Friday, 23 December 2016

Happy Holidays

As I write this in the comfort of my living room with the fire burning and hubby playing the guitar, Storm Barbara has swept in. Luckily our region has a yellow zone warning and we're only expecting heavy rain and wind. For us the weather doesn't really matter, it's almost Christmas time and we're not heading anywhere - the next days consist of good food, reading and sleeping. I start Christmas Eve morning with good coffee before preparing the dessert, risalamande (rice and almond pudding) that I serve with home-made cherry sauce in the evening ... delicious! Around lunch time tomorrow we enjoy Swedish braided bread and hot chocolate while the smoked lamb (Icelandic tradition) is cooking. In my mind, the ideal julehygge.

I would like to wish you, my dear blog readers, Happy Holidays and my best wishes for 2017. Thank you for all the blog visits this year and your kind comments and likes on other social media sites.


Monday, 19 December 2016

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

Book review: Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · Lisa Hjalt

There is a reason Toni Morrison's Beloved wasn't the first part of a long novel and why you may have read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller instead of Catch-18. That reason is editor Robert Gottlieb, who recently published his memoir Avid Reader: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Memoirs often have too much of name-dropping but in his case we could call it title-dropping. Whether it's too much is debatable. He tells his story through his work, at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, and because of all the book titles his style may at first seem to lack depth. As the reading continues, it makes sense, and gives an insight into his world of publishing. Apart from Heller and Morrison, other feathers in his cap were e.g. Doris Lessing, John le Carré, John Cheever, Chaim Potok, Charles Portis, and in non-fiction, Jessica Mitford, Nora Ephron, Robert Caro, Lauren Bacall, and Bill Clinton. Even Miss Piggy. This is a man who loved his job; editing was his life. For the bibliophile, also interested in publishing, this is the book to read.
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · coffee · Lisa Hjalt

In 1955, after studying at Columbia and Cambridge, the extremely well-read Gottlieb, then twenty-four, started working at Simon & Schuster, where his role was somewhat undefined. He was doing everything: reading manuscripts, writing jacket copy, making editorial suggestions. Two years later his boss died and key executives left the company. Suddenly, Gottlieb, Nina Bourne, the legendary advertising director (she went with him to Knopf in 1968), and a few others were running the show. Gottlieb, now eighty-five, became a canon in the publishing world, mainly for being the right man, in the right place, at the right time, who happened to be good at editing. In the book he doesn't brag, even though he has every reason to.

For me, Gottlieb's thoughts on the editor-author relationship and the role of the editor are one of the book's strengths. Doris Lessing was one of the S & S authors he had a great relationship with and she followed him to Knopf. When Gottlieb became the editor of The New Yorker (in 1987; there was drama when he succeeded former editor William Shawn) Lessing continued to show him her work. He was 'dumbstruck' when she told him she was 'always hoping for' his 'approval'. Earlier he observes that her novel The Golden Notebook 'sold very few hardcover copies . . . [b]ut they were the right six thousand copies' (p. 136). It shows that for him the job wasn't about publishing a bestseller but to reach the right readers. Since then the book has of course done very well and Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. He reminds us of the moment she received the news in front of her London home 'grumpily expressing her irritation at having her life interrupted this way' (p. 139). If you haven't seen the clip please look it up online. She had no idea why the reporters were waiting outside when she came home from doing her grocery shopping, and her reaction to the news was: 'Oh Christ!'

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · book covers · Lisa Hjalt
Some of the book titles edited by Robert Gottlieb

Toni Morrison was another author of his who was awarded the Nobel, in 1993, and they had a good working relationship. Between the great successes there were of course less successful titles and bad editorial experiences (he disliked Roald Dahl (so did the Knopf staff) and thought V.S. Naipaul, also a Nobel Laureate, was a 'snob' but a 'superb writer'). Some authors jumped ship (e.g. Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo):
It's hard to convince a colleague (or oneself) that it's not personal—that a writer's chief concern is, and should be, protecting himself and his books as he thinks fit. If the editor and publisher don't provide that sense of security, they're not doing their job, which is first, last, and always a service job: What we're there for is to serve the writer and the book. That doesn't mean I haven't been stung when an author I valued moved on. (p. 176)
When it was time for Bill Clinton to write his memoir, Gottlieb was the chosen editor (he was back at Knopf after five years at The New Yorker). If you have read My Life I'm pretty sure Clinton's name-dropping is still fresh in your memory (my father-in-law returned my copy; he gave up), but it doesn't diminish the fact that it was a well written book. I think it sums up their editorial relationship when Gottlieb wrote in a margin: 'This is the single most boring page I've ever read.' Clinton sent it back having added: 'No, page 511 is even more boring!' (p. 253).

