Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cooks and Books

This weekend I came down with the cold that Bob and half of London have been nursing recently. Sort of a half-hearted cold in my case that didn't progress beyond a stuffy nose, but on Sunday I wasn't feeling great so I cancelled quilting for Monday since I was hosting, and everyone I know is feeling pretty risk averse to germs these days. Last spring Hampstead was one of the first nodes of swine flu for tweens and teens in Britain. Lots of Easter holidays in Mexico for the elite travelling set of North London, I guess. Not having quilting has thrown my whole week off. And this is my last week in London until December because on Saturday I fly to Massachusetts for more than three weeks of doting on my grandchildren and on their lovely parents too.

It wasn't much of a weekend here. American-style Halloween has been adopted by England — at least in Hampstead, home to so many US children and their parents — over the course of the eleven years we have lived in London. Costumed Trick-or-Treaters rove the streets including ours, but living in a mansion-block of flats, we don't have to stock up on treats. The deli up on the High Street that has a sideline in US food — junk and otherwise — was selling bags of candy corn, so I did get to gorge on that annual American iconic treat. Back in the day, our first Halloween here, teenaged Susan was appalled to discover there was no knowledge of candy corn in this country. Every year since then, we have imported some either on an autumn trip to Hingham or by having Megan mail us some. The first year Susan was at Cambridge, she shared her stash with British friends, who refused to believe it was edible — and she said some adhered to that belief after trying a piece.

Fortunately we are going to be in the States this year for Thanksgiving because there seems to be no tinned pumpkin in England this year. Europe does not know about the joy of canned pumpkin puree. Every recipe that involves pumpkin, and there are a lot of recipes since pumpkin is a favourite vegetable, begins with the instruction to clean, bake, and puree your pumpkin. Now I have done that in my past life, and generally I ended up with a weak coloured, slightly stringy, and invariably flavourless mush that made a very poor pie. Yes, I know that sugar pumpkins are the recommended variety if one wants to be all native, back-to-the land, I-never-eat-canned-food about these things. And I have had better luck with sugar pumpkins when used for puree, but nothing gives a pie the flavour of pumpkin from a can. For several years, tins of pumpkin were only available at the American-stocked deli for a price, so that became an item to bring back on visits to the States. Finally, a few years ago supermarkets began to stock tinned pumpkin, eliminating the need for suitcase importation, but last year and now this year, the tinned pumpkin has disappeared once again. So I will have to spare some suitcase room for pumpkin to make muffins and bread and soup, and maybe even a pie, next winter.

I have been in a cooking trough for the past week. Absolutely no interest in cooking, and this week will require no dinners, so I am pleased. Although I do have a mound of pears and apples that should be sauced or something. And a sugar pumpkin delivered with the organic produce last week in time for Halloween. And a backlog of onions, cabbage, and carrots that probably won't be used, at least by me. By the time I am back here in December I will be ready to cook up a storm, I'm sure. And I will try not to find any new cookbooks to buy — although I am intrigued by Thomas Keller's new cookbook that was written up in the New York Times a few days ago.  I never buy restaurant chef cookbooks because I know they are never going to work for sloppy non-perfectionist me at home, but the references to apple butter in a slow cooker and already knowing he salts his broccoli water makes me curious about the blanching in a big pot method mentioned in the article.  Addictions are impossible to overcome. I guess I have been lucky to avoid damaging addictions like drugs and alcohol — and I gave up cigarettes (although I plan to resume smoking regularly when I am 80) — but I can't stay away from the cookbooks. There are always new ones, flaunting their flashy covers, the well-designed pages — fonts, white spaces — that I cannot resist, and of course the appealing taste sensations promised are irresistible. Sometimes when I bring them home I cook up a recipe or two, and I am rarely disappointed. After that, I mostly admire them on the shelf — on the shelves is more accurate — and the ones in the piles on the table or some in the pile under the table. Okay, you get the point. Fortunately most of the cookbooks never came to England — part of the plan for a new life in a foreign country free of cooking and cookbooks — and then I just had to have Nigella's first cookbook published the same time we arrived in England, and making a big splash because of her family and her dying husband. Now there are so many of them, I consider them to be "A Collection" so it would be wrong to de-accession, in the museum term, by weeding them out and taking the pointless ones to Oxfam. Next time, we can discuss my addiction to buying craft project supplies.

