On My Bookshelf: A Little Tea Book

At first glance, A Little Tea Book appears to be a typical decorative book. It’s the kind of brief, heavily-visual book with just enough text that my in-laws might put it in a guest bathroom for a little light reading on the toilet. But such books are generally pretty to look at without a whole lot of substance. Granted, coming from a pre-eminent tea authority, author, and illustrator, it’s likely to be enjoyable, at the very least. But A Little Tea Book went beyond these superficial expectations and surprised even me.

A quick note about the title: I keep thinking the title is The Little Book of Tea, which reminds me the episode of Black Books where Bill swallows The Little Book of Calm. And similarly, I have utterly devoured this book. Though I haven’t gained preternatural skills in meditation or tea from my consumption, I found the entire book thoroughly enjoyable.

The book combines information about the botanics, history, processing, and enjoyment of tea written by a foremost authority with beautiful photographs and illustrations to perfectly offset the text. It begins with the botany of the tea plant, and how processing turns a single species of plant into a diverse array of types of tea, before going into the differences between varieties and cultivars. I found this particularly fascinating because, while I know that only Camellia sinensis can truly be considered tea, and I have a passing familiarity with the two major varieties, I’d never gone into much detail about the cultivation of tea. I also appreciated the personal anecdotes about rarer types of tea.

From there, the book discusses the cultural context of tea, describing the naming of tea and how history has affected global distribution and tastes in tea. I was intrigued by the historical background, particularly how politics and economics drove different tastes around the world.

And finally, the book goes into the enjoyment of tea. I appreciate Sebastian’s informal, forgiving tone on the subjects of flavoring and adding to tea, neither demonizing either practice, while not encouraging it. He suggests tasting teas as they are, but ultimately admits that the best way to drink tea is the one that you enjoy. After all, tea rules, as he says, are less rules, and more “rules of thumb” (or as I like to say: tea rules are like the pirate code; they’re really more like guidelines).

And through the whole book, the visuals are fantastic. Gorgeous photographs of tea growing, processing, and brewing are interspersed with Wendy MacNaughton’s watercolor illustrations, which are both beautiful and informative. My favorite illustration would have to be the “flavor tree” of teas. But of course, I would expect nothing less from the illustrator of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

All in all, I would consider A Little Tea Book a delightful gift for both the veteran tea-lover as well as an enthusiastic novice. It is both beautifully designed and illustrated and contains a non-threatening, yet informative, introduction to the culture and enjoyment of tea.

NB: I purchased this book with my own money and have not been given any incentive to review it. All thoughts are my own.

On My Bookshelf: The Woman on the Orient Express

I posted a cryptic Instagram post about this book a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d share a full review. The Woman on the Orient Express, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford, was a book I purchased on a whim for my Kindle. I liked the premise of an historical fiction book about Agatha Christie, whose work I enjoy and whose life I wish I knew more about. Of course, the book is entirely fictionalized, if based on real people, but it is an interesting look at characters based at least in part in history.

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The story itself is not serious literature or high art. It has intrigue, action, and plot twists, but nothing ground-breaking. Of course, because it was about Christie, I assumed the story would be a mystery, which it isn’t really. But for some reason, most of the book felt like the setup of an Agatha Christie mystery. In each chapter, something is mentioned or set up that, in one of Christie’s works, would be a clue for a diminutive Belgian detective. Likewise, this book is full of Chekhov’s guns, sprinkled liberally throughout the story.

The plot begins with Agatha Christie planning a trip to the Middle East in an attempt to escape the publicity surrounding her mysterious temporary disappearance and her divorce. She is not only hurting from being left for another woman, but she is trying to balance recovery from a breakdown that has put her in the public eye. Ashford’s picture of Christie as a character is actually quite relatable, although she is sometimes a bit thick. However, whether the Christie of the book is just too stupid to see what’s in front of her or purposely turning a blind eye because she subconsciously wishes it weren’t so isn’t so apparent.

The other main characters are Nancy, based in part on Christie’s husband’s mistress, and the archaeologist Katherine Keeling, who was based on Katharine Woolley, a noted archaeologist of the time. I like how Ashford weaves the other two women into the story, although sometimes the particular plot choices are a bit soap-opera in their dramatism. That said, the characters themselves are well-enough written that they can handle their respective overly-dramatic subplots. If anything, the male characters tend to be one-dimensional, which is perhaps a welcome change in literature, in some light.

