Love & Hunger by Charlotte Wood

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The sub-title of Love & Hunger by Charlotte Wood is Thoughts On the Gift of Food, and the words in this book are a gift to readers.

Love & Hunger is made up of chapters which tell stories about the author’s family and friends, and all sorts of funny, interesting and useful advice for living a gracious life. Each chapter is backed up by recipes.

The author is around about my age and Australian. Like Charlotte Wood, she grew up in a country town, so not surprisingly, I found a lot to identify with in her stories. There are stories about the most stylish woman in town, who gave the author’s father a plate of Hedgehog every year for his birthday, stories about communities rallying around families with food and love when needed, funny stories about old farmers who don’t eat fruit with their dinner (Hawaiian Chicken, Apricot Chicken and the like, all staples of the Australian family menu back in the day) and stories about wakes and dinner parties and holidays.

The useful advice is also good. I’ll be re-reading how to brine a chicken, followed by how to roast a chicken, two kitchen basics I have so far avoided. There is a lot of information dedicated to pulses and grains, which have become very fashionable in Australian kitchens over the past few years, and some excellent soup recipes.

There are recipes in this book which I am very unlikely to ever try. One example is the recipe for Pomegranate Honey. I love honey, to the point where I don’t believe it can be improved. I haven’t tasted pomegranate, but am very doubtful of whether its addition to my second favourite food can make it better or not (my favourite food is Granny Smith apples, in case anyone was wondering). I don’t think adding apples to honey (or vice versa) would improve either.

Another recipe I am unwilling to try is the one for Brussels Sprouts. Eww. I tried them once and they were bloody horrible. I agree with the author that the addition of bacon improves almost everything, but is the addition of the Brussels Sprouts going to improve the bacon? I doubt it.

Which makes me a hypocrite, according to the chapter about fussy eating. According to the author, we all have a moral obligation to our friends, families, workmates and everyone else we eat with not to be picky eaters, for the sake of good manners. Also, fussy eaters are apparently afraid of life. I like to think I have good manners and that I am brave enough to try different foods. I understand that my preference not to eat some foods, for example offal, is cultural rather than based on what the stuff actually tastes like. But if someone serves me Brussels Sprouts (or even worse, Broad Beans) I would probably prefer to offend them by saying, “No, thank you,” than by taking a mouthful of the disgusting things and then retching.

I enjoyed the chapter about surprises when eating. Heston Blumenthal’s Bacon and Egg Ice Cream doesn’t appeal to me, but I enjoyed reading the author’s experience of eating it (she loved it).

The chapter on essential ingredients was interesting, although completely different to my essential ingredients, which are obviously baking oriented.

That leads me to my only real complaint about this book, which is that the author doesn’t seem to have a sweet tooth. There are recipes for the afore-mentioned Hedgehog (which was in every Australian woman’s repertoire back in the 1970s) and for a Whole Orange Cake, but apart from a yoghurt-y thing, there were no more recipes using sugar.

Other than the lack of sweet recipes, I really enjoyed Love & Hunger by Charlotte Wood. This is a format which would work for family historians, as a way of passing down family stories and recipes to future generations. I’ve also had a look at the author’s blog, How to shuck an oyster, which is definitely worthy of a second look.

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book by Diane Muldrow

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Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book by Diane Muldrow is an absolute joy, which for me, brought back all sorts of happy memories of childhood. I can’t believe no one has ever thought of combining life advice and Little Golden Books before, it seems like a no-brainer.

My personal favourite Little Golden Book was/is the The Happy Family, possibly because Mother was so glamorous. The outfit Mother is wearing in the picture below, which is nicer than anything in my entire wardrobe, is for when she does the vacuuming. Her bicycle riding outfit is gorgeous too, not to mention the shoes she wears while feeding the cat, and you should see what Mother wears when she goes to the shops! (Okay, I’ll admit it. I am seriously jealous of the wardrobe of a fictional woman in a sixty year old Little Golden Book). The gist of the life advice from The Happy Family is Making An Effort To Dress Well Regardless Of How Crap You Feel.

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Honey-Bunny’s favourite Little Golden Book was Where Did the Baby Go? I read this book to her over and over and over and over. She also liked Tootle. Notice the lesson here from Tootle, ‘Staying On The Rails No Matter What.’ Now that is some serious life advice.

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A great many of my favourite Little Golden Books didn’t rate a mention.

I remember Pepper Plays Nurse, where Pepper, a little girl who was a would be vet nurse, brought home all sorts of animals to her animal hospital, located underneath her parent’s house. I also dearly loved my copy of Hansel and Gretel with gorgeous pictures of the characters (Hansel and Gretel’s chubby little cheeks must have been terribly tempting to the hungry witch).

