Every time a new Nigella cookbook is published I feel compelled to go back and read her first one, How to Eat, and the urge to do this was particularly acute when Simply Nigella arrived on the book shelves in early October. In part this was because of the tumultuous time she has had (and I have no intention of rehashing it here) which triggered a desire to get out my mental broom and sweep out everything except her food and her words. The other reason was a desire to celebrate Lawson herself because she bloody deserves this.
Back in 1998, Lawson questioned what she referred to as ‘strenuous originality’ in recipes and food where the innovative ‘too often turns out to be inedible’ and now, in 2015, we have some pretty unpalatable and inedible attitudes towards food, appetite and the body in the media. We have glossily packaged eating disorders in the form of blogs about ‘clean eating’, ‘dirty food’ and hashtags impregnated with moral values. Awards are given to ‘food writers’ who devise what are in reality, barely edible recipes, selling them as healthy despite their damaged and unhealthy underpinnings. Many of us (and especially females) eat a side order of judgement and self-recrimination with every meal. It is sadly something that I, a woman who absorbed distorted schemas about food, love and comfort from her own mother, struggle with all the time. I have never eaten a meal that isn’t laced with feelings of anxiety, self-blame and agitation no matter how delicious the food, no matter how lovingly prepared it is. The gastro-demons always lie in wait for women like me but in her latest book, Lawson appears determined to address this tidal wave of orthorexia.
Despite the fashion for ‘clean eating’ and ‘clean food’, ingredients do not have an innate moral value although methods of production certainly do. Focus upon what that palm oil does to orang utans and their environment. Focus upon cattle kept in giant feed lots which turn the land into a toxic slurry soup. Focus upon the poor conditions and low pay endured by immigrants who toil in broiling hot fields to grow our salad greens and the difficulty poorer socio economic groups face when trying to source non processed foods at prices they can afford. This is where the guilt and blame lies as opposed to inside a slice of pie or a bar of chocolate.
Nigella Lawson has always reminded us that food is life, the fundamental part of Maslow’s triangle and its preparation need not become a toil despite this. Indeed, as she points out in her introduction, a disinclination to cook where once it brought peace, joy and a sense of rightness is a warning sign that the rest of ones life has become out of whack. Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and I find the way in which the usually private Lawson has shared this with her readers both moving and dignified. It must have been very hard for her.
I appreciate her consistency and the way she stands against that tide of ‘strenuous originality’. Lawson seems to have a strong sense of self when it comes to food and how to eat it, borne from childhood experiences and loss. As she has said in the past, watching loved ones struggle to eat because of illness, being unable to nourish them with food when the rest of the country appears to be eating under her tutelage must have been torturous. It is this consistency that I find most helpful. Unlike other super successful chefs and food writers, she doesn’t clamber aboard every gastro fad and doesn’t compulsively adopt trends which then undermine the work which has gone before. The only thing Lawson eulogises is the pleasure we can all find in food and its preparation.
And the recipes in Simply Nigella? Well yes, some of them are more technique, method or clever trick which a few critics have criticised as not ‘real’ cooking, more assembly. But think back again to How to Eat and remember the last few lines of her introduction. “As much as possible, I have wanted to make you feel that I’m there with you, in the kitchen as you cook. The book that follows is the conversation we might be having” she wrote. Take the criss cross potatoes (p247), a Hettie Potter contribution and attributed as such. No it isn’t a twenty stage pot au feu, more a method or handy tip than a recipe compliqué and something you’d imagine a friend passing on as they sat perched on your kitchen worktop, glass of wine in hand: “if you do your roasties like this, they’ll be better.” They are potatoes halved, roasted and cross hatched on top to make them even fluffier and crunchier, a way of tarting up something deeply familiar.
The same applies to her opening salvo, a deconstructed Caesar salad that pushed me out of the door late in the evening to the nearest store in search of a new bottle of anchovies. Adorned with a fried egg on top of a a halved Romano lettuce, wafer-thin slivers of parmesan and a sauce made from the anchovies, this is just the kind of assembly cum recipe that people find less intimidating. It has crunch and creaminess from the egg yolk which I fried to the point of it just starting to coalesce plus that salty umami from the fish.
I’d say similar about the roasted radishes (p227) which takes an ingredient which I can imagine some folks being a bit ‘meh’ about apart from eating with fridge-cold butter and torn-up bread. Roasting them with chives or scallions in olive oil produces an embarrassment of pink-cheeked riches. It’s not a new technique for some: I have eaten them roasted like this in Brittany and Haute Vienne but knowing you can roast radishes might save them from an elongated stay in the fridge drawer before they are finally chucked out, woody and under-appreciated.
There is lots more shiny newness. A nod to the chia seed revolution with a chia blueberry-bedecked pudding comes with a disclaimer that what she is most concerned with is its glutinous texture -which is not for everyone. (And not for me either.) Lawson demonstrates a consistent appreciation of texture from her early love of Halloumi and its joyous ‘squeaky polystyrene’ description to the gellified bubbles of tapioca and chia seed. Like the people of south east Asia, China and Japan, Lawson has always been partial to a bit of textural oddness.
Lawson seems to have exercised more restraint over her fondness for alliteration although from time to time she gives it free reign (beef chilli with bourbon, beer and black beans, Middle Eastern minestrone, sake sticky drumsticks). It had, of late, got a little out of control in her TV work (almost as if she was deliberately parodying herself ) and this restraint has produced a more readable book as a result. She’s travelled extensively too, including a recipe for pan de quiejo from Brazil- serendipitously- as I recently made this but wasn’t happy with the recipe. Hers works better. I loved a recipe for crackling made from chicken skin, a creative take on established British favourite and such a logical thing to do, WHY haven’t we heard of it before? A plate of Malaysian red cooked chicken is the culmination of a process which saw her posting a photo of her first attempt to much helpful feedback from Malay readers: “add more chillies!” which made me laughand think how amazing it is that we have such immediate access to expertise.
Dutch Babies have clearly become a *thing* and making them is a short jump for those of us with northern grandparents who served great spongy wodges of Yorkshire pudding with jam or syrup as a prelude to the Sunday roast. There’s a practical tip too- make one giant one to avoid being chained to a hot stove top- and some American culinary history in her intro about its Pennsylvanian Dutch origins. (Nigella, please write a regional American cookbook.)
This is SUCH a delicate book, all pistachio, sugar pink and celadon whilst avoiding a descent into My Little Pony levels of pinkness (not that this would be necessarily a BAD thing). The art directors deserve to take a bow. Nigella’s “all about the pink and green at the moment” and there’s strength and fragility in the design: strength of knowledge and research; a visual reminder that life is precious and fragile, and the cake recipes aren’t just about heft although Lawson does like a bit of tension between light/dark in her ingredients. The apricot and almond cake with rosewater and cardamom is pure golden light though, a love child that might have been the result of trips to Honey & Co with its treasure chest menu of Israeli and other Middle Eastern foods. This cake simply glows, a warm, autumnal mouthful, easy to make with most of the prep emanating from the steeping of the apricots. Go easy on that Rosewater or you’ll think you’ve ingested a Yardley factory.
The matcha cake with cherry juice icing is deservedly popular with bloggers and the food pages but pud wise, the stand out for me is the no churn blackcurrant ice cream with liquorice ripple (p336), the freezer twin of her chocolate and blackcurrant cake. Lawson’s fondness for, and talent in identifying and reformulating nostalgic and well known flavour combinations has birthed this ice cream, all rivulets of darkly aromatic juice against a glossy base made from condensed milk and double cream. It takes a curious and sensitive palate to pick up on the commonalities between blackcurrant and liquorice and the recipe continues her experiments with liquorice which we were introduced to in her last book, Nigellissima (little liquorice pots). I’ve ended up ordering thirty quids worth of the stuff from All Things Liquorice as a result: boxes of hard little pastilles from Italy; metal tins decorated with Christmas trolls filled with mint-centred liquorice tablets and salty chewy Finnish liquorice in a cat-patterned box.
Her previous books and social media feeds offer us a cornucopia of recommendations and tips for ingredients, equipment and other peoples recipes but Simply Nigella lacks a bibliography- a puzzling omission. She’s always been super-generous in crediting her sources even when she has changed the original recipe beyond all recognition (take note Mumsnet when you ask for recipe ideas for your cookbooks!) and I’ve grown fond of playing my own version of Nigella Snap! where I compare my food library with hers. Bibliographies can help with tracing the culinary genealogy of a recipe and those of us who enjoy the anthropology of food and eating do like to map family trees.
A small gripe though and teeny tiny in the face of a book which matches Kitchen and Feast for useful comprehensiveness and How to Eat for life love and warmth.
“Anthony Bourdain, John T. Edge, Jonathan Gold, Francis Lam, Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Alice Waters. These are just some of the celebrated writers and foodies whose work has appeared in Best Food Writing over the past fifteen years. Whether written by an established journalist or an up-and-coming blogger, the essays offered in each edition represent the cream of that year’s crop in food writing. And 2015 promises to uphold the same high standards with a dynamic mix of writers offering provocative journalism, intriguing profiles, moving memoir, and more.”
I own every single one of the Best Food Writing series and have read each one countless times. Editor Holly Hughes proves there is still vigour in food writing with her annual collation of though provoking, quirky and intelligent pieces from food writers both well known and less so. I eagerly await the publication of each annual volume because although I consider myself a voracious consumer of the genre, even I will not be able to access the very best writing, scattered as it is across all manner of journals, newspapers, blogs, websites and magazines all over the globe. This really does bother me.
Hughes provides a trustworthy food-wire service in book form. There’s always some standouts and in this collection, Tim Hanni’s ‘Maverick Wine Guru’ is one of them. Published by the Sacramento Bee (nope, me neither), he develops upon a phenomenon I first encountered via Jeffry Steingarten’s essay- the supertaster- and he applies this to the world of wine tasting, turning some popular pre-conceptions on their head as he does it. Ever wondered why Zinfandel, Asti and Moscato are the only wines you are able to palate? Well Hanni might be onto an explanation here.
Sara Deseran’s ‘Kidsnobs’ is another fresh angle on a food movement we see more and more and have (probably) our own private views upon- that of the super engaged child foodie. Relating her own experiences of children who are obsessively interested in food and the acquisition of food related experiences, she asks us to draw our own line and is honest in her appraisal of her own children and the fact that in their case, nurture is all and down to both parents working in the industry. Where does the education and empowerment stop and the over indulged, over privileged entitled show off-ness start?
This is a world where top chefs are both celebrated and self define as rock gods and this anthology is heavy on chef profiles. These always polarise readers and reviewers with some complaining that the focus of these anthologies has become too food nerdish. However if Hughes is to accurately reflect the culinary world, the cult of cheff-ly personality cannot be ignored. So we have Blue Hills’ leftover pop up dinners where fish skin, old noodles and veg peelings are fought over in a reservations war and charm food critic Pete Wells. Underpinning this is the very relevant and important subject of reducing food waste in the hospitality business and Blue Hill aims to redefine what is waste and what is not (clue: everything is and could be on the table). In an amusing addendum to the fragile chef ego, there’s a piece about Wylie Dufresne’s reaction to a comment he overheard in his restaurant which referred to chefs as pussies. and we revisit Leah Chase, queen of NOLA’s creole cuisine. Chase survived Katrina and rebuilt her restaurant in Treme (as in the popular TV series) and her place is top of my list when I visit New Orleans next Spring. She is the quietly confident antithesis of people like Dufresne, Ramsay and Batali.
We zoom in closer to the cultural effects of the hospitality business too with a very important essay by Todd Kliman on the informal colour bar which still operates in DC restaurants despite the beliefs of restaurateurs that they have addressed this. Seemingly it is not enough to paint a mural of black cultural heroes on your establishment’s wall unless you like reminding patrons of motivational decor pasted up on their high school halls. Consideration is given as to why sushi bars and other specialised cuisines might not immediately attract black customers historically (lack of familiarity, their own family dining history- in the all too recent past they simply weren’t able to eat in ‘genre’ restaurants because of Jim Crow), something that is a thorny subject and hasn’t been properly addressed before.
It’s not just about the high minded and highly intended either. There’s the down home reminder that home cooking can be an exhausting merry go round of WTF shall we cook ( Molly Watson and Tamar Haspel) and other writers take us on a gastro-reminder about why Taco Bell rules (John DeVore) and long standing foodie figures Jane & Michael Stern extoll the virtues of Nashville’s hot chicken. Seemingly this latter subject has not yet been done to death as they manage to squeeze further juicy copy from this topical bird. DeVore hits us with a startling and frankly ludicrous assertion: he declares that Taco Bell has the best Mexican food? After I had finished spluttering in horror, I carried on reading only to find a fairly convincing argument (albeit tongue in cheek). In a few pages we move from dude to a heartwarming conclusion. I’m not convinced though. We had less dude from Bourdain too as he writes about food traditions with an ode to the clams of his childhood which he is now handing down to his own young daughter. I like this Bourdain, who appears less preoccupied with getting into stupid dick swinging competitions with other chefs which can come across as bullying.
I can never read too much about coconut cream pie and thankfully Kim Severson cannot write enough about it either. A mothers cookbook shares more than just recipes and I imagine every American home has a coconut pie with a story attached. This is Kim’s.
Sarah Grey’s essay, ‘Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life with Pasta,” was first published in Serious Eats and utterly deserves its inclusion here with vivid and homely touches where the scene is set for a family meal, conceived in a rush of toy tidying, napkins folded by her daughter and a table set with fourth generation china. It celebrates red sauce, reminds us that freelancing can add to loneliness – especially when you factor in the difficulties of maintaining a social life when you have small kids. Friday Night Meatballs transcend a lot of cultural barriers to communal eating, Grey discovered, and she offers up warmth in spades as she writes about her own solutions to all of these: “The house will be messy. There might be card and/or board games. There might be good Scotch. You might be asked to read picture books. You might make new friends. We’ll just have to find out. This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You’re invited.”
Long may Holly Hughes reign over the world of food writing anthologies. These, alongside the Cornbread Nation series, are my absolute favourite. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Best Food Writing, edited by Holly Hughes is published by Perseus Books Group, De Capo Press.
Most of us can name a Dr Seuss book but how many of you have read my particular favourite, The Eye Book? Written by one Theodor Geisel (who used Theo Lesieg as a pen name) or Dr Seuss, as you might commonly know him, he writes, “Our eyes see flies. Our eyes see ants. Sometimes they see pink underpants” and this utterly barking looking book (with its prescient nod to the modern popularity of Japanese kawaii) pays a hilarious tribute to our eyes, encouraging us to show appreciation for all the wonderful things to be seen and the amazing way they accomplish this.
Spending some of my childhood in Mexico close to the American border meant that I had better access to Dr Seuss than your average British school child in the sixties. He was read in England but not to the extent he was enjoyed across the Atlantic and when we emigrated back to England, our crates were stuffed with my battered collection of books which took a soul-destroying eight months to arrive. The Eye Book (along with One Fish Two Fish), was my favourite and so earned the right to return with us via plane.
My joy at meeting my new form teacher in Suffolk was immense when she started to read Dr Seuss out loud and her American accent rolled over the words. My teachers in Saltillo, the Northern Mexican city we lived near, would sometimes read aloud from the books in heavily accented English with a definite American inflection. Miss Thorne, with her silver hair in a tight bun and possessed of a lofty, aquiline profile, was slightly feared by the other children but not by me and on that first day I nervously offered my copy of Dr Seus knowing, just knowing, that this American teacher would share my most un-English preference for his books.
