January 15, 2017
I specialize in accidental cakes—I wrote about one of these in my favourite blog post ever. And here is another, in a post that was originally an Instagram post, but I was a few hundred words in before I realized it was a blog post after all. And so here it goes.
Yesterday there was no cake scheduled and there would have been no cake, except that when I was looking in a drawer for chopsticks at lunchtime (we were having udon noodles), I found an implement (shown in the photo above) which I’ve never used and cannot remember where it came from—from my mom or my aunt? Was it my grandmother’s? But regardless of origin, I didn’t even know its purpose: a comb? A plow for mashed potatoes? But then Stuart remembered that it was a cake server. “That’s right. But how??”
And then I googled “cake server with prongs” and found Jessica Reed’s website (“CakeWalk: Exploring Stories, History, and Identity Though Cake”), which is my new favourite place on the internet. In the post I found, Reed writes about this implement, “the cake breaker,” patented by Cale J Schneider in 1932. The cake breaker is specially designed to slice a cake without destroying it, essential in delicate cakes such as angelfood…
“Well, let’s make an angelfood cake,” I declared, determined—until I found the recipe had 12 eggs in it. Our eggs are free range and eggs are far far too precious for that. So no. I scoured my cookbooks for other options, and settled on an apple upside-down cake. Not the best cake for a breaker, I realized in retrospect, because it would have to slice through apples too. So not optimal, but it worked. We ate the second half of it this afternoon, and it was even yummier.
And the point of this, of course, is the amazing way that all roads (even udon!) lead to cake, however indirectly.
I mean, at least they do if you’re lucky…
June 26, 2016
Friday was also my 37th birthday, which kicked off with a visit to the bank. Okay, that’s not completely true—I woke up and as per family tradition, people and presents were piled on my bed and I got to open the latter, which included bath things, a new robe, a beautiful shirt, and the book Mad Men Carousel, which means I now get to read my favourite television show over and over again instead of only just watching it. It all was wonderful, but then we had to get going, get the kids to school, and there was that meeting at the bank which was just a quick one because I had some papers to sign. My favourite thing about my bank is free WiFi and so as I sat there in the nondescript office and waited for pages to print and details to be sorted, my phone kept buzzing, email, Twitter and Instagram, so many excellent people sending me wishes. My best friends, old friends, online friends, and more friends—it was overwhelming. I am so incredibly grateful for the people who make my world. One in particular…
Which would be the one who orchestrated the post-bank events. He was working from home so was there to answer the knock on our door just past 10am, when a taxi arrived delivering scones and jam from Baker and Scone, the scones still warm from the oven. Lavender scones, no less. And then another knock at the door, more friends, and there was champagne and orange juice, and a fruit tart, and so much goodness. It was amazing. What a way to spend a Friday morning—and then after I went to fetch Iris at noon, I spent the afternoon reading in my hammock. (It is also nice to be out and about with Iris, who insists on telling everybody that it’s my birthday, so that I get to be celebrated and still look cool.)
That night we went to Chadwicks for dinner, and had a delightful time on the patio. Reminiscing about all the good times we’ve had there over the years—like the night that Iris discovered she had feet. And then coming home to ice cream cake, my favourite (and even better: there’s still some in the freezer right now).
We spent Saturday morning in High Park with friends for a spectacularly catered sixth birthday party, and then drove out of the city after lunch for the final lag of my birthday celebrations. Driving to Uxbridge, ON to visit Blue Heron Books—remember my first visit there two years ago? Although we stropped for gelato first and then made our way to Blue Heron, which now has an adjoining teashop, which is only good news.
The door was open and the shop was beautiful. I loved their displays, personal recommendations, the chairs, and selection. I browsed and explored, picking up titles that caught my eye. I managed not to buy every single one, although I got a few of them. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. I only returned to the cash one more time after my initial purchases. And then we made our way to the park and hung out in the shade on the grass, before heading to Urban Pantry for a ridiculously delicious dinner (with cake pops, no less). The ride back home was peaceful and nobody cried, and there is this one spot on Bloomington Road where we could see the city, small but entire, faraway over the green fields, and all of us gasped in awe.
