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Margaret Ann Spence > Articles by: Margaret

Women’s Fiction: The Power of Sisterhood

The Women’s Fiction Writers Association is a nation-wide, online group offering connection, classes, critique groups, and other helpful programs for authors. It also offers two annual competitions: The Star Award for published books of women’s fiction, and the Rising Star Award, for unpublished novels. Last year I was a judge for the Rising Star Award and enjoyed it so much that I volunteered to judge this year’s Star Award. It’s a lot of reading, but that’s what I do.

This week, I’m teaming up with two other Arizona based members of WFWA to offer a 99¢ ebook sale of our books. My novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is on sale through March 1, and Susan Haught’s and Katie O’Rourke’s books will go on sale February 19-25th. I’ll interview these writers this week on my blog.

Happy reading!

Valentine’s Victoria Sponge

Who knows why this very British cake is called Victoria Sponge? It’s not elaborate; the ingredients are simple. And it comes topped with cream and strawberries. For that reason, I’ve chosen this as a Valentine’s Day cake. Chocolate is always delicious, but so predictable on this day of romance. Strawberries are equally delicious and, as in my book, Lipstick on the Strawberry, associated with love.

This cake, as with all genoise cakes, bakes up on the dry side. That’s why moistening the top of the layers with macerated liquored strawberries gives it that little extra. Or simply use thick strawberry jam mixed with kirsch to moisten in the same way.

Ingredients:

Cake

Cooking spray for the pans
1 ½ cups cake flour, sifted three times
½ cup sugar
5 eggs
¼ cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Strawberry Filling

2 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
3 tbs sugar
2 tsp kirsch
1/8 tsp salt

Or, if you are pressed for time, use 2 cups best-quality strawberry jam, plus the other ingredients.

Cream Topping

1 ½ pints heavy cream, chilled
3 oz powdered sugar

Method

This cake achieves its lightness without the addition of baking soda or powder because it is beaten to an airy froth while warm.

Bring the ingredients to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray two 9 -inch cake pans, and cover the bottom of each with parchment paper cut to size.

Sift the flour and melt the butter gently.

Bring a large saucepan of water to the simmer. Your mixing bowl should be able to just fit inside the top of the pan so its bottom is over, but not touching, the simmering water.

First, mix the eggs in the bowl in a stand mixer until frothy. Beat in the sugar till it is blended with the eggs. Then put the bowl over the pan of water on the stove and whisk the egg-sugar mixture for 3-4 minutes till it is warm.

Remove the bowl to the stand mixer and beat on high or so until it becomes thick and light and the texture of whipped cream. Separate the already sifted flour into three batches, sift each over the mix and gently fold in each addition. Meanwhile, reheat the butter until hot, and pour into a small bowl. Take one and a half cups of the egg mixture and incorporate into the butter, together with the vanilla. Fold it all gently back into the larger egg/sugar mix bowl.

Pour the batter into the two pans and bake for 20 minutes until the cake starts to pull away from the sides. The top should spring back when touched with your finger. Do not overbake.

Remove from the oven and cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the cakes and invert onto racks to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the strawberry mash filling. Reserve two dozen of the most beautiful strawberries. Cut up the remainder and toss with the sugar into a bowl and let sit for one hour.

Strain the juice from the berries and reserve, to make half a cup. Pour into a small saucepan and add the kirsch. Heat gently and cook until the mixture is syrupy. You should have about 3-4 tbs. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Put the sugared berries into a food processor and chop. This will yield about 1 ½ cups.

Add these processed berries to the syrup, stir in the salt, and wait till the cake is cooled.

If using jam instead of fresh berries, heat it gently in a saucepan and add the kirsch. Let sit so the flavors mingle.

When the cakes are completely cool, take a cake platter and prepare it by cutting four long strips of parchment paper to cover it. This will keep the platter clean while you assemble the cake.

Whip the cream, adding sugar when soft peaks form, until the cream forms stiff peaks.

Carefully lift one cake from its pan and lay on the paper. Spread half of the macerated, liquored berry or jam-kirsch mix onto the cake, leaving about half an inch around the border. With a rubber spatula, carefully cover this layer with half of the whipped cream, again leaving space around the border.

Place the second cake layer on top of the first, pressing gently down. The cream will squish out to the edge of the cake. Repeat the steps of covering this layer with strawberries or jam, then whipped cream.

Now, pull out the parchment strips from under the cake, very carefully. Don’t worry, any little flaws that are caused in the cake by pulling out the strips can be hidden by a ring of berries.

Finally, halve the reserved berries and put them around the side of the completed cake.

If serving several hours after assembling, place in a domed cake carrier to protect the top, and refrigerate.

Some Thoughts on Strawberries

Lipstick on the Strawberry – the ebook: 99¢ Valentine’s Sale!