My sister, E, was very fond of Puff, The Blue Kitten. Scuffy the Tugboat and the Poky Little Puppy were also popular with my brother H. My sister D liked Old MacDonald Had a Farm. Truly, Little Golden Books have something for everyone.

The life advice in Everything I Need To Know I Learned From A Little Golden Book was great, but it was the memories which came back when I looked at the pictures which made this book special.

Mr Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange

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Who would have thought Mr Darcy would keep a diary? Not me. However, Amanda Grange’s novel Mr Darcy’s Diary, has the taciturn hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice recording his version of events for posterity.

If Jane Austen had given her readers so much detail about Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice he would have lost a great deal of his appeal. As a romantic hero I found him far more attractive when I knew less about how his mind works. In My Darcy’s Diary the reasons for his behaviour are fully explained at every turn. Most of this is to his credit, but some girls (okay, me) like a bit of mystery.

A great many more conversations take place between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (Mr Darcy never calls her Lizzie) and are recorded in Mr Darcy’s Diary than in Pride and Prejudice. Apart from the additional conversations, there isn’t a great deal of substance to this novel. Mr Darcy seems intelligent enough, but he is very often tongue tied by Elizabeth and his first attempt at proposing marriage to her is even clumsier and ruder than Jane Austen’s version.

Lydia is more of a hussy than I ever realised. George Wickham’s character is also less likeable when you learn more about him based on Darcy’s experiences. Anne DeBourgh’s character is also slightly expanded.

I recently read Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange and enjoyed this book far more than Mr Darcy’s version of Pride and Prejudice, probably because Captain Wentworth’s Diary expanded on Persuasion by telling of events before the hero and heroine met in Austen’s story.

Despite my complaints, the character’s voices are captured very well, and Mr Darcy’s Diary is an enjoyable read. This book is ideal for the Pride and Prejudice readers who aren’t quite ready to let go of their obsession with Mr Darcy.

Mrs Darcy. Mr and Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy. Fitzwilliam. Dear Fitz. William. Will. Bill. Hmmm. That would make me the ideal reader.

Sweet Treats from Frankie Magazine

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Sweet Treats by Frankie Magazine is a gorgeous cookbook, full of old fashioned confectionery recipes for favourites such as Toffee Apples, Honeycomb and Fudge.

The styling in Sweet Treats is retro too, with the goodies photographed on lovely old plates (similar to what your Nanna would have used) and displayed on patterned tablecloths and doilies.

I made the recipe for Marshmallow Cones, which turned out exactly like the picture in the book. I have made marshmallow before, but must have buried the memory of how sticky home made marshmallow is. It tasted great, but believe me, it went everywhere. I was licking it off the kitchen benches, the beaters, knives, spoons, trays, you name it.

The recipe for Honey Joys is probably known to everyone in Australia, and is such a favourite that I expect most people can make them without following the instructions. Still, I had forgotten how to make Toffee even though I used to make about ten different recipes as a child (don’t ask me how many fillings I have in my teeth now, self inflicted, I know), but the photo brought back memories of just how good sugar, butter, vinegar and water are when boiled together, poured into a patty pan and sprinkled with 100’s and 1000’s.

I borrowed Sweet Treats from the library, but I’m on the lookout for a copy of my own.

Marian Keyes Saved by Cake

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Saved by Cake by Marian Keyes is one of the prettiest cook books I have ever seen and it is definitely the funniest cook book I’ve read.

Saved by Cake, as the title suggests, is all about baking, so it is exactly my kind of book. I’ve made a couple of the recipes and can highly recommend Zeny’s Banoffee Cupcakes, which are banana cupcakes (or patty cakes, if you’re old school Australian) with caramel in the middle. Yum. The Ultimate Chocolate Brownies were really, really good too.

This is exactly the right kind of cook book to read in bed on a lazy afternoon when you have no intention of actually cooking anything. (The next best way to spend an afternoon when you’re not actually baking).

The book is called Saved by Cake because the author, Marian Keyes was having a nervous breakdown. She turned to baking as a way of passing time and to give her something to focus on.

I look forward to my baking sessions knowing that no matter how busy and complicated my working week has been, making biscuits or cake is going to relax me. There is the pleasure of thinking about what to make, laying all of the ingredients in a row on the kitchen bench in preparation, and the best bit – the enjoyment of mixing and rolling and flattening and stirring. There is also the joy of tasting what you have made and then the sense of achievement which comes from feeding others something delicious that I have made.