I have succeeded in halting the buying of books that are not cook or craft books. And I have been immune to Amazon messages offering books that sound really really good — those statistical algorithms at work — after the debacle of the non-delivery of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.
Last week was Book Group Week for me, so my list of "Books I Am Reading" has been reduced by two for the group reads. Sunday's illness allowed me to curl up with Beth Gutcheon's Saying Grace which was much too depressing for me to recommend to anyone else. It was written in the mid-1990s, and Beth must have been in a right funk. Her more recent Maine novels More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage, and Good-bye and Amen were much more enjoyable reads (although not necessarily happy novels). Since I gave up Joanna Trollope and Anita Shreve,  Gutcheon has been a favourite for women's life-story novels because she is a good story-teller and a good writer with a sharp eye for social comment. I am being unfair to Saying Grace because it is a brilliant novel, set in a wealthy coastal California (think Santa Barbara) private sub-secondary school much like our Derby Academy in Hingham, with lots of sharp social commentary on education and parenting, and the fact that it depressed the hell out of me and gave me a nightmare the night I finished it, is no reason to slag it off to others. I am saving Hornets' Nest for the plane ride and donation to friends and fans who have to wait until next year for the US publication of the third volume. So I am down to the last of the Japanese mysteries from The Pile of books.

Full Moon Feast will remain on the list as I dip in and out of it over the year. At root I will always be a California coastal hippie since all the most important experiences of my adult life happened in coastal California (Northern and Southern) between 1971 and 1982 — I think of that time period as pre-Reagan America, although he had tragically been elected, his vampire friends hadn't yet thoroughly trashed America to enrich and empower themselves. Full Moon Feast is a recipe and food philosophy book on a subject that has long interested me: the seasonality of diet in a natural world. A few weeks ago, when London was having a cold spell, and we had not turned on the heat in the flat, the only thing I wanted to eat was pasta with butter and sage sauce, clearly because my bones were chilled, and I wanted carbs and fats to warm me internally. Yes, localism has become popular in the post-Michael Pollan world of sophisticated eaters, but I think of seasonality as being more world shaping than just eating what is on hand. My interest probably began with William Cronon's Changes in the Land, an ecological history of New England, which begins with a description of the American native tribes' movements through their territory over the course of a year to eat what was available in different places during different seasons for an adequate annual diet. Cronon discussed the Starving Season of late winter, early spring, when stored supplies were used up and new growth had yet to begin. (I immediately connected this starving time to the Christian season of Lent at the same time of year. The disadvantage of scarce food turned into a devotional benefit of sacrifice and grace.) Of course the European "settlers" ruined the native food year by restricting access to their "settlement" places  which disrupted the annual cycle and destroyed the culture. So I will dip into the thirteen Full Moons Feasts over the year.

Rarely do I attend both Book Groups these days since they meet the same week, and rarely am I interested in reading both of the chosen books. This month was one of the rare months. Last Wednesday I headed over to Tamara's in Kensington to discuss Stoner, written in 1965 before "stoner" meant something else, with the Seven College Conference Book Group whose members are drawn from the alumnae of what was once the Seven Sisters Colleges in the US and enhanced by a fair number of Tamara's English friends who she has enticed to join. The nearly forgotten author John Williams won the National Book Award for Augustus in 1973, but the New York Review of Books re-published Stoner in its Classics series a few years ago, and it has been doing the literary fiction rounds ever since. The book chronicles the life of Professor Stoner at the University of Missouri from his boyhood on a struggling prairie farm to his death, a life in which very little ever goes right for him, but in which he never loses his integrity or his inner self. The writing is a tour de force of spare prose and deep meaning. It was an excellent book club choice: everyone liked it, but there was lots of discussion on those deep meanings. Much of Stoner's misery is caused by his emotionally, psychologically, mentally disturbed wife who is also just plain mean to him.  By the time I was a third of the way through the book, from hinted incidents and behaviours in the text, I was convinced there was no question the horrid wife had been sexually abused by her father. From then on I interpreted the book with that point in mind, finding it remarkable because I didn't think sexual abuse existed in 1965, certainly not as a standard plotline like we have today in novels and films. What I thought was more remarkable was that when I casually dropped this interpretation into the discussion last Wednesday, I was met by stunned silence, broken by one woman saying she had assumed the same, the remainder split between "of course, now I see, that explains it all" and "no, no, she was just a nutcase and a meanie." Since there are at least a dozen passages supporting my side, there weren't many unbelievers by the end of the meeting. I think what surprised me the most was how little sympathy these women had for the wife while reading the novel. No character could be as cruel and deranged as this woman acted all through the novel without a reason, yet only one other person looked beneath the novel's cool surface to seek an explanation.

