Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats by Jane Brocket

Question: What makes a good book even better?
Answer: Good food to go along with the story!

Question: What makes good food taste even better?
Answer: A good story to go along with it!

So what happens when you find out that there exists a book about the food of your childhood stories? If you’re me, you go slightly bonkers! You feel like an energizer bunny—with enough enthusiasm to bounce right off the walls! You fervently plead with your Inter Library Loan Services to please, please, please locate the book! You cannot decide whether you should read the whole thing in one go or should take breaks in between to test out all the delicious sounding food!

cherry cake and ginger beer jane brocketIn case you missed all those exclamation points—this book hit my sweet spots in the sweetest of ways!

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats is a journey through the literary food worlds of Enid Blyton, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Noel Streatfeild, Susan Coolidge, and other favorites of children the world over. It discusses, dissects and most important of all GIVES RECIPES for the best macaroons, and jam tarts, and currant buns, and apple cakes that one has only ever read about so far! It invokes in the mind’s eye rolling countryside, and in the ear’s drums insects buzzing and the quietness of a warm summer afternoon. I could easily say for this book what Jane Brocket says for Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure:

As I read, I am transported to a cosy, homely kitchen table with pots of geraniums on the window sill, a red-and white-checked tablecloth, a warm oven and a smiling hostess. I picture this beautiful still-life of food, colors, shapes and textures, and can feel myself getting hungry.

There’s food for elevenses, and food for tea-time. There’s aromatic baked delicacies and sturdy comfort food. There’s food (lots of it!) that I want to make RIGHT THIS MOMENT and food that makes me scratch my head (I give you Sugar on Snow from The Little House in Prairie books that is apparently maple syrup on fresh snow—yeah, fresh snow falling down from the skies). There’s also an ode to fruit cake:

It comes in slabs, slices, hunks, and chunks. It is found in knapsacks, bicycle baskets, wicker baskets, hampers, tuck boxes. It is served at match teas, nursery teas, afternoon teas and high teas. It is dense, moist and perfectly portable. It goes with cocoa, lemonade, ginger beer, jam tarts, ripe plums, golden apples, and potted meat sandwiches. It is, of course, good, old-fashioned, reliable fruit cake and it pops up everywhere in children’s fiction. . . . It’s the workhorse of the tea table or picnic, the solid, filling cake that never lets you down.

Chalet School Apple Cake

My Chalet School Apple Cake as laid out in Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer

This book mixes the joy of the many, many summer vacations that I spent tucked in a corner reading away with the very adult discovery of my love for food and cooking. It made me recall how much Fatty (from the Five Find Outers and Dog) loves macaroons and what a gourmand Snubby of the Roger, Diana, Barney, and Loony the dog gang is. It made me remember that I too “happily read all the German food references [in the Chalet School series] without understanding a word, and that this never once bothered me.” Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer made the stories of my childhood come alive in an all together new way.

I loved this book. However, it might not suit everyone’s palate. Brocket does nothing to balance the stereotypes encountered in the stories she talks about and if anything invokes a slight nobody-bakes-nourishing-treats-at-eleven-in-the-morning-anymore tone through the book. Which, as I said, might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I really do believe in what Alana Chernila says in The Homemade Kitchen: “Enjoyment might just be a nutrient in itself—in fact, it might be the most important one of all.” This book was pure enjoyment for me. If you love food, or any of the authors that are covered in this book, you have to give it a try!

In which I talk about “Gilmore Girls”

I am back! I am back! I am back a little later than I anticipated and for that I lay the blame fairly and squarely on “Gilmore Girls” and Netflix. You see I finally decided to see what the brouhaha was all about and started watching this beloved series sometime last summer. There I was, happily plodding along, being a normal person, doing things other than spending all my free time watching the show when along comes Netflix and drops the bombshell that it is reviving “Gilmore Girls” for a 90-minute 4-part miniseries with the original creators at the fore!

What?! When would the series be aired? Would it continue from where it left off? When would it air?! Would all the original characters be back? And so I speeded up on my watching a little bit. Ok, a lot. So that by the time we came back from our holiday the only thing on my mind (well not the only thing on my mind, I did read a few books, some of which are amazing and I am going to have to write about) was to zoom through as much of “Gilmore Girls” as I could, as fastly-fastly as I could!

