27 December 2007

A Fillpot of Negus and Thou

I have been trying (rather desperately) to get myself in a more seasonal mindset by listening to Christmas-y audiobooks. I dabbled a little with folksy Lake Wobegon Christmases (A Prairie Home Christmas and Now It Is Christmas Again) then moved South (Blue Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews) before jumping across the pond (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens).

Whenever I read (or listen to) a historical novel I find myself always puzzling over trivia. While A Christmas Carol is a ripping tale and Jim Dale is a pleasure to listen to, I found myself increasingly distracted by pesky little question like "What kind of game is snap dragon?" or "What’s a smoking bishop made of?" and "What the heck is negus when it's at home?"

Smoking bishop, in particular, caught my fancy -- I imagined a group of fat old barristers (their buttoned waistcoats straining over their bellies) with hands full of smoking pipes and Toby jugs of some hot steaming toddy while they gossiped around a pub fire. The jugs, of course, would be shaped like fat little bishops. It was a pleasant image, if completely unlikely.

Thanks to the Guardian's "Booze by Boz" post, I now have a nice little recipe for smoking bishop and also know that it's pretty much mulled wine. Not particularly exciting, but there it is. There's also a decent sounding recipe for it over at Recipezaar which omits the grapefruit juice and suggestions posh additions such as cinnamon sticks and star anise.


Now, snapdragon? Gerard and Patricia Del Re’s The Christmas Almanack (Doubleday: 1979) tells me this about snapdragon:

This was once a very popular game played at Christmas in England. Raisins were placed in a bowl and covered with brandy, which was set ablaze. The object was to snatch the raising out of the fire and pop them in your mouth before the flames did too much damage. There was probably very little flavor left in the burned and shriveled raisins, but the danger and daring made a great sauce, and snapdragon was popular for many years before dying out in our own practical century [19th].

Ah, to live back in the good old days when unburnt fingers were grand entertainment!

And negus? Mysterious negus consumed with cake and cold roast? Negus is, according to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (available online at mrsbeeton.com or through Project Gutenburg), a hot mulled fortified wine like port or sherry. While this beverage sounds rather potent to an infrequent tippler like me, it was often served to Victorian children:

Mode. -- As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to 1/4 lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage.

Sufficient -- Allow 1 pint of wine, with the other ingredients in proportion, for a party of 9 or 10 children.


13 December 2007

Omg!! The Blue Sword!! Omg!! Squee!!!

I was browsing November’s issue of Paperclips, happily initialing off all the fantasy and romance paperbacks I think I my patrons would like to read when I came across a reprint of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley:

Harry Crewe, the Homelander, bored with her sheltered life as an orphaned girl in the remote orange-growing colony of Daria, discovers her own magical gifts when she is kidnapped by a native king with mysterious powers and is transformed into Harimad-sol, King’s Rider, the heir to Gonturan, the mystical Blue Sword once wielded by the Lady Aerin herself. A Newbery Honor book.

Oh, did the fangirl in me ever go squee! (Omg!! The Blue Sword!! Omg!! Squee!!!) Completely mortifying, but true. The Blue Sword rocked my world when I was a disenfranchised ninth grader. Harimad-sol? Total girl crush. A clever girl stifled by society and then plunged unwillingly into a foreign culture, given a magic sword and romantically entangled with someone perplexing? Oh, yes! The novel had everything that was likely to appeal to me at fourteen (or thirty-one). I must have read the book three times that year alone and when I discovered there was a companion novel (The Hero and the Crown), I was over the moon.

Seriously, I loved The Blue Sword so much that I more-or-less stole it from my English teacher’s class room. I had borrowed it from her small and neglected lending library around Easter of my freshman year and then “forgot” to bring it back before school ended. And I didn’t bring it back the following autumn, either. It lived under my bed, much dog-eared from midnight readings, until I went away to college. I have it still, but it lives on a proper bookshelf amongst all my other McKinley books and I don’t engage in midnight readings, anymore.

(It’s not really as if I have to read it -- I just need to glance at the pages to prompt my memory).


25 November 2007

I ♥ Madeleine Brent

Someone posted up to Fiction-L looking for a novel about a British orphan girl in China around the time of the Boxer Rebellion ...
Patron recalls a memorable line about heroine being asked if she like cats, and saying that she finds 'they don't yeild [sic] as much meat as rabbits.'