April 29, 2016
I owe the most enormous debt to Joanne Schwartz. I met Joanne five and a half years ago when I started attending toddler time at the Lillian H. Smith Library with Harriet, and not only did she introduce me to The Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak (which is one of the best things a person can do for anybody), and books by Eve Rice, and Marisabina Russo, and so many others, but she actually taught me how to read a story.
Now I am really, really good at reading stories, but my secret confession is that it’s because I totally stole Joanne’s technique. Which involves talking to children like they’re humans instead of idiots, not employing silly voices, instead a clear voice just not loud enough so that you’ve got to be engaged in order to hear it, and (and this is key) that the voice be thoroughly infused with wonder. So that it’s soothing and animated at once—the most incredible balance.
Joanne’s own books are not so different in approach from the way she reads. She is the author of Our Corner Grocery Store, a fantastic story about a family-run shop , and also of the books City Alphabet and City Numbers, with photographs by Matt Beam, and all of these are books that illuminate the extraordinary in ordinary sights and experiences.
Her new book, Pinny in Summer, gorgeously illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, fits nicely into that oeuvre, and manages that same balance of soothing and animated, rich with wonder. It’s four little stories in one book, all taking place over the course of a single day—similar in structure to Frog and Toad, or Little Bear. Pinny is a little girl with a whole lot of freedom and so her day contains multitudinous adventures: she finds a wishing stone; she enjoys a session of cloud watching with her friends, Annie and Lou, and then manages to pick a bucket of blueberries before getting caught in a rainstorm. She encounters seagull, then bakes a cake, and it’s around here that it all begins to go a bit wrong—but with a little bit of ingenuity the day is salvaged. And the best thing of all as the sun goes down (and “[t]he sky changed from blue, to a deeper blue, then to dark blue”): there is going to be a tomorrow.
Schwarz’s prose is wonderful—”the sun was shining again, making everything as warm as toast”—and so nice to put your mouth around. Pinny’s adventures are simple but lovely, and are certainly the kind that will inspire a child to dream of similar things. And the story is beautifully bought to life with Malenfant’s illustrations, with shades of blue and violet, simple drawings enlivened by wonderful texture, shadows and darkness at the edges that keep things interesting.
And of course, Pinny in Summer inspired us too. Because I dare you not to read it and want to bake a wild blueberry cake like Pinny does. And so we did, even though our wild blueberries were not picked in buckets on blueberry hill, alas, but came from a bag in the freezer.
All the same though, once we dumped the berries in the mix, the batter turned the same shade of purple as the pictures, which was perfect (and seeing the table set in the image above, you can probably get a good idea of why I love this book so).
The cake was delicious. We froze half for later. And we look forward to spending this summer reading about Pinny again and again.
December 31, 2015
We have had a stupidly crummy holiday, mostly for non-monumental reasons. A year ago I wrote this post about our family’s talent for leisure and enjoying ourselves—we were skating, movie-going, relaxing, lunching, going offline for an actual week, etc.—but we were showing none of those tendencies this time around. Things got off to a good start, but Harriet came down with a stomach bug on Christmas Eve that stayed around for a few days. Iris stopped sleeping over Christmas, and was conspiring to kill me. Stuart was diagnosed with strep throat, and while I was pretty well post-pneumonia, I was so tired and crabby. We weren’t terribly ambitious then—some days our big outing was to the grocery store. Though there were a few highlights—before it all went wrong, we had a fun day downtown(er) and got to visit Ben McNally Books, where I picked up Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, which I’m about to begin as soon as I publish this post. We had nice visits with my parents, who braved our company. Lunch at Fanny Chadwicks yesterday, though Stuart is still unable to eat solids, so he didn’t have the greatest time. Tonight we’re going to our friends for a New Years get-together, though we won’t be staying too long (and I am sure nobody else at the party is too upset about that. We’ve become social pariahs).