Miss Thorne was a warm home from home in this strange, land. From that moment on, she was my buddy, a treasured ally in a cold and snow-covered country where Janet & John reigned supreme. Those emotionally constipated post-war drips with their colourless parents were not for me, having been accustomed to the open and effusive warmth of the Mexicans and Americans I had lived among. Janet and John’s brown T-bar sandals, shit-coloured cardigans, pudding bowl haircuts and obsessive repetition of the most boring inanities about running, dogs and balls did not impress.
I suffered a fair bit when I moved back. Eight year old children are not reknowned for their willingness to embrace the new and different and this blonde ringletted girl who spoke in angry Spanish whenever she got emotional and forgot her English, who looked like them but didn’t sound like them, soon became alienated and the butt of jokes. Mrs Thorne helped as much as she could but having a teacher as an ally was more of a disadvantage and I veered from wild fantasies about her being unmasked as my real mother (I had pretty terrible parents too) and other less kindly ones where I vented my anger at her marking me out as teachers pet.
Dr Seuss would have understood. He knew what it was like to stand out and when he briefly broke off from children’s writing to become a political cartoonist, he made fun of isolationists and American isolationism. He mocked the leaders of the Axis powers and railed against the discrimination directed at Jews and African-Americans- all at a time when their estrangement was enshrined in legislation, socially approved of and commonplace. Seuss’s sense of social justice also stemmed from his childhood; when he was asked about the source of his creativity and did it emanate from his youth, he responded tellingly, “I think I skipped my childhood,” but “I used my adolescence.” His own background as the grandson of a Bavarian German who had emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century and, during the First World War and was teased for being a German-American, became the painful bedrock of a career built upon the capture of youthful minds, before they became distorted by prejudice. His route home from school was accompanied by a rain of brickbats and shouts of “kill the Kaiser.” His college years saw him shunned for being Jewish (he wasn’t) and went on to inspire The Sneetches (1961), a story in which star-bellied Sneetches discriminate against star-less Sneetches. At the story’s end, they learn that “Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” He might not have been Jewish but he wasn’t going to stay quiet on the subject of anti semitism. “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” says Horton Hears a Who, a book in part inspired by his visit to a post atomic bomb ravaged Japan and an important allegory (although the message isn’t as hidden as your typical allegory). I am in no way aligning my own bullying with that of other groups of people whose marginalizations involve brutality and remorseless, killing punishment but I still saw my own misery and isolation represented in a small way by him. I was that ‘no matter how small and plain little turtle below in the stack‘ (Yertle the Turtle). Dr Seuss understood that a whole lot of ‘smalls,’ added together, would go on to form a whole lot of ‘big.’ He made me realise that I couldn’t avoid being a small, nor was I likely to get a chance to become big, but I could find commonality somewhere. I was not doomed to remain forever alone.
And I was a bookish, owl-eyed child, living my life sequestered and partially protected behind a pile of books, a place of relative safety that nonetheless was regularly invaded by my parents and thus required rebuilding. Hard emotional work but the reward of fantasy lands, of other lives between those pages and the promise, one day, of a life that might be totally constructed by me was a powerful incentive to keep on rebuilding myself after being knocked down. And Dr Seuss invented the word that described me! He invented ‘nerd,’ or was the first person to use it in a book in If I Ran the Zoo. His ‘nerd’ was loving and approving, it was powerful medicine to the nerd word as chanted by the kids at school; a word that had more power to hurt in the seventies than it does now. We hadn’t reclaimed it then. I Wish I Had Duck Feet was a powerful lesson in conformity although I suspect Dr Seuss did not intend it that way. Being bullied (and I was relentlessly bullied all throughout my school years) was very lonely because like a lot of people who experience this, I had a sad and bad home life that the bullies somehow smelt on me. They detected it and homed in, knowing that I had no recourse to support, no angry parent waiting to deal with them at the school gates. My parents didn’t give a damn about it and in those days, most schools didn’t either. In this book, the main character wishes for ducks feet, an elephant nose, a sprinkler on his head (!) and moose horns (among others). ‘If I had two big duck feet, I could laugh at big Bill Brown. I would say ‘YOU don’t have duck feet, these are all there are in town.’ Near the stories end, the character is imaginng the consequences of having all these useful features at once and how he’d actually end up locked up in a zoo, because society will not see the usefulness, only the freakiness. He decides he would rather just ‘be himself’ but this is not a happy settling as far as I am concerned- rather it is a sad accomodation and admission that to conform is to escape the cruel and beady eye of others. How did I try to conform? I started by refusing to speak Spanish, refusing to keep up my bi-lingualism which so virulently marked me out as different to the other kids. On my first day in my English school, I turned to the little girls designated to show me around and asked them why there were tables lined up in the corridors (they were being put out for lunch). I asked in Spanish, was not understood and thus began my career as the strange girl- in those days, foreign speaking pupils were not common in Suffolk. My grandfather begged me to speak in Spanish, told me I would bitterly regret it if I forgot it all. I would not listen and I did, for a while, forget most of it, apart from that time when, in upper school Spanish class, my new schoolmaster told me I spoke Spanish like an ‘uneducated Mexican peasant.’ I replied coolly, “That’s because I grew up surrounded by them” (and they were worth ten of you, I thought). Now it is all coming back as age deconstructs the barriers in my mind and Hollywood starts to allow Latino actors to take on roles other than pool boy/nanny/waitress/slut. As they gain [a few] more speaking roles and gain representation in the arts, I am hearing what was (nearly) my mother tongue. And the memories flood back.
We asked folks from all over (including some well known East Anglian people) about the books that made a deep impression upon them as both as children and as adults and it has been an absolute pleasure to compile this feature- so much so that we intend this to be the first in a series of literary reminiscences. All of them read as children, seeing books as solace, inspiration, as a companion or maybe a way of validating their own thoughts and lives. Others were spirited away by their book from a life which held challenges for them, whether from the usual tumult and clamour of childhood or something more. What also emerged was the way in which these readers reinterpret the books they loved as children, reframing them in the current cultural and political context that perhaps escaped them at the time. Or they revisit the comfort the books brought, seeing this in a new and fresh light which nonetheless continues to retain its original youthful purpose. Finally, we see the vivid imagination of the child at play in the way some of the contributors lived those stories, dressing as the characters, apeing their habits or in contrast, rejecting those behaviours or characters they perceived as wrong or unpleasant.
Ray Bradbury was clear about the importance of books and libraries and urged readers to go forth with the ideas discovered within: “You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”. We would say that every person interviewed here is trying to do that, in positive and creative ways, even if those hats upon their heads are strictly metaphorical, albeit many and varied.
So…..from the more traditional childhood reading to the less so; from the books that transported and educated to those that fired them up and made them want to do something, they are all here, in no particular order – person or book. Enjoy.
Karen Cannard lives in Bury St Edmunds and is the creator of the Rubbish Diet, writer of a personal blog and columnist for the Suffolk Free Press. Resourceful and possessed of great shoes, Karen has recently been a judge for the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize, continues to take the Rubbish Diet from strength to strength worldwide and has given a well regarded Ted Talk – ‘Abate, renovate & innovate: individual power over waste’. Here are Karen’s book choices:
“My choice for a childhood book is most definitely Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which I read as as a textbook for English at school. It was quite a scary read at the time. It wasn’t so much the crash on an isolated island that I found terrifying but how the structure of civilised behaviour could so easily break down into savagery and terror when everyday reference points disappeared and life became a fight for survival. For me, Lord of the Flies marked an end to my own childhood innocence and my view on the world, saying goodbye to the ginger-beer fuelled adventures created by Enid Blyton and hello to the wider grown-up world of conflict.
As an adult ‘The Struggle for Land’, by Joe Foweraker, was a study text for one of my degree subjects, International Relations. Published in 1981, Foweraker tells of the violence, politics and profiteering surrounding the agricultural development in Brazil. It was my first insight into the social injustice and environmental issues in an economy striving to serve an increasing global demand for farmed produce. From deforestation, violence and a corrupt political system, it was a real eye-opener.
‘Enough: breaking free from the world of more’ and written by John Naish questioned my own part in our consumer culture and my constant need for the latest gadgets and replacing broken things for new. Along with my growing awareness of waste, It helped foster my appreciation of what I already have, encouraged me to keep hold of things for longer and to value creativity and reuse.”
It is not hyperbolic to affirm that Linda Tirado has raised some much needed hell. Linda’s original essay about poverty, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts’ was written as a comment on a Gawker thread and went on to birth her book, ‘Hand to Mouth’, the raw and honest truth about being poor. A campaigner and activist on many issues, civil rights and health care among them, Linda can be found on twitter at @killermartinis and via her website Bootstrap Industries. Her choices are firmly located in the context of access to education and books and the importance of this.
“The books that stick out are The Borribles, and the ones by Madeline L’Engle and Roald Dahl. I loved scenes of children making big plans and learning incredible things. As an adult, I’ve mostly read nonfiction and history, and I’ve a soft spot for biographies of philosophers because knowing the ideas without context is only half of the philosophy really. Just now I’m reading Tom Clark’s newest book on the economy and I’m back on John Locke.
I still retain a bit of whimsy because of my childhood books; they taught me to accept the impossible and as I dealt with depression and anger I have recalled those lessons and been able to live a bit more comfortably in my head. After all, I’m not a strange elfchild battling giant rodents in Battersea with a slingshot, so how bad could it be really?
I didn’t go to college. But I’m well educated because books exist. They have at times been my only friends, and there is nothing so comfortable as a decent book and a decent whiskey. Preferably in yoga pants.”
Barry Peters is the Group Editor at Anglia Newspapers Ltd for five regional print and digital media titles and is also on twitter. He has edited the four edition print newspaper, The Bury Free Press since 2000, steering it successfully into the digital age. Here he tells us about the books that inspired and influenced him, first as a child and later as an adult:
“I was given Richard Adams’ Watership Down as a young boy in the Fens. It conjured up images I could relate to and really got me hooked on words – something which led me eventually into journalism. I loved books which related to country matters at a young age – the fun vet books from James Herriot were magical and a quick, easy, accessible read.
As for adult books, I’m sure others will write about To Kill A Mocking Bird...I could read that book over and over again and never get bored. I can always lose myself in Pride and Prejudice – you can’t beat Jane Austen being didactic. But here are some left-field ideas:
I love sport and the people who excel. I loved John McEnroe, worshipped Ian Botham and admired Lance Armstrong for his battles with cancer and his ability to win the world’s greatest cycle spectacle. David Walsh’s 2013 expose of Armstrong -Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong- cuts across both my joy for journalism (he is the Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times) and sport. Film to follow.
Sadly for my family, I’m a keen (if poor) angler. Chris Yates’ Casting at the Sun evokes such great imagery and is written in a way which will excite both avid anglers and those without much knowledge at all. Yates featured on the classic A Passion For Angling and, in 1980, was a boyhood hero of mine when he landed a record fish in the fabled Redmire pool. He famously cast aside buzzers, boilies and bedchairs and fished the old way with rod, line and bread flake which reminded me of my (late) dad.
Bit quirky and not very bookish, but hopefully a little different…”
Michael Lee West is the author of eight books, and counting and a blog which celebrates her life on a rural farm in Tennessee. Her books are quintessentially Southern in a modern way, suffused with the glorious food of this diverse region and acknowledging of its complicated history. A food lover to her core (as all those brought up in Louisiana are wont to be), Michael Lee West cooks as well as she writes and shares her recipes with readers on her blog, on twitter and in her books, the first of which was a memoir of food, love and family.
“I was ill one summer and my mother brought books home from the library. I adored Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (all of the books). The books took me away from quarantine, into the world of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. When I got a bit older, mom introduced me to Dickens. I began to understand the potent magic of fiction and its power to change a life. As an adult, I re-read the masterful works of Dickens and find something new each time. I also adore Agatha Christie and MC Beaton. and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were also childhood favorites. Now I’m almost 61 and still read JRR Tolkien. So do my children.”
The prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour in South Suffolk, Jane Basham’s connections with the region go deep, over 23 years deep in fact. As chief executive of Suffolks leading civil rights charity (ISCRE), Chair and Womens Officer of the South Suffolk Labour Party, Board member at Runnymede Trust and the Police Public Encounters Board, Jane is deeply committed to the politics of fairness and equality and is a staunch supporter of local campaigns to defend mental health services from cuts. She is a force for good on twitter but does, however, find some time to read and this is what she told us:
“The book that influenced me the most when I was young was Great Expectations. I was born in Gravesend a town closely connected to Charles Dickens. I was therefore only a short distance away from the cottage and forge in Chalk that it is said Dickens based Joe Gargery’s forge on. I find Dickens characters larger than life yet so believable. Great Expectations contains some powerful messages. How those who commit crimes do not lose their humanity. How betrayal can destroy beauty and how money provides both and sorrow. How your past influences your future and the power of memory.
The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (originally from Sri Lanka) a book that I discovered in 2011 when I was the Chief Executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. Set around Aldeburgh the story centres on a refugee from Sri Lanka, his relationship with a ‘middle aged’ woman, the ‘State’ and the memory of home. The book resonated with me with because of my work with refugees, asylum seekers and my understanding of the tragedy that is the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka. Tearne makes Sri Lanka feel familiar as the main character connects to the Suffolk landscape – the reeds and migrating birds that remind him of home. Again the book speaks to me about the influence of the past upon us and the power of memory.”
Alumni of Edinburgh University, teacher at Bury St Edmund’s County Upper School, feminist and organiser of the Bury St Edmunds Fawcett Society, Eleanor Rehahn is deeply involved in regional politics and social affairs. Keep an eye out for the Fawcetts campaign in the spring which will be encouraging young women locally to vote. Eleanor can be found on twitter here.
“Books have been such a massive part of my life, to the extent that I am very suspicious of people who don’t have books in their house, at their fingertips, and are not able to tell you what they are currently reading. In terms of childhood reading there are so many to choose from.
However, the books that have remained with me for their uniqueness and magic have been the Moomin books. I have been enjoying them again reading them with my 7 year old over the past year and this has at times been a very moving experience.”
Ben Hatch is a writer, family man, gives great twitter and has both fiction and travel books to his name. His book ‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ triumphed at the top of the Kindle non-fiction charts, not just because of his digital promotion skills but because it is great writing. Ben’s latest novel is called ‘THE P45 DIARIES: How To Get Sacked From Every Job in Britain’ and is under development as a BBC sitcom. A former BBC Radio 4 Book of The Year, it is loosely based on Ben’s experiences of his teens and 20s.
“As a child the books I remember most were the ones that scared me. I remember reading about a description of the plague in a Dr Doolittle story and watching my skin for days to check it wasn’t blackening. Ted Hughes‘ story of The Iron Man gripped me for the same reason. We lived in a tower block and I’d hope each night to see a giant robot staring in through the curtains.
