all, both books do a good job of exploring a post-apocalyptic society. I prefer James’ dystopia largely because it is more clearly explored and a bit more apocalyptic….if there’s such a thing as an apocalyptic-dystopian scale!

 

I know that both books have been adapted into films, but I have only seen Children of Men. In a rare occasion for me, I saw the film before the book and, in an even rarer occasion – I think both are brilliant and different enough to stand alone without offending hardcore fans. I have no desire to see the Never Let Me Go, for one reason and one reason alone. Kiera Knightly. Enough said.

 

 The Unread Alphabet – Ishiguro and James

 

Previous instalments of The Unread Alphabet: Explanation and A-C; Worthy vs Enjoyable and D-F; Cultural Classics and G-H

 

Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

 The story is told through the eyes of Kathy, who remains a passive, child-like character throughout the book – even her language remains childish, choosing to use words like ‘poo’ in a bad situation rather than swear words. The story focuses on her relationships with her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and remains something of a love triangle throughout the book. Sometimes I felt that this aspect of the book got in the way of developing the scientific and ethical elements, but ultimately seeing the young people discover the true nature of their situation within the context of their relationships brought greater emotional power to these issues.

What is also done very well is that these children lead fairly peaceful lives and there is a strong sense that their lives and plight is largely ignored by wider society; the collective conscience looks away in order to benefit from the goods that these questionable practices bring.

What I will say is this – the one thing that annoyed me about the book is that the characters never think of simply leaving – just packing a bag and running away. This is perhaps part of their intensive boarding school upbringing, and it doesn’t ruin the narrative at all, it was just one thought that perhaps affected my suspension of disbelief for the book as a whole. The scientific advances that are behind the setting of the book are entirely believable, making this feel like a very real possibility for a not so far off future.

 

P.D. James – The Children of Men

 

I had already seen the film before I read the book, and so I worried that I already knew the premise or that I would fail to see the main character as anyone other than Clive Owen. However, I was sufficiently gripped by the book and shocked by the early revelations about Theo’s past that I was able to encounter the book in it’s own right. James’ outworking of the impact of the mass infertility is genius – from the excessive pandering treatment of the ‘omega generation’ to the enforced and humiliating fertility check ups, and the Isle of Man becoming a penal colony. I particularly loved her exploration of the psychological effects on the omega generation as they have been so intensively spoilt and studied at the same time; the result is aloof arrogance in most, with aggressive cult-like madness in others. She also explores how many people take to seeing pets much more like children, or even caring for dolls in a delusional charade that the dolls are real.  The political conspiracy is well done because it is not slick and well worked out, but feels more realistic as each of the characters has entirely mixed motivation for their involvement. James also touches on a religious element to the events – in the apocalyptic event as well as in the abuse of power and the sought revolution – but she manages to do this without taking an overtly religious stance on the whole issue or becoming preachy. It was difficult to become attached to the main character, Theo, and the end is left entirely ambiguous as to whether he is (and will turn out to be) a good guy or a bad guy – or just a guy in the right place at the wrong time.

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Waiting amidst change

 

Edinburgh, sunset from Princess Street, on a freezing cold, beautiful sun-and-shadow shaped day. I love Edinburgh Old Town on days like that, with bright light hitting cold stone.

Things are a bit up in the air round here, with work stuff being changed around quite a bit, and knowing that we are going to be moving quite soon….but not sure where to…it could be across the city, it could be somewhere completely new. We are just waiting…

I don’t mind this kind of waiting, I think I just have to remember to live in the present moment each day. I tend to feel like I’m still a kid on the cusp of adulthood, on the brink of being a fully competent human being, but not quite there…yet. Not quite sure of myself just yet, or perhaps just aware that it’s all likely to change and grow again with the next big experience.

A friend sent me this poem/prayer, which helps a lot. I know I don’t normally post this kind of thing, but after a long January of soul-searching and indecision-making, it perfectly sums up where things are at for me.

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of progress
that it is made by passing through
some states of instability –
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

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Better Drowned Than Duffers. If Not Duffers Won’t Drown.

Last night the husband and I trooped of to the Festival Theatre to see Swallows and Amazons. The first amazing thing about this is that we actually went on a date….a date with just the two of us!  We’re not really a ‘date’ couple, and we like inviting other friends along if we are going to go out to something exciting. So we resisted the urges to invite as many people as we thought would like it and spent some quality time alone….well, alone with a whole audience of other people.

* We used Swallows and Amazons as one of the book-based place settings at our wedding, but sadly someone walked off with the book! Photo by Lillian and Leonard.

We were both a little nervous about whether the production would work, as anyone should be when one of their favourite childhood books is being adapted into something different. Will it live up to our memories? Will it be the world we imagined ourselves into? Will the characters speak in the way they did to us? Will the adventures be larger than life, or will they simply make a sham of the way we used to play?

What made the production work was that you were asked, as an audience member, to use all this imagination and memory that you associated with the book in order to make the play come to life. You couldn’t just sit back and let all the work be done for you – no, the outlines of the waves, the work of the telescope, the sweep of the cormorant’s wings…you were the one who had to make these things come to life. You had to invest in the play itself, and I’d say that the investment was worth it.

 

The use of props and the stagecraft involved in making the props come to life was amazing and added a childlike magic to the production. My favourite ‘special effect’ was using the telescope; a character would be looking through it, and on another part of the stage a large ring would frame whatever was being looked at, including when they were looking around trying to find or focus on things.

 

The music and lyrics for the production were written by Neil Hannon (of Divine Comedy fame) and they perfectly captured the spirit of the book. It wasn’t exactly a musical, rather there were songs and music that went along with the play…I think all of the characters except the four Walker children also played an instrument in the ever-revolving onstage band. The song ‘We are Amazon Pirates’ sung at the entrance of Nancy and Peggy Blackett made me instantly fall in love all over again with the two girls, who seemed to be part aspiring pirate, part aspiring bad-girl popstar.

The production sailed rather close to the wind in risking becoming a little bit panto in the final ten minutes. This was rescued by ‘sailing’ (or rather crowd-surfing) the small wooden boats through the audience, which made every single audience member bristle with delight and hope that the boats would come their way.

I loved the fact that there was a massive age range in the audience too, a mix of old-timers who had clearly loved the book as children, as well as parents who were bringing young children, clearly hoping to introduce them to the Swallows and Amazons for the first time. By the end of the production, we were clapping the most ridiculous of onstage situations. Like when Roger receives his reward for learning to swim…I’m sure that the grown man playing Roger can actually swim and didn’t infact learn that very evening on a waterless stage…but we were so caught up in the play that we all believed he had and was worthy of applause!

It’s got another two nights in Edinburgh and then it’s off to lots of other places…if you can, I’d heartily recommend it for getting in touch with your inner, imaginative, adventurous child.

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