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June 2, 2013

Victoria Sponge for Barbara Pym

IMG_20130602_180955I 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

Reading Barbara Pym on her Centenary

excellentI 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.

More: Barbara Pym on The Sunday Edition!

May 29, 2012

The Occasion is Lavender

I only bake when it’s a special occasion, but the problem is that I seem to unearth occasions daily. Today it’s that the lavender in the front garden is in glorious bloom. We snipped twelve sprigs, and then I set to bake lavender cupcakes, which I’ve always wanted to bake, so that’s another life goal accomplished. I used the recipe from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, which has proven a very poor instruction manual in my experience. All the measurements are in imperial and I don’t own a kitchen scale, so I have to guess the measurements and so I’ve never had a recipe from that book come out right. Though these lavender cupcakes turned out to be pretty damn acceptable. The flower is absolutely delicious. And though Harriet claims that she doesn’t like them, we’ll try her again tomorrow.

June 24, 2011

I have had a happy birthday

3+2 candles. Have finally finished reading Great Expectations. Ice cream is the easiest cake in the world to make. We had five kids under three (and their moms) over to eat the ice cream cake this morning, and the kids were delightful. Their moms are some of the best company I know. And now I’m going out for dinner with my little family, tomorrow we’ll celebrate birthdays, Father’s Day and my mom’s retirement with our extended family, and then piece de resistance is Sunday, when we have afternoon tea at the Windsor Arms Hotel. When, I guess, we will finally have to declare my birthday over. But until then…

Happy Weekend!

May 26, 2011

This cake is for the party…

We decided that a six-layer cake needed a bit more height, so we put it on a pedestal and added cake bunting. It was delicious. Only problem was that one slice fed all our party guests, so now we’re looking for some other parties for this cake to be for.

(I stole this idea from here, just in case you’ve mistaken me for someone original. And her cake wasn’t crooked. But then her philosophy also probably isn’t, “Bake a cake, but bake it slant.”)

February 28, 2011

We love Ilkley. Thank you, Jackson Brodie.

Today Harriet stayed home with her grandparents, and Stuart and I drove to Ilkley in Yorkshire (which is very close to Burley Cross country). I wanted to go to a Bettys Tea Room after reading Starting Early Took My Dog (which should probably receive a commission for our visit). Jackson Brodie certainly did not mislead us: if the Bettys girls ran the government, indeed, there would not have been recent economic disasters, or disasters of any kind. Tea was completely delicious, definitely the best we’d had since Saturday, and I was particularly in love with the woman having her breakfast at the table across from ours’ (“Anything else for ye, Vera?” they asked as she was preparing to go, as she tied a kerchief around her hair).

We had fun exploring the town afterwards, visiting the best butcher in Britain, and the Grove Bookshop, a fabulous independent bookshop whose business was booming. We got a steak and kidney pie at the former, and at the bookshop, I got a Penguin 75 tote bag, and Old Filth by Jane Gardam (which I’ve had out of the library twice, but have always had to return before I’ve had a chance to read it).

June 27, 2010

Unsad Lemon Cake

This is a slice of the lemon chocolate cake I baked after reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake last week. I think I may have a new compulsion to bake every fictional cake that I encounter, or maybe it’s just any fictional cake I encounter as written by Aimee Bender, who writes about food and eating in such a concrete, tangible way, rendering the ordinary extraordinary. Whose description simultaneously blows your mind and has you going, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean…” Anyway, the cake was good, and devoid of sadness. I wonder what kind of fictional cake I’ll encounter next?

June 20, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake begins with Rose Edelstein, aged eight, helping herself to a bite of cake and becoming overwhemed by an awareness of her mother’s profound sadness. This awareness is devastating, and has enormous implications: that her mother is human, that life is complicated, that Rose is powerless to control the world around her. Childhood naivete ends at this point, when Rose realizes that she can taste people’s feelings in the food they create– her mother’s sadness makes family dinners unbearable, she eats a friend’s sandwhich and is “envious… that this lightness was where she came from”, and so the vending machines at school supply her with sustenence, the relief of their bland and innocuous factory flavour.

Aimee Bender is known for her short stories, and this seems like the perfect premise for one of these. The novel reading like an extended short story itself– the perfection of the details, the minute observation, the sense of play and whimsy, the genre-bending, the fantastic. And yet this is decidedly a novel too, with great expansiveness, development, and enormous weight. Cake-like, airy and solid.

