Monday, March 27, 2017

Monica Dickens: Dear Dr. Lily

Monica Dickens' name keeps popping up among the book blogs that I read. The great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, she wrote over forty books between 1939 and 1993.  I recently finished Dear Dr. Lily, which is one of the later books in Dickens' oeuvre. (1988)

The story starts out strong. It's the early 1960s, and Lily and Ida meet by chance on a flight from England to the United States. Eighteen year old Lily, who comes from an ordinary middle class family, is attending a friend's wedding. Ida, several years older and accustomed to a life of hardship is on her way to marry an American GI and live in Massachusetts. Their plane experiences technical difficulties and has to make an emergency stop in Iceland, where they are stranded for two days. This experience is the cement for a lifelong friendship.

The first several chapters, which change point of view between Lily and Ida, are really engrossing. Ida's marriage is not a success (not a spoiler, it's obvious to the reader, even before you are introduced to Buddy the GI). Lily, who feels compelled to help (interfere with, at times) people she perceives to be in need, wants to be a social worker.

The timespan of the story is several decades and I found it to be a bit wearisome at times. But isn't this how life really is - long stretches in which not much happens interspersed with brief periods of drama?  Ultimately, Lily's need to get deeply involved with people ends in disaster. This is not a comfortable book and several scenes are dark, disturbing, or creepy. There's also considerable focus on Lily's not-entirely sympathetic father and his sketchy career. I definitely want to read more of Monica Dickens though.  I think, like Elizabeth Jane Howard, Barbara Pym, and Angela Thirkell, she's another writer who I'll want all of. Have you read anything of hers?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Sometimes life throws tiny curve balls in your way.  I'd left a beef brisket in the oven overnight to cook slowly at a low temperature. In the morning, the pan was cold, the beef was uncooked, the oven dead. Like all people who work in IT, my first idea was to turn it off and then turn it on again. (This IS a legitimate fix so don't sneer.) So I'm sitting there at 05:00 with my head in the oven and nothing is happening and the brisket is a disaster and I won't be able to bake soda bread and St. Patrick's day dinner is ruined.

Incidentally, I was reminded as I sat there with my head in the oven, of the meme that was circulating recently about naming something that young people wouldn't understand. I realized that references to putting your head in the oven would have been the perfect answer to this. Nowadays, with electric ignitions, gas ovens are no longer lethal. And it is probably the electric ignition that is broken in my oven. A gas oven is basically a box with a gas line and the electric ignition. If you replace the ignition once in a while,  you can keep it working indefinitely. And I'd rather stick with my 1990s "almond" enamel range until I'm ready for my "forever range" which won't be for some years yet.


ANYWAY, besides the St. Patrick's Day dinner, I had plans this weekend to try a new pizza dough technique and not having an oven really threw a wrench into that plan. So I researched stove top pizzas. And then Sunday evening, Seamus, who wasn't super-enthusiastic about pizza made on the stove top, tried turning the oven on, and it worked, as if nothing had ever been wrong with it. (See, turning it off and then on again IS a legitimate fix.) But NOW, I was almost disappointed because I'd planned a blog post about stove top pizza and I was going to have to bake the pizza in the oven.

It has been one of my lifelong projects to make professional-tasting pizza in my home oven. To that end, I've read numerous recipes and experimented with different techniques. I recently bought Franny's Simple, Seasonal Italian Cooking specifically because I read a review stating that it has awesome pizza recipes. Franny's dough recipe is similar to any other pizza dough, only you proof it in the fridge for at least 24 hours, and then you need another four to twelve hours for the dough to rest. It's easy to make, assuming you have a dough hook, and if you don't have a dough hook, you could probably knead by hand and get good results.  Anyway, the new-to-me technique in this recipe was to finish the pizza under the broiler. My oven was able to withstand the rigors of switching from heat to broiler multiple times and the result was four extremely delicious, professional-tasting pizzas. (Three with a topping of broccoli, garlic, lemon, and parmesan, and one ordinary pepperoni pizza.)
Kitchen in full pizza-making mode.
The finished pies. (Unmelted cheese on top because the recipe instructs you to sprinkle with more cheese after baking.)

What culinary challenge are you trying to master? Could you manage to live without an oven? (I know there are people who never bake and actually use their ovens for storage. I can't imagine doing that myself.)

Monday, February 27, 2017

We Need to Talk about Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) is one of the darlings of the cozy lit crowd.  A large body of her books, written between 1933 and 1961, are known as the Barchester Chronicles, as they are set in the same fictional region as Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series and concern the general faffing about of the British upper middle class.

