The next of my reading list books! Such a fascinating and compelling read – one that resparked my interest in vintage and historical cookbooks!
Lawrence Norfolk’s novel I read in one go – I just couldn’t put it down. His newest work may be his most accessible but its descriptions are no less rich and his subject, while a fantastical fairy-tale of 17th century England, deals with complex characters, situations and relationships. John Saturnall’s ‘demon’ – his acute sense of smell is the mechanism for his rise from destitute circumstances. Ultimately John is consumed by the desire to discover the truth of what happened, both to his mother during her time at Buckland Manor and to his ancestors – the creators of the Saturnall feast that John is determined to recreate. Norfolk’s descriptions of ancient dishes are enchanting and never fail to make me hungry! The novel’s political and religious overtones are masterly interwoven in order to not overwhelm the mythological aspects of the story. One of my new favourites!
Continuing with my winter book list! The only non-fiction book I’ve read so far has been Naomi Wolf’s new book entitled Vagina. It was a Christmas present and to be honest I’m still not sure. Popular opinion has tended to pan the book as the work of an ego-maniacal reductionist with a one-size fits all solution for women and their sexual problems. I’m not so sure. While I will admit that most of the accusations are true, or at least the book can be read in this way, I think that it is much easier to pan something that is controversial and unpopular and possibly a bit uncomfortable rather than to look at it for its truth and partial wisdom. Of course book critics are paid to be harsh – but I think that may take away from what books like this may be able to provide to the general public – which is an opportunity to open dialogue. I’m not arguing that this book should be seen as a bible for women’s sexual issues and the prescription of candles and flowers to make sex better is a bit passé for many – however the broader notion that many women desire, or even need, to feel safe, secure and valued in order to relax with their sexual partners should not be a controversial one. Wolf tends to take her points too far – re: inappropriately shaped pasta and its naming – but again the wider point of jokes about rape and crude words women’s sexual organs clearly do take a toll and many women do feel uncomfortable when in the vicinity of such talk. Wolf’s assertion that such comments have long lasting physical consequences should be taken seriously.
Clearly what is missing in this book is an emphasis on variety – and while Wolf does try with passing remarks and throw-off comments she needed to do a better job. While I don’t know if a heterosexual vagina needs a virile man, it seems a bit ridiculous to suggest that vaginas are built differently depending on sexual orientation. Sex did evolve biologically for a purpose and is a two person show, however we should not be ruled by this biological history – surely we do not submit to this notion of purely biological or evolutionary functions for human activity in other areas of our life. Even if this idea proves to be true – that women have different types of orgasms with a partner, specifically during penetration – this should not detract from personal preference or social conditioning. Ultimately many feminists (myself included) will always be skeptical of any assertion that women *need* a man and the subject could have been handled with more tact and less prescription.
Rather than dither over her intentions – a rather uninteresting subject – I prefer to focus on areas of the book that are particularly good. These include the discussion of cultural history of the vagina – especially the section on Victorian thoughts of female masturbation and clitoridectomy. Her discuss of rape as a tool of war and the far-reaching and somewhat unseen consequences of such practices is written with passion and just the right amount of anger. It is perhaps a bit much for her to presume to know how all women who have been assaulted feel or act, but the notion that rape harms more than just the physical or the perception of these women within their communities is one that has value and should be discussed. It is an ambitious book and does have many flaws, primarily in that it goes too far, draws far-reaching conclusions and perhaps is a bit reductive in what women want or need – but I’m not at all convinced that Wolf means for any given reader to take it as a prescription for their own life, nor should it be seen as cure-all for all that ails us. Ultimately if the feminist community is unhappy to have Wolf as an expert then others need to step up. Those with ideas should share them, and ultimately the level of dialogue between women must be set higher. Its not enough to pan someone else’s idea – you’ve got to have one of your own.