Mostly literature passed me by though until I was 19 and read The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield seemed the coolest guy in the world to me and for at least a year I wore a deerstalker hat turned around the wrong way to emulate him. Salinger just seemed to nail so well how you’d like to be a young man it’s a book I still dip into now. Other books that have blown away as an adult – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is so breathtakingly funny and audacious you smile and lap the book down on virtually every page. Other favourites with more subtle humour – Revolutionary Road and Tender is The Night. More recently I just love Geoff Dyer’s take on friendship in almost all his books.”
I’d say Lynn Schreiber is well on her way to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the field of child and young adult digital media. Lynn is the founder of Jump! Magazine, a site whose only assumption about girls and boys is that they want lively and intelligent content that is not predicated upon gender assumptions. Interactive and with content partly generated by its young audience, Jump! recently branched out into digital publishing with a series of e-books. Lynn and Jump can both be found on twitter; here she talks about her book inspirations:
“I’d have to say Anne of Green Gables, as it has always been one of my favourite books. Aside from the wonderfully descriptive writing, and the great humour, I love that girls were encouraged to have confidence in their abilities and their talents, and to view their physical appearance as secondary. Now more than ever, this message is vital, for both boys and girls.
I would love to say that a worthy tome, or a slim book of philosophy had most impact on my adult life, but in my day to day life, the book that most affected me was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. It changed the way I speak and communicate with my children, and also made me more aware of communication skills with others.”
Angela Wiltshire trained as a mental health nurse and now works as a psychotherapist and certified Transactional Analyst with a practice in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Active on twitter too, Angela is deeply involved with local politics for the Labour party and works very hard to support her local High St, encouraging people to shop locally and campaigning about the issues affecting local, rural economies. Angela was also successfully nominated to stand for the South Cosford by-election to Babergh District Council last Spring, 2014.
“The book that I read in my childhood, and again in adulthood, and which impacted me very deeply was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ by Harper Lee. We read it in English classes at school. I remember looking forward to class to read it. It was powerful and my teacher did all the Deep South accents which strengthened the force of it and after she had read a piece, she would hand over to us to read a paragraph each too. Nothing in my childhood matched it, and I was reminded of it for the rest of my days at that school, as it introduced my classmates to a new name to call me…..’N*gg*r’ (Angela is part Burmese.)
The book that I read as an adult which really left its mark on me is ‘The God of Small Things‘ by Arundhati Roy. Such a sad story. I finished it and immediately started it again. The characters in the story seem trapped in all kinds of cultural quick sand, finding forbidden love outside their groups with unhappy outcomes. Roy’s characters are robbed of their cultural ‘histories’ in post colonial India, something which I strongly relate to, and do not fit into the groups designated to them. The story’s sinister ‘Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’ is way more frightening than any Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster and I couldn’t shift him out of my nightmares for years.”
James Anderson is the author of The Never-Open Desert Diner, due to be published in February 2015. Born in Seattle and raised in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, he has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Boston. For many years he worked in book publishing alongside other jobs including logging, commercial fishing and, briefly, as a truck driver. He currently divides his time between Ashland, Oregon, and the Four Corners region of the American Southwest from where he also tweets. We reviewed ‘Never Open Desert Diner’ here.
“The most lasting gift of art, in this case literary art, is that is refuses to be static. A poem or a novel read at a young age begs to be read again, and when it is, we find it is a whole new experience because we have changed. I have read Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain over ten times throughout my life and it has never failed to inform my appreciation of those Siamese twins, imagination and youth.
My first introduction to magic realism in my early twenties came not from Marquez or Borges, but from Mikhail Bulgakov’sThe Master and Margarita, at the time banned in the Soviet Union. Magic realism is the voice of the marginalized and oppressed. The experience of powerlessness and victimization is real and the safety of magic in heightened image and metaphor offers sanctuary and hope in a world beyond understanding. Though seemingly unrelated, Bulgakov’s novel led me in the 1980s to a profound appreciation of desert literature, most notably The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert by Bruce Berger, and the works of Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich and, ultimately, Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. In these books I discovered a thread of magic realism that spoke for the beauty of the desert and its preternatural light, again a sanctuary and a hope for a world beyond understanding.”
Blogger , twitter person, writer for the New Statesman, the Feminist Times and other media outlets, Glosswitch shines a feminist light on everything from parenting, mental health and illness to politics- from the big arena stuff to the more personal. Often focusing on the parts of the stories that other media do not reach (the reduction in life expectancy of people with mental illness; why farting is a feminist issue), Glosswitch’s writing is poignant, often very funny and always scythe sharp. Here’s what she said about her life in books:
“I would like to say something much cooler and less politically questionable, but the truth is the books that made the biggest impression on me and which I enjoyed the most as a child were ones by Enid Blyton – first of all The Magic Faraway Tree series, then later the Malory Towers and St Claire’s ones. I’d like to think that in some small way the influence they had on me was positive – I later wrote my PhD on German Romanticism, an interest which was inspired in part by reading slightly sinister fairy stories as a child (I think The Faraway Tree could count as one!). I also wonder if part of the attraction to the boarding school stories was that of a female-only space, in which girls were clearly independent agents who were not acting on behalf of a male audience. I was around 12 when I read the St Claire’s series, a time when my own school life couldn’t have been more different to the ones Blyton described (at a mixed-sex comp with major stress about puberty, impressing boys etc. etc.). While I wouldn’t say Malory Towers is exactly a feminist manifesto, I do think there’s something powerful about how female-centred it is (unlike, say, the Sweet Valley High books I later started reading and now look back on in dismay).
The main focus of my PhD was E.T.A. Hoffmann, a male writer, but beyond that I would say that as an adult I lean very heavily towards reading female authors – there’s less ego in the writing, more truth and less of a desperation to impress (I say, generalising wildly). Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is one of my favourite novels as I think the characterisation is just perfect . Another would be Emma Donaghue’s Room. I would love to be able to write like these women but I can’t imagine how it is that one puts oneself so completely beneath the skin of another, entirely imaginary human being. As a feminist I’ve lately got into reading Andrea Dworkin’s work and that I find utterly inspiring – there’s real lyricism in the way she writes and it manages to convey a real love for women (I put off reading her for years, so convinced was I that love for women = hatred for men!).”
Lesley Dolphin, radio broadcaster and show presenter began her career at the BBC in 1980 at Look East, moving onto BBC Radio Norfolk. A migration to Suffolk a few years later saw her start her broadcasting at BBC Radio Suffolk where she presents an afternoon talk and music show packed with regional colour, music and chat alongside promoting local charities and events. A true local ‘celeb’ Lesley is a season ticket holder at Ipswich Town Football Club and is very much involved with Suffolk life although she has been known to step outside of the county to do things like climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Find her here on twitter.
“I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. My bookshelf still displays several dogeared, well read books from my childhood. There are the classics like The Borrowers, Wind in the Willows and Winnie The Pooh alongside all 12 books written by Arthur Ransome. These were my dads favourites and several of our summer holidays were spent in the Lake District following in the footsteps of The Swallows and Amazons. I loved our weekly visit to the library although my 4 books didn’t always last so I would also save my pocket money to buy the latest Chalet School paperback.
It’s hard to choose any particular favourites from those years because I just devoured books and so many titles flood to mind : E Nesbitt’s Five Children and It, Fell Farm Camping, Milly Molly Mandy, Ballet Shoes, the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Seven, 101 Dalmations – I could go on! However If I really have to pick my favourites there are two, both of them trilogies. Firstly Elizabeth Goudge’s The Elliot’s of Damerosehay – I had not read a family saga before and I loved her descriptive writing. The other book was a Christmas present and it was the best year ever when I unwrapped Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings – I didn’t leave my bedroom for 3 days while I read it!”
Based in Norwich, author Emma Healey’s first novel ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ was published in 2014 to great acclaim and is now being filmed for an upcoming TV drama. A graduate of a book binding course, Emma’s writing speaks of a love of books that goes far beyond the written word and her first novel is partly inspired by the memory of her two grandmothers, one of whom had dementia, the subject (in part) of her book -read our interview with her here. Instagrammer in residence at the Reading Activists Account, Emma’s website also features her vines and other short films and animations, another form of art she is interested in. Here is Emma’s list:
“One of the books I remember loving as a small child was A Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy. I read it over and over with my mum when I was 3 or 4 and I remember getting a huge stuffed lion for Christmas because of my obsession with it. The book is all about credibility, and imagination versus reality, which is a theme I still find interesting! Secondly, Red is Bestby Kathy Stinson. I loved the stubbornness of the child and the focus, I felt similarly about the colour red, but wasn’t as tunnel-visioned. It was the first time I really thought about character, I suppose.
As a teenager I loved I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. There are two styles of writer in the book – the protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain, who writes while ‘sitting in the kitchen sink’, and her father, the tortured genius who hides himself away in the castle gatehouse. I thought I’d be happy being either.
I also choose The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I was pretty obsessed with Ann Radcliffe when I was 15 (The Sicilian Romance was my other favourite). TheMysteries of Udolpho is a gothic story from the end of the eighteenth century about a young woman locked up in a forbidding castle, what I liked best was the fact that all the seemingly supernatural happenings had ingenious human explanations in the end. The author (and reader) is having her cake and eating is – creating a spooky sinister atmosphere, but anchoring the action firmly in the real(isn) world.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. As you can see above I loved the eighteenth century gothic romances which this book is sending up, and it’s very clever in the way it treads a similar path to Don Quixote, but without becoming farce in the same way. I also think the meeting between Tilney and Catherine is one of the most exhilarating and witty moments in literature – and a master class in dialogue.”
As an adult I would choose The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. It’s really wonderful, vivid and funny. The children are brilliantly drawn without sentimentality, the plot is exciting but never takes over, and the structure is quietly innovative. The protagonist and narrator,Cecil Grey, is exactly the confused jumble of awkward/ passionate/ romantic/ practical/ knowing/ innocent that I was as an adolescent. I just wish I’d had a summer in a French hotel with an international criminal.
Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. This is a brilliantly subtle book, one that explores loneliness above all (a theme which I think is increasingly important in our society). The narrator is sympathetic despite being inherently untrustworthy, the plot unfolds beautifully, and the way the story is told matches the story itself perfectly. Lastly, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym says so much about the position of certain kinds of women in church communities, it promotes a gentle form of feminism and is also very funny. There are some wonderful characters too: Anglo-Catholic priests and anthropologists, a sexy officer just back from the second world war and an elderly woman who insists on having chicken for dinner because she hates birds and believes in ‘eating your enemies’.”
Last July, the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize was announced as Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing and on the back of this the organisers launched a campaign to discover the novels that ‘have impacted, shaped or changed the lives of readers’. The top 20 were subsequently reported in the Guardian and whilst they are inspiring and wonderful books, my list differs greatly as I imagine yours might.
The Baileys list was topped by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird because yes, it is a truly wondrous book but also I suspect a small part of its popularity may be down to the primacy and recency effect: the book has been in the news due to the attempts by Michael Gove to remove it from the national curriculum in favour of books of British origin. Legions of loyal Mocking-birders rose up as one to tell Gove where to go and remind him that ultimately, being read-able is not a literary sin. I had to smile when I read that the super precocious Lisa Simpson of the semi-eponymous cartoon show had also voted it her all time favourite, saying: “This book taught me about the importance of standing up for what’s right. And… Boo Radley. SIGH. Last one.”
Researching this piece made me think that actually, I need to look at the arts in general and include the works of art that I love the most. I’m not sure whether this will result in a cluttered old list but in my mind, books and artworks tend to commingle in my brain, or at least the appreciation of one leads down the road to another. You’ll see what I mean when you read on.
So in no particular order…
(1) Wifey by Judy Blume– This book really blew my fifteen year old mind because there was something viscerally gross about the protagonist Sandy and Norm Pressman and their dreary, suburban second-guessed and second-best marriage. Set in seventies USA, Sandy is tired of life with her social climber of a dry-cleaner husband who is bored and boring and she decides to embark on a few fumbling and inept affairs.
Sandy has developed a literal itch to accompany her emotional general chafing against Norm; her good-housewife life with its country club and yearly holidays in the Bahamas; her timetable of Saturday-night sex, starched cookie-cutter dresses and up-do’s. “So where did things go wrong, Norm?” she thinks, lying in bed. “So what happened? Comfortable. Safe. We had our babies. We made a life together. But now I’m sick….And I’m so fucking scared!…Oh mother, dammit! Why did you bring me up to thinkthis is what i wanted? And now that I know it’s not, what I am I supposed to do about it?”
Sandy ends up settling for her marriage (after a dose of the clap as a moral punishment) and tries to rev things up by initiating regular oral sex with a husband who is put off by her pubic hair. Her decision is not a comfortable one but it is understandable in the face of the social pressures of her uptight New Jersey community. Wifey frightened me with its undertones of seediness and the quiet desperation of a woman going stark raving-mad with unfulfilment. On the surface it presents itself as a comedy of sexual manners and the cover of my original copy reinforces that with its shiny electric blue and titular pop art slash across the front but like all of Bloom’s books it is uncomfortably honest.
Whenever I look at Vanessa Bell’s ‘Still Life on a Mantelpiece’ I feel my throat closing off in sharp contrast to the effect the work is supposed to elicit. For me, the cluttered stillness of all the objects on display mirrors the scatty chaos in Sandy’s mind as she tries to make sense of what she has settled for and then struggles against it with various men, all equally stifled and perplexed as to how they ended up this way. Bell placed great importance upon interior decoration as a reflection of personal identity and believed that the domestic milieu could be as artistically valid as any public (male) space: she’d probably feel be surprised that her painting triggers such negative feelings in me. For myself, it is as smothering an example of her class sensibilities as is Sandy’s Ultrasuede covered couch and mid-century modern pieces is of her own. Sandy’s lack of intra-personal awareness, her inability to elucidate exactly what it is she wants and her subsequent actions are an abstract representation of this domestic sphere that so many women find unsatisfying. I have no doubt that Sandy decorated her newly-wed home with some sense of anticipation and a pleasure at having her own space, only to see it all turn to grey in the end.
(2) What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge– If, like me, you are intrigued by Victorian ideas about invalids and the nobility of illness then this book is the ur example of it with the spirited central character, Katy, being cut down by unspecified spinal injuries after defying an order to not play on a garden swing which, unknown to her was faulty. Prior to this, Katy scrambled over gates, through fields and conducted herself with abandoned unawareness of her gender. She was an early depiction of a ‘tomboy’ in literature along with Jo from ‘Little Women’ although Jo, unlike Katy did not have her gender transgressions corrected by disability or ill health. Jo, being older was framed in the corrective context of her suitability (or not) for marriage. Katy’s subsequent fall from high (there’s a nice metaphor for you) placed her flat on her back for nearly four years and subject to the ministrations of saintly Cousin Helen and her ‘School of Pain’-which sounds like something offered by latex clad women wearing gimp masks as they excitedly quote from the scriptures.
In Cousin Helen we have the classic example of the uncomplaining invalid who is an example, not only to Katy but to society as a whole and we see this in similar books of the era: from Clara in ‘Heidi’ to the eponymous Pollyanna, misfortunes were depicted as bestowed by God for the ultimate good of the afflicted character or those around him or her. For myself, I found Katy to be by far the more appealing, lost interest in her after her conversion to saintliness and this book served as an early and introductory lesson in how to spot moral indoctrination when I read it aged nine. As an adult it showed me the importance of clear and open communication with your children- don’t just tell them to stay off the swing, ensure that you tell them why.
