Friday, March 30, 2012

British Bites: Victoria Sponge Cake

My culinary creation

When I hosted a discussion of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford for my Book Club, I wanted to recreate an authentically English experience. In short, a tea party was clearly the order of the day. I pulled out my mother's minute teacups and saucers and purchased a variety of teas: fruit, peppermint, camomile and a basic black. Can I tell you how thrilled I was to find Tetley's tea in my local American grocery store? Premium Early Grey is very fancy and all, but sometimes I like to stick with what I know.

My dilemma consisted of determining which classic English food I should make to accompany the tea. My first thought was to bake scones, an idea that was quickly scratched when I discovered what a lengthy process it is to make clotted cream. Why can't I buy that here?! Then I had an epiphany: Victoria sponge cake! When I discovered during my online research that the Victoria sponge is so called because it was popular during that monarch's reign in the nineteenth century, I was sold. It fit in perfectly with a reading of Cranford, a text that perfectly evokes a sense of rural community in Victorian England.

My cake was a success! I followed this recipe from BBC Food, and it was delicious -- though I say it myself. It seemed to go down well with the Book Club, as many of my fellow readers gobbled up two servings. True, they might have accepted proffered cake slices merely as a matter of politeness, stuffing whole chunks into their handbags to spare my feelings. My family, on the other hand, wouldn't withhold the truth. They loved it too. Christian, my brother, even requested I whip up another Victoria sponge cake for his birthday party this weekend. I consider that a success!

So, I happily pass on the recipe for this glorious confection to you, with the modifications I made to accommodate American cooking.


1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 and 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
milk to loosen


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of two 7-inch cake tins with wax paper. (I used a 9-inch cake pan, and it still turned out well.) Grease tins with cooking spray and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt.  

Beat butter and sugar until it becomes pale and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla. Slowly add flour mixture. Add milk as needed. (I think I used a few tablespoons.) The batter should be thick, with a consistency that is closer to, say, a cream cheese frosting than a traditional cake batter. 

Divide batter into the cake tins, and bake for 20-25 minutes. After taking cakes out of the oven, allow them to cool for approximately 5 minutes before removing from the tins and peeling off wax paper. Then let them cool completely.

The beauty of the Victoria sponge cake is that you can choose your filling. Traditionally, it has a cream and raspberry filling. I slathered on store-bought Smucker's raspberry jam and fresh whipped cream. You could also use strawberry jam, fresh fruit, lemon curd, etc. Once the cakes have been sandwiched together with the filling, liberally dust the top with powdered sugar. It makes 10-12 servings. If you're like me, you'll add a large dollop of whipped cream to each slice upon serving. That extra creaminess is worth maxing out your weekly saturated fat allowance.

That's it. Do you see how easy that is to make? (If this reluctant baker can do it, you most certainly can.) It's simple but tasty. If you like cake half as much as I do, you will be in dessert heaven with the Victoria sponge!  I highly recommend whipping one up the next time you're crave a delectable treat. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games Premiere

The Hunger Games premiered in cinemas this past weekend, pulling in a staggering $155 million domestically. After seeing it twice, I'm ready to deliver the verdict. I realize this makes me sound a bit obsessive, but in my cinephile family we're very much into repeat viewings. And the verdict is...

Well done! Very well done!

I admit I felt nothing but trepidation leading up to the movie's release. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I'm still astounded the Twilight films managed to turn poorly written books into movies that somehow surpassed their source material in pure awfulness -- leading me to suspect all YA adaptations were a train wreck waiting to happen. I also worried about the complications that come from translating a futuristic sci-fi novel to the big screen. Would the movie come out looking like a low-budget Star Trek? Suffice it to say, these and other concerns forbade me from anticipating the film with any sense of excitement.

I was, therefore, thrilled to find that The Hunger Games impressed me much more than I thought it would. Indeed, I enjoyed it as much, if not more, upon a second viewing. Is it perfect? No. I don't think any adaptation can be. But all around, Lionsgate succeeded in producing a film that is a credit to the book which inspired it. 

