We don’t have summer camp here but I guess we have all had school camps at one time or other. And yes, there are indeed different types of “camp people”. The part on journalists made me laugh… maybe cos I find I have what the writer termed “an outsider mentality”. Although I used to enjoy some camps, I now seem to belong to the group which has “a problem engaging in organized activities of all kinds”.

Article from Slate.

Which type are you?

“Summer camp is a rite of passage for many American children, whether they enjoy the experience or hate it. Four years ago, Timothy Noah dissected camp culture and found that adults will never escape the patterns they exhibited as camp-bound children, no matter how many years removed. The article is reprinted below.

If there’s a more reliable Rorschach than sleep-away camp, I’d like to see it. How you responded to being shipped off (often at an appallingly tender age) to a cluster of cedar cabins beside a mountain lake; to being taught Native American crafts, chants, and songs of dubious authenticity; and to being subjected to various painful hazing rituals—many of them involving underwear—reveals an awful lot about your fundamental character. If, as the Duke of Wellington claimed, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the psychotherapy bills of our own great nation were run up on the tetherball courts of Camp Weecheewachee (or whatever the hell your summer camp was called).

Let’s begin with the people who didn’t like camp. I was one such person. The first camp I got sent to was Camp Lenox, an establishment in the Berkshires that is still in business. During my summer there, in 1966, it was run by and for males who thrived on athletic competition. I did not. My older brother was an enthusiastic jock, and it was his love for the place that landed me there. I don’t remember seeing much of him after we got off the bus—he was seven years my senior—but he’d occasionally appear in the distance, wearing the black beret that marked him as my enemy in Color War. I was assigned to the orange team; our symbol was a baton. To this day I shake my head in disbelief that a responsible camp director would set brother against brother in the name of competitive sport. Perhaps you find my thinking on this point a little rigid. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not the sort of person who can alter his loyalties so easily, even within such a character-building realm. (I would have made a terrible Kennedy.)

Observing my perplexity with mild concern, my parents shipped me off to a different camp the following summer. This was Camp Arcady, in the Adirondacks. Now defunct, it was co-ed and less single-mindedly dedicated to sports than Camp Lenox had been. Arcady had other advantages over its predecessor, the most memorable being a waterfront counselor named Doreen who had once been a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club. Visions of Doreen (who in the decade since her TV stardom had filled out quite satisfactorily) haunted my prepubescent dreams. Even now, in my mind’s eye, I see Doreen emerging, like Botticelli’s Venus, from a clamshell perched on the shores of Lake George, a whistle nestled chastely in her cleavage. It was probably because of Doreen that I learned to water-ski. Water-skiing is the only camp sport I remember enjoying. Otherwise, I was pretty miserable. For the evidence, click here (center row, fifth from the left).

People (like myself) who didn’t enjoy camp tend to have a problem engaging in organized activities of all kinds. Later in life we often become criminals or sociopaths. The more respectable among us often become journalists. If we’re extremely bright or creative (or aspire to be), we may become writers or scholars or artists. The common thread is an outsider mentality. A self-flattering analysis, I know, but such is my privilege as author of this article.

Some people hated camp so much that they made their parents bring them home. These people should not be confused with the outlaws described above. There is nothing outré about not being able to endure summer camp. The come-and-get-me set grow up to be neurotic and needy. These are people who can often be heard on C-SPAN’s early-morning call-in program Washington Journal, filibustering from a time zone still blanketed in predawn darkness, until the host says, “Please state your question.”

Some people enjoy camp. These people grow up to be normal. My own two children, I’m pleased to report, belong to this category, assuming the blasé letters I’m receiving (“Pringles would taste pretty good right about now”) reflect sincere contentment.

Some people really, really enjoy camp. I wish I could tell you that these people grow up to be really, really normal, but they don’t. You know who I’m talking about. These are the ones who wept uncontrollably when the papiermâché numbers spelling out 1967 were set ablaze on a little raft that a camp counselor, under cover of darkness, towed stealthily to the middle of Lake Weecheewachee on the evening of the last group sing. These are the people for whom childhood represented the zenith of human existence and everything that followed an anticlimax. The women—they’re mostly women—usually end up in abusive relationships with pathologically angry men who eventually abandon them and pay child support erratically, if at all. If the person who really, really enjoyed camp is a man, then he is unlikely ever to develop an intimate relationship and on occasion may be spotted in the back of a police cruiser speeding away from a grade-school playground.