The obvious comparison here would be Frida Kahlo whose art very much represented her struggles with the aftermath of an accident that left her with serious skeletal and internal injuries but the artist and work that most comes to mind is Rhythm 2 by Marina Abramović, made in 1974. Abramović sought to test whether a state of unconsciousness could be woven into a public performance and did this in a two part performance. In part one she ingested medication more usually prescribed for catatonia, a state that can cause neurogenic immobility or muscular unpredictability for hours, days or months at a time. As she was not suffering from that condition Abramović’s body reacted violently and she endured painful and uncontrollable seizures. Her mind remained lucid and she was able to observe and document what was happening to her. In the second part, Abramović took another pill, one usually prescribed for people with depression and psychomotor agitation and this had the effect of rendering her emotionally and physically slowed up to the point of immobility. Bodily she was present and still but her psychological and emotional processes were removed from the outside world.
I see a willful bravery in the actions and decisions of this artist with that of Katy who was generally pushing of boundaries in her own small town and domestic situation. Both faced public opprobrium and questioning of their moral character, (Abrmamovic has been very fiercely criticised for risking permanent damage to her psychomotor health) and Katy’s actions resulted in a physically immobilised body which, in turn, caused her to slump into what we would now diagnose as a reactive depression until her cousin came to stay and gave her a transfusion of Christian moral teachings. Abramovic made a very brave decision to put herself on show during a moment of complete vulnerability-not possessed of either her physical or mental faculties, allowing the public to witness whatever happened. Katie used her indisposition to reposition herself as the head of the family and address her depression head on at a time when paralysis must have been a horrendous thing to endure with physical treatments and therapies very few. There must have been very little privacy for her in such a crowded household.
(3) Arial by Sylvia Plath – This is the book of poetry that stopped me from becoming weary of, and intimidated by the form after years of old male poets like Hardy and Lawrence waxing lyrically over mistling thrushes, snakes and sexual frustration from the male perspective, places called Beeny Cliff and fallen women. It also showed me how a popular narrative about the life of a famous person can drown out aspects of character and biography that don’t quite fit, resulting in a very one dimensional depiction, often with a political or cultural agenda.
Speaking personally, when that narrative results in people travelling to the cemetery where Plath is buried in in order to scratch out the name of her then husband from her gravestone, something has gone awry. He treated her terribly but seriously- defacing a gravestone? Grow up. There is no doubt that Plath endured great privation as a result of her mental health problems, her troublesome marriage and her creative drive but she was also capable of great tenderness, hope and joy- read ‘You’re’ to see what I mean in this tremulous and anticipatory poem about her pregnancy and unborn child. I have recently been looking at her wonderful pen and ink drawings too which also show a playful and wry side to her personality, a talent of hers that has been woefully under publicised. This one, ‘Curious French Cat’ is my favourite in the way it is more than the sum of its parts (the title and the drawing) and therefore a metaphor in my mind for La Plath.
(4) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith- To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, you don’t know the strength of a woman until you put her in hot water and this book is packed with women facing dire straits; financially, emotionally, and culturally in Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. We have Katie with her gadabout singing-waiter cum alcoholic husband and Sissy who defies the moral norms of the time with her need for love and passion without the legitimisation of marriage and defines happiness by the men she encounters. Evy, another sister of Katie, is married to an ineffectual and weak milkman and the grandmother Mary is brutalised by her husband and limited by her lack of language yet manages to produce literate children. They grow up knowing that the American Dream will only happen if they hide their savings from husbands who are feckless dreamers. And then we have the protagonist Francie, whose blossoming from childhood into young womanhood forms the central part of the story.
In an interview, Smith said that she didn’t write about the Nolan family for any socially significant reason, but because they were “the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like” but at the time of publishing her book drew a lot of criticism for its social realism and depiction of poverty and food hunger, death, addiction and women doing what they needed to do to get by and keep their children alive: aspects of life some prefer to ignore. Smith has such warmth and respect for those she writes of, even the characters leading small and mean lives. She respects the person, their individuality and duality, as she says of Francie: “She was all these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It’s that “something” that is in “each soul that is given life–the one different thing such as that which makes no fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”
The female characters in ‘A Tree Grows in Brokklyn’ have rich inner lives that we are privy to. They never break the fourth wall by addressing us but Francie, especially, reveals parts of herself that seemed independent of the authorial prism. She became alive to me. The haunting photographs of Francesca Woodman also have this quality in their revelations of gender, lives in their contextual spaces and secrets concealed and revealed. Woodman puts herself in the frame but they are not conventional self-portraits as she is either concealed by slow exposures that blur or mar her moving body, making her ephemeral, even ghostly. Like Francie, who offers us a continual frame of perception and insight through experiences, location (Brooklyn is described so vividly via small vignettes) and encounters, Woodman’s photographs are produced in ‘thematic series’, and relate to specific places, props or situations and this reminds us that just like Francies belief systems, a photograph may distort and inadvertently deceive, never offering the whole truth about a subject and its corporeal existence. And in this deception, we see mirrored the rationale behind Francie’s mothers attempts to conceal the unpalatable truth about her father, until she is of an age enough to cope with it.
(5) The Women’s Room by Marilyn French– I borrowed my friends copy and read it until it fell apart and eventually had to buy my own when she demanded it back. I am now, thirty four years later, on my fourth copy and have bought countless others as gifts. The idea of the Fifties housewife was constructed to allow men back to work after they were demobbed- labour saving devices provided manufacturing work and made home more attractive for the women who were lured from their war time jobs (freeing them up for men) back into the home. French exposed the reality behind the ‘American Dream’, of under educated women burdened by creative and intellectual aspiration, encouraged to seek fulfillment solely through the home and the bearing of children, of the sexual double standard and the ways in which women are made responsible for, and boundary setters of, male sexuality and the male sex drive. The stand out scene for me is pretty stunning in its mundanity as Myra and her two sons, Norm and Clark busy themselves in their kitchen on a sunny day, preparing lunch and Myra allows herself to take pleasure in the domestic and shared intimacy they are all enjoying. The sudden realisation that she has ‘nearly bought into’ the American Dream’ as she strings beans at the sink, and is falling into a cosy acceptance of domesticity stops her short. She cannot totally escape her gender conditioning and certainly can never drop her guard: “Outside she heard small children playing….peace cupped her heart and she held it gently. Smiling she stood at the kitchen sink, holding a bunch of string beans in her hand, letting herself be a part of it…She brought herself upright. My God! It was the American dream, female version. Was she still buying it? She didn’t even like to cook. She resented marketing: she didn’t really even like the music that was sweeping through the apartment, but she still believed in it: the dream stood of the happy humming house. Why should she be so happy doing work that had no purpose, no end?”
Myra, Val, Clarissa, Isolde and the other characters embodied the many facets of women’s liberation: Second Wave Feminism emerged in the 1960’s and focused on a multitude of issues ranging from women gaining control over their sexuality to their fight for equality in the workplace. The Women’s Room is a novel suffused with many of its central concepts although in 1977 French stated, “The Women’s Room“ is not about the women’s movement… but about women’s lives today.” Although its ending is somewhat bleak, ultimately this is a positive book for me because it made me begin to look outwards and beyond my own experiences and lifestyle aged just fourteen.
Some books become intrinsically linked in my mind to great works of art and the artists themselves, whether that be music, painting or another form. Whenever I think of The Women’s Room (and especially hot headed, passionate Val), Frida Kahlo comes into my mind and the paintings of hers that chime with French’s writing here the most are ‘Frida and the Abortion’ from 1932 and ‘My Birth’. The latter is reputed to be owned by Madonna who once said that she could not be friendly with anybody who did not love the painting. Whilst I am not so reductive in my choice of friends (I even have Tory mates for gods sake!) I do get where she is coming from here.
(6) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I sighed with affected boredom when I was assigned this to read as a schoolgirl, being in my minds eye, a revolutionary in pupillage and therefore in need of something a little more contemporary. How on earth could a governess and reluctant wife to be of a blind misanthrope with a mentally ill existing wife in an attic have anything to do with me or my life? I wasn’t interested either in the Mr Rochester type of man nor in saving men deficient in social skills even if they did ride a superlative horse. I have always been about mental health activism so I was never going to be well disposed towards him – even if times were different then.
How wrong I was to write the book off though. Injustice and slavery, the right of a woman to earn a fair days pay for her efforts and the social status of the work of governesses; marriage and equality, the hypocrisy of the church and cruelty of its ministrations were all addressed by Bronte decades before first wave feminists got in on the act. A brave book with sadly timeless themes- the good fight for equality is still to be won and Bronte gives great pathetic fallacy too, all dark and stormy, crepuscular and muscular imagery.
When I think of Jane Eyre I am reminded of the knotty strength of Georgia O’Keefe and I can imagine some of you thinking “eh?” at the comparison but let me try to explain. Many of O’Keefes paintings depict the process by which two opposites-idealism and practicality, go on to become inseparable. She simplifies the creative and intellectual processes, and avoids the pitfalls that lie in wait for the religious and spiritual person by remaining humble. In this I see parallels with Jane Eyre who, when in danger of disappearing up her own pious backside, manages to reign it in by developing insight into this. Time, maturity and withdrawal from a busier, more hectic place, both in mind and situation (again parallels here with O’Keefes departure from claustrophobic New York City) brings about a more grown up and thoughtful woman. O’Keefe, Bronte and her character, Jane Eyre all radically simplify the ‘form’ of what they are trying to do: see the artists depiction of the ‘Black Door’ of her Abiquiqu home which she pares down to its abstract elements over time, in her need to find the essential truth of its form. This has similarities with Jane’s own search for veracity in love, of belonging to the right space and the value she places in autonomy and integrity. Jane’s eventual marrying of emotional, spiritual and moral sustenance reflects the sum total of O’Keefes work, rooted as it is in the need for frankness, spiritual integration and acceptance
(7) The Country Child by Allison Uttley- This book is the one which triggered my love of nature writing with its rich descriptions of the wild Peak District landscapes where Windystone Hall, home to little Susan Garland, a farmers daughter was located. First published in 1931, Uttley drew upon her own youth to paint this vivid picture of a year in the life of a farm, the land and the family who eke their living from it. Uttley was a bit of a trailblazer herself becoming the second woman to graduate with honours in Physics from Manchester University in 1906 and in Susan, we see some of the spirit and questioning that must have driven her interest in sciences and explorers nature. Vivid descriptions of food -from everyday meals to the table laden with the food of feast days and religious holidays permeate the book. The Christmas chapter is swooningly evocative from the coiled trail of candle smoke in the air as the excited Susan snuffs it out before bed to her awakening in the cold blue light before dawn to feel the lumpy weight of her stocking at the end of her bed and waits impatiently to wake her parents.
We meet the people who work and live by the land, the Irish haymakers and shearers and the one armed oatcake and pikelet man called Gabriel with his empty coat-sleeve neatly pinned to his chest. The tentative courtship between Gabriel and Becky, their housemaid after she admires the pikelets ‘under their snowy white cloth’ is another winsome moment. Uttley doesn’t shy away from exposing the ugliness of people or the hardships faced by the family either: we see Susan’s struggle with envy over the Easter egg in its blue satin casing belonging to another family and her guilt after stealing a penny bag from the store and the cruel casual comment: “That Garland daughter is a plain child, positively ugly” made by a local in church and overheard by Susan; horses are made lame and winter storms isolate the stone farmhouse on the hill from all else.
Tasks and responsibilities are very strictly allocated in the Garland household and the text is peppered with colloquial sayings reflecting the deeply patriarchal nature of late Victorian society- Farmer Garland’s only heir is Susan and she feels she is a disappointment. Women’s work is never done in a farming family and it is deeply obvious that their work is vital, no less fundamental to the continued wellbeing of their business and because of this, Susan’s interest in art and storytelling and what her parents see as ‘whimsy’ is sometimes barely tolerated. She is a dreamy, imaginative child.
When I start thinking about how labour was divided between the sexes (and still is) I am reminded of the demarcations that reside in art too and the lack of visible female artistic output in our public galleries prior to this century. The tapestry Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum by Hildegard von Bingen is a stark reminder that the needlework that Susan and the female members of her family were weighed down by (darning and other utilitarian tasks), was far removed from the decorative and intricate message of this tapestry. I did some research and found that many centuries before, in the early Medieval period, women often worked alongside men, engaged in the creation of manuscript illuminations, embroideries and carded capitals. These female artists were from a small section of society and in possession of a status that afforded them the freedom to do this. They were frequently from aristocratic families or even nuns and separate from the domestic drudgery that marked the lives of other women, but women also worked in butchery and brewing and they were ironmongers and wool merchants too. ‘Motherhood From the Spirit and the Water’ may have been commissioned to show the people that a woman’s most important role was that of mother to her own children and spiritual mother to the rest of the world but it is an important piece of work nonetheless, created by a German polymath- writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and Benedictine Abbess., take a bow Hildegard of Bingen.
(8) The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan – this best-selling memoir by Ryan describes how her mother raised 10 children by entering and winning competitions made me want to bow down to the strength and resourcefulness of this woman. Evelyn Ryan was an Ohio housewife, irrepressibly cheerful despite a husband who drank away pretty much every penny he (and she) brought into the house unless she could get to it first to spend it on clothing, food and rent. “Every single major contest she won came in just the nick of time” said Ryan including the prize which saved the family from homelessness.
They were about to be evicted from a rented house when Ryan won a Western Auto contest, giving her enough money for a down payment on the house she would live in for the next 45 years. Most of the merchandise she won, she sold in order to increase cash flow, from washing machines and tap shoes to toasters, trips to Switzerland and cars. Upon its publication, the book was a major success with its loving celebration of a truly resourceful woman at its heart. It doesn’t dwell upon the private horrors Evelyn Ryan and her children must have endured, although it seems Evelyn worked very hard to conceal this from from her children but we readers have imaginations-reading between the lines here is not difficult.
Evelyn started off in life as a stringer with a talent for writing snappy headlines but gave up her career to marry her husband Kerry, a failed singer turned machinist. Her talent for writing enabled her to stand out in competitioning at a time when entries relied upon witty and savvy slogans and limericks as opposed to competitions now which require no intellect or ability other than clicking on ‘share’ or ‘retweet’. Advertising in post war USA was booming and the desire to acquire the goods and services that made a housewives life easier was an easy push to women no longer interested in spending all day at the wash board. Many of the brands we now recognise as iconic boomed in this period and it is this, Evelyn Ryan’s skills at knowing what the Mad Men were after and her preternatural ability to mother her children despite the problems her husband caused that makes me think of the work of multi-media artist Soasig Chamaillard.
Merging two or more pop art figures in a marriage of kitsch, Chamaillard’s figures are a playful interaction of societal icons and the resulting improbable combinations ask questions about her (and our) vision of a woman’s role and place. You will note the frequent appearance of the Virgin Mary in her work, something apropos to this book- Evelyn was a Catholic and brought her family up with the guidance of the local priest and church, both of whom encouraged her to ‘do better’ in order to support her troubled husband whilst totally ignoring her needs. His alcoholism was viewed as her fault and a sign of her inadequacy. The competition prizes that kept their family afloat for years made her husband jealous and resentful and his answer was to drink away his pay packet, week in, week out. That became her fault according to the mores of the society she lived in.
