Paula McLain – Circling the Sun


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Beryl Markham : The Splendid Outcast

Circling the SunPaula McLain’’s well- written second book, Circling The Sun, a biography-as-fiction of Beryl Markham, aviator, horse-trainer, free woman, adventurer, leaves me with the same kind of uneasy questions as did her first novel, The Paris Wife, another biography-as-fiction about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Those questions are about the ethics of biography-as-fiction, particularly with those who may have still living children.

Biography itself may of course be flawed, even ‘facts’ are subject to interpretation, but the general tenet of a good biography is not to assume the fictional mantle of identifying what the subject was thinking and feeling – unless of course they left evidence of this, or perhaps there was a third party who reported conversations and recollections (those these of course may be subjectively and selectively filtered by that third party)

The problem (and of course the beauty) of biography as fiction is that the fiction writer deals in what a character feels and thinks, not merely what they do, or have done to them by others. The adding of the fiction writer’s inventive, empathetic, imaginative skills to ‘real’ people, makes the fiction biography SEEM more real than the objectively researched biography, merely reporting verifiable facts. This is precisely because we are taken into the added dimension of understanding and thinking and feeling what a person is like, which the fiction writer has imagined, invented, supposed, and which has been filtered through their own sensibilities.

Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham was an unusually bold, free-spirited woman, even amongst the adventurous time and place which was the British ex-pat community of British East Africa between the wars. Born Beryl Clutterbuck, the daughter of a racehorse trainer, the family emigrated from England when she was 4. At a remarkably young age, barely out of her teens, she was forcing her way into the world of racehorse training under her own steam. This was a male-only commercial activity, and Beryl was the first woman in Kenya to gain a license to train horses – something she continued to do until her 80s. In 1936 she achieved another first, after discovering another passion – flying. She was the first woman to make the solo Atlantic flight from East to West – that is, against the prevailing winds. The first solo Atlantic crossing by a female, Amelia Earhart, from West to East, WITH the winds, had happened 4 years earlier. Earhart of course became a symbol and a figurehead. She mysteriously died young, when, on another flight, her plane disappeared. She was also a woman who undoubtedly did good works, and channelled her adventurous, free-spirit into activities which were of use to society at large – promoting both flying itself and training and championing other female aviators. Markham’s rackety personal life was probably in part responsible for her fall into obscurity

Beryl Markham, triumphant after completing her Transatlantic flight, complete with landing injury

Beryl Markham, triumphant after completing her Transatlantic flight, complete with landing injury

My unease with McLain’s book is this : had this been a fiction about invented people ‘like’ Beryl Markham, Denys Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen and the rest – using different names, with an explanation that it was closely modelled on known events of their lives, I would absolutely, unreservedly, have five starred this. But the presentation is that this is true, because the events are true – it is an ‘as if’ biography. I was really interested to find out more about Markham, and what I found seemed to make her an even more interesting and far more complicated – and – perhaps, a less admirable (according to our morality) character than McLain makes her. For example, she seems to have been a woman who bestowed her sexual favours much more widely than McLain suggests. There is a kind of noble sanitising going on. And in a strange way, this kind of dishonours the reality of who someone was, as if their reality is not acceptable.. Of course, it’s made more difficult by the fact that by all accounts neither Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) or Markham herself, in their own writings about Africa and their lives, are showers and tellers of the stuff we are always so fascinated by – what goes on beneath the sheets.

A biography of Markham was written, by Mary S. Lovell, who interviewed Markham in her 80s, and the biography was authorised by Markham. It also suggests that ‘the love of her life’ was not the one which is the central one in this book. So, again, I was left very uneasy that this woman’s ‘truth’ had been manipulated because it made a better story. I suspect this was because the Out of Africa film familiarised us with Blixen and Finch-Hatton, whereas some other real people are less well known, and have not been the subject of posthumous interest and speculation

By then we’d climbed above the coffee plants and thorn thickets and a narrow, twisting riverbed winking with quartz. The hill flattened out into a kind of plateau, and from there we could see straight down into the Rift Valley, its crags and ridges like pieces of a broken bowl. The rain had finally cleared, but a billowy ring of clouds rested over Kilimanjaro to the south, its flat top painted with snow and shadows.

As stated earlier, this fiction is a beautifully written, captivating one, but it is probably more of a fiction than a biography, and it is a shame that that is not made clear in the afterword

One of the real strengths of McLain’s writing is the evocation of place, the longing for, and meaning of place. I underlined many passages which rather stopped the breath, painting a vision of landscape which was both intensely itself and ‘more than’, both real and metaphor. She is excellent at describing that yearning for ‘more’ – not more goods, but more meaning. And a life as large, wayward and brave (not to mention, wilful) as Markham’s undoubtedly was, rather suggest a person whose drive was to be unconfined.

There are things we find only at our lowest depths. The idea of wings and then wings themselves. An ocean worth crossing one dark mile at a time. The whole of the sky. And whatever suffering has come is the necessary cost of such wonders….the beautiful thrashing we do when we live

I certainly recommend this as a piece of fiction, but not as a truthful biographical fiction.

