Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Classics Club: Les liaisons dangereuses

Leave it to Delaisse to organise French February and introduce non-English classic literature that would have taken me ages to discover...

The Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Lactos is a novel published just before the French revolution, about the immorality of the aristocratic classes, and I think I know it more from the various film adaptations than the book itself.

The novel is written in epistolary form, which just so happens to be my favourite.  There is a distance one can take from the events described in the novel, so as not to be completely involved in the highs and lows of the aristocratic life, but on the other hand, one can read what others hear and feel much better (speaking would include more passion and less detail, while describing the same things would be neutral, less emotional...)

We enter the lives of Marquise de Merteuil and Vicompte de Valmont - two members of the high society, bored to death and trying (desperately) to hang on to the power they have against each other.  I read the novel in the original, and I've found it to be an extremely good show of how the French language can be so "correct" and "vulgar" at the same time:  the nuances, the double-entendres give and take from the beginning, and I thoroughly enjoy reading it.

Other characters join in the plot, and slowly I get the real image of what is happening:  this is not a novel about love - it's about power, class hierarchy, fear of attachment and backstabbing whoever stands in the way.  I can sense the tragedy lurking in every corner, waiting to happen.  Still, I cannot feel anger or disgust towards either of the two main characters - they are the product of their society and, as the Marquise herself says, they are self-made, have managed to stand out in society and will, under no circumstance, yield this "advantage" to anyone.  And, while de Lactos was trying to paint the "wickedness" of the aristocracy in vivid colours, I believe it has become a classic because it describes personal feelings (or absence thereof) still found in our society, where we seek to maintain our autonomy to the detriment of close liaisons with people around us.

Another interesting fact about this novel is the date of publication, just before the French Revolution - whether, of course, this novel would have any real influence to the events leading up to the elimination of this unequal lifestyle is to be debated, but I could well imagine the scandal produced, the identification with real people and the discovery of the wall between the servant class/bourgeoisie with the aristocrats just put one more stone towards the final confrontation.

A novel worth reading - in French if you can - more than once, to witness a masterpiece of the limitations of the affairs of the heart...

Monday, 25 February 2013

On her majesty's secret service, by I. Fleming

After having watched almost all of the Bond movies, I should at some point read the respective books, wouldn't you think?  I was aware of Fleming's own lifestyle and how it resembled that of the Bond character, but how would he have interpreted his own hero?  and then, what would be his writing style?  would it inspire all these extravagant movies, or would the books offer a deeper understanding of the great James Bond?  

My only problem, of course, was which book to read.  In the end, I chose On her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming for primarily two reasons:  I must be one of the few ones who actually liked the movie, and then because it could offer an insight into the complex nature of Bond.  Or so I thought...

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Recipe: cherry coffee cake

I wasn't really a cake person.  While I alway want to have a little something with my tea, I've always found there are few cakes that are really moist and flavourful - in most (I admit) store-bought cakes, I always taste the flour and I'm not really interested in that.  This is basically why I started making my own, and after a first success with a nice lemon drizzle cake, I discovered an ingredient that guarantees a moist cake:  sour cream! (I've finally seen the light...).  Off I went in search of a great recipe, which I then simplified to the maximum possible (that's me!) 

Cherry coffee cake

adapted from Martha Stewart

125g unsalted butter,room temperature

250g all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 pinch salt

60g white sugar

60g demerrara sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

125g sour cream

125g sour cherries

Preheat oven at 180 degrees C.  Grease a 26x10cm cake tin. In a mixer, mix butter with the sugars.  Continue with half the flour, the salt, the sour cream, the vanilla extract, the baking powder and the remaining flour.  Scrape the sides so that the mixture is fluid.  Pour 3/4 of the mixture in the tin, and continue with the cherries.  Careful that they do touch the edges of the tin, or they'll stick.  Pour remaining mixture and bake for about 30 - 40 minutes.  This is such a moist, tasty cake that will please everyone at tea-time...

This post is my entry into Weekend Cooking, a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Monday, 18 February 2013

L'élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

There are books that make me feel good, there are those that intrigue me.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by M. Barbery served both purposes.  It made me feel good about reading as much as I do, feel at ease that there is at least someone out there to share my passion for the more "complex" ideas, and of course it confirmed the notion of judging a book by its cover, in more ways than one...