I did, however, get a lot of reading done, mostly because my evening companion took to going to bed at 8pm, and I took a holiday from work things and read all through nap times (bliss!). My holiday reads were not at all disappointing, mercifully, and I look forward to writing a post about them this week. My final read of the year was a gift from Stuart (who got me so many excellent bookish things), The Magician’s Book, by Laura Miller (and we’re going to be starting Prince Caspian in a few days and I am so excited). My final read of 2015 then, followed by my first read of 2016—Birdie. I really want to keep a focus on reading First Nations women writers.
Anyway, a disappointing holiday is winding down on the right note. Iris’s weird rash (of course she has a weird rash!) is clearing up, if that’s any indication. Today I did receive the great joy of not only a pair of Hunter wellies in the post, but a brand new teapot. And why did I need a teapot, you might ask, seeing as I came into possession of the greatest teapot on earth just six months ago? Well, on Christmas Day, my teapot got smashed, which led to sulking and petulance on my part, and put a damper on our holiday on top of everything, because I am shallow and materialistic. (But it’s a teapot! Not just any ordinary material.) The bright side of your teapot smashing though is that you get to wait for a new one to come in the post. (I wanted a London Pottery teapot, you see.) There seemed to be no more white polka-dots to be had for love nor money, but I was able to order a plain red one from the shop I’d bought the last one from in Bobcaygeon. And it arrived quickly and intact, alongside my new wellies which replaced a) the wellies I’d got for Christmas that didn’t fit and b) the wellies my mother-in-law bought me for my 26th birthday a decade ago and whose image was for a time my blog header and can still be seen if you scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page, and which finally started leaking after many years of service. So things are certainly on the up-and-up.
I’ve had a good year, even though it’s gone out with pneumonia (but then having pneumonia was terrific, from a reading point of view…). I am pleased that I sold my novel and am excited to turn it into an actually book over the course of this year, though I still can’t quite believe that’s going to happen. I read a lot of good books. I had a splendid trip to England, the land of teapots and wellies. I learned to write profiles, which was a new challenge—I wrote about Julie Morstad in Quill & Quire and have a cover story forthcoming in my alumni magazine. I’m pleased with my review of Marina Endicott’s new novel in The Globe and really, really proud of my essay on Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Adult Onset, which was another challenge and I’m so happy to have met it. I want to keep expanding my writerly horizons. Readerly ones too.
This fall has been exhausting. When I look back, it seems like getting pneumonia was inevitable. It doesn’t help that Iris’s sleep is so patchy, as it’s ever been. My resolution for 2016, if I had one, would probably involve getting more sleep, if that weren’t at the expense of so many things, but I will make an effort. It might also involve baking fewer cakes, but this kind of thing is why I don’t go in for resolutions in the first place.
Happy New Year to you, and thank you for reading!
September 7, 2015
Back to school tomorrow! Which means that we spent much of today at the CNE, which was excellent, and the prize-winning celery was as wonderful as I’d hoped for. (It’s basically the reason I go.) And we are so very hot, the weekend spent dripping with sweat and entertaining people in high humidity. Last night our best friends from kindergarten came for dinner, one of our now-regular togethers that involves too much wine and so much cake. Meeting these families was one of the best parts of last year, and I will miss them as our children move onto new classes and schools and our daily lives are no longer as connected. Although friendships can and do endure, as evidenced by tonight when my friends and former roommates Kate and Erin (and Kate’s husband Paul) came over last minute for pizza. The last-minute thing remarkable because Kate and Paul live in Vancouver, and we’ve not seen them in three years. But here they were tonight, with a cake even. And what a cake? If my book ends up looking half as excellent as this one, I will be satisfied. (Apparently the image was inspired by my Mitzi Bytes pinterest board, because there is indeed such a thing.) I have the most terrific friends. Anyway, the convenient thing about all of this is that Harriet’s first day of school lunch is leftover pizza and cake, so her year is off to an excellent start. Wish us luck tomorrow as all the madness and fun begins!