The final category is people who really, really, really enjoy camp. These are the camp cultists. You probably expect me to say that these campers grow up to be utterly incapable of functioning in a noncamp environment, and end up sleeping on the streets in cardboard boxes. In fact, the opposite is true. Camp cultists grow up to be chief executive officers of major corporations, name partners in Wall Street banking firms, Cabinet secretaries, governors, and presidents of prestigious foundations. Their universities invite them to serve on their boards. Their home towns name schools after them. They are the Establishment. Longtime Disney CEO Michael Eisner is a camp cultist, having published, in 2005, Camp, a memoir of his bygone days at Vermont’s Keewaydin Canoe Camp, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest continually operating summer camp (it was founded in 1893), and whose Web site invites alumni to donate securities to something called the Keewaydin Foundation. I haven’t read Eisner’s book, but according to Amazon.com, its “statistically improbable phrases” include “winds ceremony” and “Indian circle.”

For camp cultists, summer camp is an experience that lasts a lifetime. When they’re too old to be campers, they come back as counselors. When they’re too old to be counselors, they send their children in their stead. When their children eventually succeed (on the third or fourth try) in getting themselves thrown out of Camp Weecheewachee, for infractions too ghastly to contemplate, camp cultists send money. Lots and lots of money. If it weren’t for camp cultists, half the summer camps in the United States would be forced to close their doors, depriving today’s campers of this essential early exercise in psychological sorting.

Or perhaps not. Montana Miller, a folklorist who teaches a class called “Summer Camp Ethnography” at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, insists that even children who don’t attend summer camp subject themselves to the same psychological sorting process by imagining that they did. In an e-mail to me, she elaborated:

There have been so many movies and books and TV shows—not to mention the stories told by friends who return from camp—that kids internalize whether or not they went to camp themselves. … I had [my students] do an in-class writing assignment in which they recounted an anecdote from camp—presenting it as a personal-experience narrative, but not necessarily real. It could be fictional or something that happened to someone they knew. They read their anecdotes out loud to the class and we tried to guess whether these were real experiences they had had themselves, or constructions from their imaginations and their pop culture educations. You know what? In almost every case, it was impossible to tell.

The summer-camp ink blot, then, is universal. You are how you camped, even if you never camped at all.”

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Trying to finish reading all my library books before I fly…
So grateful for NLB’s free renewal service!

Eating for England, by Nigel Slater

First, a picture from a delightful book about food, perfect for Anglophiles.
I happily munched on the writer’s musings on familiar foods like Marmite, the Polo Mint, Quality Street and bread and butter pudding… and new findings like Jaffa Cake and Eating Soldiers, all served with a crisp dose of dry British wit. I like!

Was amazed by how some foods I see as local apparently are British in origin? Like iced gems (麺包花) and lemon puff biscuits (think Khong Guan!). British foodstuffs like Marmite and Polo mints are also part of my childhood memory…

Some parts I enjoyed:
“The French cook with their senses, the Italians with their hearts,
the Spanish with their energy, and the Germans with their appetite.
The British, bless them, cook with their wallets.”

“I have always found a bar of Toblerone almost as difficult to conquer as the mountain peaks its design so clearly represents…
Whatever way you try to tackle it, a Toblerone is an obstacle course.
It can take a few attempts to break a triangle from the nougat-speckled bar without actually hurting your knuckles, and then, when you finally do, you have a piece of pointy chocolate slightly too big for your mouth.”

“While the rest of Europe breathes hot summer colours of ripe, red peppers, garlic and thyme, deep purple aubergines and grilled lamb over each other, we paint an altogether more delicate picture.
One of gentle flavours and pale hues,
of poached salmon and watercress,
cucumber and mint,
strawberries and cherries,
gooseberries and broad beans.
Our summer cooking has none of the rough edges of that of the rest of Europe or Australia,
whose flavours are loud and proud and edged with enough salt to make your lips smart.”

—–

Two other food books I read: Wrestling with Gravy by former New York Times food columnist Jonathan Reynolds and Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef.  The former is a memoir of “food-worthy anecdotes… seasoned with the zest of cooking, family, eating, and lounging around various tables in tryptophanic stupors.” The latter tells of how Ruhlman enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America with the intention to write the book, offering a good look at what it means to be in cooking school. It was a little weird going in reverse, since I’d read his second book earlier, but still interesting nonetheless.