This interview has had a gestation more complicated than a multiple pregnancy. Bedeviled by a stolen voice recorder at the Latitude festival, where Rosen was speaking and I was doing press coverage- leaving me with no choice other than to frantically scribble down answers in situ (with a pencil– old school). Then, at home, I was burgled and the bag containing the original notes PLUS transcribed document on a memory stick was nicked. I had come to accept that this was the one that got away. However a few weeks ago the police recovered some of my stolen property including the purse with the stick in. Hence interview.2 reconstructed as best I can. Apologies Mr Rosen for the time-lag.
The previous November, it had been announced that Michael Rosen had been appointed Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London in order to run a new MA in Children’s Literature starting in 2014. It was this that I was particularly interested in; the need to build an academic knowledge base for children’s literature and how this could be of benefit at a time (July 2014) where Michael Gove, then the education secretary, was making pronouncements about the worth of one set text over another.
The relative lack of critique and study of literature for children has left us all wide open to Gove-ian interference regarding what is ‘right’ and who gets to arbitrate ‘taste’ (and his departure doesn’t mean we are out of the woods either). The wrong people are exerting influence for reasons motivated by something other than their critical analysis of the texts themselves but until we have that critical rigour, we lie helpless in the face of this.
So, Michael, who is the arbitrator of taste? Who is deciding now what we read as children?
“I gained my MA in the early nineties and have been teaching and involved in education since then, from a position of wanting to share what I have learned- it all comes from that. As artists and critics, we can easily be bypassed, we have zero power and we need to work towards establishing a consensus. Through research and collaboration and educational critique, it is possible in a sense, to all get that opportunity to be a ‘King for a Day’ where we can say ‘my turn to talk…’
And Gove? Where does he come in?
“Power engenders power. It’s a well-oiled party machine and there’s a belief that if they talk ‘this’ way they’ll get ‘it’ into power but Gove…he’s a liability to their side. In whatever role.
“Gove oddly set himself up as a know it all and was not generous in his way of listening and working with teachers, those in education…the children. He has the ‘power of convenient’, he is using his position to impose his own political views. He could have convened a discussion in a human and thoughtful manner. He is very Napoleonic and cannot bear to think of a consensus. Nothing is being set free here. It is all about imposition. We have teachers who have invested their lives in learning how to do what they do really well. He doesn’t want to hear from them.
In previous interviews, Michael Rosen has made clear his belief that despite Gove (and the government) stating that these stipulations allow schools to act as they wish with regard to what is studied in literature, in fact the adding in of extra texts above and beyond those stipulated would be almost impossible for teachers. The workload is already immense.
He goes on to state that there is huge interest and academic potential in children’s literature, not as addendum and tag along to adult literature (nor framed in the light of what we loved as children) but a whole new world of critical theory with more than 10,000 children’s books being published in the United Kingdom every year.
“Children’s books are different, in so many ways and are vulnerable to the opinions of uninformed ‘experts’- they have a dual focus in that they are part of the process of formally educating a child but they are also guiding, reflecting and nurturing. The best do this.”
If you take into account the view that each child’s background will affect their relationship not only with the idea of reading itself but the content on every printed page, it is baffling as to why there has been this snobbery for so long about the formal study of children’s literature. It has made us vulnerable to seeking out the wrong people as arbitrators of taste- people like Gove.
“We can value reading for pleasure. We learn beyond exams and the feeding in of information and the retrieval of it through exams and tests. But we learn through the world and what is around us- our bodies, the earth, the way we play and eat and the energy and life around us.
Go onto Michael Rosen’s website and what strikes you is his love of words- a playfulness and exploration and inquisitiveness that we of course celebrate in children and then find that most of us seem to lose along the way. There are videotapes of poetry readings and interviews conducted by year-sixers, jokes and quizzes and while there are sections for ‘adults’, there is little sense of him hiving off younger age groups. The same applies too, to the different ways in which humans use words. To some of us poetry seems to breathe a more rarified air and it can be a little intimidating- not something for the ‘beginner’ in literature which is a shame. I asked Michael how parents (and non parents too) can engage with poetry despite their unfamiliarity or unease with it-
“But poetry is everyday- it isn’t a separate ‘thing’. Think of nursery rhymes- They are wonderful and surprising little dramas, full of mysteries with all kinds of interesting meanings. Even tiny babies are suddenly engaging with life- a richness of life when they hear them. Think of one- Why was Little Miss Muffet on a tuffet? What is a tuffet? Think of the sound of that word. You can ask questions about them, the child can ask questions about them and it doesn’t matter about the answer.
“Sing songs to them. Look at Dolly Parton and her song ‘The Coat of Many Colours’ which is written verse and is the loveliest story. Engage children with words that fill their heads with the strangeness of non speech language. Writing and the reading of it alone cannot show them everything that is special about a story. Use non verbal storytelling by singing and acting out the words and show them how emotion can be conveyed through the whole body. That teaches them how to manage their own feelings and how to understand the feelings of others.
So can you recall what your own introduction to poetry was? Your first book?
“My first poetry book was the Kingfisher Book of Children’s Poetry and I love the work of Grace Nichols, Roger McGough and John Foster. My parents loved poetry, we had poets visiting and we all told stories.
Michael goes on to discuss how song and poetry share an affinity through their rhythmic structure and cites the example of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for which Longfellow invented the four beat line. The tetrameter, (also called strong-stress, native meter or four by four meter) is commonly used in nursery rhymes, ballads and folk songs and has four beats to a line. On a simplistic level, anything with a heartbeat-like rhythm is going to soothe or arouse but more importantly, if you want to introduce yourself or a child to the realm of human experience seen through the prism of poetry, why not exploit what we already know to be familiar and comfortable? Start there and progress onto the other stuff.
Certainly poetry celebrates the rhythm, pitch and sound of language and also the non language sounds that come out of our mouths. Individual words convey meaning in themselves- not only when they are combined with other words. Michael Rosen’s own poetry is testimony to this. Watch this VT of Rosen reading out ‘Chocolate Cake’. There are sounds and expressions that you won’t find in a dictionary and sounds that mean something even if you have an impaired inability to decode language. A son of a friend who was diagnosed with Autism aged three responds to Michael’s sounds of glee with his own glee and it is one of the few times we see him associate joy with sound. It usually troubles him. Small babies are oblivious to the values and meanings attached to words and until they learn those things, they will enjoy a word for the sound it makes solely. We all eventually learn that a word is an object and it has its own tale to tell but there is a kind of joy involved in going back in time through the reactions of the very young to words and poems and stories. Their reaction is unfiltered.
I once read that babies are born able to make every sound of every language in the world. So the acquisition of language is as much about the process of forgetting as it is about learning. Babies are the kings and queens of neologisms, they play with sounds, feel them in their mouths, they listen and experience the sound of speech and noise from the inside out and this is something that poets seem to retain or relearn.
“Babies are natural poets. We as writers and poets morph and invent language- babies do this from the start. They don’t know that the sound you are making is ‘right’ or wrong. They borrow and they invent and poets- they do that too. People like Shakespeare, they didn’t fossilize or get pedantic about what word is ‘right’.
Is poetry more supportive and reflective of changing language and idiom and would you say that it is a more natural vehicle to reflect a child’s lived experience?
“Poetry can and does talk in many voices. I see my own fathers voice..and that of others but you also need to find your own voice too. Poets can use and mine the language of anybody or anything- we do steal the voices of others when we need to. Our language is rich and it reflects what we borrow and what we invent. My own childhood home was full or oral history, tales told, my parents recited poetry and they were teachers and questioned everything.
Michael went on to talk about how he wrote ‘Words are Ours’, a perfect reflection of the way in which language and its signifiers- the signs of the times, the signs of our times morph. The poem Incorporates ‘text-speak’ to wonder what the next thing, the next word will be and what it might say about us and the impermanence of a fast moving technology is the perfect vehicle to convey this
“We’re not statues and we don’t stand still. Poetry is dynamic and changes. We use dialect- Wordsworth wrote in dialect. People like Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephraniah taught me how to stand and perform and how to reach people using me. I saw how they used their bodies and their voices, how the poems emanated from them.
He has no truck with word snobbishness. He also has no truck with the idea that we must stick to our ‘own’ dialects although he is also emphatic about the role poetry has to play in promoting and valuing regional and cultural variations. Rosen sees poetry being as inclusive as any other art form and beautifully experimental – he talks to me like a poetic Professor Branestawm. Sense of place is important but entrenchment is to be resisted. In a poet like Grace Nichols we see the linguistic gymnastics that move language forward leaving pedants trapped in a mire of their own making. Creole and standard English are woven together in her work BUT this is poetry to be performed, heard, not just left on the page. And it is this lesson that Rosen has really taken on board and demonstrated to us. He has taken it further. As I spoke to him he would break off into verse, would show me what he meant by playing with his own words, either via his own poetry or that of others, or song. He recited a portion of his own poem ‘Hand on the Bridge’ to show me how a dynamic, chanting, speechy way of reciting had been inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah and I, like a typical repressed English person at first sat a little awkwardly then by the third or fourth word, grew still and then spellbound.
The older I get, the more my Christmas and birthday gift wish list shrinks down to one word- Books, not that I can recall a time when I wasn’t super excited to receive one. From the Christmas Days of my youth when I had to be prised away from the latest annuals or a yet to be read Rumer Godden / Roald Dahl / Blyton and later on, the copy of the ‘Women’s Room’ given to me by a friend’s mother, to my now fast approaching ‘On Golden Pond’ days where the books are a little more reflective of one half century of interests, I could never feel disappointed by a gift of a book. Even the piles of books from publishers and authors keen for me to review them hasn’t spoiled my pleasure and I look forward to a time when I can cancel all obligations and simply read my way into old, old age, preferably in some stellar location- a rocker on an Appalachian covered porch, a maccia covered hillside in Sardinia, by the fishing boats at Woodbridge’s Tide Mill or a Georgian garden square in Bloomsbury perhaps. Until then, I will visit these places vicariously through the writings of others. Here are some books, newly published, soon to be published and a few old favourites too- books that somebody you know will love to receive, lend to others or to treasure.
Please note that you will find no Amazon links on this site. All books can be ordered from local book shops and from Waterstones and other nationals too. Please support your local traders and a list of some great East Anglian book shops are at the bottom of this feature.
Food writing & cookery books
My own preference is for a bit of writing with the recipes, lyrical, well researched and evocative writing that makes me want to do more than just cook. I want to be transported to the history, places and people behind the recipes. However I accept that this is my own quirk and so have also picked out some cookbooks that are very good examples of clear recipe writing, that don’t always assume prior knowledge nor a hedge funders means when it comes to buying ingredients. First off is the super engaging campaigner Jack Monroe and her second book release of this year, ‘A Year in 120 Recipes’. With the same consideration given to budgetary constraints and the paying of close attention to seasonality and careful use of a good store cupboard, Jack shows us how to bake (Peanut Butter Bread is yummy) and cook delicious soups and sides: a ‘pesto called Lazarus’ makes great use of innervated bottom of the fridge ingredients. As we go through the year, Jack shares with us some of the tumultuous events that cemented her position as a cook, recipe writer and social activist. Oh, and she found love too.
I have been obsessed with the writing and recipes of David Lebovitz for quite a few years now and often re-read his first cooking memoir ‘A Sweet Life in Paris’ with its mix of wise before its time ex pat advice, scintillating food and wry observance of the often baffling nature of la vie en Paris. He has (thankfully not a moment too soon) published a new tome, ‘My Paris Kitchen‘ with the same mix of memoir, experience, culinary know how and recipes readers of his website will recognise as his trademark. Beautiful photography of his apartment and the city reflects the ten years he has lived in the city and the many changes Paris has undergone: a city embracing the cuisine and ingredients of people from all over the world. Cassoulet, coq au vin, wheat berry salad with radicchio (very good), cookies made with duck fat and that classically chic little chocolate cake are among the stand out recipes for me. Practical know how is great too- weights AND measures. Oy vey.
Baking books with a different slant to them are a particular weakness of mine and Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Baking: Loving Baking at Home’ combines functionality (recipes that work and aren’t too esoteric in technique or ingredients) with the quirkiness and lightness of touch possessed by Scandinavian food. The rosehip roulade for me, is the standout recipe and many of them are hugely appropriate for winter (and Christmas) baking. Out now.
Want to get your rap mad kid into cooking? Best suited for the younger cook, the ‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’ contains thirty hiphop inspired recipes with sometimes (very) tenuous links to the music itself- think Wu-Tang Clam Chowder, Public Enemiso Soup, Run DM Sea Bass and Busta Key Lime Pie. No expletives and each recipe is accompanied by a bespoke piece of artwork created by one of 30 of the best upcoming illustrators.
The first cookbook from a popular London restaurant, ‘Duck & Waffle: Recipes and Stories’features its eponymous dish, a confit duck leg sandwiched between fresh waffle and fried duck egg, drizzled with mustard maple syrup. One for lazy afternoons where you can take over the kitchen and use every pan in the cupboards. In complete contrast is are the Little Leon range of small cook books from ‘Fast Suppers’ to ‘One Pot Naturally Fast Recipes‘ with uncomplicated recipes, standard ingredients and a lower hardback cover price of around £5-7 making them a great stocking gift for students, less confident cooks and children.
Increasingly fashionable are cookbooks that focus upon a particular region and in the case of Italy this is particularly apropos considering it was not even founded as one nation until the 1860’s and still cannot be described as uniform in cuisine to this day. ‘Sharing Puglia: Delicious Simple Food From Undiscovered Italy’ by Luca Lorusso is a well designed example of a comprehensive regional cookbook packed with stunning landscape photography. Cook kingfish crudo with fresh fava beans, lemon, and Caciocavallo or scampi with fresh chicory and pomegranate, pour some wine and dream.
In Kathleen Flinn’s earlier memoir, ‘The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry’, she recounted the story of her departure from the corporate world to study at the world’s most famous cooking school- Le Cordon Bleu. In ‘Burnt Toast Makes you Sing Good’, Flinn tells the remarkable story of her large Michigan family and her Irish/Swedish roots, including her parents’ unlikely decision to pack up everything and go to California to help run an Italian restaurant, their abrupt move to a very basic Michigan farmhouse, and their risky decision to raise chickens with no prior experience. Memories of Family, fishing, foibles and food, accompanied by the recipes of the food mentioned makes this a great read for lover of food writing.
The Autumn sees the release of books by the big gastro-beasts that roam the earth –Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers and Hugh FW (full name not required). Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty More’firmly places vegetables under the spotlight and refreshingly refers from framing them in the context of fish and meat. Organised not by ingredient or meal type, but instead by cooking method- grilled, baked, simmered, cracked, braised or raw, the recipes (which remain ingredient heavy) number Alphonso mango and curried chickpea salad, roasted aubergine with a sweet black garlic sauce, seaweed, ginger and carrot salad and a variety of sweet honeyed cakes and tarts such as meringue roulade with rose petals and fresh raspberries. Sumptuous and clear in its layout, courtesy of well known designer Caz Hildebrand (of Nigella book fame), the recipes might not be swift or few in ingredients but they work and they look good. Jamie Oliver has abandoned his low cost meals laced with a soupcon of social concern; theme of his last book, to go all out in his latest tome ‘Jamie’s Comfort Food’ featuring carb and protein heavy meals that may leave you with a food baby alongside some pretty pleasurable satiation. NOT a book for dieters (or those watching the pennies), meals like katsu curry with its fried breaded coating, mighty moussaka, mushroom soup pasta bake which riffs off those post war American recipes using canned soup as an ingredient plus enough roasted cow to keep Dan from feeling desperate will please many of his fans.