April 1, 2015
I’m about as crazy about literary cakes as I am about books illustrated by Marla Frazee (and written by Mary Ann Hoberman, no less), so I’ve been meaning to write about The Seven Silly Eaters for quite some time. A book that I’m actually ambivalent about, even though it has rhyming couplets. It’s down the other end of the spectrum from Mem Fox’s Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild, another book illustrated by Frazee. Harriet is the story of a mom who reaches her breaking point after being sorely tested, and she finally explodes at her extremely irritating (albeit loveable) daughter, and then apologizes and everything is okay. Because mothers are human. Getting angry and upset is what people do, and I think there’s nothing wrong with mothers modelling this. Imagine the child who’s gone through his entire life without learning the fact that people get upset sometimes, that one’s behaviour can have consequences; what a rude awakening the actual world is sure to be.
But then there is Mrs. Peters who seems to never have heard of birth control (with seven children in as many years) or setting limits. One by one, each of her children conspires to destroy her person and her cello-playing dreams by making ridiculous culinary demands: her first child refuses his milk unless it’s warmed to a precise temperature; her second will only drink homemade pink lemonade; third would only eat freshly made applesauce; with the fourth it’s oatmeal, unless that oatmeal has the suggestion of a lump and then he dumps it on the cat; the fifth demands homemade bread; and the twins will only eat eggs, poached for one and fried for the other.
And while Mrs. Peters is happy in her bubble of domestic chaos—this is certainly the life she chose and she likes the pace—the resentment does eventually seep in. Not overwhelmingly, and she seems to accept it the way she’s accepted everything. “What a foolish group of eaters/ Are my precious little Peters,” she muses as she strains the oatmeal for the 4000th time. She thinks they’ve forgotten her birthday, and then she goes to bed sad—has there ever been anything more pitiful than that?
She should have put a stop to the whole thing years ago. “Make your own fucking applesauce, Little Jack. I’ve got a cello to play.” Mothers are people. It’s a good thing for a child to know.
But! Here is the twist. The children have not forgotten their mother’s birthday. Instead, they’ve crept downstairs in the middle of the night to make their mother all their most beloved foods—and do note that they don’t think to make her favourite food. It is quite possible that they’ve never considered that she has one. And because she gave them all a fish instead of teaching them all to fish, proverbially speaking, they have no idea how to cook anything, and so they abandon the project in the middle of it all, their dubious concoctions dumped in a pot and stuffed in the oven.
Where Mrs. Peters discovers it in the morning: miraculously, a pink and plump and perfect cake!
Naturally, we wanted to make it. The Seven Silly Eaters is a book that was born to have a recipe at the end, but there is none. Sadly. And we’re not the only people who thought so (google it: the Internet is rife with parent bloggers making Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake)—due to such a huge demand, Mary Ann Hoberman herself came up with a Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake recipe! So we made it too. Though I thought it was cheating because lemon juice in the milk (to create buttermilk) isn’t really pink lemonade, and she pinks the cake with red food colouring. So I decided to add lemon zest to the cake to make the lemon more authentic, and had the clever idea to make it pink by adding pureed beets to the applesauce (which isn’t in the recipe at all—perhaps Mrs. Peters went on to have a beetroot-loving eighth child?). My clever idea fizzled out, however, because by the time the cake was done, all the pinkness appeared to have been baked out of it. Alas. But the cake was totally delicious. Maybe not delicious enough to make up for more than seven years of domestic tyranny, but I was not asking such things from it.
We love this book. I hope I haven’t suggested otherwise. Frazee’s illustrations are so chock full of detail that they can be explored for ages, and there are all kinds of extra-textual stories going on in the background. The family dynamic is fascinating to consider, and perhaps it’s a good discussion point for children—what happens when a family allows its mother to be treated this way? It’s a call for everyone to do her share. It’s a plea for less ridiculousness when it comes to the demands of picky-eaters. But mostly, it’s a cautionary tale for mothers, I like to think. To have limits and live inside them, to not give and give until you have nothing left for yourself. To admit that you too are a person whose needs must be met, and therein lies the negotiation of family life—a useful education for any child.
January 6, 2015
Today was a day so firmly determined to shrug off its plan that all one can really do is shrug one’s shoulders…and eat dessert.
