Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Christmas Traditions Observed or Ignored

The 26th December was Boxing Day. That is, the day after Christmas, and in the U.K and the Commonwealth countries, a public holiday. A sort of gathering-of- wits-after- the-madness day. Boxing Day’s origins go back hundreds of years. The word “boxing” allegedly refers to boxes of money or other gifts being given to those who perform various services throughout the year. But why call the day by a present participle – “Boxing” rather than the more active “Box”? Perhaps if the gifts were things rather than money, it would take a long time to pack them up and so a whole day was allowed for this. I can relate. We’re doing a renovation here, and in preparation, I’m packing and packing boxes and boxes and boxes. Books, clothing, Christmas lights and ornaments, and kitchen knickknacks have all gone to Goodwill. I did not inflict my Christmas cake on my family this year. I have given up. After years of trying and often failing to concoct this nutrition – filled fruit cake according to various family recipes, I decided enough was enough. It’s too time consuming. It’s too expensive. It’s too calorie-laden. And Americans hate fruit cake. Now that’s because they have never tasted the true British, alcohol-soaked, immensely satisfying cake. If you don’t have a family recipe, one of my favorites is Nigella Lawson’s from her book, Nigella Christmas (New York, Hyperion, 2009). But it’s too late for all that. Christmas cake must be prepared at least six weeks ahead so the liquor can drench the fruits and preserve its soft, dark richness. I think the problem with those store-bought cakes that everyone claims to hate is that the crystallized fruit stays hard as plastic and about as appetizing in a dry, light colored cake. No wonder it is shoved into the trash can. This year I made a pavlova. If you’re Australian, as I am, the pavlova is a favorite special occasion dessert. It’s rich but not too rich, and actually very easy to make. All you need is egg whites, whipping cream and red berries such as strawberries or raspberries or both. The colors fit the Christmas spirit. Pavlova 6-8 egg whites (depending on number of guests) 1 cup super fine sugar (make by whizzing granulated sugar in the blender) 1 tsp distilled white vinegar Filling 1 pint whipping cream 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar 3/4 lb fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries etc. washed and dried with a paper towel. I like to macerate the fruit in 2 tbs sugar for an hour or two before serving, but this is to taste. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Take a pizza pan or cookie sheet and line it with parchment paper. Cut the paper into a 9 inch circle. In your stand mixer, whip the egg whites to a froth, then till soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, beating constantly, then the vinegar. Whip it all up till the mixture stands up in stiff peaks. With a spatula, place a big glob of the egg white mixture onto the middle of the parchment circle. Spread it out and create a hilly circle with the rest of the egg whites around the circumference. (Because the whites have been so thoroughly whipped this won’t fall down.) Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Then without disturbing the pavlova, turn off the oven open the oven door a little bit and let the pavlova sit in the cooling oven for at least another 30 minutes. This means it’s quite okay to go away and forget it for a while. When ready to serve, whip cream with 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar until stiff. With a spatula, lay over the pavlova to the edges. It will look hilly. Then put your fruit in the middle of the cream and serve.

Cookbooks As Literature

South Wind Cooked South Wind Through The Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David Edited by Jill Norman The North Point Press, 1999 Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation By Michael Pollan The Penguin Press, 2013 Changing Hands, our wonderful local bookstore, exchanges gently used books for store credit. So imagine my thrill when this weekend, I lugged an overflowing box of books from the car to the store, and received in exchange almost $50 in new purchases. I bought two novels and two cookbooks. I read cookbooks. Yes, I really read them as narrative, not just as recipe holders. So it was with pleasure that I delved into the writing of Elizabeth David and Michael Pollan. My mother cooked from a battered and stained Penguin copy of the British writer Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking. Mrs. David’s chatty, unpretentious books on the cuisine of Southern Europe began to transform the English palate a generation before Alice Waters did the same for Americans. Then again, the English had a harder hill to climb. Returning to Britain from a wartime job in the Middle East in 1946, Elizabeth David was horrified at the deprivation, and the “bleak triumph, which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity” with which rationed food was prepared. She started to write her memories of the sun-drenched food of the Mediterranean. In a career lasting over forty years, Mrs. David wrote nine books and countless articles in a breezy, amusing style. In French Provincial Cooking, she describes “soups delicately colored like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green.” It was in search of similar lively writing that I turned to Michael Pollan’s Cooked. The book follows Pollan’s signature method. A journalist, Pollan interviews people who work rigorously to capture the essence of cooking. Each of his bakers, cheese-makers and fermenters returns to the very basics in an effort to understand the biological and chemical processes by which raw ingredients are transformed into digestible and nutritious food. The recipes are less important here than the descriptions of the years-long apprenticeships that each of these creative individuals undertook. Each was determined to unlearn the time-saving contemporary processed food-ways to return to fundamentals. This is food preparation from scratch, literally, from capturing yeast in the air to allowing bacteria to collect on wooden cheese paddles. Bacteria, which allowed to accumulate, crowd out more harmful germs. This book is the beginning, hopefully, of Pollan’s further investigation into the world of microbes.