The Hunger Games sets itself apart from other teen films by casting young soon-to-be stars with the acting chops demanded by their rigorous roles. Katniss is not an easy part to play. She's prickly and not the most demonstrably emotional girl; much of the what the reader knows about her is gleaned through internal dialogue. Yet Jennifer Lawrence blew me away with her performance. Physically speaking, she's doesn't strictly follow the description of Katniss Collins provides, but I don't think they could have found another young actor who embodied the character like she did. The entire film is hinged upon her performance, and she carries it off nicely. I was also pleased by Josh Hutcherson's portrayal of Peeta, and while we haven't yet seen much from Liam Hemsworth as Gale, he didn't bother me like I thought he would. (He's primarily known for starring in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation with Miley Cyrus. Can you blame my skepticism?) 

An array of better known adult actors fill in the cast of minor characters. I was particularly impressed by Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci who play Effie Trinket (fantastically clad in neo-Victorian clothing) and Games host Caesar Flickerman, respectively. Both provide nice comic relief in what is an otherwise bleak narrative. My main complaint with the movie is the casting of Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. The District 12 stylist is one of my favourite characters, but he's subtle and nuanced. They needed an actor, not a has-been musician, to adequately convey Cinna's depth. 

Finally, I wanted to point out that the violence was handled well by the filmmakers. It never felt gratuitous. Hand-held shots during action sequences prevent the audience from seeing anything in graphic detail, but it was enough to express the horror of the situation. I, for one, was filled with nothing but repulsion that such young defenseless children were subjected to such a fate.

In short, I heartily recommend The Hunger Games to any fan of Suzanne Collins's trilogy. I'll be looking forward to the next installment! May the odds be ever in your favor, and Happy Hunger Games!

Waiting for the movie to start
My mum is looking peeved, because my dad leaked a major
spoiler from book three (she's only read the first two)

And I am looking happy because I won 
a ten dollar giftcard to the cinema at our private screening
The odds were in my favor!

Have you seen The Hunger Games yet? What did you like about it? What do you think they could have done better? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The (Not So) Secret Life of Wilkie Collins

Do you ever root around in the wealth of biographical material about famous writers and come across something that surprises you? Does it ever affect the manner in which you read an author's work?

I confess that when I was searching for information on Wilkie Collins a few years ago I was rather surprised to learn that this popular Victorian novelist was a common law bigamist.  After reading his novel Heart and Science recently, I did a bit more digging. He was in a relationship with Caroline Graves, a widow with a young daughter.

Caroline Graves

They weren't married, but after several years of cohabitation Collins met the proverbial Other Woman. Martha Rudd was more than twenty years his junior, and Wilkie Collins soon installed her in a decidedly less spectacular home near the residence he shared with Graves on Gloucester Place.

Martha Rudd -- stunner

That Collins maintained two households seems rather clandestine and melodramatic -- something one might read in the sensation fiction genre for which he was renowned. Shortly after Wilkie began dividing his time between the two women, Caroline Graves left Collins and married another man. As far as I've been able to tell from my oh-so-minimal research, it's unclear what caused the rift. The fact that the two events so closely coincide with one another suggests Graves was none too happy about it. In any case, she returned to the unconventional relationship she had with Collins after a short period of marriage.

Meanwhile, he fathered three children with Martha Rudd. In order to exude a charade of respectability, however, he went by the last name of Dawson during his time with her, even going so far as to bestow the name upon their children. It was all so secretive in a way that seems classically Victorian. Though Graves and Rudd maintained a firm distance from one another, it seems that the children would go from house to house. 

