The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?

Save Me the Plums

Reading Ruth Reichl’s account as editor of Gourmet magazine made me happy and hungry. With her usual flair, Reichl sails through her ten years at the prestigious food magazine, describing food so delicious you can almost smell and taste it.

Following the arc from learning the ropes, wondering if the job is too challenging, to the inevitable highs of success with a staff as enthusiastic as she is about bringing culinary delights to the masses, Reichl talks about her staff as collaborators and friends in a delightful journey to experiment and explore food. Of course, the arc ultimately turns down during the recession with budget cuts and gleaning of staff, eventually causing the demise of the revered magazine of seventy years in the Conde Nast warehouse. With 48 hours notice, she and her staff lost their jobs.

Throughout her story, Reichl is witty and charming, with flashes of down to earth philosophy as she manages her fairy tale career with family obligations. I laughed along with her when she described some of the publishing quirks in the foodie business, and would have been glad to have been counted as one of her friends. People she did not like, however, (she brooked no enemies) were given short shrift; sometimes you could almost see her making a face behind their backs.

I’ve read several of her books – my favorite is Garlic and Sapphires – and each has its own flavor, but Save Me the Plums may have been a catharsis, helping her transition from a whirlwind life of luxury into forced early retirement and a return to the normal life. Reichl always makes me laugh but this book offered a story of relatable issues any career mom would identify. Although my career had nothing to do with food, I could relate as she learned to be a leader, overseeing a staff for the first time as she came into her own, creating programs lauded and appreciated. The sudden ending was fretful but we all survive and often thrive.

Since the end of Gourmet magazine in 2009, Reichl has kept busy cooking in her upstate New York kitchen, and writing books: her first fiction book – Delicious!, a cookbook – My Kitchen Year, and a tribute to her mother in Not Becoming My Mother. Her writing pops up in assorted publications, and in a recent article for Real Simple magazine her tart humor described the perfect kitchen.  “Forget all the appliances you think you need.  Just turn your kitchen into a space you love…I do have a dishwasher, but the truth is I wish I didn’t…” As always, she offers real suggestions with a dollop of wry humor.

Reichl included several Gourmet recipes in Save Me the Plums, but I only copied and tried one – the one with chocolate, of course. Ruth says it tastes best with Scharffen Berger chocolate but I couldn’t find any; trust me, it’s still great with any good grade chocolate (just stay away from Dutch processed). The cake is a YAFI (You Asked for It) from one of Gourmet’s issues – easy to make and tastes amazing.

I wish I had thought to take a picture but we scarfed it up pretty quickly.  Besides, in a recent interview Reichl says she does not like the current practice of eaters taking pictures of the food.  “You distance yourself from the food as soon as you take a picture – better to experience it and enjoy it.”

I’m sure she would be happy if you would try making it too – here’s the recipe: 

Jeweled Chocolate Cake

Ingredients:

  • 3 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting pan but not Dutch process
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup neutral vegetable oil
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter a deep 9 inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust it with cocoa powder.

Melt the chocolate with the cocoa, butter, oil, and water over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar.

Cool completely, then whisk in the eggs, one at a time.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk into the chocolate mixture. Shake the buttermilk well, measure, and stir that in.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake on the middle shelf for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out, peel the parchment from the bottom and allow to cool completely.

Praline Topping:

  • 1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
  • 1/4 cup blanched hazelnuts (I substituted chopped pecans)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar

Toast the nuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil without stirring until it begins to darken, swirling until mixture turns a deep gold. Happens fast – so stay with it or it will burn.

Remove from heat and stir in nuts. Pour onto baking sheet lined with parchment, spreading evenly. Allow to cool completely. Then, break into pieces and put into a plastic bag, smashing with a rolling pin (or bottom of a heavy glass) until you have crushed pieces to sprinkle over the frosting.

Frosting 

  • Mix 2 tablespoons of sugar into a cup of mascarpone.
  • Spread on the cooled cake and heap praline bits on top.

 

 

 

The Booker Prize This Year

And the Booker Prize, formerly known as Man Booker, goes this year to the one and only – oops. The Prize has two winners this year.  Although I anxiously wait for the annual announcement, when this year’s diluted prize was announced a week ago, I was disappointed – not in the authors who won or the books selected – but in the judges.  

The Prize this year was awarded to two authors for books about women: Margaret Atwood for her much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. 