My books look sad. can books look sadAnd so I did. And now I’m done. Sigh.

I keep thinking about the very last shot and how perfect it was! And how great moms are. (I grew up in a definitely not as crazy as Stars Hollow small town in India as the daughter of a single mom who I’ve come to realize over the years brought me up in ways that are actually not the norm you know? I mean she was the first person to know about all the vicissitudes of my heart before anyone else).

Anyway, there have been times when I have been REALLY irritated by Lorelai, and Kirk, and Rory, and Emily, and Paris, and Jess (oh my god! Why is that whole bad boy persona considered so attractive? I wanted to slap him more times than I could count! Ugh), and definitely Dean, and Luke, and did I miss out on anyone? No? Good. That’s the thing—I realize I feel so personally about this show and the characters in it! I mean I binge-watched the series for heaven’s sake! I don’t even LIKE binge-watching! (My husband was majorly surprised at how steadily I was going through this show).

But this show—it got to me. The relationships that it explores (and really relationships are at the front and center of this show—between mothers and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, girlfriends and girlfriends (both the normal type and the crazy type), and also identity and how much of it stems from the places you grow up in or call home) are complex and nuanced. There are ups and down and each character has to work through their relationship with each other.

This is a really good show. Its side characters are quirky (or weird depending on your view), and pretty much what small town people are like (not in terms of their weirdness—well maybe in terms of their weirdness?—but more so in terms of how the same thing that makes them helpful and loveable is also the thing that makes them annoying and irritating—or is that true for everyone one knows?). It also has the zaniest and the most crackling dialogues I’ve ever come across even though 99% of the popular cultural references went over my head. Also, the fastest talking characters I’ve ever come across. It’s a marvel to behold them speak for a whole minute without pausing in between.

Lorelai Gilmore My Babbling Capabilities are infinite gifThe thing that amazes me is that this is a show which is almost 10 years old—15 if you think of its first season—but that fact did not in any way mar my enjoyment of the show. I can totally see why it has garnered so many fans over the years! I can’t wait to see what they do in the mini-series! (Btw, is anyone watching the X-Files revival? I loved the third episode!)

I have to say my favorite character is Emily Gilmore. Lorelai is too irritating, Rory is too nice, Paris is too crazy—leaving Emily as the only other female lead left. For some reason I just can’t think of Sookie as one of the leads. She’s too normal compared to the rest of them! Sorry Melissa McCarthy!

Now don’t shoot me for it but I always felt that Lorelai was just so much more impatient with Emily than with anyone else in her life. And yes, she had reasons for it but I always felt that she could have cut Emily a little more slack than she did. I was touched at the little things that showed how MUCH Emily feels for her daughter even though her ways of expressing those feelings were a head-scratcher most of the times. That she doesn’t understand or really want to understand her daughter’s choices don’t help the matter either (I’ll always remember what she tells Mia about daughters who run away—that bit of line provides such a clear insight into the kind of person she is). Though I have to say that she and Richard wanting to buy a house for Luke and Lorelai does seem to signal something in the right direction. Right?

Another sigh.

Yep, I had to get all of that out before I could tell you about what’s going to be one of my favorite reads for 2016, Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer.

Ok, back later!

P.S. Is there a Mr. Kim? I never could figure out if Lane’s father is alive, dead, or just simply absent from screen the entire time the show ran!

Off Adventuring! Be back in a While!

The Merriest of Christmas/End-Of-Year/Whatever it is that you celebrate, dear reader!

Go grab the festive spirit in fistfuls and do something that makes you feel joyful! Maybe grab the gooiest chocolate chip cookie to go with that cup of hot chocolate? Or go for an evening walk with yourself? Or make yourself that cup of tea you’ve been meaning to? Or lie in the bed and read that book? Or cook up a storm with your family? Or whatever’s YOUR definition of joyful!

I’m off to be around family and friends for the next few weeks and will most likely resume posting sometime in late January—but you never know! Maybe I’ll be able to sneak in a quick post or two in between!

I’ll end with my three favoritest books of this year:

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel: Thoughtful, thought-provoking, and all round lovely. If sci-fi isn’t your thing, don’t let that moniker put you off. It’s just a really wonderful piece of literature.