After much indoctrination education I've become fairly adept at not letting my feelings about an author intefere with my feelings about an author's texts; you know, Death of the Author and all that. At least, I'm getting better at separating the two (see my complicated relationship with Dickens). I must say, though, that this knowledge of Collins's bohemian lifestyle did affect my reading of Heart and Science. It's not so much that I think Collins is a misogynist and therefore don't like his texts. (For the record, I'm betting he was a misogynist; Collins and Dickens were BFFs.) Rather, throughout the novel I consistently searched for subtextual clues that hinted at bigamous relationships -- without any success, I might add. That niggling detail was often present in my mind, interrupting my immersion in the narrative. Does that make sense? 

Now I'm wondering if this literary investigation will continue as I further acquaint myself with fiction by Wilkie Collins. Hmm...In any case, I would be keen to learn more about Wilkie Collins's fascinating life. Perhaps I'll add a biography to the old TBR pile! 

The house on the left is the home Wilkie Collins shared with Caroline Graves
(I just managed to snap a pic driving past in a coach)
Incidentally, Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived on the same street, Gloucester Place

Have you ever been surprised learning certain details about a particular writer's life? Did it affect the way you read/felt about their work?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spring Reading Fever: A Top Ten Tuesday Post

Florence in the spring -- taken at the Buboli Gardens

While I've recently been making long-term reading goals with my epic length Classics Club list, I thought it prudent to also conjure up some short-term plans so as not to feel buried under an ever growing TBR pile. Serendipitously, this week's Top Ten Tuesday prompt from The Broke and The Bookish is all about spring reading. Therefore, I have whipped up a list -- oh, how I adore making lists -- of books that I'm hoping to get to as the sun and greenery emerge from their wintry hibernation. 

Since I plan on participating in a Victorian event during June and July, I intend to spend the next couple of months concentrating on texts written outside of that sixty-odd years of Victoria's reign. By which I mean, this list contains only two Victorians, so I've reined myself in nicely. I even feel a bit guilty for not including more of them here and have this nagging feeling that I've done something wrong or illicit. Ah, Victorian guilt!

It's highly doubtful I'll complete the list (particularly since I'm not including titles through which I'm currently wading), but it's nice to have an idea of where I'd like to direct my literary attention over the coming weeks.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 

This classic children's novel seems like the perfect read for spring! Just thinking about the lovely pastoral representation of rural England makes me eager to spend time outdoors, one with nature. 

Perhaps I shall read it over a picnic! (I won't. But it's a nice idea.)

And while this doesn't have anything to do with anything, I loved Lady Violet's protestation to Edith's driving in an episode of Downton Abbey, stating that granddaughter wasn't 'Toad of Toad Hall.'

Adam Bede by George Eliot

Suffice it to say I'm a fan of John Thornton in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. So when I heard that readers possess the similar attachment to the eponymous Adam Bede, I knew I had to read it. I hope it's as fabulous as I've heard it is. 

Does anybody out there harbour a crush on this fictional character?

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

A dear friend and kindred spirit chose this novel for my book club's March read. The group is definitely enjoying it, so I'm looking forward to immersing myself in its pages. 

Do I get bonus points for reading a contemporary novel?

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier 

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.' I know the opening line. I know it's inspired by my beloved Jane Eyre. Yet I have not read it. My head hangs in self-reproach as I type this.

Seriously though, I'd love to properly dig into Du Maurier's fiction. My grandmother just lent me beautiful copies of My Cousin Rachel and Jamaica Inn, the latter apparently reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. But I have to read Rebecca first.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

My recent post on this fantastic author produced great feelings of childhood nostalgia. I'm hoping that experiencing a never-before-read Dahl text will result in the same feeling of wonder I felt when reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach as a wee one.  

The film adaptation terrified me when I was young. Perhaps this is why I've never bothered to read the book. 

Victorian London by Liza Picard

I'm heartily enjoying my attempts to incorporate more non-fiction into my reading this year and would rather like to continue the practice. Liza Picard has written several portraits of London at various time periods in British History (I've read bits of her Restoration London), so I'm looking forward to experiencing that foggy Victorian metropolis through her words. 