I’m really pleased to have been offered this as an ARC, for review purposes, by the publishers, and am now hot on the trail to read Lovell’s biography, Straight on Till Morning: The Life of Beryl Markham , Markham’s own autobiographical book West With The Night, and Karen Blixen’s (Isak Dinesen’s) far better known account of the time and the place, Out of Africa. Not to mention finding and dusting off my CD of Sidney Pollacks’ 1985 film of this last book, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Complete with John Barry’s marvellous soundtrack

I do love it when a book sends me so clearly off in a direction to various others!Paula McLain

The book is released in the States, but according to Amazon, will not be published in the UK as a hardback until the end of August, though it is available now on Kindle

Circling The Sun Amazon UK
Circling The Sun Amazon USA

Nancy Mitford – The Pursuit of Love


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“My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle”

The Pursuit of LoveRe-reading Nancy Mitford’s stylish, witty tale of an eccentric, aristocratic family fiddling whilst Rome burns (or, as the 1930s advances towards war) was the perfect weaning/antidote to my recent immersion in a couple of major, towering, American novels (Steinbeck, Yates)

The problem with reading enormous, wonderful, meaningful writing, is that it becomes impossible to follow. Writers of brilliance only mean that more mundane writers are met with an expression of distaste, by this unforgiving reader. My normal ‘weaning’ is to read a non-fiction book, but I’m afraid that Yates left me with absolutely no time for a non-fiction writer who was not also a writer, a fine writer. I abandoned with irritation a non-fiction which was a crass combination in style of dry academia and Reader’s Digest overblown.

And then, oh joy, I came across The Pursuit of Love in a second hand shop. A well written re-read, a world away from the towering ones, is of course, the answer.

The Mitford Family

The Mitford Family

Nancy Mitford was of course, one of the Mitford Sisters : Mitford’s own background as the daughter of Baron Redesdale with her 6 siblings, clearly provided the imaginative springboard for the eccentric Radlett family of this book.

The Radletts are a remarkably opinionated and individual family. Paterfamilias Matthew is an irascible high Tory, his wife Sadie is permanently surprised that she seems to have produced a large brood of children. The central story of The Pursuit of Love is that of the second daughter, beautiful, sentimental, romantic, wilful Linda, and it is told by her cousin Fanny, who is a much more sober, grounded character. No doubt in response to the fact that her mother, known to all as ‘The Bolter’ abandoned her at an early age to ‘bolt’ in rackety fashion, with a succession of unsuitably lovers. Linda shows some worrying signs of being drawn to overwhelming love affairs, from an early age, emulating Fanny’s mother.

The joy of the book is that the voices of the characters are wonderfully drawn, succinctly observed, and there is a sure narrative drive, and a kind of snapshot of a class and a time, of course cranked up into ‘types’ which could be clichés if they were not written with such sparkle and sharp observation.

What really struck me in reading the book is that although the manner is frothy, there are some quite painful events within the pages – abandoned and unloved children, war, death. But the manner in which tragedies are experienced is pragmatic and rather ‘not talked about’ It’s a world away from our emoting culture. Some of the characters certainly appear to behave extremely shallowly, and have shallow concerns, but it would be a mistake to believe they ARE shallow. It’s more that the approved manner of being is to make light of misery, to get on with things, not to indulge emotions

Here is a typical little gem. Linda has given birth and Fanny (who is pregnant) is visiting her in hospital

At this point the Sister came in and Linda introduced us……She went away and presently returned carrying a Moses basket full of wails

‘Poor thing,’ said Linda indifferently. ‘It’s really kinder not to look’

‘Don’t pay any attention to her’, said the Sister. ‘She pretends to be a wicked woman, but it’s all put on’

I did look, and, deep down among the frills and the lace, there was the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.

‘Isn’t she sweet,’ said the Sister. ‘Look at her little hands.’

I shuddered slightly, and said:
‘Well, I know it’s dreadful of me, but I don’t much like them as small as that; I’m sure she’ll be divine in a year or two.’

The walls now entered on a crescendo, and the whole room was fulfilled with hideous noise.

‘Poor soul.’ Said Linda. ‘I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister’

This is (to my mind) wonderfully funny, plus saying stuff which is/was probably Nancy Mitford Head and shouldersunthinkable – a lack of maternal feeling – but exploding the received ‘normal’ idea of mother and child instantaneous bonding with a feather light, nonetheless razor sharp barb

Mitford is frothy, light-touch, sharp and elegantly understated in her humour. ‘Pursuit’ is at its best, for me, in the early stages of the book, where the central characters are in their early teens, on the verge of no longer being children, but young girls who will soon ‘come out’ and enter the marriage market.

The Pursuit of Love Amazon UK
The Pursuit of Love Amazon USA

Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road


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The long, little emptiness of life

Revolutionary_Road_2Revolutionary Road is as bleak a novel about the mismatch between the hopes and dreams of youth, and the realities of maturity, as any I have read. It’s a novel which breaks the heart to read – not just because of the way Yates makes us feel for his characters, but the way it confronts the reader with themselves. It’s a kind of Everyman morality tale, except there are no gods, there are no demons, there are no solutions. And yet…and yet..this is so far from some kind of nihilistic howl of rage and despair. What saves this, what makes it bearable is that Yates does not condemn his characters, indeed, he does not separate himself from them. Neither does he separate himself from us, nor us from them.

However flawed the central characters are, their flaws are human, and a result of that mismatch between a hope of happiness and personal fulfilment, of individual striving and the long littleness which most of us will inherit. I found myself comparing Revolutionary Road to a much more edgy and hip look at the sense of waste and meaninglessness of a life, a reaction by a more current generation to their version of the American Dream – Bret Easton Ellis, Rules of Attraction. What I loathed about that book was the superciliousness of the writer; we were invited to despise these silly, so unlike us creations, wasting their stupid lives. The genius of Yates (aside from the masterful writing) is that we are brought to care about these flawed, disappointed, bruised characters, because they are us. Ellis was like one of those nasty documentaries where we are comfortably invited to gaze in superiority at car-crash lives, and left smugly above it all. Yates makes us peel off the mask of someone else’s persona, and discover our hurting own, beneath

The central characters, Frank and April Wheeler, see themselves as special, or about to be special, standing outside the mainstream. Frank views himself as ‘an intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-Paul Sartre kind of man’. He is working deep within a soulless corporate, a company making advanced calculation machines – on-the-verge-of computers. Frank sells them, but does not understand them. His workplace is full of corporate clones, but he believes himself different because he mocks them in his head, and consciously wears the mask of being one of them. He doesn’t quite realise they are all consciously wearing the mask and believing themselves different.