Timed Out

By Barbara Lorna Hudson Driven Press, 2016 My writing mentor, Marylee MacDonald, (Montpelier Tomorrow, Bonds of Love & Blood) wrote in her blog recently about the challenges faced by authors over sixty. Though they may have had to put off writing until they had the time to do it, they’re disadvantaged in the publishing world. In part this is due to the fact that agents, usually young themselves, are interested in representing authors with whom they can build a career. Sometimes it is because the life experiences of an older person, transmuted into fiction, may not resonate with younger readers. For example, in the reading club notes at the back of the book, Landline, by Rainbow Rowell, readers are asked, “Are you old enough to remember talking on a landline?” Well, yes. After reading many books in which smart phones feature frequently, I was relieved to find a book about a real issue: how to find meaning and love in later years. Timed Out starts with the retirement party of Jane Lambert, an English academic. Suddenly faced with an empty calendar, Jane fills her time with visits to her widowed mother and self-improvement in the form of a gym membership, manicures and hair styling, and volunteering at a charity shop. Jane, divorced thirty years before, has never since met Mr. Right. She has good friends, but without a life companion, seeks one. She tries online dating. This has some frightening results, but Jane finds several partners over a period of about a dozen years. I don’t think this is a spoiler alert, because the book bills itself as about matchmaking for the over-sixties. However, that label undersells this book. Really, it is about how we go forward as we age and our familiar supports are removed through retirement and the death of loved ones. Timed Out is written in a linear fashion, and reads at times, especially in scenes of travel, like excerpts from Ms. Hudson’s diary. The dialogue is natural, and the character’s academic inclination to ask students to “discuss” is humorously noted several times in the story. What is never explored by the protagonist is why, over and over again, she is blind-sided when her lovers leave her. (As her husband did.) There seems to be a lack of insight here, which is odd in a social worker, Jane’s former profession. Jane also has little tolerance for those who have different political or religious beliefs from her own. Because the book is episodic rather than plotted, Jane never resolves these issues. She’s so astute about other matters that I wanted Jane to think about this. I felt myself in a conversation with Jane, and this is a tribute to good writing! Once I began this book, I found it hard to put down. Barbara Lorna Hudson is too savvy to make this story simply about a woman seeking love. The book is about the search for meaning and how to live a life without regrets. Despite the novel’s bittersweet title, never saying “It’s too late!” is the lesson here.

Comfort Cookies

cookies-1I think we can all agree that the anxieties of the past week have fueled a need for comfort food. So I spent Sunday afternoon baking cookies. With the holiday season around the corner, I’m experimenting with ginger. In particular, ginger cookies. A little spice and all things nice. The Joy of Cooking  was my baking guide in earlier years. But I’ve come to love a lesser known cookie, the Cornish Fairing, from England. Classic ginger cookies call for up to 3 3/4 cups of flour, two eggs, 1 1/2 sticks of butter, as well as molasses, sugar and spices. I tried these. They turned out floury and unappetizing. Sunday, I tried a batch with less flour, but still, they didn’t have the pizazz I was looking for. Then I found my old recipe for Cornish Fairings. These eggless, light-as-a-feather cookies baked up beautifully. The Cornish Fairing is from Cornwall, where the sweet “biscuits” were sold at fairs. They can be whipped up quickly without the need for an electric mixer. The recipe calls for less than a cup and a half of flour and spices, a cup of sugar, a half stick of butter, and a cup of ginger syrup. American ginger cookie recipes use molasses to provide a rich dark sweetness to the dough. The English recipe is lighter. Traditional recipes call for “golden syrup”. If using, use 3 tsp. ground ginger in the recipe. If you use ginger syrup, use 1 tsp. ground ginger. * Cornish Fairings Adapted from a traditional English recipe. This recipe has no eggs. 4 oz butter 4 oz light brown cane sugar. Could even use a little less sugar if you like. 4 oz ginger syrup or golden syrup 12 oz plus a little bit more of all purpose flour 2 tsp baking soda 2 tsp baking powder 1 tsp. mixed spice or pumpkin pie spice 1 tsp cinnamon ½ tsp salt 1 tsp ground ginger if using ginger syrup, 2 tsp. if using golden syrup. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix up the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Sieve or whisk to bring up the air in the bowl. Meanwhile, heat the stick of butter, the sugar and the syrup in a saucepan until melted. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix. Then, working quickly with floured hands, shape dough into balls about the size of a walnut. If you need more flour, add my tablespoon till the texture feels light yet not runny. Place on parchment sheets on cookie pans. Leave quite a bit of space between each biscuit as they flatten and spread.Press the back of a fork into the dough as it rests on the cookie sheet. Bake for 8 minutes, then move to lower shelf of oven and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from oven, carefully bang the pan on the counter – this causes the cookie to crack attractively. (It is not really necessary to do this but the recipe says to.) Let cool and harden on the parchment in the pan before removing to a parchment paper lined plate to cool completely. *Both golden syrup and ginger syrup can be found at import stores. I get mine at Cost Plus.