Question: will I need an umbrella? No, a gas mask, I think, would be the order of the day -- the odour.    
Patronage by Maria Edgeworth

A contemporary of Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth was wildly popular in early-nineteenth-century England. Patronage apparently sold its first run within hours. It's now largely out of print, so I snapped up this new edition by Sort Of Books at a Waterstone's in Leeds.

Known for her progressive views on race and gender, I'm excited to compare her representation of Regency society with those by Austen.    

Crossed by Ally Condie

Sometimes a girl needs a good escapist read. I enjoyed Matched, the first in this young adult trilogy. 

Hopefully the second installment will maintain the narrative momentum the author's got going.  

Bring on the love triangle!

The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse

I haven't read a Wodehouse novel in nearly six months! Naturally, this leads me to believe I am slowly dying on the inside and must restore a healthy balance to my anatomy with another Wodehouse text. As everybody knows, Wodehouse makes everything right in the world.

As I've previously confined myself to Blandings Castle stories, The Mating Season will be my first Jeeves novel. Such joy! (Click here for a hilarious passage from a Blandings novel.)

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

So...I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I've never read The Professor. Like so many books, I started this assigned reading for my Brontë module at Leeds. However, I arrived in England a week late due to visa delays and other bureaucratic delights. Consequently, I never finished it. Shame! This is the only Brontë novel I haven't fully read, and I need to get on it. I can't wait to witness what I've termed  Charlotte Brontë Syndrome in full swing! 

Do you have any fun reading plans for spring? What are your thoughts, if any, on the titles I've listed above? Are you currently engrossed in a good book right now? Pass on the recommendations!

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Enigmatic Bard: Bill Bryson's Shakespeare

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make time in my reading schedule for some author biographies; Shakespeare: The World as Stage by humourist Bill Bryson was a fantastic place to start. What impressed me most in this book on Shakespeare is how little we actually know about Shakespeare. He remains an enigmatic and mysterious figure. Most likely he always will. Renaissance documentation being what it was -- and in the distant past -- the remaining accounts of him are few and far between. Hold your horses, authorship conspiracy theorists, we don't know much about any playwright from that era. In fact, Bryson informs us that scrupulous research has yielded more insight into The Bard than the majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean personas such as Thomas Dekker, Inigo Jones and even Ben Jonson. 

To make up for this lack of biographical detail, Bryson contextualizes this work of non-fiction with an amusing yet educational portrait of life in Renaissance England, particularly that burgeoning and putrid metropolis London. If we can't confirm what precisely Shakespeare was doing, we can at least make conjectures about what his day-to-day life as an urban player must have been like.

And what a life it was! Bryson provides enough detail about the period to satisfy my ardent curiosity. I loved learning about the strict codes of Renaissance dress. Rain apparently caused mass panic; people rain for cover to protect the delicate dyes of their clothing. Early Modern England conveyed an indifference for spelling and grammar -- nobody could even be bothered to adhere to consistency in signing their own name, Shakespeare included. None of Shakespeare's signatures on record conform to the spelling that has universally been assigned to him. The growing metropolis was plague-ridden and filthy. Londoners paid a great price for urban life, as life expectancy was short. Bryson notes that making it to one's early thirties was 'a reasonable age for a dying Londoner.' What a fascinating time period!

At approximately 200 pages, this biography is by no means exhaustive. Those seeking a more scholarly approach to Shakespeare should look elsewhere. Nevertheless, I found Bryson's contribution to our cumulative knowledge on The Bard to be adequately educational. For someone like me who knows little about the period in question, Shakespeare: The World as Stage was precisely the introduction to Renaissance biography I needed. The dry humour for which Bill Bryson is noted was apparent throughout, infusing each chapter of the biography. Being a novel addict, I was worried that I would struggle through this text. I needn't have. Bryson captivated my attention from the opening pages. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the subject was contagious, causing me to spew Renaissance 'fun facts' to my family without the slightest provocation. And now I'll adding a few of these fascinating tidbits to this blog post. I just can't help myself. If you're the least big interested, please read on...

