The Grammarians

Could it be Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren on the cover of Catherine Schine’s new novel about twins with extraordinary linguistic skills? The picture of the two wide-eyed twin girls on the cover could be any set of famous twins, but Daphne and Laurel Wolfe are the stars of  The Grammarians and they share some of the idiosyncracies of the real Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline Lederer (better known as  Ann and Abby) in an entertaining story about sibling rivalry and the power of words. 

The notion of being a twin is not an experience most of us have, but many have smatterings of twin envy. Have you ever wished to trade places with a doppelganger, especially on those days when you would rather be someone else than face the routine of life? Shakespeare did it and so do the Wolfe twins. And wouldn’t it be convenient to have a secret language like twin speak? Even Sally, Daphne and Laurel’s mother, cannot understand their private language. 

Although I suffered through years of diagramming grammar with the good sisters who believed a dangling participle a mortal sin, and later studied linguist Noam Chomsky, I was sometimes intimidated by the twins. Each chapter begins with a word and its obscure dictionary definition; conversations sometimes include outlandish words. Readers could create their own list, just like the twins with words like fugacious, gloze, irenicon, to check them out later in the dictionary – but why bother.

The dictionary – Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition – enters the story early, offering a convenient source of reference as the girls grow, becoming a point of contention when their father dies, and finally bringing the twins back together in the end. This heavy tome placed on its stand, referred to as the “altar,” has all anyone needs to understand the story – “words, words, words, words” and the twins sometimes take it to bed with them.

As adults, the twins branch into different interpretations of language. Daphne becomes a grammar columnist, devoted to preserving the mother language, while Laurel leaves her teaching job to write poetry with hiphop tendencies. Both become well known in language circles, and they argue publicly about who has the correct slant toward words –  suffering a time when they are not talking to each other – not unlike those famous sisters, Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers.

Schine’s story is not just for the “bookish.”  Her observations of family relationships, especially sisterly competition, offer a humorous and sometimes poignant tale.  Luckily, it all turns out well in the end; real sisters are not always so forgiving.  

 

Review of Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport:  https://nochargebookbunch.com/2010/05/11/the-three-weissmanns-of-westport/

 

The Giver of Stars

Where do you get your books? Imagine your librarian delivered them personally to your door as JoJo Moyes’ Kentucky packhorse librarians do in her latest novel – The Giver of Stars.

Chronicling the real story of Appalachian women in the WPA (Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration), Moyes creates a tale about five women, who ride mules and horses to deliver books to outlying areas in the Kentucky hills. Drunk moonshiners, coal barons, and the general attitude of men in the nineteen thirties make their job much harder, but the women persevere to bring literacy to unlikely places and to provide backwoods women with important armor besides their shotguns – the ability to read books.

Although not as compelling as some of her former novels, The Giver of Stars offers all the same components – adventure, romance, and breathtaking drama. The women each have a burden to overcome but they manage to persevere through prejudice, family restrictions, physical hardship, and, of course, the men. Not all the men are villains, however. Moyes has two love interests who manage to not only respect but also aid the women when they most need help.

Van Cleve, the controlling wealthy owner of the lands he is destroying with his coal mining, is the villain. As the story progresses, it seems likely he will prevail. If you have read any of Moyes’ books, you know she can be counted on for a happy ending, so I am not offering a spoiler to tell you she comes through again in this one, but the solution is almost at the end of the book and seems contrived.

In researching the novel, I found an uncomfortable note about another author claiming to have written a very similar novel published not long before this one. Author Kim Richardson’s novel – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek – also about the packhorse women of Kentucky, was published a few months before Moyes’ novel. Her imagined characters face many of the same issues and incidents as Moyes’ women. Although Richardson brought her concerns to the publisher, the company decided no legal action on copyright infringement was warranted, and Richardson has declined to sue on her own. 

My knowledgeable librarian who has read Richardson’s book tells me it has more of a science fiction vibe, but uses the same historical premise as Moyes. Richardson’s book is in my library system, and I have ordered it to compare notes myself. 

From volunteering at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Hawaii, I know amazing librarians who give personalized service to the blind, identifying books they might like, chatting on the phone with patrons to discover their interests in reading, and mailing large print books or books on tape to their doors.  Librarians are among my favorite people, and literacy is among the issues I hold dear, so there can’t be enough books about both topics for me.

 

 

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.