Got a coffee snob in the house? Then the‘World Atlas of Coffee’by James Hoffman might keep them from banging on about it for a few days. His profession as a champion barista and coffee roaster means his exploration of varieties, the influence of terroir, production and roasting methods down to actual brewing is extensive and informed. This is the first book to chart the coffee production of over 35 countries, encompassing knowledge never previously published outside the coffee industry. Another semi scholarly tome is ‘The Language of Food’ by Stanford University linguist and MacArthur Fellow Dan Jurafsky, the book every person in the food business needs to read, thus hopefully releasing us from tedious menu’s full of boring descriptions like ‘crispy’ and ‘juicy’. Jurafsky points out the subtle meanings hidden in filler words, homes in on the metaphors and storytelling tropes we rely on in restaurant reviews, and charts a micro universe of marketing language on the back of a bag of crisps. The fascinating journey through The Language of Food uncovers a global atlas of culinary influences. With Jurafsky’s insight, words like ketchup, macaron, and even salad become living fossils that contain the patterns of early global exploration that predate our modern world.
Gabrielle Hamilton, the famous chef proprietor of NYC restaurant ‘Prune’ is tiger to Anthony Bourdain’s pussy (cat). From the moment I read her first autobiographical book ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’, sent to me by a dear friend in the States, I got hooked on her writing and was determined to taste her food. I have yet to achieve the latter but with the publication of her first and eponymous cookbook ‘Prune’ I can make do at home until I pick up the phone, book the flights and make a reservation at the same time. Gabrielle’s book is as no nonsense as her cooking style: there no introduction nor headnotes, because they are already covered in her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, which covers the evolution of her culinary ethos and style. There are stylish and tasty tricks to make the ultimate grilled cheese, the methodology for a bowl of grape nuts cereal with maple syrup that comes complete with a vanilla ice cream cone upturned on top and her ‘Youth Hostel Breakfast’: an assortment of wursts, olives, crackers, an egg, and tubes of fish paste. If I told you that her signature, for me, is the purest of recipes for radishes with salt and pale creamy butter, then you’ll either get her or you won’t.
One of the first (and best) food bloggers is Molly Wizenberg of ‘Orangette’ fame and I can claim to be an early adopter, having read her from the start and bought her first book ‘A Homemade Life‘ pretty much straight off the presses. Basically when Molly recommends something or someone I get onto it straight away meaning that the book I was sent recently, ‘A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus’ by Rene Erickson (which had already impressed me greatly), took on even greater significance when her latest blog post dropped into my inbox. It turns out that Molly is friends with Ms Erickson and like me, cannot rate her food, which is basically French married with the Pacific north west, highly enough. Listen to the ethos of Rene: “I’m not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” The cover art is glorious- paper art married with victoriana, all on a background of saxe blue making this a simply gorgeous cookery book to own as well as use.
I have often thought about a compendium of lemon recipes (I am a dweeb I know) and somebody has beaten me to it with this, the Lemon Compendiumby Yasemen Kaner-White, packed with amazing and lesser known recipes. Recipes such as Latvian Celebration Cake are bookended by writings about all things lemony from health and beauty tips to historical accounts making this a lovely ‘refreshing’ book to brighten a dull and endless winter.
My prediction for the next gastro-fashion is Hawaiian food. Diverse and kaleidoscopic with an amazing fusion of culinary influences that reflect the history of the islands, books on the subject are a bit thin on the ground in the UK. If you are prepared to do a bit of hunting though, Rachel Laudan’s book, ‘The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Extraordinary Culinary Heritage‘ is a fabulous introduction and guide to its history and food. Part personal memoir, part historical narrative, part cookbook, the book kicks off with a series of essays that describe Laudan’s first experiences with a particular Local Food (the Creole term for the food), encounters that intrigue her and eventually lead to her tracing its origins and influence in Hawaii. Followed by recipes, over 150 of them and a glossary plus gorgeous photos, this is the book for those eager to acquaint themselves.
Children tend to lead mindbending lives, what with the imaginary friends, monsters under the bed and other manner of weird and wonderful imaginings and so we think Clive Gifford’s book ‘The Science of Seeing and Believing’ which has just been crowned winner of the Royal Society’s Young Peoples Book of 2014 is a perfect gift. And not only for kids: your average adult could always do with getting back in touch with all the wonders of the human brain. Packed with anecdotes about how the brain processes sensory information and a range of illusions, from Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s stunning motion illusions to Roger Newland Shepard’s L’egs-istential Quandary, this is a brilliant book.
The latest Jacqueline Wilson book stars her most outspoken, fiery and unforgettable heroine yet: Opal Plumstead: schoolgirl, sweet factory worker and Suffragette, fiercely intelligent yet thwarted in her ambitions of university. A timely meeting with Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes via the factory owner, a meeting with a man she feels is her soulmate and the start of the First World War all conspire to influence the adventures of a brand new role model for boys and girls.
It’s important for children’s books to reflect universal themes and emotions; it makes them relatable but they also need to inspire and transport through fantasy. Many an adult will recount a grim childhood redeemed by the escape they found in books. In time for Christmas with an early December release is Neil Gaiman’s‘Hansel and Gretel’, a retelling of The Brothers Grimm’ darkest and most enduring fairytale. Breathtaking and haunting illustrations from Lorenzo Mattotti complete a book to read and treasure and a book that indeed does transport the reader. Ruby Redfort, supercool secret agent, code-cracker and thirteen-year-old genius is the latest of Lauren Child’s creations for slightly older readers. In this, the fourth book of the series Ruby must pit her wits against a seemingly invisible foe. How do you set your sights on catching a light-fingered villain if you can’t even see him?
The Photicular process uses an innovative lenticular technology, sliding lenses, and original four-colour video imagery resulting in a book that is more movie in your hands. Ocean offers not only a refinement of inventor Dan Kainen’sPhoticular technology, taking readers on a virtual deep sea dive but through a text by Carol Kaufmann it offers descriptions and information in the form of mini essays. Escape here is provided via fantastical explorations of a world most of us will never see, the science bit explained accessibly and in some detail.
Cozy Classics by Holman Wang are a new range of books for younger children that seek to reinterpret classical literature in easy to understand illustrations and keywords. Twelve stunning images of needle felted illustrations accompany twelve child friendly words. From Moby Dick to War and Peace, these little books will introduce the classics to a whole new generation of readers. Mick Inkpen has built up quite a backlist now and ‘The Blue Balloon’ remains one of our families most loved children’s book. This tired, old and soggy balloon becomes endowed with fantastic powers which are magically demonstrated via giant pull out and fold out pages as the balloon goes square, multi coloured and very very long.
Alongside these well known classics, there are some great debuts and books by authors in the earlier stages of their careers. ‘A Dog Day’ is the stylish pen and ink debut of author Emily Rand, perfectly depicting the frustration of having to wait for the grown ups via a friendly terrier. He just wants to go to the park with his friends to play ball, but his owner has other ideas. Young Manga lovers and fans of Graystripe will be very pleased to receive ‘The Warriors Manga Box set’ by Erin Hunter capturing in mythical intensity, the journey of Graystripe- the ThunderClan deputy, back home to the forest and his Clan after capture by Twolegs. A good bedtime story never dates and stories about children who won’t go to bed had particular appeal in our house. ‘Max and the Won’t Go To Bed Show’ by Mark Sperring is a bit more high octance than most- you have to perform it alongside the telling so perhaps not one for tired parents on a busy school and weekday night. A rollicking parody of a circus performance with Max (and you) taming wild animals and performing magic tricks, if timed right, will tire out the most energetic of children.
Finally, if you haven’t introduced your children to some fine fiction from <ahem> times past, then here’s my guide to some of my favourites. Rumer Godden’s ‘The Diddakoi‘ is a powerful and still relevant account of the prejudice towards the traveller and Romany community and its effects upon all class systems within a small country town when a young girl, half Romany, comes to live there. Godden’s ‘Miss Happiness and Miss Flower’ similarly deals with the loneliness and dislocation felt by Nona, sent to England from India and the two little Japanese dolls that help her.Another of her books dealing with the longing for a home in a strange place is ‘The Dolls House’ about the little penny doll, Tottie. Eve Garnetts ‘The Family From One End Street’ is a lovable chapter book about a large family living in working class loving poverty, somewhat romanticised but nonetheless a good starting point for discussions about this topic. A complete contrast in surroundings although not lacking in family love either are the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ series by Joyce Lankester Brisley set in the pastoral idyll of an English village. Joan Aitken was one of my favourite short story writers for children and ‘From a Necklace of Raindrops’ contains eight classic stories conjuring up a world filled with magic, where wishes can come true. Well worth re-acquainting yourselves with her back catalogue too.
Travel, non fiction and nature writing for adults
The Little Tollerpublishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell,Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever. I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods‘ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Bluebell woods set in Kent explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside and In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?
If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.
In her book ‘Wild’,Cheryl Strayed ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marcettofollows the popular trope of journey as metaphor for self discovery and the vehicle by which we can develop an enhanced intrapersonal relationship, and reinvigorated this category of travel writing in the process. In her new book ‘Walking Home: a Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed’, Sonia Choquette marries the historical sense of pilgrimage with travel writing, reinterpreting what pilgrimage means for a spiritual as opposed to religious generation. Keen to regain her own spiritual footing after a series of personal life crises, Sonia sets out to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago, an 820-kilometer trek over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain in the footsteps of the many who went before her.
I bought ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marchetto as soon as it came out, drawn to the quirky and distinctive style of this smart New York based graphic artist and writer and the intensity of her story-what happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds . . . a lump in her breast? We laugh, cry and get angry alongside Marisa as she faces up to a potentially deadly disease, finds love, loses a lump and shows her not everyone’s reaction is one of kindness. Soon to be made into a film, it’s time to get re-acquainted with the book.
Smart, modern writing on London with a great design ethos is surprisingly hard to find but Penguin Modern Classics is soon to re-publish Iain Nairn’s classic treatise, ‘London’, a record of what ‘moved him’ between Uxbridge and Dagenham and an idiosyncratic, poetic and intensely subjective meditation on a city and its buildings. Seeing the beauty where others see dirt, possessed of an unerring eye for character beyond the obvious and vivid in its writing, this is one for anybody living there and all who adore this great city. Part travel, part food writing ‘In Search of the Perfect Loaf’ by Samuel Fromartz ticks both boxes emphatically well in my opinion. From Paris, to Berlin, to Kansas, we follow Sam on his quest as he shares his love for bread and the ‘baking secrets’ he learned along the way over four years. Perfecting sourdough and whole grain rye, meeting and picking the brains of historians, millers, farmers, wheat geneticists, sourdough biochemists, and everyone in between, learning about the history of breadmaking, the science of fermentation, Fromartz meets the needs of the bread geek in me and educates along the way too.
I am a sucker from travel writing set in the USA and one of my absolute favourites is by Martin Fletcher and several years old now. ‘Almost Heaven: Travels in Backwood America’ satisfies my craving for the ‘other’ America and the less glamorous (and less obvious) everyday encounters with people. Written after completing his assignment as The Times correspondent in Washington DC, Fletcher possesses a reporters eye for detail and an absolute instinct for the story. My favourite section? His visit to Angola state prison and the interview with the editor of the famous in-house newspaper ‘The Angolite’. In complete contrast, Frances Mayes of ‘A Year Under the Tuscan Sun’ decided to take time off from her bucolic Italian life and travel around Europe, casting her poets eye over the history, culture and landscape of Portugal, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France and North Africa among others. Her observations in ‘A Year in the World’are informed, lyrical and full of her love of poetry and art, perfect for cold winter days, spent dreaming of warmer climes, by a fire. Buy a copy of the poems of Lorca and Neruda to read straight afterwards because she loves them and quotes them often.
Lovers of Americana in art will devour ‘American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell’ by Deborah Solomon in which Rockwell’s dedication through periods of self-doubt, depression and marital tumult is both explored and paid tribute to. “It’s a fine story, how this odd and fastidious young man worked his way up through a cartoonish phase to become the most beloved American artist of the 20th century, his very name a byword for sentimental Americana — Main Street, the village church, the ball field, the soda fountain, the barbershop, the freckle-faced Boy Scout, the garrulous grandpa, the blushing bride — an odd-duck artist yearning for normalcy and community” writes Deborah Solomon, “a small-town Arcadia of his own imagining.” And Solomon tells this fine story in her own fine way too.
Margaret Forster is not the first writer to explore the nature of houses, home and their history with relation to their own lived experiences but in ‘My Life in Houses’ we are shocked out of our contented enjoyment of her reminiscences by the sharp intrusion of reality (and I will not give the game away here save to say is it not something I could have predicted). Forster understands that the home is the bedrock of social and economic history and that a roof and four walls comprise a psychological framework to human existence. From her humble beginnings in a Carlisle local authority house which nonetheless is seen as aspirational by her parents and her own yearning to live in the private houses nearby with indoor toilets to her current Highgate home, Forster ends this book with an assertion that a house has an indefinable influence: it both reflects its inhabitants and affords them something in return. That indefinable sense of home is what we return to in our minds and hearts and exists independently of its walls.
The artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe for the best part of a decade to discover and photograph Very Old Things or to be more precise, living things over 2,000 years old. She has now collected the most breathtaking of these into a single volume of photographs and essays in The Oldest Living Things in the World. This is a powerful and exquisite piece of work that transcends a single definition, covering science, art, philosophy and spirituality over seven continents. It asks us about the meaning of life when such aged organisms face destruction at the hands of humankind and intersperses such weighty matters with well written accounts of her adventures as she explores the world. This is a coffee table book that will actually get read, will spook, enthrall and educate.
Fiction and short stories
Busy people (especially parents), commuters or those with shorter attention spans can all maintain their engagement with the written word via stories in short form and I have recently had the pleasure of reading some great anthologies, recently published and not so. Always keen to promote East Anglian writers and publishers, I discovered Salt Publishing and had a look at their list. The ‘Best British Short Stories’, edited by Nicholas Boyle aims to reprint the best short stories published in the previous calendar year by British writers, whether based in the UK or elsewhere (their words) and includes pieces by Elizabeth Baines, Johanna Walsh, Christopher Priest and Jay Griffiths. The introduction itself, in which Royle explains his editing process, what was left out and why, is a masterpiece in itself. Baines little vignette with its descriptions of black lapping sea, mud flats and the smells of Autumn is particularly apropos for readers like me, based in the watery counties of East Anglia.
From presidents reincarnated as horses to Japanese girls, drugged and producing silk from their bodies, the stories of Karen Russell weave the everyday emotions of folks into fantastical magical realism in her short story collection ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘ and in her debut, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”. If you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then giver her a try. If you fancy reading Russell in long form, then go for ‘Swamplandia’, a tale of a Floridian alligator wrestling park owning family, left adrift after the mothers illness and defection of the heroines big brother to a rival park. Fantasy of a different kind abounds in Terry Pratchetts latest Discworld novel ‘Raising Steam’, still going strong after 30 years as Ankh-Morpork branches into the railway age. Packed with in jokes and references from the earlier novels, it is written with all the sly humour his fans have come to expect.