Saved by Cake is girly. The pages are light pink (the ultimate feel good, pretty colour) and the recipe titles are swirly. The photos are absolutely gorgeous, pretty floral tablecloths and lovely china, and as for the baked goods, OMG. Everything looks good, even the Beetroot Cake. There are quite a few recipes with ingredients or combinations which I would not have imagined, but there are also quite a few recipes that you wouldn’t have to make a special trip to the shops to buy exotic ingredients to make.

The best thing about the book though are the author’s introductions to each recipe. Marian Keyes is funny. My favourite laugh out loud bit in this book is in her introduction to Quick and Easy Chocolate Fudge Pudding, where Marian warns fellow cooks to use a deep casserole dish based on her own experiences of having used too small a dish. “Poor Himself had a terrible job cleaning up after it.” I don’t care if that story is true or not, but I love the idea of He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers (my version of Marian’s Himself) cleaning the oven after my cooking – priceless. Sadly in my household it would never happen, but the thought of a husband, anyone’s husband in fact, cleaning the oven makes me really happy.

I’ve got a list of recipes that I intend to make from Saved by Cake, happy days ahead.

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand

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I love Elin Hilderbrand’s books. I love Nantucket, which is the setting for Elin Hilderbrand’s books, even though I have never been there and probably never will. I love her characters, even though they are not real. I loved feeling as if I were on a summer holiday at the beach while I was reading Beautiful Day, even though I was really on a Melbourne bound train at 6am in the morning, rugged up against chilly Autumn weather.

Beautiful Day is a lovely story, with a really likeable heroine, Margot. The story is told through the voices of Margot, her family and their friends in the days leading up to Margot’s sister Jenna’s wedding. I’m probably like most women, and really enjoy reading about the fuss and preparations for Jenna’s wedding without any of the headaches of a real wedding.

Margot’s life is complicated. There is a hunky hero hanging around, but there is a also a mysterious reason why she can’t get involved with him. To make matters worse, Margot is involved with a much older man, her father’s business partner, which is a big secret from her father and the rest of the world. Margot is a single mother with a high flying career, so guilt is her middle name, regardless of who she has a romance with.

The story is told by all of the characters in Beautiful Day. Some tell a whole chapter, while others just have an ‘Outtake,’ which might be anything from a few words or sentences, to whole paragraphs where the characters express their opinions. Some of the outtakes are hilarious and I found myself laughing out loud on the train as I read (which is one way to get a seat all to yourself on the train). For example, this one from the brother of the bride; “My sister has extremely hot friends.”

The other main voice in Beautiful Day is Margot and Jenna’s mother, Beth, who died long before Jenna met her Intelligent, Sensitive Groom-to-be, as Beth calls him in the set of instructions she has left behind for Jenna’s one day wedding in the form of a notebook. Jenna follows her mother’s instructions almost to the letter, which increasingly frustrates her father’s new wife.

Beth has planned for Jenna’s wedding to take place at the family holiday home on Nantucket, and has written her opinion on everything from the menu to the tent in the garden to the photographer in the notebook. Beth even makes a comment for Jenna to follow on the wedding night. In my opinion, if she were real, Beth would be far too involved in her adult children’s lives, but since she is dead, she has become a saint and her opinions are valued and honoured.

Everyone has a story in Beautiful Day, from Jenna’s best friend, who is a spoiled brat, to her father, who is unhappy in his new marriage, to the mother of the groom, who has invited her husband’s former wife to their son’s wedding. Some of the characters are happy, some are unhappy, some are smug and most of them make stupid, human, mistakes.

The location Nantucket, is almost another character, and of course, the beach is the place to be.

Jane and the Barque of Frailty by Stephanie Barron

Jane and the Barque of Frailty

 

I recently read Jane and the Canterbury Tale by Stephanie Barron (see earlier post) and was overjoyed to discover she has written a whole series of books with Jane Austen as the main character, in the ‘Being A Jane Austen Mystery’ series.

In Jane and the Barque of Frailty, Jane Austen is visiting with her brother Henry and his wife Eliza in London. Eliza is friendly with some dubious characters, and before you have read many pages Jane and Eliza find themselves at risk of hanging for trying to sell jewels which belonged to a Russian Princess who died in a pool of blood on a Lord’s doorstep. This possibility didn’t concern me too much, as being a bit of a Jane-ite, I knew that Jane Austen was not hung. I don’t think I am giving away the ending to other readers either, because everyone knows that the heroine of a novel is never hung.