How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet! There were endless desperate swarms of them, hurrying through the station and the street, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting mid-town office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.

Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927. Flicr, Commons

April had ‘attended one of the leading dramatic schools of New York less than ten years before’ She wears this badge as something to set herself as more than the haus-frau she is, having married a man she has told herself (and him) is ’ the most interesting person I’ve ever met’.  Frank believes April is ‘a first rate girl’ almost out of his league. Neither see each other, or themselves, clear, without terror, hatred and rage at what their reality is. Needless to say, beneath the carefully constructed veneer, huge cracks are spreading.

Their closest friends are Shep and Milly Campbell, a less shiny and glamorous couple but one who also believe they are somehow more than cut from a mould. Despite the close friendship, underneath they despise and distrust each other, as couples and as individuals

The elderly real estate broker and her retired husband, Helen and Howard Givings, with the skeleton in a cupboard son, (John is an inmate in psychiatric hospital) give a third portrait of a marriage which is bleak, inside its superficial veneer. Yates offers us the small, lacerating image of the wife who prattles endlessly on in a pretence that everything in the garden is lovely, though his description of her physical life – tell-tale hands twisting in her lap – belie the bright, social manner. Meanwhile Howard sits blissfully, phlegmatically silent, reading the paper. He has turned off his hearing-aid, as is his habit,  and the two are existing in isolation, lacking awareness of each other or willingness to be aware of each other.

Yes, the book, with its inevitably tragic movement shows the bleak underbelly of the American Dream, but it goes far further – it shows the bleak underbelly of the hopeful, growing dreams of ‘being special’ which are part and parcel of adolescence and twenties, and presents the sour regret of maturity for opportunities missed, mistakes made, and the necessary accommodations which most of us will make.

And where can we salvage a true meaning? Is there any hope?

Yates doesn’t offer much – in his view of Frank and April’s parents, and what we see of the potential little Frank and April in their already neurotically developing, vulnerable children, Niffer and Michael, he shows that the previous generation bleakly created the present one, and that the next generation are already struggling hard to please and be whom they think their parents would like them to be, pretending in their turn that the life-garden is full of pretty things, and studiously shutting their eyes to the hard, unforgiving rocks beneath

And yet…………in with the sour despair, there is a wit within the dialogue, the characters play their parts in being bravely ironic for each other – and ARE amusing, and do invite the reader to appreciate their sometimes mordant humour. It’s the mark of a brilliant writer to do this, so that the book is lifted out of unremitting angst. The brittle, sophisticated surface is like some modern version of Restoration Comedy; the knowing wearing of the mask and of the misery beneath play brilliantly against each other. This is both darkly tragic and full of sharp, amusing touches, which makes the reader wince whilst laughing

This is a wonderfully rich book, with a multiplicity of layers and meanings. One of those magical books where the reader discovers that they can go deeper and deeper, and discover more and more, that the craft of Yates’ writing is extraordinary, the images he offers, both economical, subtle, and deep. We are not smacked in the face, instead, small touches, reflected upon, will bring more and more realisations, thoughts, reflections.

As an example, the opening of the book is the staging of a play by a newly formed community theatre group. It is meant to be the foundation of an aspirational, sophisticated, intellectual circle of people who will challenge the status quo, who are more than duped swallowers of 1950s corporate, consumerist, sentimentalised capitalism. The play they are performing is The Petrified Forest, by Robert Emmett Sherwood, later made into a film with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. (and even later a TV adaptation) The play/film has as its central characters a writer (Howard) trying to discover the meaning of existence, to find some reason for his being, some purpose, an aspirational artist who feels suffocated by the narrowness of her world (Davis) and someone living on the margins, outside the norms (Bogart) who is the challenge/catalyst.

There are parallels in the lives of the central couple in Revolutionary Road, who are just such a pair, Frank Wheeler, still on the edge of that expansive, excited feeling from youth that he might ‘be something’ and April Wheeler, his wife, whose dreams of being a fine actress never lived up to the reality of the modest talents she really had, but who is feeling that suffocation of the narrowness life offers, as a wife and (reluctant) mother. John Givings, the son of their real-estate broker, an inmate of a mental hospital, brought out from time to time on rehabilitation visits, is the outsider catalyst whose analysis of the Wheelers, his parents, and society at large is the brutal, revealing lamp showing the Wheelers their own reality.

And then, there is the title of that play/film ‘The Petrified Forest’ – a forest is a lovely thing, dynamic, life giving, life creating, endlessly transforming through photosynthesis, sappy, magical – but, when petrified, ossified, it is stifled and stifling. There are echoes of this elsewhere – Giving’s mother Helen, the successful real-estate broker, gives Frank a box of sedum plantings, for the garden he is in theory constructing. It’s an unwanted gift, given at the wrong moment, and gets shoved in the cellar and forgotten. The box is discovered, later, by Helen ‘all dead and dried out’, and she bemoans how ‘a perfectly good plant, a living growing thing’ has been completely neglected.

Revolutionary Road was made into a film by Sam Mendes, with Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet. I can see that this, not to mention the 1936 Petrified Forest Film (and possibly the 1955 TV remake with a much older Bogie, reprising his role, with a luscious young Lauren Bacall) may make their several ways into my viewing.