In the book, we get to meet two diametrically different characters:  Renee, the concierge - a middle-aged, overweight simpleton, ready to shout at everyone in her way; and Paloma, a 12-year old upper-class girl - shallow, ignorant, materialistic.  Is it really like that?  The book gets beyond the surface and explores this elegance of a hedgehog:  rough, picky, dangerous on the outside but so soft, cuddly on the inside. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Recipe: Goulash stew

Over the hot stove, there was a stew bubbling away...
It's true - winter this time around has made its presence felt. Gone are the walks to nearby parks, moving around with a bike, being out in the fresh air.  Instead, nights by the hearth (or, whatever source of heat for that matter) are much preferred and cosy evenings are the name of the game... Inevitably, we all gather in the kitchen while cooking.  The heat of the stoves or the oven fix our primary need for warmth, but also the expectation from whatever is bubbling in front of us lets us know that there is a reward coming along... What a nice feeling and what a great way to gather everyone around!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Classics Club: Spinning...

The Classics Club is organising a spin!  What's this, you say?  A nice little challenge, that's what it is!  A list of 20 classics to read, all ordered in a nice list, and on Monday, there will be a spin, and whichever number is picked, this book I'll read by April 2013 - Let's go!

My Spin list, by order of feeling:

My dreaded

1.  D.H. Lawrence - Lady Chatterley's lover (I've read it once, and found it boring...)
2.  Goethe - Faust (I'll either  love it or hate it...)
3.  Sueskind - Das Parfum (I've seen parts of the movie, and I was slightly nauseous...)
4.  Kafka - Der Prozess (I really don't know what to expect here...)
5.  Nietsche - Also sprach Zarathustra (why are 4 of my dreaded ones German???)

My desired

6.  Rushdie - The Satanic verses (finally, to read what the whole fuss was about...)
7.  Angelou - I know why the caged bird sings (both desired and dreaded, I hope it turns out     to be great!)
8.  Shakespeare - Taming of the Shrew (ohhh...)
9.  Conan Doyle - Sherlock Holmes: Scandal in Bohemia (we all need a little scandal now and then...)
10.  Sophocles - Οἰδίπους Τύραννος (Oedipus Rex - a classic masterpiece)

My oh well, whatever...

11.  Shelley - Frankenstein (can you believe I haven't read this?)
12.  Scott Fitzgerald - This side of Paradise (want to see whether the genius of Gatsby will continue)
13.  Camus - La chutte (I have no idea what to expect)
14.  Plato - Συμπόσιον (Symposium - let's talk about love)
15.  Darwin - On the origin of species (I have to read this at some point...)

My free choices

16.  Swift - Gulliver's travels (I've been meaning to read this ever since I was a child)
17.  Orwell - Animal Farm (a re-read, one of the books that have left a mark on me)
18.  Christie - Murder at the Vickarage (a little whodunnit never hurts)
19.  Miller - Death of a Salesman (I've seen the play quite a number of times, I need to read the book..)
20.  Wharton - House of Mirth (I didn't like the first book of hers I read, so this is my second try)

I'm really curious to see which book I'll be reading - what fun!

UPDATE:  It's lucky number 14!  Symposium, by Plato, an elegy on love... Happy reading to all classic clubbers!

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Classics Club: Sophie's World, by J. Gaarder

My second book for the Classics Club's January readathon, Sophie's World by J. Gaarder has had a good effect on me.

I received it as a present in Greek, and I'm glad I read it like this, because the references to ancient Greek texts were left in the original - what a great treat to read some of the great writers of the time and their thoughts! Furthermore, I managed to read this enormous edition (all 610 pages of it) in two half days, which encouraged me to get some more of this kind for 2013.

