24 July 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

OPAL WHITELEY
1897 - 1991

Liar?  Lunatic?  Saint?  The case of Opal Whiteley remains fascinating.  Opal claimed to have written a diary at the age of five.  When it was published in 1920 by Atlantic Monthly, it was hailed vicariously as a hoax, the work of a poetical genius and the story of a magical and heartbreaking childhood.  Opal, 'the flower child of Oregon literature', was born in the United States, but spent much of her adult life in an English mental hospital.  She is buried in London's Highgate Cemetery.

Sometimes I share my bread and jam with yellow jackets.
They have a home on a bush
distant from the garden twenty trees and one.
Today I climbed the fence close to their home
with a piece and a half of bread and jam.
The half piece for them
and the piece for myself.
They all wanted to be served at once.

I broke it all into little pieces
and they had a royal feast there on the fence.
Yellow jackets are such interesting fairies
being the world's first paper-makers.

Opal
Opal Whiteley

18 July 2015

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

While in London last May, Rachel and I were browsing the shelves at Foyles on Charing Cross Road.  They Came Like Swallows was highlighted as a staff favourite and placed face out on the shelf.  I pointed to it and said something to Rachel about her blog post in which she wrote about how moved she was by this book.  The look on her face, the one you make when something melts your heart, made me decide to just go for it.  American authors on my bookshelves can be counted on one hand so I was taking a leap of faith.  I finished the book yesterday with tears streaming down my face and could kick myself for the many times I've left William Maxwell's books behind on shelves down to blind prejudice.

Told in three parts, it didn't take more than a few paragraphs to fall in love with Bunny, the youngest child of James and Elizabeth Morison and so beautifully drawn by Maxwell.  Bunny clings to his doll, Araminta Culpepper, at night despite being past the age when most boys do so.  He sees animals in the shapes left behind by water-damage on the ceiling and rolls marbles along patterns in the carpet at his mother's feet.  His big brother Robert is thirteen and full of boisterous energy tinged with angst, not at all unexpected considering his age, but sadly it's Bunny who is frequently the target.

'There was no time (no time that Bunny could remember) when Robert had not made him cry at least once between morning and night.  Robert hid Bunny's thrift stamps and his ball of lead foil.  Or he danced through the house swinging Araminta Culpepper by the braids.'

We've all been there, on both sides.  One of the many skillful aspects of Maxwell's powers of observation is his ability to take you back to those moments.  And it wouldn't be fair to judge Robert too harshly as he proves to be every bit as sensitive as his younger brother but through circumstance has gained the ability to withhold signs of vulnerability.

Set in 1918 at the end of The Great War in small-town Illinois the reader is aware that the boys' formative years have been shadowed by loss.  When a flu epidemic breaks out conversation is hushed whenever Bunny and Robert are within earshot but they understand much more than the adults realize.  Inevitably, the illness does affect the family and at a particularly dangerous time as Elizabeth is expecting another baby.

At one hundred and forty pages, this beautiful novella could easily be read in one sitting,  Sometimes that can put off a reader when you're paying with hard-earned money but be assured this stunning piece is excellent value.  The economy of pages also means I dare not say much more as the story is best left to discover for yourself.  There are wonderful books and then there are books you hug to your chest when you're done and They Came Like Swallows is definitely that.


A Little Boy Writing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

***

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman's powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seem to whirl upon a compass-point.
Found certainly upon the dreaming air...
                                                                                                        
W. B. Yeats

17 July 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

MARLENA SPIELER

I was walking down the ever-so-evocative streets of Paris, down rue St. Honoré, past the Opera and Madeleine, heading toward Ladurée, that exquisite jewel box of a pastry shop.  I had an appointment with a macaroon and was busy mulling over exactly which flavour I was going to choose.  Chocolate and pistachio were two current favourites; I was half thinking of lemon or raspberry.  My mind was absorbed with this important decision.
  First of all, I should take a moment to explain that macaroon doesn't refer to the heavy-ish coconutty things we Americans usually think of as macaroons.  A French Macaroon, or macaron, is a light-as-air almost meringue-y almond cookie, or rather two of these light and flavourful cookies sandwiching a filling:  creamy chocolate ganache for the chocolate macaroons, buttery caramel for the hazelnut ones, pistachio cream for the pistachio macaroons and tangy raspberry preserves for the raspberry meringues.  A delicacy like this is worth being obsessed over.
  As I turned the corner I spied a large group of people gathered around the window in front of Ladurée.  There were perhaps six or eight Japanese girls - maybe 18 or 19 years old - standing in front of the pastry shop window.  They were crying.
  An equal number of French adults stood by: women and men, busy raising their shoulders and looking perplexed, shrugging and pouting, giving that particular Gallic downturn of the mouth reflecting an effort to comfort, but helpless nonetheless.  No one seemed to have any idea why the girls were crying.  Clearly, the French did not understand Japanese, and neither did the Japanese understand French.
  'Why,' I asked one of the girls, 'are you crying?'  A sea of gentle sobs was the only reply.  The girls had macaroon crumbs on their faces and didn't look sad at all, they were simply overcome with emotion.
  'Ha-ppy,' said the first girl.  'Ha-ppy,' said the second, and the rest joined in, heads bobbing up and down, 'Ha-ppy!' they all chimed in.  They were crying because they were happy.
  Well, you know, I understand.  There we were, on a beautiful street in Paris, the musical sound of the French language in our ears, surrounded by chic women walking little dogs, shop windows filled with fabulous goods arranged in a stunningly artistic manner...not to mention those macaroons.  Well, who wouldn't cry?