Now many thanks are due to a determined group of bloggers who urged me to embarkRichard Yates on this one. First amongst them my dear bloggy buddy FictionFan, whose stunning review of this well over a year ago as part of her excellent GAN quest, finally got this snail (so many, many excellent books, suggested by so many, many of you) over the starting line. I then turned into a dynamic hare of a reader riding on the back of a slow and steady tortoise. Finishing thoroughly as well as with some degree of speed (reading at every opportunity)

FictionFan’s urgings were reinforced by Marina Sofia on Finding Time to Write, and crimeworm Thank you all.

Recommended? Of course, and how
Revolutionary Road Amazon UK
Revolutionary Road Amazon USA

Brian Payton – The Wind Is Not A River


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Cold comfort: a secret war zone

The Wind Is Not A RiverThe Wind Is Not A River takes as its springboard the `Secret War’ between America and Japan in Alaska, in 1942 and 1943. Two Aleutian islands, Kiska and Attu, which were part of America’s Alaskan territory, were invaded and occupied by Japan. The importance of the territory was that of control of Pacific transportation routes. It took over a year for American forces, supported by Canadian reconnaissance and fighter bombers, to take back the territory. At the time, there was a virtual news embargo on the fact that Japan was in occupation of two islands in Alaska which were American territory

Canadian author Brian Payton uses this secret war to explore several themes, and to tell a love story.

John Easley is a Canadian journalist, on the scent of a war story which was being embargoed by the War Department. He also has his own, personal motives for wanting involvement in dangerous work, as he is mourning the death in combat of his brother, a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force

Easley is married to Helen, an apparently conventional woman. The two have a happy marriage, though both are suffering as though they yearn for children Helen does not conceive.

Aleutian Islands

The start of the book is the shooting down of the plane Easley is in, over Attu, leaving him and one young American soldier, Karl Bitberg, as the only survivors. Attu is occupied by Japanese troops, and Easley and Bitberg struggle in a harsh, cold, environment to survive without being spotted by the Japanese

Attu village, Attu, 1937. Wiki commons

Attu village, Attu, 1937. Wiki commons

All Helen knows is that John has gone missing, following a bitter row between them when he had decided to investigate the rumours of this hidden war, and she had given him an ultimatum that if he did go into the war zone, she would not wait for him. She is painfully suffering guilt, and refuses to believe her missing husband is dead.

He must document some part of the war that claimed his brother, the part that seemed to have fallen into his lap. If someone isn’t there to observe and record, capture it on the page, it will be as if it never happened. The sacrifices made on our behalf must be known before they can be remembered, he said

John Easley’s journey is to survive, and the fierceness of the survival instinct strips away aspects of civilisation and humanity. There is raw writing about the physicality of survival, and a focus on male comradeship which develop between people on the border between life and death, where the only thing they can trust is each other; all else will kill them. There is a story of both physical, emotional and moral survival here, what is killed, and what remains

Helen knows and accepts her connection to, and need of, others and intimacy, but she also has hard choices to make. Her father, Joe, suffers a stroke, and needs care – does she stay and care for her father, particularly when everyone around her believes John is dead, or does she give in to her fierce belief that her husband is alive, and in a sense `become investigative reporter’ and try to unravel this story, and find where he might be.

The book is told in alternating chapters, both in the third person: Helen’s physical journey, which of course will change her utterly, as she steps away from being a person cared for, and taken care of, into becoming a protagonist, a person who forces change to happen ; John’s journey takes place within a very small geographical area in the snow, fog and ice of Attu, but it is a journey into himself and into what it is to be a human animal struggling to survive against the odds. How do we measure out what it is to be human except in relationship with another human?

Chichagof Harbor under attack during the Allied liberation of Attu. May 1943, Public Domain : United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Chichagof Harbor under attack during the Allied liberation of Attu. May 1943, Public Domain : United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division

I had some reservations which pulled me back from 5 star – the `wrap’ was tied up and balanced too neatly, leaving nothing untied; a little too poised, a little too perfectly accommodated and resolved, and there were aspects where chance and coincidence seemed too often employed.

For some reason the hardback version is titled The Wind Is Not A River, but the BrianPayton-300paperback version is retitled All This Will Be Lost, and the book-jacket looks much more geared towards `female fiction’ romance, but the book is much more than `romantic fiction’. I can only assume that the lack of four-square easy understanding of a defined meaning in that first title proved problematic for marketing/pitching. Personally, I had liked the ambiguity, the sense of metaphor, in the original title. Oh, and in case anyone wonders, it is a quote from a letter found by John Easley, written by an Aleut woman, and is by all accounts an Aleut proverb, which kind of translates as ‘all things pass/change’ but it is a phrase unexplained within the book, leaving it open to interpretations by the reader; my own was that rivers have a beginning and an end, and flow from individuality to mingle with the oceans, their journey is known. The wind is unknown, unpredictable, cannot be grasped. Where it starts and where it ends, how it changes its nature from delicacy to overwhelm, and indeed its very direction, is mysterious, random – and swift

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK

The Wind Is Not A River/All This Will Be Lost Amazon UK
The Wind Is Not A River Amazon US


It’s Publication Day! Sean Michaels – Us Conductors


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Us Conductors

It’s release day for this wonderful prize-winning novel by first time Canadian author Sean Michaels. A book about music, politics, love and science. This is definitely one of my books of the year. Here is my original review, written after receiving it as an ARC from NetGalley in digital form

Us Conductors Amazon UK
Us Conductors Amazon USA

Julia Thomas – Free-From Desserts


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Sweet things for the food allergic and intolerant; others will happily join the feast

Free-From DessertsWhat a delightful and warm-hearted book this is! Julia Thomas had a personal journey in creating these recipes. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early forties, early in pregnancy. Hugely influenced by Professor Jane Plant, and the book she wrote, Your Life In Your Hands, she embarked on radical dietary changes, and cut out dairy from her diet; she also went wheat and gluten free.