‘All Our Names’ by By Dinaw Mengestu brings together a Midwestern social worker and a bereft African immigrant and explores their relationship of shared dependency with truth, sadness and a keen, unsparing eye. Dinaw Mengestu continues to explore the violent uprooting and uneasy exile of his two previous novels, Children of the Revolution and How to Read the Air in this tale, riven with passion and an unshared narrative of the past. Isaac is from Africa and Helen is his social worker lover, although Isaac’s true name is never revealed to us, or her. The real Isaac is left behind in Uganda where 10 years of postcolonial rule are about to affirm the dictatorship of Idi Amin.
November 2014 brings us the latest novel from Stephen King who appears to be on a ‘revitalised’ roll (bad pun-sorry) with book releases coming thick and fast. His last book, ‘Mr Mercedes’ marked a departure from fantasy fiction and his own genre of horror into the wilds of crime fiction and was, as to be expected, readable with no great departure from the usual tropes- disillusioned and troubled detective, woman who (nearly) saves him, yet it was laced with his characteristic detailed characterisation and use of cultural iconography to enrich the stories sense of place. ‘Revival’ returns however to familiar ground- a novel about addiction, religion, music and what might exist on the other side of life- small boys, charismatic ministers, the passage of time and a pact between an addicted rock musician and an onstage showman who creates dazzling portraits with lightning. Another ‘big beast’ of the literary world, Haruki Murakami, publishes ‘ The Strange Library’ in early December, a story narrated by a young man who follows a strange old man into a subterranean reading room in the local library. The man has an appetite for human brains and with only the company of a sheep man and a girl who talks with her hands, how is he going to escape?
Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be delighted to know that in ‘Lila’, her latest book, we return to the town of Gilead in a story about a girl who lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder. Due out early October and talking of sequels, Rachel Joyces ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’takes up the story of the woman Harold Fry planned to walk the length of England to see before she died. I like eerie tales, perfect for those nights as they draw in and this, from Kate Mosse called ‘The Mistletoe Bride‘ is named for the famous old folk tale that told of the bride who hid in a wooden chest to surprise her new husband and was never found, dying entombed as he hunted for her, evermore. As Mosse’s introduction states, some of the tales have been printed elsewhere previously, and at the end of each she provides an insight into their inspiration. She also tracks how these short tales show how she would later develop into the writer of books such as Labyrinth.
In Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ we meet Frank, a difficult character to base the first of a planned trilogy of fiction upon, for Frank is a bit of a loner and disrupter with fraught connections to the wider cast of family members that populate the story. This first part of that projected trilogy called ‘The Last Hundred Years’ follows the story of a farming family from Iowa-the Langdons- from the early twenties to the mid fifties with a chapter for each year. Covering vast events, the Depression and Second World War to the start of the atomic age, we see these through the prism of the novels shifting point of view and as readers, we are kept on our toes by a narrative device that makes it hard to know what is going to happen next, no matter what our pre-existing knowledge of the wider historical content may be. The facade of family life, what it reveals, conceals and distorts is beautifully set against American life.
To the lives now, of immigrants to the USA, pitching up in a housing complex in Delaware in Christina Henriquez’s ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’. Arturo Rivera was the owner of a construction company in Pátzcuaro, México. One day, as his beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, is helping him at a work site, she sustains an injury that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same again. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better. For Mayor Toro, the first glimpse of Maribel is love at first sight and the beginning of a friendship between the two families. Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Central and Latin America, filled with hopes, dreams and sometimes, disappointment.
During the summer of 1929 four children come together and change the course of their lives forever in a novel by Doris Grumbach, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ which examines the ways that childhood experiences create transformative resonance that lasts throughout adulthood and beyond and in a lighter read altogether, we become reacquainted with ‘Emma’, the famous Austen busy body in this revisiting by Alexander McCall Smith.
Think about re-reading some of those famous eighties ‘sex and shopping’ novels, all of them pure trivial and enjoyable fun. Highly recommended is the uber-book of its age ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran, a sumptuously elaborate ‘ages and stages novel’ set across continents featuring five women- four friends and the secret daughter of one of them. The scene with the goldfish is one that all us women who read it in the eighties will remember. Others of that time include pretty much the entire oeuvre of Judith Krantz-‘Scruples‘ and its sequels plus her ‘Princess Daisy‘ and ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’; The Watershed’ by Erin Pizzey and the many novels of Rona Jaffe but particularly ‘Class Reunion’, ‘After the Reunion’ and ‘The Best of Everything‘. ‘Decades’ by Ruth Harris and the ages and stages novels of Eric Segal’ -‘Doctors’ and ‘The Class’ are also worth reading too. All of these are effortless pleasure after the economic and time consuming vagaries of the festive season. Put on your pyjamas, a pair of woolly socks, sink into the sofa with some Christmas chocolates, a warm blanket and indulge yourself.
And finally, to some beautiful books that transcend age groups. The Folio Society produces over four hundred titles, all special or limited edition commissions of classic books for all age groups. With introductions from leading literary figures such as Jeannette Winterson and Michael Morpugo and illustrated by award winning artists and designers, these books with exquisitely set type, protective slipcases, premium paper and bindings are destined to be read, re-read and handed down like the treasures they are. Our choice? Charlottes Web with illustrations by Garth Williams in the classic style of the original and Ballet Shoes, introduced by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Inga Moore. For adults, the stylish redesign of Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with an introduction by Jay McInerney and artwork by Canadian Karen Klassen will definitely appeal. The blue cat on the spine of this edition is adorable and if American history is your passion, then the ‘History of the Indians of the United States‘ by Angie Debo with the sepia tinted cover image and gold and navy blue embossing, bound in buckram makes this meaty read something to treasure. For another sort of American history coupled with travel writing, Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ is introduced by broadcaster James Naughtie and is bound on covers of cloth printed with a resplendent panorama of mid century New York City.
Books we love as children can date and grow out of kilter with our modern mores and beliefs – we still enjoy them, albeit with a more knowing heart and mind. We haven’t checked the Law of Books as to what delineates a classic as of late but these are some of our candidates- both niche and mainstream, for kids which feature fulsome or whimsical descriptions of food in their pages. Some are based around food and others use it to enhance the narrative or as a theme or metaphor but they are all compelling and have stood the test of time, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation of children.
The moral of this story is “Be careful what you wish for.” Frances loves bread and jam so much she wants to eat it every day. Frances is a fussy eater too. She won’t touch her squishy soft-boiled egg. She trades away her chicken salad sandwich at lunch. She turns up her nose at boring veal cutlets. Unless Mother can come up with a plan, Frances just might go on eating bread and jam forever! Mum Badger in her infinite parental wisdom knows the best way to deal with this is to let Frances learn that some things are made less special by over familiarity. Adventures with food and fussy eating is addressed with a light non moralising hand as Frances learns to try new things to eat and more importantly, works this out for herself. Richly descriptive in word and illustration, Hoban creates a prose masterpiece about a childhood life experience.
“Not in a box. Not with a fox. Not in a house. Not with a mouse. I would not eat them here or there. I would not eat them anywhere. I would not eat green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am”
(From Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss)
Do you like green eggs and ham?” asks Sam-I-am and Sam keeps asking persistently (like very young child we have ever met). With distinctive characters and unmistakable rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s beloved books have earned a place in the cannon of children’s classics. Growing cumulatively longer and longer, the list of places to enjoy green eggs and ham, and friends to enjoy them with, grows. Follow Sam-I-am as he insists that this unusual treat is indeed a delectable snack to be savored everywhere and in every way then cook Nigella’s famous riff on the meal- Green Eggs and Ham.
“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.”
This description of Turkish Delight by CS Lewis in the ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is the one that tantalised, confused and ultimately disappointed me the most when I finally got to try it for myself. Bouncy, jellified and perfumed, the texture and taste of Turkish Delight was so far removed from the candy of my imagination that to this day I wonder if CS Lewis actually muddled it with some other, lovelier candy. The magical description allied itself with a magical world during my childhood- a time when I so very desperately needed to be taken out of my own unloving and bleak home and my disappointment after trying Turkish Delight for the first time was bitter indeed.
Once upon a time there was a town called Chewandswallow, devoid of grocery stores. Food is provided by the weather and comes three times a day. It snows mashed potatoes, has split pea soup fog, and rains orange juice. It begins to storm and flood making the food become giant. This forces residents to build boats made out of bread and sail away in search of a safer place. Imagine super sized donuts rolling down the streets and wondering if a pancake could really be bigger than a house? It’s a great story that opens up questions about the weather and how fun the imagination can be, facilitating mind bending feats of creative thought. Read this with your children, get them drawing their own imaginary foods then click here for some surreal Cloudy inspired recipes to make with them.
Matron: “You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork-pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger-beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.” (From the Malory Towers series of books)
One of my very favourite things to read as a child was any of the Enid Blyton boarding school tales from the cliff top Malory Towers to the less striking St Claires, attended by the O’Sullivan twins. Despite being set around the time that war would have resulted in serious privation, we are kept insulated from the vagaries of this and other historical event- indeed Clive of India was one of the only historical figures I recall being mentioned (as the groan-worthy subject of revision). Despite the broadest of plot and character brushstrokes, I still read them as an adult. As Jane Brocket writes in ‘Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer’, a Proustian revisiting of the world of food in children’s literature with its recreations of famous meals and recipes, Blyton is especially gifted at depicting amazing scenes of food. Consider that these books were written during a time of rationing, surely Blyton must have been gripped by the throes of wish fulfilment as she wrote? Either that or she had great contacts in the world of black-market foodstuffs.
Think of the writing skill it takes to make sardines pressed into slices of ginger cake sound tempting. That is what some of the girls ate during one midnight feast, as they sat by a cliff-top swimming pool carved from Cornish cliffs wearing tennis shoes and sturdy utilitarian flannel and wool dressing gowns. Then there were the unctuous sounding match tea ‘Jammy Buns’ to celebrate their Malory Towers fifth form Lacrosse win. So much more desirable than their Greggs equivalent! We read the account of the midnight feast in a St Clare music room where Isobel and Pat fry mini-sausages on a purloined camping stove and rail against the sneakiness of Erica who subsequently ratted then out to their schoolmistress. To this day I can smell those sausages…and I don’t even like them. Even the description of Elizabeth’s peppermint creams in ‘The Naughtiest Girl in the School’ books made me long to try what are actually pretty average tasting candies.
In fact this love of celebrating the food in children’s books from an adult perspective leads me onto my next book discovery, the ‘Little House Cookbook’ by Barbara Mi Walker who discovered the “Little House” series when her daughter, Anna, was four. Eight further years of intermittent reading, writing, and testing produced The Little House Cookbook, a lovingly detailed exploration of just about every foodstuff mentioned in the entire series, including the appetites of the seemingly gluttonous Almanzo- Laura’s future husband.
The authors bibliography is four and a half pages long and in each chapter, she locates recipes within their historical context and explains every ingredient. Did you know that at in Laura Ingalls’s day, the tomatoes available were not sweet in the manner that they are now? There were no chemical raising agents (egg whites would be stiffly beaten and ipes to the modern day kitchen.
Take the recipe for Stewed Jack rabbit with Dumplings, “If you can’t find a hunter to give you a skinned rabbit (he will want the pelt), look for a farm-raised rabbit at a German butcher shop. (Hasenpfeffer is a favorite German dish).” There is the Mittel European influence upon American migrant cooking right there.
Horehound candy, vinegar pie, parched corn and Johnny Cakes; fried apples ‘n onions, (the favourite birthday treat of Almanzo); green tomatoes or pumpkins were used for pie when apples were not available. They ate Vanity cakes at a Plum Creek birthday, the cakes’ puffed up emptiness serving as analogy for the hated Nellie Olsen and savoured salt-pork melting into pans of baked beans: even the loaves made from wheat hand-ground in a little coffee grinder during the blizzard racked Long Winter are researched and written about. I was obsessed with trying Wintergreen Berries, something that Almanzo (again!) and his sister Alice went ‘pawing for’ on the snow-frozen slopes of New York State where their father had a prosperous farm. The description of crunchy berries gushing aromatic icy juices into their mouths was more than I could bear. The fact that I live in an area with chalky alkaline soil, ill suited to growing the plant that bears these berries, Gaultheria procumbens is a further torture.
I have never drunk tea and detest milk but I got my grandmother to make me a Cambric tea just like little Grace drank- basically hot water flavoured with milk and a smidgeon of tea, so comforting during the cold and a hint of just how poor the family often were. I basically spent my childhood pretending to be Laura and named my first born after her too. “At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea”. (The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder).
Another fantasy figure from my childhood (I begged for a hay filled mattress that would smell clean and sweet), Heidi lived the kind of simple life that even as a young child, I recognised as something of an unattainable fantasy. The contrast between this unctuous piece of cheese on toast and the hard rolls with the knot on top served at the formal dinners in Clara’s frigid and cold city home was painful to me. The author, Johanna Spyri was actually a resident of Zürich and thought of the story of the simple Alpine girl while she was convalescing from an illness in the Grisons, which is in the eastern part of the country and a biographical parallel with Clara’s illness:
“Meanwhile the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow color on each side … the old man filled her bowl again to the brim and set it before the child, who was now hungrily beginning her bread having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was soft as butter” (from ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri)
Finding out what type of cheese this was turned out to be no easy task when you consider that goats cheese was actually not eaten that often in Switzerland then, even though Uncle Alp was a goat farmer who made cheese from his own animals. Cheese toasting over a fire was not restricted to people living in huts on the side of an Alpine mountain though; this method using toasting forks was also written about by Enid Blyton and by Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Treasure Island’ but none comes close to Spyri’s description. It is THE uber cheese on toast but unlike Proust I have yet to rediscover my Heidi Temps Perdu. I Still don’t know what type of cheese it was although Raclette is the likeliest candidate, being an excellent melting cheese.
As a young girl I read and re-read Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did’ series of books and was intrigued by the bottle of shrub they took to drink on one of their rainy day picnics in the loft at the very start of the book. Although Cece later admitted that the ‘Shrub’ was little more than vinegar and water, I was determined to both try it and enjoy it <shudder> and took a glass of what we had, Sarsons, mixed with tap water down to the orchard at the bottom of my grandparents garden and tentatively forced myself to drink it. Illusions firmly shattered and deciding that American vinegar was clearly superior to ours (or they had the stomach and constitution of goats) I shelved any ideas about this becoming my new go to summer refreshment.
Until the latest post from the Bojon Gourmet landed in my in box that is. One of my favourite food writing bloggers from San Francisco, her Shrub recipe has about as much in common with my (and Cece’s) version as the saintly and slightly sanctimonious Cousin Helen from the books had with Mae West. Lavender, Kumquat, honey and apple cider vinegar all add a mellifluous depth that cancels out any tendency towards the tongue-sucking rasp of vinegar. The colour is amazing, the floral and citrus sophisticated enough for parties. Go on, try it. Even Katie would have been made good by this drink and would thus have avoided the back injury this, in part, morality tale visited upon her to show us what happens to naughty girls.