For those who are wondering, a Barque of Frailty is an expression which was used by Georgette Heyer to describe a woman of easy virtue. In this novel, several Barques of Frailty, or Cyprians as they are also known, are important characters and are also involved in various ways with the death of the Princess. Real courtesans, such as Harriette Wilson, who published a kiss and tell memoir of the men she had affairs with, are characters in the story alongside fictional characters.

In one memorable chapter, Jane and Eliza attend the Cyprian’s Ball, which is an annual event attended by men of wealth and high standing. The women attend with the intention of finding a new protector, wearing masks to protect their identities. A masked Eliza has a wonderful time at the ball flirting with an Earl whom she knows socially but whom doesn’t recognise her. Jane is also masked and enjoys the attention of a well known rake who offers her an enormous amount of money for her favours. The amount was far more than the real Jane Austen sold Pride and Prejudice for.

The social circle Jane finds herself in while in London also include boring but good friends, handsome young men, girls in their first season, Earls and Lords and French servants, also a Comte who wants to divorce his Comtesse for the sake of a Barque of Frailty he has his eye on.

There are political intrigues, debts of honour and all of the excitements you expect from a story set in the Regency period, as well as a some very nasty shocks you don’t.

When I read Jane and the Canterbury Tale, I guessed ‘who-dunnit’ long before the end of the book, and I picked the ending of Jane and the Barque of Frailty about half way through too. It didn’t matter though. Eight more books in this series still to enjoy, hooray.

Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews

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Spring Fever by May Kay Andrews starts at a wedding. So far, so good you think, everyone loves a wedding. However, the wedding turns out to be that of Annajane Hudgen’s ex-husband, Mason Bayless, to his new fiance, with Annajane in attendance!! (Seriously, she attends her ex-husband’s wedding. Most people I know who have separated would happily attend their ex-partner’s funeral, but their wedding? Really??)

However, suspend your disbelief, because this is a novel. Annajane attends her ex-husband Mason’s wedding, which is the biggest, fanciest wedding of all time. Sure enough, Annajane is sitting in a pew with Mason’s sister when she notices Mason’s jaw twitching as he waits at the altar, a sure sign that he wants to be anywhere else in the world than getting married to Celia, the fiancee his mother loves. Annajane’s impulse is to jump out of her seat and stop the wedding, but when Mason’s daughter Sophie becomes violently ill Annajane doesn’t have to.

As the story evolves you learn that Annajane has been working for Quixie, a soft drink company started by Mason’s father. Annajane actually started working for the company as a teenager, and had a memorable stint as the company mascot, “Dixie, the Quixie Pixie.” Her romance with Mason has been on and off again since then too. (If I was giving Annajane advice, I would tell her that an on again, off again romance is probably not going to work out in the long run, but since she is not real I don’t have to worry about interfering in something that is none of my business).

The story goes back and forward to tell Annajane and Mason’s back story as their present day romance starts again. The re-kindling of their romance is complicated by all sorts of problems, beginning with Mason’s current bride-to-be Celia, who is very keen to re-schedule her wedding to Mason. Annajane also has an easy going musician groom-to be of her own, who is loving and kind and generous, but somehow, not Mr Right. Then there is Mason’s daughter Sophie, who was born very soon after Mason and Annajane separated (another bad sign for the romance working out you ask?), and Mason’s mother who blatantly prefers Celia to Annajane. There are loads of other skeletons in the cupboard for Annajane and Mason to deal with too.

I don’t think I am giving anything away if I tell you there is a happy ending, because that is exactly what readers want and expect from novels with cheerful cover art and sweet names like ‘Spring Fever’.
The enjoyment of reading Spring Fever is in the journey, following the twists and turns to find out how Annajane and Mason overcome the problems that caused them to separate in the first place. I’ll happily read more books by Mary Kay Andrews when I’m in the mood for a happy ending and don’t want my brain to be too taxed getting there.

Not Quite Nigella by Lorraine Elliott

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I hadn’t looked at Lorraine Elliott’s blog before reading her book, but since I don’t live under a rock, I had already heard of the very popular Australian foodie blog, ‘Not Quite Nigella’.

The blog Not Quite Nigella has been around since 2007, which probably makes Lorraine a great, great grandmother in the field, although in her author’s photo on the front piece of the book she looks quite young, with a resemblance to the beautiful Nigella Lawson, who Lorraine calls her “cooking mother.”

Lorraine is an Australian woman who lives in Sydney, whose parents were from Hong Kong and Singapore. The book consists of stories about Lorraine’s husband, Mr NQN, their friends and family, and the adventures she has as a lover of food and as a very successful blogger. Quite a few chapters end with a recipe, which range from family recipes and comfort foods, to spectacular cakes which would hold their own as a dessert in fancy-pants restaurants.

