Monday, March 04, 2013


hate month?

I have heard both February and March referred to as Hate Month here in Maine.  Apt, for this is town meeting time for many (though not for us, we have town meeting in June when the summer people are mostly back in residence).  Tempers are wearing thin and so are winter sweaters and I'm so tired of keeping the thermostat low and filling the woodbox every few days and brewing endless cups of tea and worrying about the heating oil bills and the fate of my often fruitless endeavors and yet the snow is still flying.  Books, take me away.  Please oh please.

What I am trying to say is that I was ripe for the picking when I saw this, list price $40 - so much more than I usually am willing to pay for a book new or otherwise, but the cover and the John Thorne blurb on the back tipped me over the edge - at a local bookstore, Left Bank Books:

Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch by British food writer Nigel Slater (Ten Speed Press 2009), whose book The Kitchen Diaries I read several years ago and loved.  This photo doesn't do the cover justice, though, because in real life the green of the beans is incandescent, and against the rich and earthy brown cloth of the spine, makes me yearn even more for the return of gardening weather.  I'm halfway through his over six hundred pages of loving description of vegetable matter of all kinds, and despite some bits of repetition and a continuity problem which a good line edit would have immediately tidied up (See? See how fussy I am feeling? That I would ever say such a thing?), I am loving this book.  All-season gardening in his urban backyard patch, alongside what do do with the contents of either your grocery shopping bag or CSA box.  Vegetables lovingly described, in alphabetical order, with garden notes, cooking ideas, recipes plain and complex, and beautiful photographs.  It's doing the job, even as I look out over the dead-white winter wonderland that is our own garden at the moment.  I hear tell of robins and snowdrops in southern Maine, right this very minute, but the only signs of spring around here are some sap buckets on the old sugar maples that line our street.  At the moment it's snowing.  Hard.

Nigel Slater offers tangible relief, and in his descriptions of leaden-skied winter days and a chilly house, we even feel he understands.  About sprouting broccoli, he says "...spotting the first homegrown sprouting at the end of a long winter feels as if someone is throwing you a life raft."  (p.59)  Amen.  I am craving leafy greenery and tropical fruits and citrus and bright fresh anything.  No more root vegetables, please.  No more hot soup.

From his close-up attention to the particular, to the far-flung.  The book I finished just before Tender is by another author with the initials N.S. - just thought that was a strange fact worth mentioning, though I don't know why - and this book really took me away.  Far away.  All the way to the other side of the world.  In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare (Overlook Press 2006).  The last book I read by Shakespeare was his massive biography of Bruce Chatwin (Anchor 2001), and I discover from In Tasmania that after he finished writing the Chatwin book, which took him seven years, he was burned out and had to get away.  He says, "One of the attractions of Tasmania was that Chatwin, who specialised in the remote, had never been there.  The island would be terra incognita, unevoked by his writing or my research into his life.  Tasmania's freshness - its wind and its light - might empty me of the biographer's condition: that dull abstraction brought on by many months in the shade of old documents."  (pp.337-338)

Of course he says that, but then spends much of this book chasing down and investigating old documents.  Hence, no escape from our true natures, as much as we yearn for one.  I knew nothing about Tasmania before reading this book, and now know enough to want to go there and see it for myself.  Part genealogy, part history, part true-crime, part investigatory travelogue, this book meanders over subjects, incidents, and people from coast to coast.  At times I couldn't help but wonder if he was trying to out-Chatwin Chatwin, especially with that title, close as it is to Chatwin's masterpiece In Patagonia, but this book has none of Chatwin's terse description. Instead it errs on the side of too much - so many characters and two centuries' worth of history.  I enjoyed it, though I wanted more autobiography about the author's move to Tasmania, and more of the story about his own writing life there.  Lord knows the book fulfilled its purpose, the one I'd hoped for when I picked it up and decided to read it, which was, to borrow another Chatwin title, to distract and enlighten me when I look outside and ask myself, What Am I Doing Here (Penguin 1990).   

You may already know this, but there is an entertaining "biopic" on Netflix called "Toast" based on Nigel Slater's childhood and initial exposure to cooking. It is a fun movie to watch while the snow falls.
You know you are a Mainer when the late winter snow makes you pine for mud season.
I knew "Toast" was a book (don't have a copy yet), but didn't know about the film, thank you!

In our backyard right now there is actually mud *under* the snow. SO disheartening, let me tell you.
I can't even count the number of writers and topics you've touched on in this post (and I might add, that almost all of the little group of us blogging from this part of the world have joined you in mentioning the March Drear), but your evocation of Chatwin's title wins the award.

didn't finish the first sentence---I meant the number of favorite writers and topics

Proofread, Bradford, Proofread!!
Thanks dear Brad, so happy to report that we have crocuses and bulbs here, already one inch out of the ground today... what a cold wind, though. And oh the mud. March is certainly not the most attractive month, is it? Hope your book-in-progress is proofing like warm bread dough.
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