Frederica, Georgette Heyer: Along with The Unknown Ajax, this has become my favorite of all the Heyers that I’ve read. It hits all the right spots in the best way possible. Plus, its plot moppets are not only the moppiest I’ve ever read, but also actually move the plot forward! This, along with The Unknown Ajax, is probably the one book I’d give to a non-romance reader who wanted to see what the fuss was all about!

The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett: This just rocked my world and I am so glad that I found it. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of Tiffany’s adventures!

That’s it from me this year! Have a wonderful new year, everyone!

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant

There are things that I really liked about A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong and things that I really didn’t like.

Andrew Blackshear is a straitlaced young man with strong beliefs about propriety and honor. Lucy Sharp is his opposite, having been brought up in a manner atypical of the society and milieu she occupies. Their initial attraction to each other stems from the glimpses they have into each other’s hearts which seem to hint at something more than the personas they don. And yet, one of the reasons why I could not warm up to this story very much is right here—in their initial stages of attraction.

a christmas gone perfectly wrong cecilia grantThe opening scene of the story—Lucy is riding astride in the middle of a lane on a windswept, rainy afternoon when Andrew stops to offer assistance, catching his first glimpse of her—becomes a defining moment in their attraction for each other. He is arrested by her sight for reasons which my brain completely failed to latch on to. Maybe because the moment was a riff off of insta-love, a trope which is one of my least favorite? To be fair to Miss Grant, Andrew’s and Lucy’s relationship does not spring entirely from this one moment. But the moment does become a cornerstone in their attraction for each other and my lukewarm reaction to it meant that I was always going to be suspicious of the relationship that followed in its wake.

Andrew is a character to whom a “gentleman’s honor . . . is no frivolous indulgence. If he’s any sort of worthwhile man it’s his very backbone,” and one can see that the story moves the way it does in large parts because of this “backbone” that forms the core of Andrew’s character.

On the other hand, one of my main beefs with the story is the way Lucy’s character is written. Her manipulations of Andrew felt as if the author was manipulating me, the reader. Her actions felt like contrivance on the author’s part— attempts to orchestrate events in a certain way for the sake of moving the plot along, rather than organic everyday happenings in the life of the hero and the heroine. However, once Grant DOES manage to get her pair together, quite a few of their later conversations has that everyday feel of been-together-for-a-while which is quite lovely to read about.

Perhaps the biggest reason for my not really enjoying A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is that we see things more from Andrew’s point of view which in this case translated into me feeling as if I never really got to know Lucy’s character. Compared to Andrew, Lucy feels uni-dimensional. I could see the change in Andrew through the course of the story but Lucy’s trajectory felt flat to me. She just didn’t feel interesting the way Andrew did.

One of my favorite moments in the story again fell to Andrew’s share while Lucy simply benefits from his perspicacity. The two are quarrelling in the middle of a party when Andrew realizes that they were both talking past each other—addressing the idealized version each had in their head of the other rather than the person standing in front of them. I read the scene and lit up in recognition. Who hasn’t been the recipient, or the originator of this sort of “talking past” at some point or the other?

I’ll end with this bit:

You can’t really know whether a sentiment is abiding until it’s had a few years over which to abide, can you? Surely everyone who marries must let go the need for certainty, and proceed to some extent on hope and faith.

Super Mini Reviews: All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis

This is a fun holiday-themed novella with a super intriguing premise. The execution isn’t as great as the premise itself but it’s a fun book to pass time with.

Here’s how the story starts: Earth has been invaded by aliens. Only, they aren’t interested in turning everyone to dust. Or kidnapping any earth people for any nefarious experimentation. They don’t really seem to be interested in doing anything except being rooted to one particular spot (so much so that people started wondering if they were some species of alien plant life), and glaring.

“They just stood there. And stood there.” And glared:

[n]o plant ever glared like that. It was a look of utter, withering dissaproval. The first time I saw it in person, I thought, Oh, my God, it’s Aunt Judith.

Why have these beings come to Earth? Why are they glaring with such disapproval? Can they even understand us? And why do they react the way they do to certain words in certain Christmas carols? All these are questions that our heroine races to answer.

I loved the start of the story, and I loved the ending. The middle sagged a bit for me. The endless list of holiday songs became a little tedious though it left me in awe of the author’s prodigious knowledge of all the music! Despite the too-muchness of it, that music is the linchpin of this story was my favorite part about it. One of the reasons I love this time of the year is the music. I love how singing together feels so joyous, and magical, and Willis’s story captures this wonder perfectly.

