Historical Diversions: Chevalier and Jewett

  A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier has the talent to inform while entertaining, and her latest historical novel – A Single Thread – is a well researched testament to the “surplus women” of the nineteen thirties, caught between two major wars.

With Winchester Cathedral as the backdrop, Chevalier uses the broderers, women who created the embroidered kneeling cushions, and the cathedral bellringers, usually consisting of men only, to tell her story with a little romance, some drama, and a wealth of enlightening information. Based on the work of Louisa Peel and Winchester Cathedral embroidery, Chevalier creates a lovely story full of history few readers will know.

As an ardent embroiderer, I relished some of the intricacies of her descriptions, but I also appreciated the revelations, and will be looking for fylfots among the flowers.

Read the NPR review for more details:  https://www.npr.org/2019/09/21/762825554/a-stitch-in-time-saves-a-life-in-a-single-thread

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

I found this old treasure on a list of recommended classics. The only copy in my library system was in large print – all 150 pages – and I was curious about the Thoreau of Maine and the precursor of Elizabeth Strout (“Olive Kitteridge”).

The novella is a series of vignettes describing the narrator’s summer in a fictional coastal town in Maine at the turn of the twentieth century. Each short chapter builds on a sense of peace and quiet, as she describes open fields, dark woods, and rocky shores. She booked rooms in the house of an old herbalist, expecting to shut her self away in solitude but Mrs. Todd and the villagers tempt her out.  She spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens, carefully cataloguing their mannerisms and stories. With wit and astute observation, Jewett brings old Maine to life.  She leaves at the end of the summer with a refreshed mind and a sense of nostalgia. 

“…there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over -the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance…”

Jewett’s writing has been described as realism, but sometimes it seems like poetry. 

 

 

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.

Off the Library Shelf

Although I tried linking to another writer’s “Library Lust” list, I was not successful, but here are a few books from my library I read in a sitting, so I could get back to the library for more books waiting for me:  The books all seem to come at once sometimes.  Have you ready any of them?

Never Have I Ever by Joshlyn Jackson

A complicated murder mystery drama, reminding me of Finn’s The Woman in the Window, with unreliable characters and a twisting plot.  A page turner full of betrayal, romance, and deception.  Amy Whey has started a new life but is soon battling to keep her past a secret when the devilish Angelica Roux shows up at book club. The two match wits as the drama continues into a surprising ending.

 

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

When Eve leaves her job with a publishing company to become an assistant to a prominent and prolific New Yorker writer, summering in Cape Cod, secrets, sex, and the New England literary vibe emerge to create a quickly readable and entertaining story.  Aside from her coming of age journey and her romps in bed, Eve meets a number of literary stars.  She also references a number of books; I had to stop to jot a few down I plan to find: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (with the suggestion to read beyond the first 150 pages to be hooked), Zaleika Dobson by Max Beerbaum, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

 

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

After a slow start, Davis transitions the story of two young women who met on a USO tour during World War II into a dramatic exploration of the McCarthy hearings targeting stage actors, directors, and producers in the nineteen fifties in the United States.  The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is the fulcrum of the story, where the women lodge with an assortment of artistic hopefuls.

The story follows Maxine Mead, the beautiful diva, and Hazel Ripley, the talented writer, as their lives change from their wartime friendship into a competitive challenge of spies and deceit.  In the end, both get their due, but along the way Davis offers a look into how McCarthyism overpowered democracy and ruined lives.

 

Reading Now:  The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I may take a little longer to read this story of the artist Harriet Burden.  Hustvedt had me believing it was based on a true person in her clever “Editor’s Introduction,” and I stopped to find reviews about this 2014 work of fiction, doubting  the library’s FIC designation.

Using journals and interviews, the author presents the life of Burden, a talented artist ignored in her time, who decides to conduct an experiment she calls “Maskings” in which she presents her own art behind the names of three prominent male artists, masking her female identity.  Of course, the three shows are successful, but when Burden reveals herself to be the artist, critics doubt her.  The novel promises to not only be ambitious in its revelation of prejudice against women in art, but also a clever exploration of a complicated character, who seems real to me.  I plan to savor it.

 

Books Waiting for Me at the Library:

  • Chances Are by Richard Russo
  • The Darwin Affair by Timothy Mason
  • The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
  • Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
  • The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood
  • This Tender Land by William Kent
  • Why You Like It by Nolan Gasser