Wandering further away from the cookery shelves…

Mall Maker by M. Jeffrey Hardwick,, is a biography of architect Victor Gruen, the father of the modern shopping mall. “Throughout Hardwick illuminates the dramatic shifts in American culture during the mid-twentieth century, notably the rise of suburbia and automobiles, the death of downtown, and the effect these changes had on American life. Gruen championed the redesign of suburbs and cities through giant shopping malls, earnestly believing that he was promoting an American ideal, the ability to build a community. Yet, as malls began covering the landscape and downtowns became more depressed, Gruen became painfully aware that his dream of overcoming social problems through architecture and commerce was slipping away. By the tumultuous year of 1968, it had disappeared.”

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion by Holly Brubach. “This collection of 28 fashion essays previously published in “The New York Times Magazine”, “The New Yorker” and “The Atlantic” examines clothing and fashion as part of a larger cultural debate and as a barometer of social and aesthetic change. In essays published during the 1980s and 1990s, the author reflects on a broad range of fashion subjects, from famous designers to designer eyeglasses, from the elegance of a Chanel suit to the decline of elegance itself in the 1990s, from Gianni Versace’s legitimisation of vulgarity to the advent of athletic clothing as a fashion uniform.” Some articles were a little more lengthy than I preferred…

Another book for Anglophiles:  Queuing for Beginners by Joe Moran. “Joe Moran takes a simple but wonderfully imaginative idea, following an ordinary working day from breakfast to bedtime, and uncovers the twentieth-century history of the mundane rituals through which we structure our lives. Nothing escapes his gaze, from cereal packets to chain pubs, and the result is a deft, clever and endlessly fascinating example of social history at its best.” Truly, simple things show so much.

For dessert! I Love my Cloth, a children’s book by Amber Stewart and illustrated by Layn Marlow. A sweet and thoughtful story about Bean, a little rabbit, and her favourite piece of cloth.
(Took some pictures of the book but I can’t find them!)

From Ashin’s blog.

“「社會的遊戲規則,是由壞人來訂,由好人來玩。」

這句話,就寫在1989年超人巴力入的初版前言中,
20年間,我成長、我感受、我體驗,發現那是2010年的今天的一則精準預言。

但,我不接受。
我不接受這個預言,將永遠是這個世界的真理。

改變的方法很簡單:
努力當好人、努力變強、努力掌握重訂遊戲規則的機會,
然後努力確保自己依然是好人。”

I’ve been reading… but haven’t been motivated enough to write about it. (w)

Peter Hunt’s Illustrated Children’s Books took me ages to read, because I couldn’t stop snapping pictures of the lovely pictures. I love illustrations and children’s books! Even after outgrowing my primary school uniform, I continue to browse the children’s section in bookstores and libraries.

On a whim, I picked up Joseph’s Parisi’s 100 Essential Modern Poems. I miss Mr Whitby’s Poetry lessons so much! He was truly one of the most inspiring Literature teachers I’ve ever had. This was a good guide to various poets and their works, but a poem is so much more enjoyable when you do a proper critique.

Sadly, I didn’t enjoy Michael Perry’s Coop as much as I’d expected to. A memoir of his life in the country, it outlines “a year of poultry, pigs and parenting”… interesting, but would have been nice with a lighter touch.

As always, I make sure to pick up a few yummy books from the food shelves. This time, I read Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef, Charles A. Baker-Clark’s Profiles from the Kitchen, and my favourite: I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci.

The Soul of a Chef is Ruhlman’s second book. Divided into three parts, it first deals with the Certified Master Chef exam, “a brutal weeklong cooking marathon that measures the skill levels of professional chefs. The second and third parts of Ruhlman’s book are devoted to the careers of two different chefs, Michael Symon of Cleveland’s Lola Bistro and Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s legendary French Laundry.” Ahh.. I would love to eat at French Laundry!

Profiles from the Kitchen profiles “15 individuals who have shaped our experiences with food and who have gone beyond popular trends to promote cooking as a craft worth learning and sustaining.” People like Paul and Julia Child, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher , John T. Edge and Dennis Getto. Comprehensive read on their background, but it lacks the little details and anecdotes which I like. Individual memoirs will be a more satisfying read.

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti is quirky, cute and wickedly funny. I like it when people, especially authors, don’t take themselves too seriously. “One by one, Giulia Melucci found boyfriends, fed them well, and established relationships. Thus, she recapitulates the hoary truth about the path to a man’s heart lying through his stomach.” The recipes are laced with lots of humour too. Plus they are weaved in so tightly with her flawless narration (you feel like you are listening to a friend). The recipes all sound workable too.