Gottlieb's book isn't flawless. The talk about him and his family holidaying with, or becoming close to, this author or that co-worker and their family members becomes repetitive, and reaches a point where one no longer cares. At least I didn't. There are exceptions, a few witty stories. When the late Katherine Graham was working on her autobiography Personal History he used to visit her in Washington to view her writing and stayed in her Georgetown house. '[O]ver the years we established an easygoing routine—breakfast, for instance, in slippers and dressing gowns at side-by-side tables in the library, with the Post waiting for her and the Times waiting for me' (p. 242). Her book became a bestseller and won the 1998 Pulitzer.

There is also a chapter about dancing that I have my doubts about. Gottlieb, a great fan of the ballet, became a dance critic for The New York Observer. Those following the NY dance scene will probably enjoy this chapter but the only reason I connected with it was that a few years ago I read the memoirs by former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on My Grave and The Shape of Love.
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · coffee · Lisa Hjalt

Gottlieb is an editor who, without planning to, became a writer himself. Some of his works are Collected Stories, a collection of Rudyard Kipling's stories (it made Susan Sontag exclaim in a bookshop: 'Bob, I didn't know you could write so well!' (p. 295)), Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (for the Jewish Lives series at Yale University Press), George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, and Reading Jazz.

During the reading I kept asking myself how the guy found the time and energy for everything he accomplished (supportive wife, actress Maria Tucci, is definitely one of the reasons). I got my answer in the final chapter:
Why, also, considering that my personality is so relentlessly ebullient, have I since childhood felt so melancholic, perhaps even depressive? I suspect that I've summoned up my hyper-energy to keep running fast enough to ward off that depressive tendency—the few times I brushed against the real thing were so distressing that it's no wonder I've done everything possible to avoid it. (p. 311)
He was brought up in a dysfunctional family - they read at the dinner table instead of talking - and he seems to remember his childhood in books. Early in the book he admits doing eight years of psychoanalysis. That's when I thought, Okay, he doesn't find the need to dig deep in this book. He's done. I'm not saying his book is shallow. He simply doesn't dwell on things and seems to have a healthy dose of detachment. It's also good to keep in mind that he had no intention of writing this book. He only did it for his daughter (thank you, Lizzie!) who wanted her twin sons to know about the life work of their grandfather.

It has been a few weeks since I finished reading Avid Reader: A Life and I still keep it in the stack I take with me from room to room. I'm still browsing through it and noting down titles that I would like to read. This is a book I really enjoyed reading. My advice to the bibliophile: keep a notebook next to you during the reading because your to-read list is about to get longer!

Avid Reader: A Life
By Robert Gottlieb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 337 pages, illustrated

Friday, 9 December 2016

Literary postcards | № 6 final 2016 reading list

Literary postcards by Obvious State | № 6 reading list · Lisa Hjalt

'Give me books, fruit, French wine, fine weather and a little music.' These lines by John Keats are on a postcard in front of me. It's an Obvious State design, a creative studio that makes paper goods and items for the literary minded. Searching for a Christmas present for the book lover? Your search will end in their online shop that offers notebooks, bookmarks, tote bags and more. They are even offering a holiday discount. I received four postcards in the mail, a surprise gift for adding their #osfall tag to one of my bookish photos on Instagram, the one related to my early autumn reading list. Speaking of reading lists, it's time for the last one of 2016.
Literary postcards by Obvious State | № 6 reading list · Lisa Hjalt