I have a babysitter on Tuesday mornings, who called last night to cancel because she was ill. Which I thought meant I’d lose some productivity today, but I didn’t know the half of it. When we woke up this morning, the furnace was broken and the temperature down to 15 degrees. With the wind-chill, today felt like -17 outside, so this was troubling news. Luckily, our landlords were on it, and I was grateful that the babysitter would not have arrived at our freezing house after all. Iris and I took Harriet to school, and then we came home to await the serviceperson’s arrival. For about 10 minutes after we came out of the -17, the house actually felt warm, but then it got cold again even though I was wearing multiple layers of clothing, tights under my pants. The only option left then was to put something in the oven.
So I decided to make a cake. But it couldn’t be just any cake. We’ve had far too much in the way of baked goods over the past month and I’d sort of vowed to take a cake break, but then what else does one put in oven’s oven? I had absolutely nothing in the way of things to stew. So cake it was, but quinoa cake, I decided, because quinoa has been sitting in my cupboard for ages. (Although it was actually in the fridge, where we store all our grains to stymy inevitable infestations of mice and moths. Harriet thinks it’s weird that some families keep cereal in the cupboard. She’s never had a krispie that wasn’t chilled. Anyway…)
Quinoa sounded healthier than ordinary chocolate cake, at least. Except that it called for 4 eggs and we have no eggs. So I made it with flax meal sub’d for the four eggs. And coconut oil for the butter (and the coconut oil had frozen!). A quinoa cake didn’t sound all that promising in the first place, and all my sorry doctoring would do it no favours. I put it in my bundt pan (and how I love my bundt pan) where it baked for nearly two hours, and refused to be cooked all the way through. Mission accomplished though: I’d heated the kitchen most of the morning. Still no furnace serviceperson yet.
We’d lost another degree when I contacted our landlord to let her know that they’d not yet arrived. She heard back from them: they HAD come in the morning but knocked at my neighbour’s door and not ours, and didn’t call when they got no answer. She spent 40 minutes on the phone with the company, who told her that the serviceperson could return to our house tonight between 8 and 11pm. Unrelentingly, she stayed on the phone, where they finally agreed to return sooner but only at 3pm, when I leave to go pick up Harriet from school. And so I was charged with finding someone else to fetch Harriet from school, which I knew was going to be trouble—Harriet lives in perpetual fear that I’m not going to pick her up because I was late once in September 2013. Finally, both my landlord AND I found (different) kind neighbours willing to fetch Harriet, which led to more back and forthing as we sorted out the surfeit of human kindness.
The serviceperson finally arrived soon after Iris had awoken from the nap she was taking upstairs with a space heater. We had to chase him down before he left again, which wasn’t aided by the fact that Iris refused to be clothed in outerwear of any kind, and so I had to carry her out wrapped in Stuart’s hoodie. And then Iris and I had to spend 30 minutes in the basement bachelor apartment (where the furnace is) which had no place to sit down except the legendary sex bed (which I know well from sound through the air vents) and I didn’t feel exactly comfortable having Iris sit on that bed, but we had no choice. It was made, at least. She watched Elmo videos on my phone and ate goldfish crackers while I stared at at the serviceperson’s sizeable bum (and thankfully, it was not a plumber’s).
I asked him if all the furnaces broke on the coldest day of the year, and he said that tomorrow was actually the coldest day of the year, so we were getting our trouble out of the way early.
And then he was finally done, and I rushed out to find Harriet (not before putting Iris in snow pants and a jacket), who was being brought home by a classmate’s mother, but I went up the wrong street and missed them and was informed by the saintly crossing guard at Bloor and Spadina that Harriet had passed by her corner about five minutes before. So I had to run back home in the -17, and finally found Harriet in front of our house. Where we had heat again and Harriet was home, and so order was all restored, but I had accomplished absolutely nothing in the entire day, except for a really weird quinoa cake, so we sat down to eat it.