News and Potatoes For Halloween

I have some exciting news. My novel, Lipstick On the Strawberry, has been contracted to be published by The Wild Rose Press. Can’t give a publication date yet, but I love working with the team at Wild Rose, so supportive and professional! With that in mind, I’m changing the focus of my blog. My heroine, Camilla, is a British- born caterer. Much maligned, British food has been re-invented in the past generation. As well it should, because the natural ingredients were always there. So watch this space for a new take on old foods, or a revival of some British food treasures. Potatoes For Halloween I’m making mashed potatoes for Halloween. Of course if costumed kids come to the door, they’ll get to scrabble in the big bowl of wrapped candies and chocolates and take as much as they like. But potatoes are actually a treat for us, full of carbs as they are. In fact, they are a pretty nutritious food, which is why, in Ireland, where they grow so well in the cool damp climate, the people came to rely on them as their major source of sustenance. In the 1840s a fungus attacked the crop, with disastrous results. I have three Irish great-great grandmothers. They all emigrated during the Great Famine. In honor of them, I will eat the potato dish “Champ” this Halloween. It’s an old Irish tradition. In ancient Ireland, all the potatoes and other crops were gathered as deep fall set in. The New Year was set to start on November 1, and on its eve, the Celtic people lit huge fires. Praying for survival through the long winter, the Druid priests made sacrifices, possibly even human sacrifices. It seems to have been a night of some terror. On October 31, the souls of the departed left their graves, it was believed, and haunted the living. The people wore costumes (maybe animal heads in the beginning, later more elaborate), to try to trick the ghosts or to disguise their own nasty deeds. The next morning the Celts scraped up of the ashes of the fire and the Druid priests lit new ones to bring in the New Year, Samhain. Feasts were part of Samhain, and on its eve the fairies needed to be fed too. So boiled potatoes were mixed with scallions, chives or parsley and mashed with milk and butter. A bowl of the delicious mash would be lain under a hawthorn bush for the sprites/spirits to devour. Champ is similar to Colcannon, another Irish dish. Colcannon swaps chopped cabbage for chives or scallions, but any way you make it, the creamy dish is perfect for a cold evening. Champ – to serve 4 2 1/2 lbs Russet potatoes 4 oz butter divided into two pieces. 1 cup whole milk or half and half (if making for company, why not go for the rich stuff?) 2 tsp salt 1 bunch scallions, chopped fine 2 tbs chopped parsley Place the scrubbed, unpeeled potatoes in a large pot and fill with cold water to a level just above the potatoes. Add 1 tsp. salt and bring the pot to the boil, covered. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes can be pierced with a knife. Now heat 2 oz butter in a small pot, and in another pot place the diced scallions and pour the milk over them. Bring to a simmer, but do not boil. Drain the potatoes, saving the water in case the milk is not quite enough for a good mash. Peel the potatoes. (Use gloves if they are too hot!) Put the potatoes back into the large pot and mix in the melted butter with a wooden spoon. Adding the butter before the milk allows it to bind to the potatoes, making them more flavorful. Gradually add the warmed scallions and milk and 1 tsp. salt, and mash. Toss in the chopped parsley. Traditionally champ is served in a large communal bowl. Make a well in the center and place the other 2 oz of butter in the middle. Absolutely yummy! Beats candy any time.