'The Roving Feast'


13 July 2015

Corrigan by Caroline Blackwood

'Domesticity for Miss Blackwood has never been cozy; she listens for the ticking of the time bomb in the teapot.'

- Carolyn Geiser, The New York Times Book Review

This beguiling story begins with an Irish maid announcing the arrival of a man in a wheelchair at the stately home of Mrs Blunt.  The large property sits on the edge of a forest in Wiltshire.  Mrs Blunt has been a widow for three years and continues to dress in mourning, although her attire is pearl-grey as black is too violent.  Her beloved husband, the Colonel, lies in the village graveyard so she carries fresh flowers to his resting place nearly every day.

Mrs Blunt has a difficult relationship with her daughter, Nadine, who lives in Chelsea.  Nadine is frustrated by her mother's helplessness and apathetic way of thinking her best years are behind her.  But Nadine has some serious issues of her own to deal with.  She is in a loveless marriage to a rather vile narcissist who 'liked to needle her - to puncture her confidence.'  When Nadine needs support she turns to her friend from childhood, Sabrina.  The two girls have been confidants since their days at boarding school.

'Sabrina had done her best to comfort the unpopular and miserable little girl when she heard her sobbing at night under the brown school blankets.  In those days, even in high summer, Nadine had always felt painfully cold.'

Returning to the present and Mrs Blunt's home...the Irish maid, Mrs Murphy, is required more for her presence than her cooking or cleaning skills.

'Lying in bed in the morning with the lilac wall-paper of her bedroom enclosing the grey mist of loss and nostalgia that seemed to seep out of her brain and then re-enter it, Mrs Blunt was quite glad to hear the sound of Mrs Murphy crashing about downstairs in the kitchen.  She rather like to hear her slamming the frying-pan against the steel of the sink with such savage gusto that she might have been beating a gong.  It created the illusion that her house was still the centre of some kind of important activity.'

Mrs Murphy has a keen eye for reading situations and a healthy sense of distrust when it comes to her employer's new associate.  She could often be found with an ear to the door when it was opened suddenly.  Having said that, she also mistrusted the law as the blind love she had for her wayward sons frequently questioned the attention they were given by the police.  Mrs Murphy would rather die than place a call to the local constabulary for any assistance regarding Corrigan.

Corrigan has movie-star good looks and a lyrical way with just the right words to beguile Mrs Blunt.  He weaves a tale of travelling throughout the countryside appealing for funds in support of St Crispins, an institution near Paddington station for others who are also disabled.  The long and short of it is that if Corrigan, forever sentenced to life in a wheelchair, can move heaven and earth to perform charitable work then Mrs Blunt should be capable of much more than simply existing in her lavish lounge.  Corrigan is masterful when it comes to initially shunning the widow's small gestures, gently implying that the absence of any pleasure in Mrs Blunt's life means she cannot afford to donate to charity.  This produces the desired effect and before you know it the champagne, fine china, and silverware are out of storage along with some hefty cheques.

This is when things get interesting because while the reader is quite sure that Corrigan is padding his pockets under the guise of fundraising, Mrs Blunt has a renewed sense of self.  Suddenly she realizes that acres of her property could be used to farm fruits and vegetables for St Crispins.  Mrs Blunt also decides to get a driver's licence and buy a van so she can help Corrigan collect furniture and other goods.  In no time at all there is colour in her cheeks and her bony frame begins to fill out.  Mrs Blunt is literally 'gaining' from this relationship.  Nadine is devastated by Corrigan's influence over her mother and the changes being made to her childhood home to accommodate his wheelchair.  Inevitably there is a situation that forces a turn of events which leads to an interesting revelation or two.

It's not exactly clear when this story takes place.  Corrigan was published in 1984 and the period could easily sit within that time frame.  There is no mention of the internet, where a simple Google search would have shed light on certain business practices, but there is mention of Sony and earphones.  Despite the modern branding here and there the story does have the distinct feel of a vintage novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Last but not least, it was fascinating to learn a little about Lady Caroline Blackwood; there is so much more to this author than meets the eye!  She was the eldest child of the 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and brewery heiress, Maureen Guinness.  Blackwood was married briefly to Lucien Freud who painted her portrait, highlighting her large blue eyes.  A story within a story.


Girl in Bed, 1952
Lucien Freud