Janice and I had been looking forward to taking another trip together and we settled on Ireland. I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland – beautiful country, Irish culture and some of my family roots. Janice has been to Ireland several times before and so we decided to explore areas she hadn’t seen before. The exception to the Janice-hasn’t-seen-it-rule was Dublin – all roads lead to Dublin – or more accurately our flights were in and out of Dublin. Since I’d never seen the city we decided to spend a couple days and explore – starting with a good Irish breakfast and a tour of the city. Our walking tour was fantastic and our guide was hilarious and friendly. We got along so well with him that the rest of our plans for the afternoon went out the window after he invited us to grab a pint. We ended up in a pub for the rest of the day… While in Rom.. Dublin? That evening we walked along the river for awhile before having dinner and crashing after an extremely long day – we had gotten on a bus to the airport at 2am the previous morning.
Janice at Dublin Castle
Our friend Oscar Wilde
The next morning we got up early to head back to Trinity College and see the Book of Kells and the Long Library. Unfortunately the Book of Kells was undergoing restoration but we did get to see some other manuscripts and hang out in the Long Library – I definitely could live there with the beautiful old books and the polished wood! Then we scurried over to catch the bus for our tour – we had decided we wanted to see some ancient Irish history and so our first stop was the Hill of Tara. Despite the damp the majesty of the site was evident through the fog. Tara is the ancient seat of the High King of Ireland and the place of rituals associated with the kingship and although only the earthworks remain, or perhaps because of that, its a powerful reminder of the loss of autonomy Ireland experienced.
Hill of Tara
Next our tour took us by the River Boyne where the Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690 between two rivals for the English and Irish thrones – the Catholic King James and the Protestant King William. The valley is beautiful – even in October – and has great archaeological and mythical significance. Along the way we passed the handsome Trim castle – the ruins of a Norman castle on the banks of the Boyne and all the while our guide chatted away about Irish history and myth. We were headed to Newgrange – otherwise known as Brú na Bóinne – a World Heritage Site in County Meath, Ireland. It is the largest and one of the most important prehistoric megalithic sites in Europe. Archaeological research suggests that it is an ancient ritual centre and a Passage Tomb – one of several in the area. Newgrange is one of the most impressive and has a very unique feature – the structure is designed to be lit by the sun once a year as it rises on the winter solstice. This impressive feat of design is clearly no accident and theories abound for why this is the case -some of the best theories suggest that throughout the year, the cremated remains of important individuals were placed in stone basins within the tomb but the burial ritual was not completed until the sun rose on winter solstice reaching into the depths of the tomb. The site – like other Neolithic sites – suggests that these were a people with complex religious practices and impressive building techniques. The site itself was clearly well-planned and construction would have taken great resources over several generations. The site also has architectural links through stone and construction to the prehistoric populations in Portugal, Spain, Brittany and Denmark – suggesting that Neolithic peoples were much better traveled than modern perceptions might lead us to believe.
Janice with Neolithic Carvings
The River Boyne
That evening when we arrived back in Dublin we happened to stumble across the Garden of Remembrance – a park dedicated to all those who have given their lives in pursuit of Irish freedom. As it began to rain we took refuge in a teashop for some hot chocolate before setting out to explore Dublin’s historic Georgian neighbourhood with the ultimate goal of getting across the city to a Nepali restaurant for dinner – an ambitious goal requiring another several hours of walking.
Garden of Remembrance
Georgian Houses with Ivy
Along the way we stumbled on the Department of Education with its hilarious hand statue – perfect for climbing! We then walked along the river stopping to admire the Jeanie Johnston – the old famine ship – before crossing the Samuel Beckett Bridge. On the other side of the Lifey then we passed Merrion Square Park, the National Gallery and Natural History Museum as well as the beautiful Government buildings before reaching out destination. We both chose Nepali specialties at the restaurant and while I cannot remember my food I do recall the very unique and tasty dumplings Janice chose – apparently the more memorable of our dishes! Dublin is certainly a place to eat well.