I couldn’t stop smiling as I read her “Bucatini Amatriciana with MP3 File-Sharing Technology”. She describes how she had to cook while trying to search for an album to play for her finicky then-boyfriend.

“LimeWire wouldn’t open, having died from neglect. I put up a pot of water to boil for pasta, then began to follow the steps to resuscitate it. This took longer than I remembered it taking for Kit, and soon enough the water was boiling. Amatriciana is a simple sauce that can be made while the sauce is cooking, but it gets a heck of a lot more complicated if you try to make it while downloading mp3 file-sharing technology onto your laptop.”

Her recipe:

“Bucatini Amatriciana with MP3 File-Sharing Technology

1 iBook G4
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 slices pancetta
1 small onion
1 Visa card
1 (16-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
Salt
1/2 pound bucatini
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino

Fill a large pot with water and place over high heat.
Attempt to open LimeWire from the icon on your desktop. Fail.
The Scotsman in the apartment, who is useless with computers but, as we know, is capable of helping with pasta, will retreat to the bathroom for a shower.
Go to the LimeWire website and follow the steps to download the software onto iBook G4. This will take much longer than you think. Water is now boiling, and you haven’t done a thing for the sauce. Leave installation running, go to kitchen, and start sauce.
Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat; chop pancetta, add it to oil and let it get a little crispy. Meanwhile, chop the onion and add it to the pancetta.
Return to desk to check on installation. Discover that installation of free software is not happening; you will have to upgrade to LimeWire Pro. Retrieve Visa card and type account number in appropriate box; learn what “security code” is.

……

By now, you have forgotten the boiling pasta. Run to the kitchen to taste it; it will be overcooked. You will be ashamed for having failed at everything. Drain immediately, add to sauce. Remove from heat, sprinkle with pecorino.

Serves 2, unsatisfyingly.”

Try it? 😛

1) The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, by Kathleen Flinn

I can’t remember how many books I’ve read about studying at Le Cordon Bleu, but so far all of them have been pretty engaging. This one too.

“In 2003, Kathleen Flinn, a 36 year-old American living in London, returned from holiday to find that her corporate job had been terminated. Flinn cleared out her savings and moved to Paris to pursue a dream–a diploma from the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.”

This is “the touching and remarkably funny account of Flinn’s transformation as she moves through the school’s intense programme and falls deeply in love along the way. More than two dozen recipes are interwoven within this unique look inside Le Cordon Bleu, amid battles with demanding chefs, competitive classmates and her wretchedly inadequate French.”

One of my favourite paragraphs from the book:

“As in cooking, living requires that you taste, taste, taste as you go along–you can’t wait until the dish of life is done……In reality, there is no station, no place to arrive at once and for all. The joy of life is the trip, and the station is a dream that constantly outdistances us.

How many tears did I cry because I didn’t know what I wanted? ‘The sharper your knife,’ as Chef Savard had said, ‘the less you cry.’ For me, it also means to cut those things that get in the way of your passion and of living your life the way it’s meant to be lived.”

2) The Importance of Being Trivial–In Search of the Perfect Fact, by Mark Mason

I LOVE THIS BOOK. I love trivia (which, of course, is not at all trivial)!

As the author put it, “It seems the world is divided into two camps: the camp which loves the fact that a jiffy is the name given in computing to a hundredth of a second, and the camp which doesn’t.” Obviously, I belong to the first!

I practically devoured the analysis of trivia, and the numerous nuggets of information sprinkled generously along the way. (An HB pencil will draw a line 35 miles long! Countries at the United Nations are seated alphabetically. Dolphins have more teeth than any other mammals? Sting wrote ‘Every Breath You Take’ at the same desk where Ian Fleming sat to write the Bond novels! Heinz ketchup flows at 0.7 miles a day. Carlsberg Special Brew was invented for Winston Churchill, as a thank you from Denmark for Britain’s help in the war! I could go on and on and on.. but you see what I mean. 😛 )

Too excited to think, let me just copy what’s on the back of the book:

“Convinced that our love of trivia must reveal something truly important about us, Mark Mason sets out to discover what that something is. In the process, he asks the fundamental questions that keeps all trivialists awake at night. Why is it so difficult to forget that Keith Richards was a choirboy at the Queen’s Coronation when it’s so hard to remember what we did last Thursday? Are men more obsessed with trivia than women? Can it be proved that flies hum in the key of F? Can anything ever really be proved? And the biggest question of all: is there a perfect fact, and if so what is it?”