A bit for you to enjoy:

The commission at that point consisted of three linguists, two anthropologists, a cosmologist, a meteorologist, a botanist (in case they were plants after all), experts in primate, avian, and insect behavior (in case they were one of the above), and Egyptologist (in case they turned out to have built the Pyramids), an animal psychic, an Air Force colonel, a JAG lawyer, an expert in foreign customs, an expert in nonverbal communication, a weapons expert, Dr. Morthman (who, as far as I could see, wasn’t an expert in anything), and . . . the head of One True Way Maxichurch Reverend Thresher, who was convinced the Altairi were a herald of the End Times.

Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker

sophie and the sybil50 pages into Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance I decided to DNF it. It was way too erudite for me, chock full of references to Greek (or was it Roman?) statesmen and philosophers and people of yore whom I’ve no clue about. (An aside: Greek/Roman mythology and history bores me. . . maybe because there’s only so much headspace that can be devoted to gods and kings and mine is already in the clutches of the Indian pantheon whom I was weaned on) Anyway, deciding that this was more a book for folks with a “classical Western education,” I kept the book aside.

That is till the next day—when I googled the Lucian in the book who held everyone in thrall. And found out that I had been had in a major way. Because, guess what? There exists no Latin Lucian and no Professor Heinrich Klausner and no A Fragment Concerning the Origins of Early Christianity whose lengthy ruminations are read with deep fervor by the characters in the novel!

And so, now properly intrigued, I plunged into the story.

Let’s start with the Sybil of Sophie and the Sybil. She is none other than George Eliot—yes, the one and only, the late great Victorian authoress. Duncker’s Eliot is an interesting creature—charismatic, wise, warm, with just a hint of something about her that puts you on the edge. The thing is Patricia Duncker’s George Eliot is not really that simple. “Nothing could be more morally uplifting and improving than [Eliot’s] books,” to quote the Sophie of the title. “They are proof of her nobility, and the greatness of her soul,” she declares. But are Eliot the author, and Eliot the person, the one and very same asks Sophie’s creator.

On the one hand we experience the full weight of the Sybil’s personality, and are made to see that:

It was not just the generous freedom in her manners, nor her lack of affectation and the clarity of her gestures that formed the basis of her charisma, it was the passion of her attention that made her beautiful still.

On the other hand, Duncker also throws in enough twists in the plots to make the reader question the Sybil’s motives and wonder if she isn’t just an aging, old woman with a “craving for admiration and praise.”

The Sophie of the title is an eighteen-year-old countess born to and brought up in wealth and privilege. She’s boundless with energy, and adores Eliot (at least to begin with). The twists and turns that I mention above have her questioning her idol’s sagacity, and it is through her eyes, that we see the side of Sybil which makes her appear like a “witch” intent on devouring those who step into her circle.

Sandwiched between Sophie and the Sybil is feckless Max Duncker, the younger half of the Sybil’s German publisher (no relation to the actual author of the book!) Though he proposes to one, and marries the other, he understands neither. It is through his eyes that we experience the Sybil’s charm, and Sophie’s untrammeled vigor and thirst for life.

I’ll be honest here and mention that Duncker’s Eliot is not exactly likeable. If anything she comes across as gently menacing. I don’t have the sort of knowledge necessary to gauge the veracity of Duncker’s characterization—but it kind of doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because despite the dichotomy, and despite the clearly ambiguous relationship that she has with George Eliot, Patricia Duncker is unflinching in giving Eliot her due.

And so while the Sybil receives a missive from her “devoted publisher,” Blackwood, saying—

If you have any lighter pieces, written before the sense of what a great author should do for mankind came so strongly upon you, I should like much to look at them.

—the narrator also acknowledges that

Some say the Sibyl was fragile, insecure, lacking in confidence and self-esteem. But do frail and timid women decide to be atheists, challenge their fathers, refuse to go to church, educate themselves to an astonishingly high degree, run off to London, live abroad on their own, fling themselves at married men, beguile women too, and clearly enjoy doing so, edit distinguished literary journals, learn Hebrew, write fiction that will live for ever as long as we remember how to read, become rich and famous, and think for themselves?