Department of Education
The Jeanie Johnston
Samuel Beckett Bridge
Government buildings at twilight
Next we traveled the rainy, rainy road to Belfast – closer to my ancestral roots and back into the United Kingdom. Adventures to follow!
The first entry in my winter booklist reviews! My list for the next three months is very ambitious and we’ll see how much I get accomplished. In the meantime, here’s a bit about the first book I read on my list!
Ali Smith’s latest novel – Girl Meets Boy is bound to be controversial by the nature of the author and of the original myth itself. The book is a part of the Canongate Myth Series and takes on the task of modernizing old myths. This lately has been vastly popular the last several years, as can be seen from the variations on Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and other such fairy-tales making appearances in film and television series. Smith takes on the slightly different challenge of remixing (her word) the myth of Iphis found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses a a bit of a further throwback than Snow White! Iphis in Ovid’s work is the story of a girl brought up as a boy by her mother to save her from death as an infant who, as an adult, falls in love with a girl and despairs she will never make her beloved happy during their marriage. Iphis pleads with the gods and is transformed into the form she desires – ultimately a happy ending and an ancient examination of love from a social and biological point of view. For me reading Girl Meets Boy reminds me of my days in university plugging through ancient Greek mythology. However unlike some of the ancient Greek writing I fell asleep to, Smith keeps the story moving and fresh. In fact she is able to keep the integrity of the original story while modernizing it to reflect themes of equality with humour and literary references mixed in for good measure. Particularly well done was the the use of inner-monologue to express modern concerns with gender and sexuality – especially relevant to our family. When Midge to express her discomfort with her sister’s sexual identity and new relationship, Smith aptly demonstrates that even those who think of themselves as progressive can be uncomfortable when its a little too close to home. Unlike the original myth, Smith’s characters do not conform to social restrictions for their relationship and instead challenge convention – a situation that in Ovid’s works would likely have led to an unhappy ending for the lovers. Luckily the sisters reconcile, the love story ends happily, and while the story carries some serious undertones and themes, it also manages a lightness and charm that make it an easy read.
I visited the nearby city of Lincoln twice while I was living in Nottingham. The first was on a bright clear summer day – a lucky break in a summer full of rainy days. I left relatively early in the morning and since Lincoln is only an hour or so away by train I spent eight or so hours wandering around. Lincoln isn’t a very big city but its full of history and was quite an important city during the Medieval period. It was one of the wealthiest cities in England – once the third largest city in the country due to the the weavers guild which gained a great deal of prominence and brought wealth to the city.
The cathedral in Lincoln is magnificent. When the cathedral towers were completed it was considered to be the tallest man-made structure in the world – surpassing the pyramids at Giza – and its builder was canonized as St Hugh of Lincoln. Lincoln also held the seat of the local diocese including the ruins of a once lavish bishop’s palace (also built by St Hugh) that was an incredibly important building, both for its architecture and its guests. Lincolnshire had one of the highest concentrations of monasteries in the country and the diocese was very wealthy. Several of the Bishops of Lincoln have places in popular history, one being Hugh of Wells who, as the bishop, witnessed the signing of the Magna Carta. Lincoln Castle preserves one of the four remaining original copies of the document – its quite the sight and an incredibly important document.
Lincoln’s decline began with a series of plagues in the 14th century and continued in the 16th century with the dissolution of the monasteries which greatly affected the wealth of the diocese as well as the city’s political power. Then the Civil War came and Lincoln was unfortunately situated on the border between Royalist and Parliamentary forces and thus the city was sacked during the fighting. The damage was incredible and included the ruin of the bishop’s palace and the destruction of its industry. The city didn’t fully recover until the Industrial Revolution and has since become a tourist city – especially during the Christmas market – the longest running in the UK.