Maybe it is its red color, but I associate Valentine’s Day with the strawberry. The taste, a combination of the sweet and the tart, might be a truer metaphor for relationship than gooey chocolate.

Toward the end of last year, I planted strawberries. Previously they had done well when planted in a pot, but this new year’s bunch appeared slightly chewed by an inhabitant of the in-ground bed. The insect abandoned the fruit after a couple of munches. Served it right for not waiting till it reached full, juicy ripeness.

My photo shows the strawberries in their bed, ripening. In my novel, Hannah, a food stylist hired by my catering protagonist, Camilla, startles her at the job interview by seizing a lipstick and swiping an unripe strawberry with it. I wrote the scene before I had a final title for my book. But, I realized, this is a metaphor for the story. The perfect exterior is a façade, hiding something not quite so ideal underneath. That’s what Camilla finds when she goes home for her father’s
funeral, meets her first love, and tries to mend bridges with her distant, diffident siblings. Her father’s rejection of her as a teenager led to a lifetime of self-doubt, but his death uncovers secret after family secret.

The ebook sale of Lipstick on the Strawberry starts Friday, February 15th (I know, the day after Valentine’s, but my publisher always has sales start Fridays). I hope you’ll enjoy my bitter-sweet story, as you savor whatever Valentine’s has in store for you.

And in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day on Thursday, I’ll be publishing some strawberry recipes from Camilla’s recipe index. Enjoy!

The Book of Colours

By Robyn Cadwallader

Harper Collins, 2018


Imagine a world without printed or digital book. Imagine a world where books were rare and
precious things, commissioned one by one by the nobility, like works of art. In these books the
story, usually a religious one, becomes intimately connected with the illuminated pictures that
surround the letters on the page.

Imagine being the artist who illustrated these books.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, as Robyn Cadwallader shows us in this novel, the art
of illuminating manuscripts was moving beyond the monasteries and into the secular world. In
small workshops, closely associated with scribes and stationers who provided the pages of text,
young men apprenticed under master craftsmen. Like all creative businesses, the work was
dependent on commissions, and in this war-torn, famine-riven century in England, the book trade
was not one to make a practitioner wealthy.

The atelier of John Dancaster, a master limner, or illuminator, is the setting for this fascinating
story. Dancaster is assisted by his wife, Gemma, their son, Nick, who is learning to mix paints,
Ben, an apprentice who is about to graduate to become a journeyman, and Will, who arrives in
London looking for work. Will has mysteriously left his own apprenticeship with a master
craftsman in Cambridge just short of producing his “master piece,” which would have enabled
his graduation to skilled artisan. A fine master piece from a student of a famous limner would be
the ticket to employment. Will must now prove his worth in a strange city and workshop.
There are three point of view characters in this story – Will, Gemma, and Mathilda, the widow of
a nobleman who has just died fighting King Edward II. She’s commissioned a book from the
Dancaster workshop as a symbol of the family’s status. But her husband’s death fighting a rebel
cause makes him a traitor and her fate unclear.

Through the characters and the changing relationships between them, Cadwallader explores class
and gender. Through Gemma’s eyes, resentment burns at how women, who might be as skilled
as their husbands and fathers in the trade, were not acknowledged. They were allowed to
supervise the apprentices, and Gemma is writing a book called The Art of Illumination. This
book within a book is fascinating. It describes how to make an illuminated manuscript. These
excerpts, and the entire novel, capture the joy and the frustration of creative work; the absolute
need to do it, to be original, to express something new within a set of traditions, and to strive for
the highest quality.

Robyn Cadwallader’s first novel was The Anchoress, a story of a religious hermit. Also set in
medieval times, that book questions what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated religious
and secular world. This second novel expands that thought through a sympathetic rendering of
male characters as well, and contrasts the ideals of renunciation and acceptance vs. action
involving danger and change. This is riveting history with characters whose traits register today.