She thinks the same author also wrote another Victorian romance about a circus (the memorable line she recalled from this was the girl worried about becoming 'fat, white and spotty.'
Now, I quite liked the line about cats (who wouldn't?) and the very idea of a Victorian circus romance tickled me so I set out to find a copy of Moonraker’s Bride as soon as possible. Much to my pleasure, I discovered nine copies in my system. Put in my interlibrary loan request and less than a week later Moonraker’s Bride was mine ...

What a wonderful book full of daring-do, romance, and humor! Some parts Bronte, some parts Dickens, and all parts fantastic. I devoured it and went looking for more information about my new crush, Madeline Brent. Searching Gale’s Biography Resource Center, I found several profiles for Madeleine Brent and was amused to discover that “she” was actually a “he” -- Peter O’Donnell. While most of the profiles focused on O’Donnell’s work as the creator of Modesty Blaise, the profile in Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers provided a quite fantastic analysis of Brent’s works. I was particularly taken with the description of Brent’s heroines which seems totally spot-on when I think of Lucy Warring -- an intelligent, compassionate, and gutsy woman completely unaware that there's anything unusual about her:
Brent's heroines, though modest and self-effacing, are role-models of feminine virtues: daring, determined, resourceful, and spirited but also patient, persistent, and enduring. They have left behind (or never had) the trappings of ‘proper' upbringing, see the world with alien eyes, and in fact learn to look with humour on Victorian hypocrisies and proprieties, particularly pretences that ladies are not sexual creatures with hearts and minds. They are honest and warm-hearted, trading innocence and naiveté for the experienced wisdom of heartbreak. They patiently endure social restraints, but yield to their instinct for right: befriending servants and social outcasts, saving children from hunger, cold, abuse and war. They speak honestly without forethought, but glare like alley cats when angered.

Because of their blunt honesty, grim realism and alien experiences, people dismiss them as liars, but the advice of older males proves invaluable. With time, their virtues are rewarded, their place in society confirmed. Jani, for instance, the heroine of Merlin's Keep, though raised as a half-caste orphan in Tibet, turns out to be a deposed Indian princess, whose parents were murdered for their fabled jewels, and other Brent heroines prove heiresses as well.
While Wikipedia was no real use (Madeleine Brent as footnote), I did find a rather nice webpage titled "Who Was Madeline Brent?" which helps to explain why Peter O’Donnell started writing under a pseudonym. I am amused that O’Donnell was not initially enthusiastic about writing Gothic novels, because he did such a fine job with Moonraker’s Bride (his 2nd gothic) and I hear nothing but praise for his first Gothic, Tregaron’s Daughter.

I’m really looking forward to reading more Brent. I think my selection will be Stormswift in which “Jemimah Lawley, the wealthy heiress of an English estate, sees her parents slaughtered by Afghan soldiers; sold to Hindu traders, then to a mad Kafiristan ruler, she becomes slave to a captured Italian doctor.” What fun!


"Madeleine Brent." Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers, 3rd ed. St. James Press, 1994. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC

28 September 2007

Betsy-Tacy; Or, A New Fixation

A few weeks ago, my supervisor read about DC's Minx line in Library Journal and tried to pass the article along to me, but I explained I already knew all about it and had, indeed, read most of the line. Thereupon she told me how much she wanted to read Plain Janes and Re-Gifters and I said she could borrow my copy of Re-Gifters and she went *squee*.

Well, okay, not actually *squee*, but she was very keen. She loved it. She loved Clubbing and Plain Janes, too, and now we are the best of buds and get along like a house on fire. Or something.

Anyway, when we're alone together at the desk we talk about books we've especially loved or hated. Most recently we were talking about "girl series" and how there don't seem to be many new ones coming out. Oh, there are the Clique books and the Gossip Girls, the Babysitters Club and, yes, American Girls, but they seem lacking the richness of writing and overall quality we remember from series like Little House on the Prairie or the Anne books.

About this time, my supervisor started talking about the Betsy-Tacy series and lost me entirely. When she realized this, she seemed both appalled and gleeful. Appalled that I had never read such classics and gleeful, because now she had someone else to addict. I had, she told me, to read the Betsey-Tacy books. If we did not have them in our library, she would give me her copies. Either way, I must read them.