As she explains in her interesting introduction, 20-30% now believe they have a food intolerance, 2% have diagnosed food allergies, and many people just want to make healthier choices.

Thomas succeeded well in her dietary changes, but missed, really missed puddings. So she set out to explore the possibilities of the well-loved puds from childhood without dairy, wheat or gluten – the wealth of dishes made from varieties of sweet pastry, the steamed puddings, the ice-creams.

What I love (amongst many things) about this book, is that this is indeed ‘home cooking’ rather than over fussy, over fancy stylistic twirlery, but it is tried, tested and achievable home cooking of excellence. The reader benefits from the trials and errors Thomas went through. She was clearly an excellent maker of puds using traditional ingredients, but now needed to explore the possibilities, of, for example, pastry making with other flours, with the challenges imposed by the fact that those other flours lack the elasticity which gluten gives, and which is needed for pastry.

Thomas guides the novice free-from pudder through all the alternatives for her free-from ingredients, including pointing out hidden ingredients to beware of – for example, not all baking powder brands are gluten free – and advises on brands and sourcing of ingredients.

And, for those who do not need to avoid dairy, wheat or gluten, for themselves or their friends and family, she sensibly points out that you can use the recipes with dairy, wheat and gluten versions, and tells you which added ingredients you need to avoid – mainly, xanthan gum. Xanthan is a natural ingredient made from the fermentation of corn sugars, though the microorganism which carries out the fermentation removes all the sugars in the process. Xanthan gum gives the ‘stretch’ needed for pastry to wheat free flours

So, then we come to the recipes. Now, they are not ‘healthy’ in terms of the fact that they do contain sugar, even though in many recipes Thomas is using less refined version – but these are, after all, rich treats and possibly not for daily consumption. Vegans should also note that eggs are prevalent in many recipes.

Many of the recipes will provoke longing, from old favourites such as sticky toffee pudding, lemon meringue pie, apple tart, treacle tart, to more ‘modern’ sweetnesses such as Tiramisu, a wide variety of cheesecakes, chocolate fondants, crème caramel, pots au chocolat (a version with prune and Armagnac cream. Yum). Then there is a glorious range of ice-creams . I’m rather tempted by a very grown-up sounding Merlot Gelato. Not to mention a sorbet – of chocolate (swoons) And a selection of sauces, creams, ripples and the like to further adorn your pudding feasts.

Even the Number 1 tennis player in the world at the moment, and recent Wimbledon winner – yes, that’s Novak Djokovich – ascribes his improved stamina and fitness to the fact that he went gluten free in 2010,. He was following the advice of a kinesiologist and nutritionist Dr Igor Cetojevic, who believed that the mid-match fatigue crashes Djokovich was experiencing was due to wheat and gluten allergy. Djokovich became a wheat, gluten and dairy free zone, and saw the difference in his fitness. But I do hope that the gluten-free diet hasn’t done anything to dull Djok’s clear comedic abilities, as shown in the above video. When he eventually hangs up his racquet (by recent showing, not for many, many years), perhaps another career awaits on the stand-up circuit.Djokovich gif

Though clearly there are significant dietary properties in the Wimbledon grass, which also play their part (you have to watch Djokovich’s final matches, 2011, 2014, 2015)

(Ends digression on Novak Djokovic)

Now, for those who would impatiently rather have a recipe or four than a side-step into tennis, I’m afraid that the ‘look inside’ stuff for easy cut and paste was copyrighted and I was too lazy to laboriously type out a recipe by hand. But you can mosey over to the Amazon’s and take a look inside, and will find 4 or 5 ‘free-from’ pastry recipes, information about ingredients and an index to make your mouth water

Should you live in the UK and want gluten free cakes but not want to make them, I discovered when trying to find an author photo (nothing outside copyright) that Julia Thomas’s business offers mail order goodies Julia and son And for those of you outside the UK, you’ll just have to do your own baking

This gorgeous sweet collection of heaven for ‘free-from’ pud yearners is published by Quadrille. And I’m delighted to see that the photos are gorgeous, but, more importantly, the pages are traditionally white and the type-face clearly set out, spaciously arranged, and, above all, legible. Which might seem peculiar to mention, except another recent recipe book from Quadrille (which didn’t make the grade and get reviewed on here) was rendered incomprehensible by every page being a different colour, fonts being ‘distressed’ and often set on a slant. Clearly designed to be read by cooks one over the eight working at a tipsy leaning angle!

Thomas’ book is a delight all round, and of course, especially for those who have been longing for ‘free-from’ puddings to make at home

Meanwhile, I hope Julia sent Djokovich some cakes during his sojourn on the grassy lawns of SW19


I happily received this as an ARC from Amazon Vine. Unfortunately they did not send me any cakes
Free-From Desserts Amazon UK
Free-From Desserts Amazon USA

Peter Nichols – The Rocks


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A beautifully written physical and emotional journey: love and loss on Mallorca, 1948-2005

The RocksPeter Nichols The Rocks is an elegantly written read, with an interesting circular structure

It starts in 2005, with the accidental death of 2 British expats, octogenarians, who were briefly married shortly after the Second World War but then, weeks after the wedding, had a cataclysmic separation, and have not spoken to each other since. Despite living within a handful of miles away from each other, and both using the same coastal village for provisions, social meetings and the like, they have also consciously sought to avoid meeting each other by chance

Gerald was something of a loner, in love with the sea, and also fascinated by Homer’s Odyssey. It was whilst attempting to reconstruct Odysseus’ journey, from Troy to Ithaka that he hove into port on Mallorca, met Lulu, married her, separated quickly, but never left the island. He wrote a book, and scratched out a penurious living from olive trees and lemon groves, in love with the land as much as he had been with the sea and his sailing boat.