Even though Duncker succeeds in making me contemplate Eliot the person with a vague dislike, she has made me really look forward to experiencing Eliot the author.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Let me introduce the nine-year-old heroine, Tiffany Aching, of The Wee Free Men in her own words:

I don’t know a single spell. I don’t even have a pointy hat. My talents are an instinct for making cheese and not running around panicking when things go wrong. Oh, and I’ve got a toad.

Tiffany Aching decides that she wants to be a witch. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she DECIDES to be a witch. Partly it’s because she doesn’t understand why witches in all the fairy tales are called wicked: “where’s the evidence?” as she puts it. And partly it’s because all the stories that she’s read only happen to “blond people with blue eyes and the redheads with green eyes,” with “no adventures for people who had brown eyes and brown hair” like Tiffany. And then there’s what happens to a woman who people thought was a witch (she was an old woman who was thrown out of her house at the peak of winter which she did not survive).

Terry Pratchett has created a remarkable little girl, one who I suspect may well become one of my all time favorite heroines.

Tiffany is a little girl who THINKS. She sees the logical inconsistency in someone who could “magic away a boy and a whole horse” being unable to “magic away the men who came for her.” She has a sense of quietness about her which is a thing of ferocity. And she engages with the world, and thinks about it in ways that most people usually don’t. And through it all she sounds and feels like a nine-year old, though a highly unusual nine-year-old.

the wee free men terry pratchettI’m in love with the way Pratchett weaves little bits of philosophy and life-thoughts through the length and breadth of his story (the whole “Second Thoughts” bit reminded me of how watching your thoughts is an actual method taught in some of the meditation practices). Here’s one conclusion that Tiffany keeps circling back to that I think is true for life in general:

That was how it worked. No magic at all. But that time it had been magic. And it didn’t stop being magic just because you found out how it was done.

Oh, and I definitely love this definition of magic that is offered in the story:

“Ah weel,” said Rob Anybody. “What’s magic, eh? Just wavin’ a stick an’ sayin’ a few wee magical words. An’ what’s so clever aboot that, eh? But lookin’ at things, really lookin’ at ‘em, and then workin’ ‘em oout, now, that’s a real skill.”

“Aye, it is,” said William the gonnagle, to Tiffany’s surprise. “Ye used yer eyes and used yer heid. That’s what a real hag does. The magicking is just there for advertisin’.”

Then there’s the way silence, and listening is brought up over and again. Oh, I love the way silence is celebrated in this story, and the way its depths are plumbed, and the way it’s shown to be a thing of such SOLIDITY and STRENGTH in this book. From one of my many favorite parts of this book (I could probably quote the whole of it):

She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards and listen to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up onto the downs somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t enough time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

There is such humor in this book, a lot of it of the laugh-out-loud variety, especially when the Nac Mac Feegle aka the “Wee Free Men” who are incidentally about six inches high, call humans “bigjobs,” and Tiffany their “hag,” come into the picture. There’s also a gentle subversion of what is accepted as the normal—be it in the real world or in the fictional world—that goes on in the story. And so here is a bit that had me chuckling:

“Anyway, you don’t have to have a witch ancestor to be a witch. It helps, of course, because of heredity.”

“You mean like having talents?” said Tiffany, wrinkling her brow.

“Partly, I suppose,” said Miss Tick. “But I was thinking of pointy hats, for example. If you had a godmother who can pass on her pointy hat to you, that saves a great deal of expense. They are incredibly hard to come by, especially ones strong enough to withstand falling farmhouses.”

The Wee Free Men struck a deep and resonant chord with me. Its nine-year old protagonist reminded me of the girl I used to be though Tiffany Aching is WAAAYYYYYYY MORE smarter, and MUCH more put together than I ever was at her age! Even more, I felt this sense of familiarity that is hard to put words to. It was as if the nebulous mist that I carry around in my head had suddenly coalesced into words, and shapes, and forms! In Pratchett, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. He likes scrambling things up, and putting them together in ways that they are generally not. He plays ever so slightly with the way the “ordinary” works to stretch it into the extra-ordinary.

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam. . .

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. “Onomatopoeic,” she’d discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like cuckoo. But she thought there should be a word meaning a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn’t, but would if it did.

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it’d go glint! And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like glitterglitter. Gleam was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And glisten was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.

I am so, so glad that Ana’s review made me seek these books out.