Cascade

By Maryanne O’Hara Penguin 2012 In the mid-nineteen thirties, the growing city of Boston needed a secure water supply. To create the Quabbin Reservoir, a thriving small town to the west of the city was submerged. This novel about the threat of the flood to the town, aptly and fictionally named Cascade, tells a story about an artist who is married to a steady but boring man, her desire to paint rather than to have children, and her affair with a fellow artist. Fundamentally, it is about the tension between the need to create art that lives beyond the life of the artist, and the choices the artist makes to achieve that. Set in The Depression, with World War II looming, and anti-Semitism rampant even in America, especially in a small town where gossip runs rife, this story aches with a sense of impending loss before, during and after Dez Hart’s affair with a Jewish peddler who is also a serious artist. Dez’s late father had built a Shakespearian playhouse in the town, and its fate becomes crucial to the story. Dez uses her artistic skills to bring attention to the damage that will be done by flooding people’s homes and farms, and to save the playhouse. The dilemma of a woman artist who cannot help but paint and sees that having a baby will end her budding career is another major theme of the book. I loved 0’Hara’s descriptions of how an artist paints, the conception and the execution. The author’s research into working lives, transportation, communication, housekeeping, and the role of women in the thirties also fascinated me. Minor characters, such as Abby, Dez’s best friend, are well drawn. The lure of the big city versus the security of life in a small town is also articulated well, though only from the point of view of Dez, who wants to escape Cascade. Given the material, this story could be much darker than O’Hara makes it. So many suffered extremely during The Depression and in World War II, and with divorce so difficult to attain and artistic success for a women equally difficult to achieve, Dez’s troubles are overcome a tad too easily. That’s partly because 0’Hara makes Asa, Dez’s unwanted husband, a thoroughly decent person. One never forgets, in this story, that Dez has choices unavailable to others. Still, an historical novel set in a recognizable place, dealing with the real dilemmas of the day, always makes enjoyable reading. It kept me turning pages, wanting to know what happens next.

A Return To The Classics

Roman Mosaic of Odysseus and the Sirens, Tunis, Tunisia, c. 100s CE


The Odyssey

By Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson
W.W. Norton, 2017

Over the past several years, this space has reviewed books by women. Women’s fiction, if you like, though I take a broader view of this than the definition decided upon by the Women Fiction Writers Association, of which of I am a long-time member.

That definition is that women’s fiction books describe the protagonist’s emotional journey.

That’s all fine and good, but novels of all kinds except for thrillers, crime, and typical romance novels, do exactly that. The character’s emotional journey is what gets the reader immersed in the story, whether it be historical fiction or a mystery that must be solved in order for the protagonist to move forward psychologically.

In my own writing, I’ve learned, I can take a protagonist only so far without her uncovering a hidden truth. How little we understand other people, and how far we have to go to understand ourselves is not just a literary concern. It underpins the profession of psychiatry and is the basis of philosophy. The “hero’s journey” should be an interior one for it to have meaning.

The past couple of months I’ve taken a break from reading the lighter fare that makes up much commercial fiction, women’s or otherwise. Inspired by a sense of shortened time after visiting a brother with a severe illness, I’ve turned to the classics. The hero’s journey persists in literature, and the most famous is The Odyssey, written over two thousand years ago by a Greek person or persons collectively named Homer.

In November and through December, I read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. I’ve attempted the book before, most notably with Robert Fagles’ version. I never got far. But Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate into English Homer’s story of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War, has given us a fresh and lively version. The poem, in her translation, is immensely readable and appealing. It retains a poetic rhythm and has exactly the same number of lines as the original, a feat in itself.

At the end of her long introduction, the translator draws attention to the major theme of the book: “the duties and dangers involved in welcoming foreigners into one’s home.” The need to explore, and therefore the need to throw oneself on the mercy of strangers is central to the story. So is the risk to the host. The epic poem moves back and forward between the adventures of Odysseus and the trials of his wife and son, awaiting his return.

In her notes, Wilson talks about the central role of Penelope, Odysseus’s long-suffering wife. She’s yearned for many years for him to come home and is besieged by suitors competing for her hand. She puts them off by weaving a tapestry, telling the suitors that when it is finished she will decide. At night she unweaves what she has done. She’s in a perpetual situation of waiting, both for Odysseus to return, and for her son, Telemachus, a teenager whose father left
when he was an infant, to grow up and protect her. In other words, she represents female inaction as opposed to male action. But Wilson points out that she does act in her own defense, though in a hidden way. Penelope’s wiliness, as well as her fidelity, have been the characteristics she’s been remembered for down the centuries. In her society, she can only achieve her goal by deception. Women’s wiles have traditionally been labeled as duplicitous. But if Penelope had not deceived her unwanted suitors, she would have been unfaithful, a much more serious “crime.” Therefore, in one reading of the story, as a woman she cannot win. But Wilson says that in fact her action is crucial to the narrative and allows the denouement of the poem.

Odysseus, on the other hand, slashes his way through the world, killing and raping and lying. His wiliness, too, allows him to survive, but he is regarded as the classic hero, simply because he stops at nothing to get home, and once home, takes revenge shocking in its savagery. The violence is no doubt one of the secrets to the poem’s timelessness. That, and the random nature of events, which in Homer’s day was attributed to supernatural beings, and still may be so today.

Recently, several women have written novels based on characters from The Odyssey. Madeline Miller’s wonderful Circe (reviewed here in July, 2018) is an example. I loved her evocation of the sorceress Circe as a professional herbalist and her frustration as a single mother trying to
get her work done while soothing a crying infant. And I was fascinated by Miller’s depiction of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca and his slaughter of the suitors as the action of a psychopath. Madeline Miller’s first book was the marvelous The Song of Achilles, the story of Achilles and Patroclus, from The Iliad. The Trojan War is seen from a woman’s point of view in Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire, which is about Briseis, the priestess captured as a slave by Achilles. The great Pat Barker also has a new book about Briseis, which I must read. That is The Silence of the Girls: A Novel.