And I am. I admit that the first book, Betsy-Tacy, seemed a tad simplistic and left a variety of interesting possibilities undeveloped. But, then, it was a story about two very little girls (who probably wouldn't have grasped some of the more interesting/grownup things happening around them) written for other very little girls (who probably wouldn't have been interested). The series follows Betsy and Tacy (and Tib, I guess) all the way up to Betsy's wedding and the beginning of the Great War (WWI) so I can only hope the story will take on more depth over time. Regardless, I am enjoying the Betsy-Tacy books and, if I could find some nice hardcovers on eBay, I'd certainly buy them. The books are all pretty much still available from places like Amazon, but the cover art for the paperbacks is a bit too cute for me (but then I am extremely annoyed with the new Little House cover art and very choosy with my Anne covers, too, so I may just be Ms. Pickypants).

Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace w/ illus. by Lois Lenski (HarperCollins, 2007)

22 July 2007

Mansfield Park

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park has been my lunch read for the last two weeks. I've seen the (1999) film two or three times and enjoyed it immensely, but I've never managed to finish the novel. I like Fanny Price very much, but she is so passive she sometimes makes me want to grind my teeth and throw the book across the room. Probably her passivity annoys me, because I see how necessary it is and how little good fighting might do her. She has no wealth, no beauty, no talent or charm with which to acquire even the limited freedoms open to her cousins.

I know, of course, that she ends up with Edmund rather than the (reformed) rake, Mr. Henry Crawford, but I have difficulty reconciling myself to that "happiness."

Oh, Mr. Henry Crawford! How I wish you had loved Fanny a little bit more! Edmund is a good sort of fellow and will keep Fanny content, I am sure, but I would love to see her pushed to passion.

Who knows? I'm miles from the end yet and everything is still possible. Perhaps Edmund will push her to passionate speech? Speak passionate love, Fanny?!

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (Headline Review, 2006)

02 July 2007


Currently listening to Barbara Kingsolver read her essay collection Small Wonder and (somewhere around the middle of the first disc) she asks:
How much do we need to feel blessed, sated, and permanently safe? What is safety in this world, and on what broad stones is that house built?
After discarding a bunch of foolishness, my answer turned out as simple as this: the circle of my husband's arms.

01 May 2007


There are books I covet because of their looks. Books I lust for because of their feel. Books I feel I must possess for no real rational reason at all. The Headline Review Jane Austens are one. The Penguin Steinbeck Centennial Editions are such another. There is something about the raggedy deckle-edged pages, French flaps, and textured-look covers with the cunning pen and ink sketches that make my hands itch and my mouth water.

Part of the attraction, I'm sure, is that I really like Steinbeck. Or did when I read him a decade or more ago. Of Mice and Men was my first Steinbeck -- read for a middle school English class. It didn't quite rock my world, but there were so many powerful images in that little book ... images which still stick with me today. I think, perhaps, this is how some people reacted to Catcher in the Rye?

After Of Mice and Men my class moved on to other Great American Works (The Great Gatsby *blurgh*) and Steinbeck was never brought up again. Being a sad and nerdy student, I went off looking for more Steinbeck and found The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Boy, was that as far from Of Mice and Men as you could get, topically, yet I loved it. Carried it around for weeks. Read and re-read the same passages over and over again. Wanted more, but there was no more. Cast around and found Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur which led me to the Susan Cooper Dark is Rising series which (eventually) led me to Katharine Kerr's Deverry novels which led to flirting with this guy named Nevyn on some talker called Crazylands ...

Hrm. My marriage is all Steinbeck's fault.

24 March 2007

Second Act: Life After Colostomy and Other Adventures

I've been going through my library's catalog, trying to read as much of the ostomy stuff available because I've been feeling a little out-of-sorts about life with an ostomy lately and I don't really have anyone to talk to who won't try to bolster me with platitudes. Alas, the list of materials isn't very long and quite a chunk of it's outdated.

However, I just finished reading actress Barbara Barrie's Second Act and it's such an encouraging (and entertaining) book. It's a very intimate, honest, and funny look at her experience with colon cancer and colostomy surgery. Some of it's absolutely toe-curlingly terrifying -- the herniated stoma that looked like "a pink penis coming out of a donut," frankly, just make me want to vomit. But Barrie treats it all with a fine dose of humor and spirit which is extremely admirable and practical behavior I shall try to keep in mind the next time my stoma is shooting undigested peas at the bathroom mirror as I try to put on a new faceplate.

Second Act: Life After Colostomy and Other Adventures by Barbara Barrie (Scribner, 1997)