Cala Pi Mallorca. Wiki Commons

Cala Pi Mallorca. Wiki Commons

Lulu, a woman of great beauty and spirit, had had a much easier life, due to the generosity of wealthy friends. Her house, The Rocks serves as a hotel for well-heeled members of the intelligentsia. Lulu has become a famous hostess for the wealthy, arty set.

Both Lulu and Gerald married other people, and the marriages had different outcomes for each of them, but both produced children, now grown. The second generation have a kind of mirror history to their parents

We do not know what happened between Gerald and Lulu, but the ‘journey to Ithaka’ – the influence of Cavafy is strong, and his poem, Ithaka – is the theme of the novel :

Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The melancholy, adventurous, sad longing of the poem is the same, blue, quality of this book

Its Ithakan journey spools backwards in time from the opening, to take us from the opening death of Lulu and Gerald, back in stages of 5-10 years or so, to the events which created the terrible parting, and, then, forwards once more.

This was for sure an immersive read, though I did have a few question marks over the Peter Nichols1970, Marrakech set section. Given the times, the place and the characters involved I did not completely believe the restraint which the central characters in that section were showing (can’t say more, fear of spoilers). I could see that Nichols needed things to happen as they did (or didn’t) in order to drive the plot. But I wasn’t completely convinced that he had written events in a way which was true to the character of the two friends, and to their connections with each other. So my interest did waver in that section as I lost some confidence in authenticity and integrity of characters who felt sacrificed to the gods of plot.

Inevitably, the referencing to Odysseus, to Cavafy, to Ancient Greece reminded me of another most powerfully influenced work of artistic creativity, sprung into being by another of Cavafy’s poems, and I heard it in my head, periodically. I needed no excuse:

Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving was inspired by (and uses quite a lot of ) Cavafy’s poem The God abandons Antony

I received this as a copy for review from Amazon Vine UK

The Rocks Amazon UK
The Rocks Amazon USA

William Nicholson – The Lovers of Amherst


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A cool, restrained meditation on love, poetry and meaning

The Lovers of AmherstAlthough I haven’t read any of Nicholson’s novels before, I am aware of him as a writer of refinement in dealing with a certain kind of English emotional restraint , where `still waters run deep’ . This writerly strength, not to mention this strength in writing the lives of writers, was clearly shown in his stage play, Shadowlands, previously a TV play, later a film, exploring the life of C.S.Lewis, and particularly, his relationship with Joy Davidman/Joy Gresham.

I was therefore attracted to this book, which explores the life and work of another writer, the American poet Emily Dickinson, and also that of her brother, Austin Dickinson, and of Mabel Loomis Todd, who was the principal champion and driving force behind getting Dickinson’s poems published after her death.

Mabel, a young and vibrant woman, and the reclusive middle aged Emily never met, though Emily communicated with Mabel through sending her poems. Mabel, a married woman, and Austin, a married man (though not to each other) had a relationship which began its flowering in the dining room of Emily Dickinson’s house, the only place they could conceivably meet to consummate their affair. Austin was in his 50s at the time of his relationship with Mabel, who was in her 20s.


Mabel Loomis Todd

Austin Dickinson

Austin Dickinson

Mabel was in a remarkably open marriage for 1880’s Amherst, Massachusetts society – her husband, David, had relationships with other women, which Mabel knew about, and sanctioned, and David too, sanctioned and approved of Mabel’s relationship with Austin. Indeed, the two became close friends, and eventually the Todds found land which they could build on, (they had been renting short leases before) and where Mabel could meet with her lover. She and David continued to have a physical relationship. Austin, meanwhile, was in an unhappy marriage with Sue, who had initially been great friends with the remarkable Mabel, until the close emotional, spiritual and intellectual friendship between Mabel and Austin became more than platonic. Sue disliked sex, and Austin and she had been husband and wife without any sexual connection for many years. Emily, meanwhile, wrote poetry of huge passion and spiritual content, which seethes with the possibility that the spiritual, soulful intensity of her writing about love and connection may have been sublimated sexuality – or, possibly that she had had some earlier romantic experience to draw on, in her poetry. Emily never married, and lived withdrawn completely from society, looked after by her sister Vinnie.


Emily Dickinson

I’ve none to tell me to but thee So, when Thou failest, nobody. It was a little tie – It held just Two, nor those it held Since somewhere thy sweet Face has spilled Beyond my Boundary –

What a hotbed mixture of both openness and secrecy, emotional expressiveness and emotional repression, co-existing within the strangle-hold of the morality of the place and the times.