* Those attending Early Modern theatre could expect a fair degree of gore. Animal organs were used as props in violent death scenes. Swords were dipped in sheep's blood for a touch of violent realism during staged fights. Additional blood and fake limbs were strewn around to set the stage.

* The history of Shakespeare scholarship is almost as intriguing as the plays themselves. Charles and Hulda Wallace took it upon themselves to sift through Early Modern records in the hopes of locating information about Shakespeare -- to considerable success. Unfortunately, Charles became rather paranoid as a result of his obsession and even 'believed that the British government was secretly employing large numbers of students to uncover Shakespeare records before he could get to them' (p. 15). Other critics have suggested, due to two minor allusions to lameness in the Sonnets, that Shakespeare must have been crippled. Naturally.

* The violence on the stage could, and did, extend to the audience. Bryson reports that real bullets were used in theatrical fights -- why, neither Bryson nor I can imagine -- and we know that a cannon was responsible for the fire that resulted in The Globe's destruction. Theatre-goers could even procure seating on the stage at some venues for an additional fee. 'The practice was lucrative; but it contained an obvious risk of distraction. Stephen Greenblatt relates an occasion in which a nobleman who had secured a perch on the stage spied a friend entering across the way and strode through the performance to greet him. When rebuked by an actor for his thoughtlessness, the nobleman slapped the impertinent fellow and the audience rioted' (p. 139). Can you imagine if fights broke out at the cinema today? Saying that, I can imagine Team Edward and Team Jacob fans fighting to the death at a Twilight showing...

* James I was, according to Bryson, an uncouth gentleman. He was known back then (which is saying something) for his bad hygiene. Leftovers from his meals stained his clothing, and he frequently indulged in the bad habit of playing with his codpiece in public. How charming.

* 1592 marks the first recorded mention of Shakespeare as a playwright, in a decidedly unflattering pamphlet called Greene's Groat's-Worth of Wit. Bryson is not a fan of its author, Robert Greene, calling him 'a wastrel and cad' (p. 83). Indeed, he manages to sneak in an insult or two aimed at Greene who, in turn, insulted Shakespeare in his pamphlet. One example of such a dig: 'Only two copies of Greene's Goat's-Worth survive, and there would not be much call for either were it not for a single arresting sentence [referring to Shakespeare] tucked into ones of its many discursive passages' (p. 84). Needless to say, Bryson's shrewd commentary delighted to me.

* I had no idea that spelling and grammar was so universally inconsistent in Early Modern England. This information astounded me! More than eighty spelling of William Shakespeare's name, for instance, have been recorded. I'll turn over to Bryson for further elucidation: 'People could be extraordinarily casual even with their own names. Christopher Marlowe signed himself "Cristofer Marley" in his one surviving autograph and was registered at Cambridge as "Christopher Marlen." Elsewhere he is recorded as "Morley" and "Merlin," among others. In like manner the impresario Philip Henslowe indifferently wrote "Henslowe" or "Hensley" when signing his name, and others made it Hinshley, Hinchlow, Hensclow, Hynchlowes, Inclow, Hinchloe, and a half dozen more' (p. 111).

I'll put an end to these fun facts now, before I bore anybody to tears -- if anyone has even managed to make it this far! In short, Shakespeare: The World as Stage was a pure delight. It makes me eager to read more Renaissance authors (I've got Marlow and Jonson on my list), as well as further my Shakespeare education. Have you read any Shakespeare biographies? Did you enjoy them? I'd love to hear!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Classics Club

I'm thrilled to announce that I will be participating in The Classics Club, recently established (and hosted) by Jillian at A Room of One's Own. After much deliberation, I have finally formed a list of 100 works of fiction I hope to have read in six years time. I have also whipped up short little lists of poetry, drama and non-fiction selections to be read alongside my fictional titles. You can view my page dedicated to the project to see my chosen texts.