The plot is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction:  we get to read all the great philosophical concepts and ideas through an letter exchange between a girl, Sophie, and an enigmatic man who introduces a new subject to her with every letter.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Recipe: Beetroot soup

This has been a weird winter so far... Lots of snow, then a week of rain, some days of sunshine and now again a phase of snow... Topped with a flu epidemic around the world, what can I do to keep healthy?  This is my go-to boost recipe for such weather:  Beetroot soup.  I know, beetroot is an acquired taste, but people - it's one of nature's best produce!!! I also happen to like its taste, so for me there is no question: eat it in as many variations as possible - on to the soup recipe:

(no, I don't play around with yogurt every time I eat...)
Beetroot soup

 5 beetroots, cooked
1 large handful spinach
1 small onion, chopped
1 large potato, in cubes
1 large carrot, shredded
1lt vegetable stock

Over medium heat, lightly brown the onion/potato and carrot mixture in about 1 tbsp of olive oil.  Cut up the beetroots, and add together with the spinach.  Add the stock and let it simmer for about half an hour.  Season as wished and then blitz everything.  Great taste and perfect as is to consume - still, if you wish you can always add a dollop of yogurt just to mellow down the beetroot's taste!

This post is my entry into Weekend Cooking, a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Classics Club: Full of surprises...

For February, the Classics Club's question came as a surprise itself:  Which Classic has surprised me so far and why?  

Now, would that be a nice or a nasty surprise?  and then, why would I feel surprised at reading a Classic? too high expectations or too low?

I really have to think about this.  Could I ever read a Classic and be surprised?  The fact that they're considered classics should tell me that I expect something of specific quality to read.  

Take for instance Lady Susan by Jane Austen.  For me, Austen was (I'm really inclined to say is) synonymous with romance, lady-sensitive easy reading (i.e. boring in my book...).  Well, my dear Classics-readers, Lady Susan is definitely NOT that.  Instead, it's an insight into an ultra-intelligent, sneaky, double-faced woman that's so delightful to read that I kept giggling for the most part of the book.  The reality that we can find in the background of all the known romantic situations - with all the back-stabbing, the lies, the social pressure, the snake tears - is so true to fact that I'm surprised that Lady Susan was published at all...

The result was that I started regarding Austen in a totally different light - I can now discern her cynic streak in the books she writes and I actually look forward to it.    

Never start reading a Classic with a pre-conceived expectation.  Let it guide you through its pages and let the outcome be a real surprise - that's the beauty of reading!

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Classics Club: Persuasion

I read Persuasion by Jane Austen as a teenager, and I must admit nothing stayed from that lecture. I was aware of the film versions of Persuasion (I'm especially fond of the Ciaran Hinds version), so when the first Unputdownables readalong of the year suggested this book, I was favourably inclined to read it - this time as an adult.

The story, a classic girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl meets boy again and, after some trouble, they all live happily in the end, was sufficiently dusted with social criticism and well developped second characters, as to avoid being just another romantic work of literature...

First of all, I appreciated a heroine being "out of bloom" (that's 27 for you!). Austen acknowledges that there are people in society who will not fall in love, marry and live in peace by the time they're 18. There are missed opportunities and there are regrets that will leave people stranded, moving on in life as respectfully as possible.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Recipe: Stuffed pasta shells

ready for the oven,,,
As the winter lingers on, so do my wintery, whole-hearted, comfort food recipes.  Of course, you will agree with me that pasta features in all its glory in such situations... So, while I advocate a new, healthy lifestyle, there will certainly be times I will revert to such lovelies.  This recipe is new to me and was the result of extreme jealousy.  Yes, one can experiment with recipes because one has tasted (and enjoyed) something and has felt weak for not having thought about it themselves: Following a dinner with friends recently, I got jealous of a pasta recipe - this is the result of my jealousy:

out of the oven!
Stuffed pasta shells

30 large pasta shells, cooked al dente
2 large handfuls of spinach, cooked
250g ricotta
125g cream cheese
150g shredded cheese, plus some extra
500g tomato sauce (I used one with basil)
250g mozzarella, broken up

Make the filling:  In a huge bowl, stir together the spinach, the ricotta, the cream and shredded cheese and some salt and pepper depending on your taste.  Preheat the oven at 200 degrees C.  Spread a 30x30cm dish with half the tomato sauce.  Now begins the important task:  fill the shells.  It may sound easy and it is, but it does need patience.  A spoonful for each shell and this filling was enough for 31 shells, to be exact...  Cover with the remaining sauce, break the mozzarella on top and finish with a bit extra shredded cheese (how much depends on your cheesy needs...)  Bake for about 30 minutes, until all has bubbled away.  Enjoy!

This post is my entry into Weekend Cooking, a weekly event hosted by Beth Fish Reads.



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