Nicholson structures his book with a further twist – Alice, a British writer, who herself has a rather complex relationship with loneliness, connection and intimacy, is preparing a film script in which she will explore Emily, her poetry, and that complex relationship between Mabel, Austin, and herself. The theme of watching, watchfulness and a kind of distance which in inherent in the idea of Mabel and Austin’s initial use of Emily’s house in which to carry out their tryst – with Emily, perhaps, as voyeur – is echoed by sections in the book where scenes from the screenplay are written from the point of view of Emily, as the eye of the camera, the watcher. And of course, the audience/the reader becomes an even more distanced eye, and thinks of the voyeuristic nature of fiction and film, perhaps

That’s what we do with love. Create a story to overlay the passing events of our lives so that a pattern emerges. What was random develops meaning. Love as story-telling

The real letters between Austin and Mabel are full of philosophical questioning and discussion about the nature of love, its purpose, and the search for meaning. Alice herself is obsessed with these questions, and her two week stay in Amherst academia brings her into contact with a much older man, Nick Crocker, an academic, who is charismatic but also someone searching for meaning, and questioning the nature of love. So there are various prisms through which ideas can be examined.

So what about love? Is that just one of the little pleasures that fills our dwindling store of days?

The Emily, Mabel, Austin story (not to mention the Alice story) is further illuminated by Emily’s poems, which Alice is working into her script, and which she discusses with Crocker.

It also turns out that Nicholson in writing a loosely linked series of novels (this, I think, is title six, and there are various connections between the invented characters on the periphery of this novel, who have been more central in earlier novels, and also, there are characters and events in this which are, in Nicholson’s words, `more seeds which I’ve planted, waiting for their turn to flower’

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UK

The Lovers of Amherst Amazon UK
The Lovers of Amherst Amazon USA

That Sugar Film


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Sweet and deadly

thatsugarfilm_pic1Now this is a film which is right up my street, as I am enormously interested in the politics of the food industry and how it deliberately dupes us and deceives us – and even more interested in matters related to health and wellbeing.

Damon Gameau, an Australian actor and film-maker did not really tell me anything I didn’t already know (because I read a lot of books about the subject) but, my did he tell it entertainingly!

It is because this film is not just talking heads stuff by the prophets of doom that I rate it so highly. Neither does it fall into the other side trap of being all pizazz and flashy dumbed down soundbites without any reference and substance.

Instead, there is a very assured tightrope walked between giving lots of facts, having various experts talk through the science of how the body metabolises sugar, in its different forms, all accompanied by `turns’ by various luminaries, including Stephen Fry, giving us some of the scientific information in a more engaging and witty way.

There is even, I kid you not, a star turn rock star number with Gameau as a kind of Presley/Alvin Stardust/Rocky Horror combo sugar devil in an outrageous pink jumpsuit leering seductively at a group of babes dunking themselves in chocolate mousse! This by the way is Gameau at the end of his 60 day 40 teaspoons of the stuff ‘normal Australian sugar consumption’.

Behind all the fun `sweeteners’ though, is a shocking story (one we DO know, though, it seems, ignore) Gameau engages in a particularly shocking experiment to show the devastating effects of sugar.

Gameau’s diet had been completely sugar free for three years, and he had not drunk alcohol for about ten years. He ate a particularly healthy, wholefood diet. At the start of the film he is clearly someone glowing with vitality and energy, and when tested by nutritionists and medics, was pronounced extremely healthy, with no markers for fatty liver, heart problems, or raised blood lipid levels and the like.

The `experiment’ was that for 60 days he would keep to the same calorific intake, – normally most of his calories came from healthy fats, protein and complex carbohydrates – but would consume the amount of sugar and hidden sugar (processed foods) eaten and drunk by the average Australian – 40 teaspoons a day. But he would not do this by consuming junk food, instead, it would be by the consumption of food wrongly supposed to be `healthy’ – for example, fruit juice, smoothies, `high energy’ muesli bars and the like.

Part of the lie we have been fed is that ‘calorie control’ is where it’s at – but calories from different food sources do not metabolise the same way – the calories in sugar behave differently in the body than the calories in fat and protein

By 18 days in, this vibrant trim man was looking more than a little pasty and jaded, puffy around the eyes, which had lost their sparkle. His skin and hair looked dull, he was visibly developing a paunch. He was also suffering mood swings. Part of the brief for the experiment was that he would keep up his normal good exercise patterns. The `normal sugar consumption of the average Australian’ diet was eating into his energy, creating those sugar rush manic surges followed quickly by listless slumps and the inevitable (cocaine like) cravings for more of that white death stuff. He was finding it hard to exercise, as he lacked the energy.


Even more alarmingly his liver was showing signs of damage after 18 days – liver cells dying, releasing their contents, becoming cirrhotic, the signs of fatty liver disease. Fortunately, at the end of the 60 days, and the resumption of his old, healthy diet, all the bad effects had gone after a couple of months, though Gameau did say that the first week of cutting out the addictive sugar (it affects brain chemistry and hits the `reward’ centre of the brain and its neurochemistry exactly like cocaine) was pretty tough, and he certainly had `cold turkey’ symptoms

If Gameau and the visible evidence of the shocking changes sugar produced on him are not enough to make spoon on its way to sugar dish pause, there is the heartbreaking 26 tooth extraction on a Kentucky boy, just shy of his 18th birthday, caused primarily by a variant of Pepsi called Mountain Dew, which he had imbibed since he was 3.

Also explored tellingly in this film are the obvious parallels between big tobacco and the sugar industry. Just as the tobacco companies leaned muscle and spurious science funding scientists to do research to deliver skewed results to disprove links between smoking and disease, so the sugar industry does exactly the same.

This is a wonderful, hard hitting film, delivering its punches of fact wrapped nicely in a ….lethal candy coating. `Sweet,’ being so much linked to pleasure and reward, is hard wired in our brains BECAUSE in nature readily available fructose , is RARE, so we are programmed to want it, and respond to it, as a useful source of energy which can be stored as a long term energy resource, as fat. The problem for us of course being that now, fructose is readily available and what was an evolutionary advantage is now the sweet kiss of death.