Making The List required great restraint on my part, because it quickly turned into a Bookish Bucket List. I reminded myself that I didn't need to include every book I'd like to read before I die in this five-year plan. Giving books I already own the priority has helped me to narrow things down significantly.

I've also tried to give my project a sense of balance. True, the majority of my chosen texts are from favourite time period: the long nineteenth century. This was deliberate, as I really want to delve deeper into my beloved Victorian and Romantic eras. Nevertheless, the list ranges chronologically from the Renaissance to the contemporary. There are numerous children's books, and I've attempted to include some American and French authors into my reading. Some are tried-and-true classics, while other selections are non-canonical. In some cases, I'm attempting to include an author's entire oeuvre (e.g., Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the complete Sherlock Holmes), and I'm also adding one or two texts from authors with whom I've yet to be acquainted (Flannery O'Connor, Nathaniel Hawthorne). I think this list represents the breadth of reading I hoped to achieve. Bring on the literary adventure!

I have no intention of reading exclusively from this list over the next six years -- it may even alter as time goes by. Rather, the purpose of my participation in The Classics Club is to focus my reading and give me an opportunity to discuss literature with people who share a similar love of the classics. I'll be sharing my literary opinions and reading experiences along the way. While it's aimed primarily at bloggers, anybody is welcome. Please consider joining in the fun. (Click here for more information.) Happy reading, everybody!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Magical 11: Benedict Cumberbatch and Other Tidbits

Cassandra from Literary Stars and Preethi from Lace, Etc. recently tagged me, urging me to complete The Magical 11 blog post. In it, we are meant to share eleven random facts about ourselves, as well as answer the eleven questions set forth by the tagger.

11 Fun Facts

1. Like most of Britain, I have a crush on Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch (pictured above). I'm still waiting for America to catch on to this obsession. Wake up, patriots! He's the next big thing.

2. Reader's confession: I'm not keen on reading poetry. However, I love listening to it as it's read aloud. This, I firmly believe, is how poetry is meant to be experienced. It's music to the ears.

3. Geek alert: my reader friends and I love a man with (and this is a direct quote) 'a sexy reading voice.' Yep, we're nerds like that. Before you make fun, I dare you not to melt while listening to Benedict Cumberbatch's recitation of John Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale.' Never underestimate the power of the Sexy Reading Voice.

4. Apparition would undoubtedly be my superpower of choice. Wouldn't it be fabulous to go wherever one wanted in an instant? No expensive flight fees, no customs and immigration, no jet lag. I get giddy just thinking about it.

5. I love romantic comedies, but the genre has degenerated into tripe in recent years. What happened to witty classics like When Harry Met Sally?

6. I plan on naming any future children after beloved authors and/or literary characters. I've done this with my pets since I was a wee girl (RIP Watson the Hamster).

7. I refuse to eat anything that lived in water. The flavour that results is too awful for me to stomach. I was even put off vegetarian sushi because of the seaweed. Ick.

8. I've dreamt of a Jane Austen-inspired wedding dress since I was fifteen. At this point, I wonder if I want the dress more than the husband. Something along the lines of this:

9. I prefer to watch television series on dvd, when I can watch an entire season in one go. My current favourite is Parks and Recreation. It's similar to The Office (U.S. version) but far more consistent. I highly recommend watching it.

10. People seem to have a lot of preconceptions about the Marquis de Sade, but I maintain his fiction is unintentionally hilarious.

11. I'm obsessed with literary travel destinations. Right now I'm dreaming up a visit to Louisa May Alcott's home. I fell in love with Orchard House as a twelve-year-old and have been dying to see it for myself ever since I learned it was a 'real' place.