When you have like thousand books on your to-read and wish lists it's not easy to prioritise them, but I'm certain to find the first two on the list under the tree after dinner on Christmas Eve (that's when we open the presents; a Nordic tradition). I wanted to give a nod to some bookish blogger for recommending Carrión's book but I lost the link when my hard drive crashed some weeks ago. Carrión has written an extended essay about why bookshops matter and takes his reader on a journey around the world, visiting various bookshops such as Shakespeare & Company in Paris, Strand in NYC and Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier, just to name a few. James Wood is a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker and his book is a blend of memoir and criticism. Here is my last list of 2016:

· Bookshops  by Jorge Carrión
· The Nearest Thing to Life  by James Wood
· The Makioka Sisters  by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
· The Noise of Time  by Julian Barnes
· All We Shall Know  by Donal Ryan
· A Man in Love: My Struggle 2  by Karl Ove Knausgård
· Boyhood Island: My Struggle 3  by Karl Ove Knausgård
· The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between  by Hisham Matar

In my notebook I had started writing down ideas for a Japanese reading list to share later. Tanizaki's book has been on my list for so long and I just couldn't wait any longer when I realised I could order a copy at the library. I still haven't finished Zadie Smith's works from my last list but I'm already reading the books by Barnes and Ryan. The latter is an Irish author that I only discovered recently and I like his writing style. I cannot wait to continue reading Karl Ove Knausgård's autobiographical novels. When I finished his first My Struggle book I wanted to go straight to the library to borrow the next. All the good things that have been written and said about it turned out be true and I believe the next two will live up to my expectations. I'm looking forward to picking up The Return, a memoir by the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar. He was only nineteen when his father was kidnapped in Libya, then under the rule of Gaddafi, and probably died in prison in Tripoli. I read Matar's novel In the Country of Men many years ago. I no longer remember it in details but I remember being moved by it.
Books and pasta | № 6 reading list · Lisa Hjalt

I enjoy connecting with my blog readers and it's always wonderful to receive an email from a perfect stranger who has been following the blog (some prefer emails to comments and that's fine), and perhaps loved a book I shared. Since I started sharing my reading lists I have received a few emails with questions like: Did you like this book? Will you write a review about this one? In my replies I have said that the reading lists are mainly there for my love of books; to give my blog readers ideas for reading. I have no intention of writing a review about every single book on my lists. Clearly, some readers are curious about or interested in knowing my thoughts so perhaps from now on I will write just a few lines in the comment section of each list when I'm done. Let me think about it.

With a few exceptions, I have enjoyed the books on my 2016 lists. Perhaps I will put those thoughts into words in a separate a post. Let me think about that as well.

And one reader asked what's my favourite reading spot. I have a few but these days I have been reading a lot in the dining room while enjoying long lunch. I snapped a photo recently of a common scenario: On that day it was pasta, today it was hummus and pitta bread.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

My quiet coffee moment

book and coffee · Lisa Hjalt

Today I needed a quiet coffee moment with books and notebooks. As soon as I had taken the photo, my Persian prince came downstairs and fell asleep on the table, next to the stack of books. He's snoring. Does anyone else feel as if in these last days they have been bombarded with commercialism? I'm referring to the endless Black Friday and Cyber Monday emails filling up my inbox, often more than one from the same brand within 24 hours. Enough is enough! This morning I mercilessly clicked the 'unsubscribe' button and kept only book and textile-related newsletters.

Did you see the Little Women-inspired doodle on Google? Writer Louisa May Alcott was born on this day, also C.S. Lewis. I have been thinking about the film (1994) all morning. Winona Ryder was wonderful in the role of Jo March and I have always had a soft spot for Gabriel Byrne who played Professor Bhaer. It's been many years since I read the book. Perhaps if I get a copy of the Penguin clothbound classic I will read it again. Speaking of books. Soon I will share my review of editor Robert Gottlieb's Avid Reader: A Life. It was the last one on my 'Booktober' reading list and I finished it before all the others. A likely indicator of how much I enjoyed reading his memoir.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Advent preparation with our calico Persian

First, Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers; I hope you enjoy a wonderful day with your loved ones! There is no celebration on this side of the Atlantic but I must admit that this morning I regretted not having planned a festive dinner. It would have been wonderful to sit down this evening to a decorated table. Luckily, the holiday season is almost upon us and it isn't a long wait until Christmas Day when we sit down to enjoy our turkey feast. Earlier when I got home, I opened my cupboards to bring out some of the things needed for our first Advent Sunday brunch and brought it upstairs to sort it out. Enter our calico Persian.