The ‘What Katy Did’ series are liberally scattered with references to food and to the occasions surrounding it. Here is the picnic in their version of Paradise where they built a rose bower to eat under;
“Katy, who sat in the middle, untied and lifted the lid of the largest basket, while all the rest peeped eagerly to see what was inside.First came a great many ginger cakes. These were carefully laid on the grass to keep till wanted; buttered biscuit came next – three a piece, with slices of cold lamb laid in between; and last of all were a dozen hard-boiled eggs, and a layer of thick bread and butter sandwiched with corned-beef. Aunt Izzie had put up lunches for Paradise before, you see, and knew pretty well what to expect in the way of appetite.Oh, how good everything tasted in that bower, with the fresh wind rustling the poplar leaves, sunshine and sweet wood-smells about them, and birds singing overhead! No grown-up dinner party ever had half so much fun. Each mouthful was a pleasure; and when the last crumb had vanished, Katy produced the second basket, and there, oh, delightful surprise! were seven little pies – molasses pies, baked in saucers – each with a brown top and crisp, candified edge, which tasted like toffy and lemon-peel, and all sorts of good things mixed up together”
And who recalls Debbie’s Jumbles sent in the boarding school Christmas hamper to end all hampers? I found the books faintly torturous; even the ‘thick pale slices of pudding with a thin sugary sauce’ served by the new headteacher on one of her weird food fad regimes for school lunch tempted me. What on earth was this pudding?
Katy’s trip to Europe with its ill fated expeditions to various locations associated with her favourite novels had her gravely disillusioned with our food, showing particular distaste for some disagreeable flannel blanket-textured muffins, which she described as ‘scorched and tough’. Little pan fried fish reminiscent of what she called ‘Scup’, commonly known now as ‘Porgy’ with its fine light flavour, and a light gooseberry preserve both met with her approval in what she called ‘Storybook England’.
An old, little known book, ‘Girl of the Limberlost’ by Gene Stratton Porter, is a story of a girl of the mid western woods; a buoyant, loveable self-reliant American with a philosophy of love and kindness towards all things; her hope is never dimmed. The story and romance of Elnora growing up in the wetlands of northern Indiana is also a cautionary tale for ecology-lovers.
Gene Stratton-Porter paints a picture of coming industry destroying nature and those who try to save what can be saved for future generations. My sigh of relief when Elenora’s mother turned her life around and started acting like a good mother as opposed to her original not so good one, was immense and of course that meant that food = love with glorious descriptions of the goodies placed in Elnora’s lunchbox- spice cookies, raisin turtles, candied pears, popcorn balls, haws, doughnuts, and hazelnuts to share with friends or feast on alone.
Turtles brand candy were developed by Johnson’s Candy Company (which became DeMet’s Candy Company in 1923) in 1918, after a salesman came into the commissary’s dipping room and showed a candy to one of the dippers, who pointed out that the candy looked like a turtle. Soon after, Johnson’s Candy Company was making the same kind of candy and selling it under the name “Turtles.” Commonly made in the American South, they are now a classic of the candymaker- as a child without the internet to do my research, my mind ran in ignorant riot over their name. You can imagine what I thought they were made from.
Less a children’s book and more of a book that I read as a child, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ by Betty Smith beat Jamie Oliver to the post regarding the mythologizing of Cuisina Povera with its delicious description of mother figure Katie Nolan’s pitiful attempts to make a bone with scraps of meat on it, an onion and some stale bread into what she called Frikadellen.
Frying scraps of stale bread, sending the children to cajole that bone from a butcher who would give them the one with the most meat attached (in exchange for a ‘pinch on their cheeks’), making nothing stretch to something because of her marriage to a charming yet feckless Irish singing waiter, Katie is a true heroine. Jack Monroe and her campaign against food poverty with a blog offering inexpensive ways to feed a family,comes to mind when I read this book and as an adult, fully cognizant of the hardships faced by many families, it makes me weep. Read this and see what I am referring to:
“The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.
“Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny’s worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn’t quite melt and that made it wonderful.
“Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meat balls had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.
“They lived mostly on these things made from stale bread, and condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip”
The most memorable banquets aren’t necessarily the most palatable or convivial: take the very adult Oscar Wildes black banquet in ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray’ with charcoal pathways, basalt-edged ponds and baskets of purple-black violets adorning the black-clothed table. Feasting on dark olives and Russian rye bread, slices of black puddings turgid with clotted blood shipped over from Frankfurt and wild game served in puddles of liquorice-dark sauces, the guests wore black and ate off black-edged flatware whilst mourning the passing of the protagonist’s sexual potency. Not one for children although the pepper laden meal that Cruella De Vil invites the dogs owners the Dearlys. to is just as forboding and sinister. Taking place in a Dalmatian-inspired room with its black marble walls and white marble table, reminiscent of a sarcophagus or grand tomb, Dodie Smith tells us:
‘The soup was dark purple. And what did it taste of?
Pepper! The fish was bright green. And what did it taste of? Pepper! The meat was pale blue. And what did that taste of? Pepper! Everything tasted of pepper, even the ice cream – which was black. (The Hundred and One Dalmatians)
The meal become entrenched in our minds eye in a far more potent manner as it takes the staff of life- food, and marries it with death in that tomb -like room.
Incomprehensible to an adult, how on earth can we expect a child to get a handle on death and bereavement, especially when their parents and family may well be struggling themselves? These books are not a substitute for loving human contact and explanations (no matter how clumsy or incomplete these may be) but what they can do is provide a breathing space for grieving adults who might be struggling to put words to their pain. The child is helped to understand that death is universal through the written experiences of others and there are a myriad of ways by which we experience and understand it. And shared reading will help both parent and child to cope.
Sad Book by Michael Rosen
The pairing of two of Britain’s former Laureates, and chronicling Michael’s grief at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis when he was a teenager, this is a moving combination of honesty, sincerity and simplicity which acknowledges that sadness is not always avoidable or reasonable. We like this book because it makes those complicated feelings plain on the page, with the illustrations of Quentin Blake expressing that which cannot be communicated verbally- whether that be through the weight of pain or there being no words. It wasn’t made like any other book either; Michael Rosen said of the text, ” I wrote it at a moment of extreme feeling and it went straight down onto the page … Quentin didn’t illustrate it, he ‘realized’ it. He turned the text into a book and as a result showed me back to myself. No writer could ask and get more than that.” And Quentin Blake says that the picture of Michael “being sad but trying to look happy” is the most difficult drawing he’s ever done… “a moving experience.”
Children and their parents everywhere have grown up with the work of Michael Rosen. When bad things happen we turn to the familiar because it makes us feel a little safer in a world that has tilted on its axis and is less dependable as a result. To read the words of an author that we love and trust brings comfort and for us, that is this books greatest strength, even if it strikes us as grossly unfair that such pain should be visited on a man who has given us so much.
Duck, Death & the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, Penelope Todd and Catherine Chidgey
This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully. The author, Erlbruch is a much respected man in Germany and his subjects emerge from the less cosy side of childhood, a place filled with edgy creatures and difficult themes. You won’t find a fuzzy bunny or a little bear who can’t sleep in Duck, Death and the Tulip and the story is simple. A duck notices that she is being followed. She is scared stiff, and who can blame her, for her stalker is an eerie figure in a checked robe with a skull for a head.
Erlbruch gives the impression that he is incapable of sentimentality, but his drawings are delicate, beautiful and convey a sweet humour that helps us cope with the immensity of the subject. “You’ve come to fetch me?” asks the terrified Duck. But Death demurs, explaining that he has always been close at hand, in case of some mishap.
Duck strikes up a friendship with Death which is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence, eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock and there is something infinitely tender in the way Death strokes her ruffled feathers into place, lifts her body and places it gently in the river, watching as she drifts off into the distance. “For a long time he watched her. When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.”
Care is needed in the telling of this story because it could inspire nightmares in the more ruminative and sensitive child. We found it difficult; the depictions of death are not cosy although the comfort that death can bring to the old, the tired, the sick and the sick of it is acknowledged. Death comforts the dying duck and is comforting to those of us who can understand that life can be a burden- whether your child can grasp this is your call.
The Bear and the Wildcat by Kazumi Yumoto and Komako Sakai
Bear is grieving for his little friend, Bird. He has gently laid him to rest in a box lined in the softest moss,leaves and feathers and has a desperate need to talk about Bird with his other friends but they all urge him to move on. Bear doesn’t want to and is not ready to move on either. He wants to both mourn and celebrate his friendship and feels isolated by his grief from his friends and from the World.
One day Bear meets a Wildcat sitting alone next to a violin shaped box and after asking about its contents, confides in Wildcat about Bird, “You must have loved Bird very much” is all Bear needs to hear to unlock the torrent of love, longing and memories inside him; memories illustrated beautifully by the vignettes of Bird’s life- a life well lived. The celebration and commemoration continues as Bear decorates Bird’s box with bright leaves as his new friendship grows and we see those vivid memories come to life. In this, children learn that eternal life can mean living on in the hearts and minds of those left behind, irrespective of religious belief.
The messages in this book are wonderfully pragmatic, healing and heartbreaking for both parent and child. We are slowly guided to the realisation that memories must be cherished, celebrated in an every day manner and friendship never dies. Grieving is honourable and a new friendship is not a betrayal- it is part of honouring those that have gone before. Indeed we realise that the best way to love again is to have loved before.
We would recommend this as a supervised read for a child (and adult) who have recently endured loss and it will help stimulate age appropriate chats about feelings and experiences at a difficult time. The book also serves as useful preparation for pet owners, especially of creatures with short lives who provide our children with an early experience of loss.
The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic and Illustrated by Olivier Talliec
We were most jolted by the anger we felt when we lost our Grandfather so this book, dealing as it does with the anger of a little boy whose mother has died, is important in the way it represents a full range of human responses to death. The little boy is overwhelmed with sadness, anger and fear that he will forget his mother, shutting all the windows to keep in her familiar smell and scratching open the cut on his knee to help him recall her comforting voice. He doesn’t know how to speak to his dad any more, and when Grandma visits and throws open the windows, it’s more than the boy can take – until she shows him another way to hold on to the feeling of his mum’s love. With tenderness, touches of humour and unflinching emotional truth, Charlotte Moundlic captures the loneliness of grief through the eyes of a child, rendered with sympathy and charm in Olivier Tallec’s expressive red-infused acrylic and pencil drawings.
Read it to yourself a few times before sharing with a child; while we advocate sharing feelings of pain and loss with your children, we advise being prepared first because the rage, pain and isolation of this little boy can be very hard to bear but so many children have reported finding this book a solace and realistic depiction of their own feelings that it is worth persevering with.
Still Here with Me: Teenagers and Children on Losing a Parent by Suzanne Sjoqvist
This book is a moving and thoughtful anthology of the experiences of thirty-one children and teenagers who have lost a parent. In their own words, children and young people of a variety of ages talk openly and honestly about losing their mother or father. They describe feelings of pain, loss and anger, the struggle to cope with the embarrassed reactions and silence of others, and the difficulties involved in rebuilding their lives. They also share happy and loving memories of their parents, and talk about the importance of remembering while learning to accept their parent’s death. The accounts cover a variety of circumstances in which a parent died, including death from cancer, heart attack and involvement in an accident. Taboo experiences which are often avoided are also covered, including death through alcoholism, natural disaster, war, suicide, and domestic violence. The book displays a courageous and insightful group of children and young people who prove that it is possible to talk openly about these subjects without stigma. Still Here with Me will be a valuable source of information and comfort to young people who are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
A simply stunning book for older readers that challenges the reader emotionally and intellectually- it deals with a child experiencing the death of their mother and spares nothing in its steadfast honesty and sensitivity. The story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy who is continually visited by a monster while his mother is dying, Patrick Ness has taken an original story from the gone too soon writer Siobhan Dowd, (who died of breast cancer at the age of 47) and produced a book most worthy of her. The monster – part wild yew tree, part giant man – tells the boy three stories. These confusing tales pale into comparison to the true monster in the home- the death of Conor’s beloved mother and the mystery of death, terrible in its unknowing-ness.
The hardback copy has illustrations by Jim Kay and these amplify the beauty and emotion of the text. Although you will be sliding down a wall, sobbing by the end of the book, it is a cathartic grief and so I would recommend this book for those months when people have ceased to acknowledge your loss or expect you to have ‘dealt with it’.
Fred by Posy Simmons
We can never know all the details of somebodies life, no matter how close we are to them. Even if we are well acquainted with a persons biography, they will always have a secret inner life, that intrapersonal relationship that they hold very close and this book cleverly reminds us of this.
Fred is a family cat with owners who think he is the laziest cat in the world, but who knows what goes on after dark? The family and children grieve for Fred after his death and night after night, hear the mewing of cats in the garden “Meaow meaow, meoooo, oh waily waily woooo….” as they mourn the passing of the Fred they knew- a cat pop star with a secret life.
Using a comic strip format, we watch as Sophie and Nick join in the funeral celebrations with his friends and fans who have come far and wide to pay their respects to a very cool cat and, in the process, we see his owners learn all about the life of a cat they thought they knew. In this, the book proves a useful jumping off point to the idea that when somebody dies we all have our own relationship with that person, our own memories and together, they go some of the way towards true appreciation of a person and their life. None of us have true ownership of another loved one and understanding that we are not the only ones to grieve might help a sad child feel a little less alone in their bereavement.
Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson
The guilt and anger felt by children when somebody they love dies are profoundly unsettling and frightening and in this superb book, Wilson ensures that Vicky, killed in a car accident, can also show anger at her own life being cut short. Jade, the friend left behind struggles with guilt, wondering if their argument triggered Vicky’s death- a classic display of magical thinking so common in children. Wilson personifies this in the form of the dead Vicky continuing to inhabit the life of her friend, following her around, trying to remain involved inserting herself into her new friendships and hindering her attempts to adapt to the loss of her best friend. Eventually Jade comes to the realisation that as much as she loves Vicky, she also has to move on with her life, a decision which can invoke yet more guilt for any of us in a similar situation. Vicky realises that her idealisation of her dead friend denies the essential truth of her- she was a human with all of the glorious and real flaws of that condition. When she accepts this, she is set free and able to find a comfortable place in her psyche for the memory of her dead friend.
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Award-winning picture book star Oliver Jeffers explores themes of love and loss in this life-affirming and uplifting tale. Once there was a girl whose life was filled with wonder at the world around her then one day something happened that made the girl take her heart and put it in a safe place. However, after that it seemed that the world was emptier than before. But would she know how to get her heart back?
In this deeply moving story, Oliver Jeffers deals with the weighty themes of love and loss with an extraordinary lightness of touch and shows us, ultimately, that there is always hope.
The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford Smith
With a design that is clearly influenced by the two Williams- Morris and Blake- the Fox and the Star is a children’s book which adults will be moved by and enjoy too. It is particularly inspired by Blake’s poem Eternity – “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy; / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sun rise” – and Bickford Smith’s story tells of the forest-dwelling Fox, who loses, and mourns for, his friend Star. If you hold onto something you value too tightly, you risk losing it but learning the lesson that when you love deeply, you have to let the love object go is a hard one and especially hard for Fox.
Teeming with life and haunted by isolation, the contrasts between the two and the pain this can cause us is an important and central theme to the story. Fox is an innocent creature, trying to carve a space in the world and a total opposite to the traditional depiction of foxes in literature- itself an important lesson about stereotyping.