Orchard House

Cassandra's Questions

1. If you could live in any age (present day included) you wanted to, which would you choose? Definitely the present day! While my obsession with all things Victorian has been well documented, the 1800s weren't the best time to be a woman: you couldn't vote, legally lost your property upon marriage, your husband could beat you and there were no tampons (sorry about the TMI, but facts are facts). Yes, the dresses were fabulous, but could a perpetual sloucher like me endure the constricting corsets? Probably not. If they ever invent a time machine, though, Victorian London is where I'll head first for a day on the town.Then I'd attend a Regency Ball in the evening.

2. Is there a literary character you identify with?
Yes! Depending on my mood and the situation wherein I find myself I am: Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Shirley, Jane Eyre, Lucy Honeychurch, Hermione Granger, Agnes Grey, Anne Elliot, Margaret Hale, Jo March, etc., .etc., etc. I hope to grow into an Aunt Betsey Trotwood as times goes by.

 I wouldn't mind being Lucy Honeychurch in this particular moment

3. The world is divided into two different kinds of people: those who plan their own funerals and those who don't. To which do you belong?
I am firmly placed in the latter category. I confess I find the idea of planning one's funeral without any particular impetus rather morbid. It's a little too Harry Burns for my taste (see my reference to When Harry Met Sally above). 

4. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?
Right now, I'd like to live in both England and America, popping back and forth whenever I pleased. Unfortunately, such a lifestyle is rather expensive.

5. How do you manage the balance between reading and going out?
The trick, I think, is to acquire friends who read. Then nights at the pub become hours-long conversations about literature and other fascinating topics. If anything, time spent with friends encourages me to read even more.

6. What is your favourite quote? 
'The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.' I adore these words from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. At the time they were obviously intended to defend the author's use of the rising form of the novel. But I still think they're as applicable today, though in a different sense. People don't seem to read like they formerly did. I'm grateful that blogging has connected me with other avid readers.

7. The eternal question: which is better, Oxford or Cambridge?
Oxford. I've visited Oxford a couple of times and have been absolutely enchanted with it, whereas I haven't experienced Cambridge yet. Random tidbit: I came across the most hilarious street name in Oxford: Toot Hill Butts. The jokes that could be made about that one...

8. Is there a song which has special meaning to you?
Ooh, this is a tricky one. Going along with my discussion of pond hopping above, I would say 'Transatlanticism' by Death Cab for Cutie. It's a fabulous, underrated song.

9. What is your favourite quote?
I'm thrilled to get another shot at this question. Jane Eyre is full of memorable quotes, but I particularly love when Jane asserts the following:

This Jane Eyre necklace on etsy is fabulous

Also, I love Polonious's word in Hamlet: 'This above all: to thine own self be true.' Words to live by.

10. Romantic comedy or thriller?
I already answered that one above, but I will expound upon it by saying that, as a naturally anxious person, tense thrillers and horror films are my personal hell. I expend a great deal of effort to calm myself, why would I then pay money to undo all my hard work?

11. Why do you read? 
I read, because literature is my life. My education, travel opportunities, life experiences and dear friends have often been the result of my love of literature, the consequence to my pursuit of it. I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't read the books I've read -- and will read!

Preethi's Questions

1. What is your favourite song from high school? Ooh, tough one. I'd have to say 'I Love You' by Sarah McLachlan. It was a favourite as soon as I heard it on my teenage drama of choice, Roswell.

2. If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be? I want to go everywhere! In Europe, I'm dying to go to Vienna, and I still haven't been to Edinburgh. Worldwide, I'd say Africa. I have this vision of myself arrayed in khaki and a wide-brimmed hat, pulling out the binoculars on a safari. But I'm slightly allergic to mosquitoes. It could be tricky to pull off.

Oh, this would be fabulous!

3. What would be your ideal birthday gift? A library. Or a puppy. Or a one-way plane ticket to England. I'd happily accept any of the above.

4. What is your favourite time of day? Just before sunset. I love the cooling temperatures at this time of day in the summer, the soft light and the long shadows that fall over everything.