She curiously watched me choose the things needed to decorate the table. I was going to iron the table linen when I thought, Why not snap a photo for the blog? When I had fastened that bird on the branch I set up the tripod, adjusted the frame and the settings, and took one test photo. Suddenly she appeared in the frame. I should have known, especially with her up-to-no-good nature. Well, I'm glad for her photobombing. She turned it into a fun shoot and the bird survived unharmed. Only turning upside down.

Advent preparation with our up-to-no-good calico Persian

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Pizza buns (yeast-free)

Are you embracing the colder season or are you one of those who want to turn into a bear and hibernate? Coming from Iceland, where the days turn much darker in winter, I know a few who suffer from the winter blues but luckily their condition isn't serious, nothing that cannot be tackled with vitamin D and a cosy home. Candlelight, hot chocolate and warm socks often do the trick. Hyacinths too! This is the time to spread hyacinth bulbs in vases all over the home. The weather here on the west coast of Scotland has turned colder but we haven't quite stepped across the threshold and into winter. My trick to deal with the cold is a warm sweater and comfort food, especially bean stews or freshly baked bread or buns. Warm kitchens with heavenly scents are the best in winter, which is why yesterday I greeted the children with home-made pizza buns after school. It's one of my Antwerp recipes and brings back good memories.

Pizza buns ready for the oven

Before we make the pizza buns I would like to comment on baking powder: No one in this house is allergic but in my recipes I always use the gluten-free baking powder from Doves Farm. They don't pay me for advertising it, it's simply what I like best. Just recently I tried another brand, also gluten-free, but that one gave the pizza buns an aftertaste I didn't like. The reason I never use regular baking powder is that annoying aftertaste it always seems to give (use at least 50% less in the recipe if using regular).

We were living in Antwerp when I put this recipe for soft pizza buns together and for some reason haven't shared it on the blog. Personally, I'm not a big fan of pizza buns (my son and I want the real thing: pizza) but my daughters love the home-made ones. The buns are a great after-school snack, especially on cold days, freshly baked from the oven. For the dough I use white spelt flour but you can of course adjust the recipe for wholegrain (organic plain flour is also fine). The amount of salt depends on how salty your pizza sauce is: Mine isn't, it only has ¼ teaspoon. If your pizza sauce is salty you may want to use less salt. You can also add a bit of unrefined sugar to the sauce, or to the dough. Sometimes I substitute 2-3 tablespoons of the spelt flour for semolina or polenta. For a vegan version simply use soy yoghurt and vegan cheese. [Note for American readers: 1 cup of white spelt flour is about 130 grams, which means you will need scant 3¼ cups, depending on the type you use. For the lukewarm water, start with ½ cup and 2 tablespoons (= 155 ml) and add 1-2 tablespoons if needed.]


makes 20
435 g white spelt flour
1½ tablespoons baking powder, gluten-free
1 teaspoon (or less) fine sea/Himalayan salt
75 ml natural yoghurt (5 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon light olive oil
150-175 ml lukewarm water
3½-4 tablespoons pizza sauce
100 g cheese, grated (1 cup)
optional: Parmesan cheese and dried oregano/Italian herb mix

Prepare the pizza sauce if you do not have any leftover sauce. Here is my pizza sauce recipe.

In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients (see my above note on baking powder). Make a well in the centre and add the yoghurt, oil and water (start with 150 ml). Combine with a wooden spoon. Knead the dough with your hands while it is still in the bowl to get a feel for its texture. The dough is not supposed to be too wet, but if it is simply sift some flour over it and knead some more.

Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and knead it lightly with your hands. Bring out your rolling pin and roll and stretch the dough to form a square that is about 37 cm (14.6 inches). I make a square instead of a rectangle because I like my buns thick.