The recipe in the book that most appealed to me was 2000 Feuilles. The combination of puff pastry, hazlenut paste, praline crisp, meringue buttercream, vanilla creme patissiere and praline cream sound absolutely wonderful, although I will never make these for myself because the recipe is just way too much hard work. If I ever get to Paris I will be on the lookout for a Pierre Herme boutique, where I will purchase one of these precious pastries and carry it away with me to laugh and cry over, photograph and eventually gobble up. 

Lorraine’s stories about her parents are hilarious. I particularly enjoyed a story about her mother, who will share her recipes but leaves out ingredients, in order that her children have to visit to enjoy their favourite meals, since they can’t replicate her recipes.

Mr NQN grew up in a vegan family eating mostly raw foods. The stories about his parents are funny too, and I have sympathy for Lorraine trying to prepare a meal for her in-laws who don’t eat meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, bread, wheat or chilli. There wouldn’t be many recipes in my repertoire that would suit Mr NQN’s family. Thank goodness He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers and his family aren’t fussy eaters.

For her blog, Lorraine interviewed Nigella Lawson, who Lorraine says greeted her with Eurpoean kisses and said, “Oh, it’s Not Quite Nigella” when they met. It’s probably obvious, but Lorraine says discovering Nigella Lawson’s books started her love for cooking. Lorraine says that when she was interviewing Nigella, inside she was a “river of melted chocolate”.

Lorraine visited prisons to blog about the food, volunteers with the Salvos where she cooks desserts for those in need and goes off on adventures across Sydney chasing the perfect Peking Duck.

The book finishes with some good advice about how to blog and how not to blog, which ‘Not Quite Nigella’ is perfectly qualified to give.

 

 

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns was written by Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner. I have not read The Kite Runner, which was a best seller, however based on my unexpectedly emotional response to A Thousand Splendid Suns, I will be reading it sooner rather than later.

A Thousand Splendid Suns begins with Mariam, a child who lives with her mother in Afghanistan. Mariam is a ‘harami,’ which she learns from her mother is something to be ashamed of, as a harami is a person whose mother is unmarried. As Mariam’s angry and unhappy mother Nana points out, a woman will always get the blame for a wrong.

Mariam’s father, Jalil, is a rich man who has three wives and nine legitimate children. He provides for Mariam and Nana, and his weekly visits to their isolated home are the highlight of Mariam’s life. Mariam has very little contact with the outside world, although she is taught her prayers and Koran recitations by Mullah Faizullah, who tries unsuccessfully to persuade Nana to allow Mariam to go to school.

When Mariam turns 15, she asks her father to take her to see a movie, Pinocchio at the movie theatre he owns. Jalil tries to disuade her and when he does not meet her at the time she has suggested, Mariam walks into town for the first time in her life. Mariam finds Jalil’s home and waits outside overnight, while Jalil hides inside, pretending not to be at home. In the morning Jalil’s driver takes Mariam home, where they find Nana dead. She has hung herself from a tree.

Life for Mariam goes from bad to worse. Jalil arranges a marriage for Mariam to a much older man, Rasheed and she goes to live with him in Kabul as his possession. Rasheed forces Mariam to wear a burqua and is unrelentingly cruel and violent towards her, which worsens as it becomes clear that Mariam will not be able to have a child.

The story moves from Mariam’s to a girl from Kabul named Laila, who is the daughter of Mariam and Rasheed’s neighbour. Laila’s father, Babi, is a teacher who wants the family to move to America, where their family would be free from the worsening misery Afghanistan is suffering from the Soviet invasion. Babi also wants a university education for Laila. Laila’s mother will not leave Afghanistan though and becomes more and more bitter and mentally unhinged following the death of her sons in the war. Laila’s freindship with a local boy, Tariq and his family, provide Laila with the love that her mother is no longer able to give her.

As Laila enters her teens the fighting in Afghanistan worsens and the remainder of the story is set against the background of the war, the reign of the Taliban and eventually the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Laila and Mariam’s stories eventually meet up and their lives are linked.

The death of main characters due to the war reminded me that the people of Afghanistan are the same as other people the world over, who are somehow able to hope and laugh and love in the midst of terrible times. Women are marginalised, brutalised and killed at the whims of those who are stronger, men are killed fighting for causes and innocent men, women and children are killed, maimed, starved and harmed in ways which are everyday events for the people of Afghanistan.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is beautifully written. Although the story is sad and the setting horrific, Mariam and Laila retain their dignity and continue to do the best that they can to live according to their values. This book was a massive eye opener for me and a reminder of how lucky I am to live free of the constraints these characters endure.