Erica Wagner, author, literary critic and most importantly a recent former judge for the Booker Prize, noted the rules clearly state “the prize may not be divided or withheld,” and must be given to a single author. The judges for this year’s prize said “we cannot abide by these rules.”  Wagner decided this year’s judges’ decision to blatantly disregard these rules fits well with the current state of affairs.  Politicians on both sides of the pond have refused to follow Supreme Court and Constitutional rules – so far without consequence.

  Although the Booker Prize is for one book, some reviewers supposed Atwood was really receiving well deserved credit for her body of work.  Her first book, The Edible Woman, was published in 1970, and I first connected to her with Blind Assassin in 2000 when she won the Booker Prize, and then backtracked to read her famous Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985. Atwood has also written short stories, children’s books, and several nonfiction books; Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in 2008 may be the best known.  Now in her early 70s, she maintains a lively presence in social media while she continues to write books. She recently said that a person of her age “can afford to be undignified… and to stretch the boundaries.”

Evaristo, 60, the first Black woman to win the Booker, has her own body of work across poetry, short fiction, drama, essays, literary criticism, and projects for stage and radio but she was a new author for me. Reviewer Claire Alifree calls her book “a polyphonic sequence of largely unpunctuated, interconnected stories about 12 black women… but despite the lack of conventional punctuation Girl, Woman, Other makes for fast, easy reading.”

 I have not read either book yet, but this year’s thirteen Booker Dozen longlist included My Sister, the Serial Killer – a title I could not resist. This short book was available in my library, and I did read it.

Here is the Prize summary of both winners. Could you have decided on one?

The Winners

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.

Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

A collection of stories about twelve very different British characters, mostly women, mostly black. Chapter one starts with Amma, a middle-aged, politically engaged lesbian theatre-maker whose latest play is about to be staged at the National Theatre. Next is her daughter Yazz, a precocious undergraduate who hangs with a group of similarly assertive female pals. The story follows the characters across Britain from twelve different perspectives:

Ten-year-old Grace is an orphan dreaming of the mysterious African father she will never meet. Winsome is a young bride, recently arrived from Barbados, realising the man she married might be a fool. Carole is rejecting her cultural background to blend in at her posh university. Morgan, who used to be Megan, is visiting Hattie who’s in her nineties, who used to be young and strong, who fights to remain independent, and who still misses Slim every day. Some stories are interconnected, some not.

Jessie Burton’s The Restless Girls

Once upon a time twelve princesses wore out their shoes dancing the night away.  Jessie Burton cleverly adapts this famous Grimm’s tale to a modern story in The Restless Girls.  Keeping many of the same elements – a hidden door to a magic land, the girls locked away together every night, and an irate king demanding to know their secret – Burton’s twist gives each princess a special proclivity for a modern skill not so girly.

One is expert in botany, another in math, the eldest wanting to follow their mother’s love of adventure and speed.  Each of the twelve has her own gift, nurtured and encouraged by their now dead mother, who died in a strange race car accident, but now locked away in a room by the fear of the their grieving father, the king.  The princesses, however, retain their self-possession and manage to overcome.

Finding the secret door behind the portrait of their mother, the princesses bravely follow a dark path to a land of talking animals, diamonds on trees, and music.  Each night, just as in the Grimm tale, they dance all night wearing out their shoes.  Each morning the king demands to know how they escaped, and offers his kingdom to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Of course, a handsome prince solves the dilemma in the old fairy tale, but Burton’s modern version has the girls solving their own problems, with the eldest as the leader and role model for all the others.

I discovered the book while researching the author, whose story The Miniaturist famously brought in a lucrative contract and a subsequent movie deal for the first time author. Since then she has written The Muse, and her latest book I’ve ordered from the UK – The Confession.

Alfred Hickling’s review of The Confession prompted me to find The Restless Girls. In assessing her new book, he refers to Burton’s book for middle schoolers and her improved writing style:

“What one notices here, however, is a more free-flowing aspect to her prose, which is plainer and less obstructed by overworked passages than her earlier work. Perhaps this new sense of liberation has been prompted by having produced her first book for children, The Restless Girls; a retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” with a racy new slant… Kept under lock and key by an overprotective father, they are ultimately redeemed by the restorative power of storytelling.”

Give yourself a treat and read this wonderful book.