It wasn’t bad. Mushy in the middle, and really really rich. “If the furnace hadn’t broken, this cake wouldn’t exist,” I thought, as Iris found a knife and actually cut herself a second piece. I gave another to Harriet too, and then they wanted thirds, but I drew the line—quinoa, yes, but it had a cup of cocoa and even more sugar— and so they both crawled under the table and proceeded to eat the crumbs. They were down there for ages, and the licked the floor completely clean. I’ve never seen them so ravenous for anything.
Stuart came home and the house was in disarray, but we were reading stories, and everything seemed to be settling down. We were having a pasta dinner that involved boiling water and squeezing a lemon, so that was good, and then I remembered that tomorrow is pizza day, which is even better—no lunch to make. And once the pasta was eaten, we finished the cake, the whole thing (save for the quarter I gave to Harriet’s classmate’s mom for bringing her home, wrapped in tinfoil).
I am beginning to think there may be an order to the universe after all, and that accidental cake is part of it, most certainly.
November 2, 2014
Tomorrow night in my blogging course, we will be discussing Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”, which really might be one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, and whose wisdom is remarkably applicable to blogging, as well as to life itself. “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”
So I’ve been rereading the essay, following its twists and turns (and thinking about how much the public streets walked by Woolf’s narrator in “Street Haunting” can stand in for the blogosphere, “a form of society that doesn’t enforce identity but liberates it, the society of strangers, the republic of the streets, the experience of being anonymous and free that big cities invented”).
And then there was an excursion to Kensington Market to purchase not a pencil, but boots for the grown-ups in our family, because the shop there that caters to Portuguese construction workers is the best place we know to buy new Sorels. This was yesterday, and we’d woken up to flurries, so it seemed essential that we buy boots immediately. Plus while in the market, we’d get to pick up wood-smoked bagels and sausages from Sanagans for our evening meal. Once the boots were bought, Stuart with stroller was sent on the bagel errand, while Harriet and I took a quick diversion into Good Egg to scope out potential birthday presents for him.
Where I found this book, Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, based on her illustrated New York Times column. I’d never read the column, but I had been reading Solnit’s essay, which references Kalman’s work, her art, this book. And here was the book in my hands, so I had to have it. I came out of the shop with a stack of books, but pleased with myself. “Only one of these is for me.”
When I got home and went through the Solnit essay again, however, I found that I’d been mistaken. While a section of “Woolf’s Darkness” indeed shares a title with Kalman’s book, Solnit doesn’t mention Kalman at all. I’d made the whole thing up. I’d bought the book by accident. Which was kind of interesting to me, because I am so interested in the connections between books, how they speak to one another, and now I’m fascinated too by the idea of the mistaken allusion, the connection that was never there at all. But now it is, because I supposed it was. Our reading lives are such a tangled web.
All was not lost though. While Kalman’s book was far from Solnit’s essay (though for me, the two shall be linked forevermore—and they’re actually interesting companions), the book was wonderful. It was as though my mistaken allusion had been a trick to get The Principles of Uncertainty into my hands, where it had belonged all the while.
Full of gorgeous images, funny stories, curious questions, and delightful things. It has an index, as all the best books do, and an appendix with images of postcard collections (one of postcards with waterfalls), collected food packets, a list of all the characters in The Idiot by Dostoevsky, and the family recipe for the honey cake referenced on page 54:
“The kitchen is small, spare and shiny. We drink tea an eat honey cake in the hot stillness of the afternoon.”
This afternoon, I baked that cake with Harriet, because today had an extra hour within and there was space for such a thing. We had to borrow a bundt pan from our neighbour, Sarit, because we don’t have a bundt pan even though I thought we did. It seems there is no limit to what I’m capable of remembering wrong.
We had a good time baking—it is much less frustrating baking with Harriet now than when she was three and compelled to stick her hands in the batter (and she sneezes in the bowl hardly ever now). I explained to her that we were making a cake from the book that I had bought by mistake, and it’s that a wonderful thing about the universe—that an accidental book can lead to cake in the oven on a sunny afternoon:
“And then the all-clear sounded and people returned, hope undiminished. They returned, so elegant and purposeful to the books. / What does this have to do with bobby pins and radiators and kokoshniks? One thing leads to another.”