I happily followed the author on his quest for “the perfect fact”, relishing every single bit of trivia along the way. I LOVE THIS BOOK. XD (Yamamoto san, I think you will like it too!) Fact can truly be stranger than fiction (pardon the cliche).

Now let me go read it again!

3) The Widow’ Season, by Laura Brodie

Still excited by the thought of reading the trivia book all over again, I’ll settle for copying the introduction from Publishers’ Weekly:

“When Sarah McConnell’s husband of 17 years dies in a kayaking incident, she is left widowed and childless at the age of 39. But David’s body is never recovered, and after three months of seeing glimpses of her husband at the grocery store and her home, Sarah wonders whether she really is a widow. On Halloween night, David shows up at her front door and offers a plausible explanation for his absence, and Sarah is, understandably, relieved yet also distraught—since she’s the only person who has seen him, is he real? Or is she going crazy? Brodie expertly walks the line between reality and fantasy, life and death, heartache and love, leaving readers hoping for the best and prepared for the worst—without ever really knowing the truth—until the final five pages.”

A faintly disturbing story… interesting read, but not something I’ll like to read a second time.

4)  Made from Scratch–Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, by Jenna Woginrich

From Amazon.com:

“Starting off as a young, single woman with a desk job and a city apartment, Jenna Woginrich set out to build a more self-sufficient lifestyle by learning homesteading skills. She didn’t own land or have much practical experience beyond a few forays into knitting and soap making, but she did have a strong desire to opt out of what she saw as a consumer-driven culture. After moving across the country to a rented farmhouse in northern Idaho, she learned to raise chickens, keep bees, and grow her own food.”

“It’s almost two books in one: each chapter (for example, the one in which she tells us about her early misadventures in chicken raising) is accompanied by a brief guide to its subject (in this case, she talks about the importance of selecting a breed, choosing the right food, and providing a proper, poultry-friendly environment). The book, therefore, is simultaneously a lighthearted fish-out-of-water, city-girl-turns-homesteader memoir and a more serious primer on making a lifestyle change. Perfect for environmentally conscious, do-it-yourself readers. –David Pitt”

I’m not likely to be a homesteader anytime soon, but I really enjoyed this book, especially the chapters on growing vegetables, rearing chickens (and rabbits! no, not for meat, Tanaka-san!) and keeping bees. Apparently, vegetables, bees and chickens form a simple farm ecosystem that works wonderfully. Honeybees (pollinators) and hens (pest-removers) help the garden to thrive and chicken waste can be used for the garden. Along the way, you get honey and eggs and fruits and veges. 😀

Read more about the author’s homesteading life at her blog.

5) Little Pink Slips, by Sally Koslow

I’m strangely drawn to chick lit featuring media people. (Why do so many chick lit stories feature media people?) This one is about Magnolia, an editor whose beloved magazine turns into “the playtoy of an overblown celebrity talkshow host… a loudmouthed, opinionated woman (sound familiar?) with no magazine experience, and now Magnolia must kowtow to her so she can keep her job. On the heels of The Devil Wears Prada (2003), Koslow presents another dishy and delightful insider’s view of the elite in magazine publishing.”

Pleasant read… Great for plane rides.

1) Never Order Chicken on a Monday, by Matthew Evans

“Beginning with his childhood in Canberra and his growing love of food (not to mention his penchant for cooking imitation vomit to guarantee a sickie from school), Matthew charts his early ventures as a chef, his bold move to the review pages, and his editorship of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide=and finishes by explaining why he now loves to cook at home.”

Readable but not very appealing.. This rates somewhere in the middle of all the chef biographies I’ve read. Somehow it lacks the sparkle and wit of Ruth Reichl or Dalia Jurgensen.

2) 1Q84 Book 2, 村上春樹

I chanced upon this in the library and read it without realizing that there actually is a Book 1. (Somehow I thought Book 2 was part of the title? -_- ) I couldn’t really grasp the significance of the plot initially.. but it got better and I’m now looking forward to Book 3. I should probably read Book 1 first, though.

More about the book here.