The plot does meander a bit, but it does eventually get to the point, with a rather unsatisfying climax, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole. There is a bit of romance, but the central focus seems to be the relationship among the three women. And it certainly doesn’t ever get boring.

That said, the thing that really grabbed me about this book was the afterwards, in which the author explains what inspired her to write this story. You see, the story is, in some way, an imagining of how Christie met her second husband. And the author calls Christie “the patron saint of second marriages,” which spoke to me on a personal level as I prepare myself to get married for the second time.

In the time in which Christie lived, it was considered a deep failing of a woman to end up divorced, and indeed it was sometimes catastrophic to end up without a husband and without the social dignity of widowhood. But the book goes further than this, bringing up the timeless issues of personal self-doubt, children’s lack of understanding, and the feelings of helplessness that accompany a divorce. Because Christie was fortunate enough to have an independent income in her writing, Ashford can treat her as a somewhat more modern-style divorcee, which helps the story reach a modern audience.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book for what I intended it: a piece of light reading in between other works. But I found a surprising depth of insight in the words of the author about Christie and her divorce and remarriage.

Time Spent in the Kitchen

One of my favorite things to do is to cook and bake. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen when I have it, and I love to play around with recipes and food. A lot of time, I don’t even use a recipe, but come up with my own versions of classic dishes. My mother really taught me to cook, and I have fond memories following her about in the kitchen, learning how to make a Bechamel sauce or gravy, and learning about seasonings. Most of our family traditions still revolve around food.

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But the best thing my mother taught me was when to go to a cookbook. My favorite cookbook is The Settlement Cookbook. Our family copy when I was growing up was a constant reference, with its aged mustard yellow cover and spotted pages. Some of the pages were more well-worn than others, such as the baked pancake I used to make often. When I moved out and was on my own, it was my one wish, and my mother came through, finding another old copy of it, which I still have. I’ve memorized most of my go-to recipes, but the referene is still there.

I’ve also had some luck finding old, public-domain cookbooks online. One in particular that is adorable is 1001 Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina’s Best Recipes. It’s a sweet book that follows a fictional newly-married couple. The wife is ingenious when it comes to the kitchen and seems to be able to put together a four-course meal from an old boot and a tin of sardines. The book is written in little stories that follow the seasons and highlight a menu. They have casual dinners en famille, and big dinner parties. She even teaches her neighbor how to cook and plays matchmaker.

Now, this book was written in 1917, so don’t expect progressive political ideas. But, as another blogger I read has said, one could easily see Bettina in the modern world playing the role of a party planner. And when it comes down to it, you don’t need to cook for a man to cook from scratch. While I do cook for Boyfriend most nights when I’m not at rehearsal, I spent years living on my own cooking simple, delicious food for myself. And that’s where books like these come into play. I’m not necessarily going to cook myself something fancy and complicated, but I will cook a roast chicken that will keep me in meat for a week, or a baked pancake on the weekend, or a batch of biscuits.

And if I need something a little kitschy or vintage? I can go to the older books for colorful fruit and jello salads, or a fun party spread. And since I managed to fry my last meat thermometer, it’s nice to have an outside estimate of how long to roast certain cuts of meat by time (although vintage roasting times are notoriously over-estimated). But simple food never goes out of style.

A Cozy Start to the Weekend

Yesterday, I came home from work chilled. It was cold and blustery, and I had chosen too light a jacket for the day. I needed to snuggle up, so I made myself a cup of tea,  put on some fleece leggings and a wool sweater, and snuggled up with my favorite cashmere shawl and an Agatha Christie book on my Kindle.

My cashmere shawl is actually my boyfriend’s shawl. He got it for Christmas from a family friend who didn’t quite understand why it was too big to be a scarf. It’s very soft cashmere in a grey-black-white plaid pattern and it’s the coziest thing.

After maybe an hour snuggled up, Boyfriend got home and we considered dinner. I had thawed two fish fillets, which I wrapped up with lemon and olive oil and salt and pepper into little packets. These nestled in the oven along with some cubed butternut squash and potatoes tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. The veggies roasted and the fish steamed. When it was all done, I steamed some kale quickly and dished the whole thing up. It was both light and hearty at the same time. I find potatoes have a kind of comforting solidness to them that makes any meal more warming.

After dinner, we continued to relax, he with a scotch and myself with a glass of port. It was just the perfect beginning to the weekend.