The easy manipulation of women readers was shown by the somewhat opposite reaction to the women characters in the book chosen for Friday's Book Group meeting. This is a much larger group which was once connected to the Hampstead Women's Club, when the members were almost entirely American expats most of whom had been in London for a short time — that would have been me eleven years ago — and when rotations for ex-pats were at most three years, so the group changed constantly, except for a small core of ex-pats who had lived in London for decades with English or Commonwealth husbands. The group is now made up almost entirely of long time expats or citizens. So I headed over to Nikki's beautiful house in Primrose Hill to discuss our book choice The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. I was very excited to read this book because Elizabeth Jenkins who celebrated her 104th birthday on Halloween — yes, still alive in a local care home — spent most of her long life on Downshire Hill, and for her 100th birthday wrote a memoir titled The View From Downshire Hill. She wrote dozens and dozens of books, novels, histories, biographies, was a founder of the Jane Austen Society, a writer taken up and then dropped by Virginia Woolf. She is mostly out of print, but Virago republished The Tortoise and the Hare a few years ago, and the entire literary establishment of women love this book: Hilary Mantel in the Preface, Carmen Callil in the Afterword, Dovegrey Reader (perhaps not so much now that I re-read her post), Amanda Craig in her blog. It is well written, but it is such a period piece, from the early1950s, about a world I'm not sure we can even understand much less interpret.

Imogen, 39 years old, sweet and lovely, raised to be useless is gobsmacked when her 52 year old successful barrister husband Evelyn takes up with their 50 year old neighbour Blanche who is not physically attractive, but is a director of her late father's company and who shares Evelyn's interests in sports and other activities. Now all of these critics and half the book group women — yes, for once I wasn't the only contra opinion on a book — are as one in saying poor Imogen, who shouldn't be criticised for being useless because she simply can't help it, is being hard done by the ghastly Evelyn who is taken in by the wicked Blanche. None of this made any sense to me because Imogen is a pathetic, boring, and shallow creature who I soon wanted to strangle. I never felt Elizabeth wrote sympathetically about Imogen, yet somehow women readers instantly side with Imogen. Evelyn might be a bit cranky, but living with Imogen would drive any sane person up a wall. He is a caring father; he is devoted to his cases; he is even kind to Imogen despite her shortcomings as a wife and partner.  Blanche is an active and competent woman. In a feminist novel of the 1960s, she would be the heroine, the independent woman who knows herself and knows what she wants, and no one would laugh at her just because she wears bad hats, has a chunky body above spindly legs, and chooses heinous carpets.

This is where I think we have trouble with interpretation. In today's view, Blanche is a character on Desperate Housewives breaking up a family for her own satisfaction, the clueless husband is easily lured into her honey trap Rolls Royce, and the innocent, blameless wife unjustly suffers. Yet in the 1953 world of the book, Imogen makes clear that she was raised to accept the fact her husband would have a mistress because that is the way her world always has worked (and she herself has retired from sex in the marriage). What she is upset about is that she assumed the putative mistress would be a younger version of her own useless self, on hand for sex, but not to be an active partner in life. To complicate the interpretation further,  Carmen Callil relates in the Afterword that Elizabeth Jenkins told her in the mid-1990s, that the story is autobiographical. She was a long-time mistress to a respected doctor, and when his wife died, he did not marry Elizabeth. Instead, he married a neighbour and asked Elizabeth to pick up their former arrangement. She was furious, wrote this novel in a few weeks, sent it to him, and never spoke to him again. So this is definitely not a novel about the evils of adultery. When Callil made a remark about the ghastly Evelyn,  Elizabeth remarked, oh but you didn't know him. I found this all to be very confusing, but I think I have now found an answer that satisfies me. The critics, and the book group members, all spend time discussing the clever title in terms of who is the Tortoise? Who is the Hare? I think the cleverness in the title is that Elizabeth is telling us she has swapped the real women in the fiction version. Elizabeth is Blanche — bright, active, competent, respected — and the message of the novel to the real unnamed Evelyn is that you could have chosen me as a partner in a modern marriage of equals to share an active public life — but you chose to remain within the accepted boundaries of your class, to marry another useless child-woman who will never be your equal and who will spend her life playing with other child-like friends. Amanda Craig's blog refers to Imogen beginning a new life with the one person who loves her. Amanda does not mention this person is 12 years old!

I began this post thinking I liked one book, Stoner, and disliked the other, but now I think they are both brilliant novels. They both manipulate the reader by pretending to be straight forward tales of their character's lives, but by placing the important facts of the story out of the way, buried in the subtext where they may not be noticed while the author is distracting you with the smokescreen of an important event, another story is unfolding.So it was a good week for reading.