I discovered Angela Thirkell by accident, when browsing the library shelves. The mention of Barchester hooked me and I checked out Wild Strawberries, which had the earliest publication date among the library collection. I enjoyed it but in my review, I mentioned that there was a certain snobbish nastiness in the book that turned me off.

When I discover an author, I like to read their entire oeuvre in order of publication, and so I've been slowly and more or less chronologically working my way through Angela Thirkell's books. Below is a copy of the Angela Thirkell section of my book list. The titles in colored fonts are those that I've read. (Blue means I liked the book, maroon means I didn't.)

All of Angela Thirkell: Three Houses (memoir); Ankle Deep; High Rising; Wild Strawberries; Trooper to the Southern Cross; The Demon in the House; O These Men, These Men!; The Grateful Sparrow (children’s); The Fortunes of Harriette; August FollyCoronation Summer; Summer Half; Pomfret Towers; The Brandons; Before Lunch; Cheerfulness Breaks In; Northbridge Rectory; Marling Hall; Growing Up; The Headmistress; Miss Bunting; Peace Breaks Out; Private Enterprise; Love Among the Ruins; Old Bank HouseCounty Chronicle; The Duke’s Daughter; Happy Returns; Jutland Cottage; What did it Mean?; Enter Sir Robert; Never Too Late; A Double Affair; Close Quarters; Love at all Ages;  Three Score and Ten; Mrs. Morland & Son (stories)

I recently finished O These Men, These Men! (1935) and it was a disappointment.  At the outset of the story, Caroline Danvers, aged 26, becomes estranged from James Danvers, her abusive, alcoholic husband. The rest of the novel concerns sorting out the romantic lives of Caroline and several other characters. Here are the reasons this book disappointed me and why I'm rethinking Angela Thirkell:

One:  Shittiness to women. We are made to understand that James Danvers is so awful and abusive that he somehow causes Caroline to have a miscarriage. His family shelters her after he runs off with another woman and treats her with outward kindness, while also quietly blaming her for being abused. Poor James has had to "put up with a lot." If only Caroline had been more firm, none of this would have happened!  Conversely, Caroline's extreme passivity in response to her abuser is admired by some, as if that is the only correct response from a wife.

Two: Fascism. The two younger Danvers brothers, Wilfred and George are obsessed with opposite political ideologies. George loves all things Russian, whereas Wilfred is an open admirer of Hitler. Their squabbles about politics are supposed to be the comedy of this novel. What? You mean one brother is a communist and the other is a nazi? Hilarious! I know I shouldn't judge people of the thirties with the eyes of the 2010s, (and in fiction, no less) and maybe I'm just jumpy about Trump, but casual mention of meetings with Blackshirts really turned me off.  Also, at one point, apropos of nothing, Wilfred announces, "Einstein is a dirty jew." Surely, surely, even back then people knew better? And this is not to say that Thirkell herself was a nazi (although the comment about Einstein makes one wonder). The reader is not encouraged to approve of Wilfred's philosophy, but to see it as an amusing youthful foible.

Three:  Shittiness to servants. A comic mini plot concerns Rose, the parlourmaid of one of the characters. Rose is described as grumpy - one of those tyrannical servants with a heart of gold - but is otherwise faithful and perfectly competent at her job.  Indeed, she goes above and beyond her duty in looking after the alcoholic James when he stays as a guest with this character. The problem is that her employer would like to sell his house, but doesn't know how to get rid of Rose. This little dilemma is solved when Rose's feelings are hurt by an impossibly petty incident and she gives her notice on the spot. She's then further humiliated by another guest in the house. How marvelous!  Rid of the old bag and it's her own fault for being low-class!

Classism and nastiness have been in evidence in all of the Angela Thirkell novels I've read so far. It's not funny and I'm not impressed. Comic nastiness aimed at privileged people can be funny. (I'm thinking of Jane Austen's brilliant parody of the snobbish, overbearing, self-important in her Mrs. Elton character.) Comic nastiness aimed at people who have no power to defend themselves is just shitty.

Am I giving up on Angela Thirkell? Not yet. I'd like to read a few more of her books and see if she matures as a writer or gains any perspective. Perhaps if some of you have read her later works, you could let me know in the comments. I know that racism and anti-semitism are rife in older works of literature, and sometimes, (such as with Anthony Trollope) there is so much of value in the novel as a whole, that you put up with it. And of course, there is no point in boycotting a dead novelist.  I wonder where the line is between turning a blind eye because of the time period the book was written in and saying, "Enough.  I won't read any more of this author?"

*I hate making disclaimers, but I hope everyone realizes that I'm not talking about censorship. I would never suggest that a book should be removed from library shelves because it contains anti-semitic or other offensive language. We should all be able to judge for ourselves what offends us in literature and should have the freedom to chose to read these works or not. It's entirely personal.