There is so much that Bender gets absolutely right. Her narrative voice is a stellar achievement, Rose reminiscent of Ramona Quimby as the book begins, and yet undercut by a darker tone that takes over as the book proceeds. Bender manages a perfect balance of wide-eyed child and wry observer (see “[Dad] always seemed like a guest to me. ‘Welcome home,’ I said.” vs. “he loved her the way a bird-watcher’s heart leaps when he hears the call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader calling its lilting coo-coo from the mangroves”.) The story is perfectly timeless, flying on its own steam, freed from the cumbrousness of period. It has the tone and appeal of a YA novel– elements of A Wrinkle in Time in addition to Ramona. And yet, YA this is not– the sadness is heavy, the emotions complicated and awful, and too much for even Rose to understand.

With amazing acuity, Bender shows Rose’s reaction to her burden of empathy– how she eats an entire slice of the cake in an effort to convince herself that everything is fine, that she made up her feelings, but Rose only feels her mother’s sadness more, and how she tries to console her mother but doesn’t know what she wants or needs, and how Rose tries to explain that she can taste a hollow in her mother’s cake but can’t explain it well enough, and how after so much explaining, she eventually keeps it to herself.

Rose’s ability to taste feelings actually becomes secondary as the novel progresses, fading to the background– this is a novel with most of its two feet in reality. Understatement makes Rose’s affliction almost plausible, and we’re not meant to consider it too much anyway, but the story continues to be about her family’s dynamics, and how Rose deals with knowledge of her mother’s sadness as her older brother begins to retreat into his own world. It’s also about food, taste and eating, and where our food comes from, how little most of us actually consider this. And it’s about childhood, and things better unlearned, and a yearning to return to a simpler place that has been tainted by what is known now.

And so onto the bandwagon I jump, late for the party as always. Go Aimee Bender, whose novel is perfectly unlike anything else, and also perfectly perfect.

April 24, 2010

On literary cakes

Cake is one of my many weaknesses, actual cake and bookish ones. I’ve really never, ever met a cake I didn’t like (except carrot cake, which I hold passionate feelings about. The cake that should not be called cake. An insult to cakes. If you tell me you’re bringing cake and then you show up with carrot cake, you’ve not only let me down, but you’ve told a lie). I like to bake cakes, I like to eat cakes. I think my favourite is chocolate banana cake, or chocolate-anything cake, or vanilla in a pinch. Fillings can be cream, or fruity, but should probably be icing. Oh, icing. When I was little, I used to eat the icing and leave the cake. Since then I’ve learned (but not entirely).

I like cakes in books too, though they’re often markers of tragedy. The cake Rilla Blythe had to carry in Rilla of Ingleside, and how there was nothing more mortifying. Oh, god– the birthday cake in Raymond Carver’s story “A Small Good Thing”. Could it be the most unbearable cake in fiction? Marian McAlpin’s cannibal cake in The Edible Woman.  Does Carol Shields have a cake?? There must be one, though I can’t think of it. So literary cakes, and there must be a couple more.

Cakeish books have had a way of getting my attention lately. I adored Heather Mallick’s essay collection Cake or Death when it came out a few years ago. I’ve been wanting to read Sloane Crosley’s collection I Was told There’d Be Cake for ages now. I can’t wait to read Sarah Selecky’s story collection This Cake is For the Party when it comes out next month. And just now, when I was searching for books on cake, I discovered that Aimee Bender has a novel coming out in June called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (which could never approach the particular sadness of carrot cake, but I digress). I’ve never read Bender before but a proper cakeish book seems like a particularly good place to start.

And note that you’ve still got about a week to enter Sarah Selecky’s Win a Cake contest. I’ve already entered, and I won’t be sharing if I win.

September 14, 2009

Pirates and Penguins, oh my!

Yesterday, our wee family attended the launch of Patricia Storms‘ book The Pirate and the Penguin at the magnificent Yorkville Public Library. It was not actually Harriet’s first literary event, as she’d attended Coach House Press’s Wayzgoose Party the week before, but it was her first launch, and the first time she’d sat down for a public reading. She was spoiled by Patricia, I think, who had an actual pirate on hand for the occasion, and was kind enough to pose for a picture with us. Her reading was excellent, and held even Harriet’s three and a half month-old attention span. Afterwards, Stuart and I had shared a slice of cake, which Harriet inadvertantly stuck her hand in.

We loved the book, from each one of its delightful map-illustrated inside covers to the other. Now, I’ve never really *got* pirates myself, except Somali ones– I don’t understand why International Talk Like a Pirate Day is funny, for example. But I’ve been a big fan of penguins going back yonks, and I like alliteration at the best of times. The story was funny, and sweet, and I especially liked its references to knitting and yoga. Patricia has been illustrating really wonderful books for a long time, and we’re so excited that she’s finally written her own!

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