5. What is your favourite article of clothing? I have great sentimental attachment to my University of Leeds hoodie.

6. What is your favourite thing to drink? Coke! Oh, how I love it. Unfortunately, I had a stomach ulcer some years ago that will flare up at the slightest provocation. Caffeine, consequently, is a rare treat for me.

7. What is one skill you'd like to learn? I love classical music, particularly pieces which feature strings and the piano. I play the latter quite poorly, but I'd love to learn to play the cello. It's on The Bucket List!

8. What was your favourite summer job? My favourite summer job was lounging during the day and having sleepovers at night. Somehow I missed out on the summer job rite of passage.

9. What was your favourite childhood cartoon? Duck Tales. Oh, I wanted to be Webby and swim in Uncle Scrooge's sea of gold. Funnily enough, I never understood the majority of the lyrics to the opening song apart from the emphatic 'Duck Tales' that came at the end of each line. Also, Alvin and the Chipmunks. I still love listening to the Chipmunk Christmas Album. I don't care what anybody says, they're cute!

10. What's your favourite family memory (either growing up or recently)? I love vacations with my family. We're all slighty -- and I think adorably -- neurotic, so vacations really bring out the melodramatics. I have memories of getting lost in Hawaii, because my dad was bewildered by Honolulu's one-way roads, my brother declaring that he wanted his Disneyworld souvenir to be a battleaxe, my mum getting upset when my dad purchased samurai swords at a flea market for a ridiculous sum (that are now gathering dust somewhere in our house). Family vacations are always memorable if somewhat insane.

At a luau on the island of Oahu

11. Do you like nicknames? Yes, we go a bit crazy for nicknames in our family. I have been called the following throughout the years: Di, Nana, Dinana, Dinananana and Diana Banana. Di is my diminutive of choice, but it drives me nuts when people I don't particularly like call me that -- one has to be a friend or family member before I'll allow them the privilege. We also have an array of nicknames for Percy: Perceval P. Pup (my dad's invention), Pooker, Pooker Pooh, Pooks, Perc, Persnickety, The Perconator, The Poodler, and so on. I could continue, but I won't subject anybody to a full catalogue.

I won't tag anybody, since Cassandra tagged many of our fellow blogging friends. But I'd love to hear any answers to these questions in the comments below!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Thoughts on Roald Dahl – and Commemorative Stamps

The Royal Mail is issuing these charming Roald Dahl stamps, featuring the original Quentin Blake illustrations. I'm not a stamp collector, but I would willingly snap up this literary keepsake in a heartbeat! Aren't they adorable?

Seeing these has reminded me how much I loved reading Roald Dahl novels as a child. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, James and the Giant Peach: these stories delighted my young imagination. Unfortunately I never read Matilda, but I have a feeling it would still be magical reading for adults -- particularly an adult like me who adores children's literature.

My favourite Dahl narrative would have to be Fantastic Mr. Fox. Though it's quite short and aimed at early readers, I wasn't introduced to this charming story until I was ten. Luckily, my fourth grade teacher firmly believed one should never 'outgrow' children's books and happily passed it on to my class. I was immediately drawn in by the cunning of Mr. Fox and the grotesque habits of the three farmers who attempt to put a stop to Mr. Fox's habitual pilfering of their resources. I still recall the rhyme about these unhygienic farmers:

Boggis and Bunce and Bean
One short, one fat, one lean.
These horrible crooks
So different in looks
Were nonetheless equally mean. 

I always recommend this humorous tale to my friends with children and often give it as a gift. This story, as is generally the case with Dahl's work, possesses a magic that has to be shared.

Did you read Roald Dahl novels when you were young? Which was your favourite?

P.S. Wes Anderson's adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox is, well, fantastic -- for adults and children. Since the source material is brief, I forgive the liberties he takes with the text. You can watch the trailer here.