My favourite line from the story: “不說明就不明白的事情,是說明了也不會明白的事情。。”

3) The Last Bachelor, by Jay McInerney

“An astonishingly funny and poignant collection of short stories from Jay McInerney-the master of modern American prose-which, in true McInerney style, examines post 9/11 America in all its dark and morally complex glory…

… From the streets of downtown New York during the 2003 anti-war march and the lavish hotel rooms of the wealthy social elite, to a husband and wife who share their marital bed with a pot-bellied pig, the characters in these stories-steeped in betrayal and infidelity-search for meaning while struggling against each other, colliding as the old world around them fractures and dissolves into a modern era full of new uncertainties, where ghosts of loss hang in the air.”

Great commute read. Every story is clever and concise, imaginative yet thoroughly believable. (Or like in the case of Pixar, unrealistic yet believable). I could read this two or three times without getting bored.

1) The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

I love this! A delicious story, sprinkled with surprises, that makes you fall in love with reading, all over again.

“It is the summer of 1950–and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizzarely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.

For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. ‘I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.'”

Even though the story tells of murder, deception and the remarkable use of poison, it’s nowhere as dark as it sounds. Rather, you can’t help but fall in love with the central character Flavia, who is remarkably clever, cheeky, fearless and endearingly precocious. The parts detailing her interest in chemistry were especially enjoyable. I remember being fascinated by chemistry in school, and developing a fanatical obsession with performing titration.

“‘And how may I help you, dearie?’
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as ‘dearie’. When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to ‘Cyanide’, I am going to put under ‘Uses’ the phrase ‘Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one ‘Dearie’.’
Still, one of my Rules of Life is this: When you want something, bite your tongue.”

Other parts I like:

“The congregation at St. Tancred’s had soon become accustomed to our ducking and bobbing, and we basked in Christian charity–except for the time that Daffy told the organist, Mr. Denning, that Harriet had instilled in all of us her firm belief that the story of the Flood in Genesis was derived from the racial harmony of the cat family, with particular reference to the drowning of kittens. That had caused a bit of a stir, but Father had put things right by making a handsome donation to the Roof Repair Fund, a sum he deducted from Daffy’s allowance.”

“It’s a fact of life that  a girl can tell in a flash if another girl likes her. Feely says that there is a broken telephone connection between men and women, and we can never know which of us rang off. With a boy you never know whether he’s smitten or gagging, but with a girl, you can tell in the first three seconds. Between girls there is a silent and unending flow of invisible signals, like the high-frequency wireless messages between the shore and the ships at sea, and this secret flow of dots and dashes was signaling that Mary detested me.”

Flavia’s wit and wicked sense of humour are irresistible. She uses phrases like “perishing with nosiness” and “you look like a petulant pear” and says things like “..in that instant I decided that I liked Mary, even if she didn’t like me. Anyone who knew the word slattern was worth cultivating as a friend.”

All hail Flavia!

2) What Happened to the Corbetts, by Nevil Shute

In contrast to the first novel, this is a sobering tale of war, written in 1938 and published a year later, five months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

“Nevil Shute wrote this prophetic novel just before the start of the Second World War. In it he describes the devastation that results from an aerial bomb attack on Southampton that destroys the city’s infrastructure and leaves the inhabitants at the mercy of cholera and further assaults. The story follows the trials and tribulations of the Corbett family as they try to get to safety.”

The preface says:

“At the time when it was written it was thought probable that war with Germany would come before long, and there was much activity in England over Air Raid Precautions. Most of these activities at that time were directed to countering bomb attacks by gas bombs, and there was little realisation by the public of the devastation that would be caused by high explosive or by fire…I wrote this story to tell people what they coming bombing attacks would really be like, and what they really had to guard against… The publishers, William Heinemann Limited, did a good job for the country, for they distributed a thousand copies free of charge to workers in Air Raid Precautions, not as remainders, but on publication day.”

3) Born Round, by Frank Bruni

The memoir that seriously got me thinking about eating less and exercising more. Frank Bruni became the restaurant critic for the New York Times in 2004. NYT’s book review here.

“In tracing the highly unusual path Bruni traveled to become a restaurant critic, Born Round tells the captivating story of an unpredictable journalistic odyssey and provides an unflinching account of one person’s tumultuous, often painful lifelong struggle with his weight. How does a committed eater embrace food without being undone by it?”

I read in fascinated horror how Bruni’s weight fluctuated dramatically (at his heaviest he was a size 42), comparing his “fat” and “thin” photos in disbelief. It’s scary to think how you can simply balloon if you just let go.