Ruins of the Bishop’s Palace
Folklore from the medieval period also tells of one very interesting (and tragic) tale from Lincoln. The story of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln was very popular during this period (and continued to be so for several centuries). The story itself stems from an incident in 1255 in which a young Christian boy disappeared and was later discovered murdered at the bottom of a well. The Jewish community in Lincoln was well-established and one of the most important in Europe, but antisemitism had resulted in the destruction of a great deal of property. After the murder a local Jewish man admitted to the murder under torture and was executed but due to political circumstances almost one hundred other members of the community were arrested and taken to London to stand trial for the ‘ritual murder’ of the boy. This was a common charge during the Medieval period in Europe and led to the arrest, torture and execution of many innocent members of the Jewish communities. In the case of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln almost twenty of those arrested were immediately executed for refusing to participate in the politically based sham of a trial. The remainder were freed after the intervention of the King’s brother but the Jewish community in Lincoln never recovered and the Jewish population was expelled en masse in the late 13th century.
Inside the Jail
During my first visit I explored the castle (including the very creepy Victorian jail and Magna Carta exhibit), the Cathedral with the cloister and beautiful library and the ruins of the Bishop’s palace thoroughly. I also did a bit of shopping on Steep Hill – the most famous shopping district in the city – and had afternoon tea at a lovely traditional teashop.
My second visit was to visit my Great-aunt Micky, the wife of my late great-uncle, who I hadn’t even realized lived in the city during my first trip! I visited close to Christmas and was pleased to be able to go over some old family photos and relics as well as to hear some of the family stories and anecdotes from Mick! I was so pleased to spend time with family I’ve never met before and I found some lovely photos of my grandmother as a young girl during her Cambridge days!
My grandmother Patricia Philp
Uncle Tony in uniform before his death in WWII
I apologize dear readers. For, you know, slipping of the face of the earth. I have no good excuse. Actually I have a million good excuses. Maybe just one. My computer broke. As in it lost the ability to turn on. Its still like that and most of my photos are stuck in its hard drive. Locked away for now (hopefully safe!). So there you have it. One excuse.
Christmas lights in Nottingham
But I have missed this ritual writing and recording of my projects and travels. I’ve decided that since I now have access to a computer I can resume my blogging. I will be catching up with my travel blogging from my copious notes – I still have trips to Scotland, France, Ireland and Spain to write about – as well as several day trips I did while living in Nottingham. Speaking of – I no longer live in Nottingham! Since it is the New Year I thought I would share my latest projects and undertakings. I currently am back with my parents (thank you thank you thank you) who have graciously taken me back as I sort out the next stages in my life. Currently those involve starting a college program to become a qualified ESL teacher. Ultimately I hope this will lead me back overseas to teach but that will be at least a year away with all these classes!
My first Timmies back in Canada!
I’m also currently undergoing a major downsizing of stuff. I have too much of it. And its poorly organised. Most of that I’ve fixed already so I can move on to the fun part of that project – creative time! I have boxes and boxes of photographs to organise, scan and put in albums, scrapbooks or in frames. I’ve also signed up to take a short photography workshop to hopefully pick up some new tips and ideas – I like the idea of brushing up on these things and I’ve stolen my brother’s big fancy camera so I can play!
I’m currently looking for new volunteer opportunities in the city to expand my skills and give back – the plan is to keep busy to quell my itchy feet! On the travel horizon I do have some plans for trips slowly coming out of the woodwork for next spring and summer – mostly nearby to Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa to visit friends – but also to British Columbia and maybe Nova Scotia.
I’ve been playing with so many new fancy recipes and ideas in my head so there’ll be lots of food blogging – for now some catch up from over the last month (including some holiday baking)! Since I’m home now I can try out all the new ideas for vegetarian dishes I’ve had swirling about my head the last few months!
And last but not least – I have started on my annual New Years book list and so far I’ve complete three of the titles, namely: Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith, John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk and Vagina by Naomi Wolf – three very different books. I’ll be updating with my thoughts on these books and others as I go!
Wishing everyone a productive and happy 2013!