Spread the pizza sauce evenly over the square and sprinkle the cheese on top. Add some Parmesan and dried herbs, if using. Tightly but gently roll up the square into a thick log. Use a sharp knife to cut it in half, then cut each into 10 slices. Line a baking tray with baking parchment (the tray I use is 35 x 25 cm/13.8 x 9.8 inches). Place the buns into the baking tray in five rows of four.

Bake the pizza buns at 220°C/425°F (200°C fan oven) for 13-15 minutes. Allow to cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before serving them warm.

Uppskrift á íslensku.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Creating the ideal 'julehygge'

Clementines and candlelight have taken over this household. I love it. I love this time of year when the Advent approaches and we think of ways to create the ideal julehygge, as the Danes would say (jul is their word for Christmas; for hygge see my post about The Little Book of Hygge). On my desk I keep a stack of December issues that I leaf through with my coffee, mainly to get decorating ideas for the Christmas table. For me, the Nordic magazines, for example Bo Bedre, represent the true spirit of Christmas and I wish I could buy them in shops here in the UK. When it comes to decorating we are minimalists and we like to keep it natural: candles, evergreens and pine cones. Our Christmas table is the only thing that changes from year to year, mainly the colour palette, which depends on the napkins and runners we pick. The photo above shows a decorated dining area in Milan that appeared in the latest Elle Decoration UK. At first my eyes were so fixed on the glass jars with the clementines that I didn't notice the tealights on each plate. What a wonderful idea!

By the first Advent Sunday, 27. November this year, our home will be festive looking because that's when we enjoy our first Advent brunch. I serve hot chocolate with whipped cream, Swedish braided bread with cardamom, and usually home-made confectionery. This year I'm going for my own nougat or marzipan. In my notebook I have scribbled down recipe ideas and I just have to test them the day before. If they go wrong my daughters will make cookies with cinnamon and cloves. Later, before sitting down for dinner, I serve the holiday season's first jólaglögg (Icelandic), or mulled wine, for my husband and me. This year I was thinking about making some adjustments to this Jamie Oliver recipe. [If you are looking for minimalist Christmas ideas you can check out my Christmas board on Pinterest.]

Do you have any Advent traditions?

image by me | credit: Elle Decoration UK, December 2016, p. 86 · Fabrizio Cicconi

Friday, 11 November 2016

farewell Master Cohen

Leonard Cohen has left the stage. I have been listening to his live performances with my morning coffee and reminiscing about my teenage years, when I bought 'I'm Your Man,' my first Cohen album. Wonderful memories. Today I'm actually enjoying Facebook because it's interesting to see which songs my friends are sharing - Suzanne was my choice when I heard the news this morning. This wonderful celebration of Cohen's life feels like a healing process after the US election results. On that topic I will say this: I refuse to let a man I have no respect for disturb my equilibrium.

Back to Cohen. It's time to buy a copy of Book of Longing, which has been too long on my wish list. If you're a fan don't let editor David Remnick's interview with him in The New Yorker escape you, 'Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker' ('How the Light Gets In,' October 17, 2016 issue). Yesterday they shared an audio file on their website with part of the interview, where Cohen prepares for his death.

Farewell Master Cohen and thank you for your poetry and music.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Reading with my Persian

Reading with my Persian · Lisa Hjalt

I have established a Friday routine that I now cherish. At a certain hour I put on comfy clothes and spruce up the home for the weekend until it's time for a coffee break. This is the point where our Persian cat usually appears, jumps on the coffee table, squeezes himself between the books and takes a good time to find the right spot. He watches me while I read and drink coffee and we 'talk'. He starts purring and I stroke him, then he gets up, moves around in circles until he finds the perfect spot again and falls asleep; sleeps for hours in the same spot. I snapped the photo around noon before he fell asleep and about five hours later he's still sleeping! The kids have come home from school and watched Netflix in the living room and it makes no difference, nothing disturbs his peace. So precious.

Today I was reading two books: The postman has finally delivered the memoir Avid Reader: A Life by editor Robert Gottlieb, which I put on my latest reading list. Last Friday, about an hour after I shared my list, the postman rang the bell with a package, a gift from travel writer Francisca Mattéoli, a copy of her Map Stories: The Art of Discovery - such a beautiful book with vintage maps and wonderful stories. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I will share my review later.

Have a good weekend!