Then when we were all done, I proceeded to TWICE pick up the bundt pan (which was constructed of two parts) incorrectly, separating the bottom from the sides and batter seeping out onto the table. (“I heard at least two ‘fucks,'” Stuart inquired after. “What went wrong?”) As I spatula’d up the mess, Harriet patiently parroted what I’d been saying to her about the accidental book as we’d baked, that sometimes mistakes lead us in the most interesting directions.
“I don’t know if it’s quite the same with baking,” I confessed, sorry that everything was not so poetic, but perhaps it is, or it’s just that this cake is forgiving, because it was, and the cake was wonderful. Delicious, moist, and a perfect balance of spice and sweet. One thing leading to another indeed, and what good fortune when the thing one’s being led to is cake.
- Purchase The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman from McNally Robinson, Canada’s Largest Independent Bookstore
June 2, 2013
I successfully baked a Victoria Sponge cake in honour of the Barbara Pym centenary (and because I feel like eating one). Recipe from Nigella’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, with fresh Ontario strawberries inside. Here’s hoping it tastes as good as it looks. And happy birthday, Miss Pym!
June 2, 2013
I have nearly all of Barbara Pym’s novels on my shelf, the bulk of which I obtained when a contents sale was held at a house around the corner and I pretty much cleaned out the library. And this is how it is with Barbara Pym novels–it usually takes death for a reader to finally part with them. Though they also turn up at used book sales from time to time (probably after a death as well), which is how I first encountered Excellent Women, perhaps Pym’s best-known novel. I’d heard of Pym from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and also from this wonderful piece on the CBC on the Barbara Pym Society, which I joined shortly after becoming a Pym convert. It was Excellent Women that fast turned me into one too, and no wonder, I discovered, over the past few days as I read the book again.
It’s wonderful. I could see how encountering Pym first through some of her other novels might be a less delightful experience, one not truly appreciated until one understands the nature of the Pymmian universe. But Excellent Women, as subtle and small as her other books, is so absolutely funny, its goodness immediately graspable. As ever, the delicious gap because what is written on the page and the reader’s apprehension of the true situation. It’s the story of Mildred Lathbury, spinster daughter of a clergyman whose life changes with the arrival of new neighbours Rocky and Helena Napier, plus a clergyman’s widow who steals the heart of the vicar whom everyone had assumed that Mildred was in love with.
And the lines: “A little grey woman… brewing coffee in the ruins.” The austerity of 1950s’ England is not at the novel’s forefront, but instead a shadow in the background with references to bombed-out buildings, ration books, and bad food. But ordinary life goes on anyway, church services conducted in the half of the church that was not destroyed in the war, which gives the congregation a heightened intimacy.
And the vicar with his plaintive call: “May I come up? I can hear the attractive rattle of tea things. I hope I’m not too late.” Oh, so much tea. “Perhaps there can be too much making cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look. ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.”
There are so many landslides in this tidy book, whose whole world is turned inside out by its final page. Most aren’t the landslides you’d notice and it doesn’t end with a wedding (though a further glimpse of these characters in another Pym novel reveals that one will come about eventually!!!), but more with a change in consciousness, the main character’s heightened awareness of her place in the world. And it’s a funny little world too, quintessentially English, rattling tea things and all. How I adore it, absolutely.
This past week, I also reread A Glass of Blessings, which is more subtle and infused with a touch of melancholy in spite of its delights. So many musings on a furniture storage facility–such a curious book. A bored and idle married woman fancies herself the object of another man’s affections, though he turns out to be gay (which is as expressly stated as you’d imagine for a book published in 1958). Pym is truly the master of the unrequited love narrative.
I do look forward to much Pym rereading this summer. I’ve read most of her books in a pleasurable blur, and welcome the opportunity to think deeper about them. I also look forward to baking a victoria sponge cake this afternoon in celebration of her centenary. It’s either bake a cake or have a baby, and the latter doesn’t appear to be happening yet.