So, classic literature as re-interpreted by women writers throws up a different viewpoint. I can’t wait to read more.

Sylvia’s Farm: The Journal of an Improbable Shepherd

By Sylvia Jorrin

Bloomsbury, 2004

As someone who grew up devouring tales of the dairy farm on which my grandmother was born, I’ve always enjoyed stories about country life. And, for 25 years I lived in a semi-rural town in New England, a town where everyone knew everyone else, where you had to have lived there a couple of generations not to be considered a newcomer. Neighbors in that little town in which I raised my children pastured sheep, goats, alpacas and chickens, all kept in order by numerous dogs.

So, browsing last week in a second hand bookstore, I came across an intriguing book with a picture of an older woman giving a bottle to a lamb, its brothers and sisters crowding in to catch stray drops. The book was Sylvia’s Farm.

Sylvia – her writing style immediately invites intimacy – bought an eighty-five acre farmstead in upstate New York a quarter century ago, complete with an enormous nineteenth century house, carriage house, and barn. Before long she found herself the owner of over a hundred sheep, a cow, a goat, and numerous chickens and geese. She also gardens, from which she cooks and bakes, and grows gooseberries and currants commercially. From her sheep’s wool she knits, and she is interested in stenciling, and embarks on endless renovations of her buildings. Oh, and did I mention that she also writes? She’s written a regular column for a local paper and published over a thousand articles on farming. And she runs her livestock farm by herself.

I have my share of domestic skills, but a single day in Sylvia’s life, as told in these essays, made me exhausted just reading it.

The climate of Delaware County, New York, is bitter in winter. In a chapter where Sylvia describes rescuing newborn lambs abandoned by their mother, she writes that she put them in a sack on her back and crawled on hands and knees over the treacherous ice from barn to warm kitchen, thus saving them – and herself – from death by falling and freezing. To think that she lives on the farm alone, and handles all these dramas with only occasional help from friends, family, and neighbors, gave me chills.

Anyone who thinks that farm life is unadventurous will be disabused of the notion by reading this book. For all the drama, the urgent need to fulfill the numerous daily tasks, and an income that is dependent on weather, the inner satisfaction Sylvia has gained from this literally down to earth lifestyle comes across on the page in captivating, lyrical prose.

Amazing and inspiring.

The After Wife

By Cass Hunter

Trapeze, Hachette Book Group, 2018



For a creeped-out experience, imagine this: Your wife dies and you and your daughter are devastated. Then your brilliant computer-scientist wife’s work partner comes to the funeral with an instruction – come to the lab immediately. When you arrive, you are confronted with a life-like robot who is the spitting image of your dead wife, Rachel. “She” is called i Rachel, and she is programmed to come home and live with the family.

This story captivated me on so many levels. First it is a very contemporary story about artificial intelligence. That robots will be built to resemble humans and will carry out many of the tasks we take for granted is not a matter of if, but when. That they will not be able to empathize, though scientists may do their best to make that happen, is also likely. At least in the near future.

In The New York Times on Friday October 19, a computer engineer, Yves Behar, is quoted as saying “we should imagine how A.I. can be both smart and compassionate, a combination that can solve the most important human problems…We should be thinking about A.I. in new contexts – the newborn of the overworked parent, the cancer patient who needs round-the-clock attention, and the child with learning and behavioral difficulties. A.I holds great promise for them.”

What? A baby needs human attention, as has been shown over and over again in neo-natal ICUs. A child’s learning experience can be warped by technology, as any parent knows. As for the cancer patient, that horse is already out of the barn; technology may save life for a time, but patients have repeatedly pleaded for more human interaction from their doctors. So, A.I. is not just science fiction. It is already upon us.

Cass Hunter, though, is not writing science fiction. Or not just science fiction. As if to prove her point about i Rachel, her human characters demonstrate the full gamut of emotion. We really feel the grief of Aidan, the husband, and Chloe, the daughter, of the real Rachel. Minor characters are fleshed out and have idiosyncrasies that make them believable. Ms. Hunter has such an ability to get inside her character’s point of view that we actually feel what it would be like to experience a catastrophic aneurysm. That fatal incident sets the story in motion. It is also a brilliant authorial choice. By getting inside the real Rachel’s head at the beginning of the story we empathize with her and can understand (sort of) why, anticipating her untimely death, she tried to “help” her family cope with her absence. But people are never replaceable.

This is a brilliant piece of work, well written and thought provoking. Artificial intelligence: is it a boon or a horror story?

What do you think?