The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein My Brilliant Friend The Story Of A New Name Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay The Story Of The Lost Child Europa Editions, 2012-2014 When investigative journalist Claudio Gatti unmasked the identity of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante this month, he set off a storm of protest. He claims it was in the public interest to reveal that the writer was in fact a translator named Anja Raja – or so he thought. Ms. Raja is not the only contender, however. In March, another writer claimed that Ms. Ferrante was really a professor named Marcella Marmo – on the basis that the books revealed details of a university at which Ms. Marmo studied. Such thin “evidence” was overturned by the latest theory. But the real reason Mr. Gatti is so reviled is that he claimed to show Ms. Raja’s bank accounts had upticks in income corresponding to the releases of the Neapolitan novels. What? Since when did a journalist have a right to poke into anyone’s bank accounts? (Except of course, if the target is a politician running for high political office and if it is customary for them to make such financial disclosures.) And how did Mr. Gatti get access to these accounts? The furor – and sympathy for the author -made me want to read the four novels that have garnered do much attention. The stories follow the lives of two girls born to working class families in 1944. They live in a close-knit, poverty-stricken community. The two girls are uncommonly bright, but their opportunities are, to say the least, constrained. Scarcely less constrained are the opportunities for their brothers and male friends, although as the nineteen fifties progress to the sixties, gradually rising prosperity drifts down to the Neapolitan grocers, shoe-makers, construction workers and loan sharks that Ferrante portrays. I found the novels riveting. The issues of class and the life-changing power of education thread through the stories. But without ever using the word feminism, Ferrante shows how the continual repression and frustration of women leads either to their passivity and premature aging, or to rage which invites a violent response. Ferrante’s novels are both page-turningly plotted, and rich with emotion. In fact, the emotions of the characters are rendered so intimately it’s like reading a memoir. For that reason alone, given the fact that Ms. Ferrante gives her protagonist the name Elena, and, like her characters, was born in Naples, I can understand why she’s fearful to use her real name. I can’t wait to read all four books.

Ghost Songs

By Regina McBride Tin House Books, October 2016 Advance Review Copy When Regina McBride tells a psychiatrist she has seen the ghost of her father, he looks skeptical. By the end of this wonderful memoir, I was quite convinced she had. Set largely in New Mexico and Ireland, McBride captures the mystical atmosphere of both places. Each holds remnants of ancient cultures in which the boundaries between the living and the dead are murky. Regina and her three siblings were only teenagers when their parents committed suicide within months of each other. Told in short paragraphs, alternating between the past and present, Regina tries to capture the essence of her parents’ struggles. She remembers happy times, her father’s love of singing and music, his conviviality, and his drinking. His sense of failure, and his inability to get ahead at work sends the family from New York to New Mexico. There, Regina’s mother descends into depression and bizarre behaviors. Regina invokes Nanny, her maternal grandmother. Nanny despises her son-in- law. Witch-like, she deliberately burns holes in his shirt with the iron. Over the story, the reader sees that Nanny has developed dementia, but in a story told in flashbacks, we understand that the children could not grasp this. We see that these four children were already abandoned by the grown-ups before their parents ended their lives. What horrifies Regina most is the idea that her parents will forever be doomed to hell, because suicide is the most unforgivable sin. Despite its teachings, Regina never leaves the Catholic church and its mysticism and rituals sustain her. Her grandparents had immigrated from Ireland, but their children had never seen it. In Regina’s mind, it was a place of magic, and towards the end of the book, she goes to live there. This last part of the memoir reads a bit like a travel diary, as Regina recounts her random meetings with people. A potential relationship with a man called Denis never actually happens. Regina wonders if he has been turned off by her revelation about her parents. Somehow, this seems to begin her healing process. Perhaps she can keep the ghosts of her parents at bay by not recalling their tragic deaths at every moment. She starts to move forward. Ghost Songs meditates on the permeability between life and death. McBride’s evocation of grief, a father’s failure, a mother’s madness, children left abandoned, is stunning.

AuthorU – Helping Writers

It was a beautiful few days in Denver at the AuthorU Extravaganza September 15-17. Writers, publishers and vendors enjoyed three days of networking and information sessions. The most useful for me were the workshops on social media. But it was not all work. We ate delicious food and enjoyed a play performed by best-selling women’s fiction author and Days of Our Lives actress Mara Purl and actor Christopher Law. Judith Briles, “The Book Shepherd” founder of the writer support group AuthorU had shattered her shoulder in a fall the week before. This did not stop her from running the conference with her usual energy and charm. Best of all, for me, was that my novel, Lipstick On The Strawberry, was a finalist in the “Draft to Dream” Book Competition. The competition for unpublished manuscripts is judged by a panel of librarians. I make myself blush by repeating what the judges said about my story – but then again I want you to buy it when it is published. Here’s a sample of the judge’s comments: “The quality of the writing drew me into the story immediately…” “She is an excellent writer. She has a great ability to create the scene and describe character…” “The writing style…is very fluid, and it’s just good writing…a pleasure to read it.” So that’s enough bragging for now. Above is the photo of the certificate. Three cheers for Judith Briles and AuthorU!

Love Under French Skies

By Gil Bryant Endeavor Press, 2016 I enjoyed this book immensely. Divorced and miserable, Fiona, an over- fifty Englishwoman, about to be made redundant in her job, learns she’s inherited a house in the French countryside from an “aunt” she never knew she had. She moves to France, starts to restore the house, and immediately finds herself pursued by two very different and attractive men. I know. This is a romance. Gil Bryant’s descriptions of France are very well done. I felt I was seeing the view from the windows of the house just as Fiona does. The landscape is stunning and the descriptions lush and gorgeous. I loved the fact that Fiona is so open to moving countries after a lifetime in one place. I loved the fact that she is so open to new acquaintance – from her neighbors, Frederic and Chantal, to her male admirers, Xavier and Mike, and first and most important, to Clo. Clo is a marvelous literary character. Fiona meets him, with his dreadlocks, pierced tongue, gold tooth and guitar, as he arrives penniless in England and busks at a train station. Impressed with his musical ability, Fiona gives him money. Then (in a rather unbelievable coincidence) she finds that he, too, will be moving to France, having been offered a place in a band near Toulouse, not far from Fiona’s inherited house. They drive together over the channel and become fast friends. Some reviewers have commented that they didn’t like the character of Xavier, Fiona’s French lover. It is true that he is manipulative and immature, and Fiona’s reactions to his behavior seem less resilient than one would expect from someone with her depth of experience. Still, I found it refreshing that an author can conjure up love in middle age so convincingly. Who said teenagers had a monopoly on foolishness? The love triangle, and the mystery of who Fiona’s benefactor really was, kept me turning pages.

Chasing the Sun

Natalia Sylvester Lake Union Publishing, 2014 In Lima, Peru, a wealthy couple, Andres and Marabela, are not happy. He’s conventional, kind, and a bit of a wimp. The couple met at university, and Andres, who was supposed to marry his childhood friend Elena, fell in love with rebellious, artistic Marabella. Now, almost twenty years and two children later, Marabella is dissatisfied and has already left Andres once. When the novel begins, Andres waits for Marabella to come home for dinner, and when she does not, he at first thinks she has left him again. It dawns on the reader even before Andres realizes it, that Marabela has been kidnapped. The first chapter is dated 1992, a time when Peru was convulsed with conflict. Communist rebels, who called themselves The Shining Path, terrorized the countryside. As Andres muses, “in the nearly two years since the new president was elected, his promises of a crackdown on terrorism have turned as brittle as cracking paint….the city is now the perfect incubator for a thriving business of kidnapping. While the majority of the country’s police force focuses on controlling armed uprisings and terrorism, smaller crimes are overlooked.” With the sickening realization that his wife has been taken, Andres must negotiate with the kidnappers to get his wife back, all without arousing suspicion or telling the police. He hires an experienced negotiator. Sylvester rachets up the tension in this psychological drama as Andres must deplete his bank account, get rid of everything he has, to satisfy the kidnappers’ demands. Without the housemaids, without a job, he is diminished, sucked dry. Marabela’s suffering, though, is much worse, of course. It is only when Andres meets his childhood friend Elena again that he begins to understand how great that suffering was. Elena, too, had been kidnapped, and is now in a mental institution. Does all this horror add up to a great plot? The story is well told. But Sylvester gives us an ending that evades the emotional devastation that she’s led us toward. Still, the book stayed with me. Its portrait of a society in which the unpredictable is normal, where people who can afford it live behind high walls and locked gates yet still can’t protect themselves, is very unsettling. Sylvester excels in her showing of a disintegrating marriage. The first half of the book is in Andre’s viewpoint, the second in Marabela’s. This enables empathy for them both. Interestingly, the strongest characters in this book are women. The maids, Consuelo and Carla, Andres’ mother Lorena, and Elena and Marabella all have distinct and powerful personalities. Sometimes poor Andres seems to be as powerless against their emotional manipulation as he is against the kidnappers’ demands.