I have one disappointment – little mention is made about artificial sweeteners, which carry as many, and in some cases, MORE problems associated with their use. Sweeteners, and the perfidious ubiquitousness of THEIR presence, as food manufacturers respond to and create new possibilities for our desire for that sweet taste, are every bit as dangerous. Many, for reasons of weight control, have got as far as checking the labels and avoiding sugar in their processed food and drink, but are surrendering to the hugely profitable diet industry and ‘going diet food’. There have been plenty of studies about the artificials, but, again, these are not hugely funded because the funders are those big, powerful, vested interest concerns who of course are not going to be giving money to researchers to prove that their products are dangerous! A little mention is made of sweeteners in the Extras section of the DVD, but the lack of much information is likely to just see the sugarholics switch to sacchaholic behaviour, in the belief they might be sparing themselves from the dangers of fructose consumption. Not so

Bravo to Gameau, making such a brilliant documentary

He also authored a companion book, That Sugar Book, where a lot of the research Damon Gameaustudies are cited
That Sugar Book Amazon UK
That Sugar Book Amazon USA

I received the DVD as a review copy, from the Amazon Vine programme, UK. It will be released for sale on 27th July in the UK. A visit to Amazon USA site shows it is unavailable to view/buy. It probably just means that video rights have not yet been negotiated, but I smelt a conspiracy around the evil empire of sugar. Well, they suppressed studies showing the perfidious nature of the stuff, so surely, an indie film is small fry to them.

That Sugar Film DVD Amazon UK

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath


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A book to make the reader rage; a book to make the reader weep in shame and despair

John Steinbeck, Grapes

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel was both a colossus of a book, an infinitely worthy winner, and a far-from perfect book, a flawed book.

Reading it, with that mixture of complex, uncomfortable emotions plus a sense of, at times, a critical, not to mention slightly jaundiced eye, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, for the following eulogy, of the deeply flawed Antony, given by Cleopatra:

His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm
Crested the world. His voice was propertied
As all the tuned sphere, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder.

Of course this is hyperbole, but it also recognises ‘giants amongst men’

And this is such a flawed giant among novels. At a time where it is routine to praise the literary at-best-mediocre, as if it were exceptional, how can the shaken, uncomfortable, disturbed reader find words for a book such as this, written out of such a searing sense of a cruel and indifferent world, filled with a humankind sleepwalking towards its own destruction. This book is indeed gargantuan – in subject matter as well as number of pages.

On the front of the paperback version I started to read (before downloading from Kindle, as there was just too much I needed to underline) was the following quote from Steinbeck:

I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied

The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 when the machinery of war was providing a terrible solution to the stock market crash and depression of the 30s, which is the subject of this book. It is a book written out of white-hot, red-raw rage, disgust and righteous polemic against an indifferent, blinkered and self-obsessed capitalism.

The book follows the fortunes of one small family, the Joads, Oklahoma small farmers, homesteaders, as the move from small family farming to larger and larger conglomerates, changes and destroys our connections to the land itself, and to each other.

nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates, and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself

The Joads stand for the thousands of others, unnamed, the small men and women.

The crash of 29 had (as do more recent depressions and recessions today) ripple-down effects on all, and, as ever, the disadvantaged, those without much financial leeway, those whose belts are already notched tightly, have fewer places to go, fewest savings which can be made, the closer to the breadline they were, before fall.

Like thousands of other homesteaders, losing their land and their livelihood in the face of conglomerate rapacity, the Joads follow the lure of jobs to be had, fruit-picking (for virtually starvation wages) in California

Steinbeck for sure uses and manipulates his readers, hectors them, lectures them, throws the red book at them, shoves our faces up against our own indifference, our sentimentality, our complicity. Having lacerated us with bruising accounts of our hard-heartedness, of our denial of the beggars in our neighbourhood, he cunningly and deliberately rubs salt in our wounds by exploiting our sentimentality.

The deaths of many, through starvation and illness because of starvation, and the deaths and the suffering of some of the individuals whose journeys we follow, in the book are intercut with the casual death and suffering of animals, whether by our carelessness, or the carelessness of a red in tooth and claw natural world.

Where are we most hurt, where do we weep most – is it for the suffering of our own kind, or is it for the suffering of another species. I knew my tears and my grief for the death of an animal were manipulated by the writer. But I also knew why, and I knew what he was showing me about myself, and could not, in any way, fault his manipulation here.

Steinbeck shows how nature itself is struggle, a survivalist struggle – but draws a very different conclusion about the rightness of ‘survival of the fittest’ from that drawn by right-wingers; he does not take the slightly later Randian view of the triumph of individual struggle, rather, sees collectivism as the only solution, the choice which must be made.

He punches the reader, again and again, with the righteousness of left wing politics, the infamy of capital. Yes, we live in a world where it is now easy to see that communism and socialism (not to mention other isms) can be as self-serving of its own ideology, as much inclined to sacrifice the individual on the alter of its own drive to ‘progress’ and ‘the ends justify the means’ – but I don’t personally have any problem with his polemic, placed in its own time.

Artworks by Thomas Hart Benton in the Kindle download version of the book are stunning accompaniments to the text

Artworks by Thomas Hart Benton in the Kindle download version of the book are stunning accompaniments to the text

Yes, for sure there are long sections which are boring, where, for example, pages and pages are devoted to the hard graft of repairing cars – but, again, I don’t mind, because he is wanting to make the reader realise the skill and the dignity of manual work. And yes, there are also at times problems with trying to give a flavour of the speech of the common man – at times the setting down of dialect gets wearing, and makes characters sound a bit simple or idiotic (my prejudices showing, clearly) , whereas this is not what is intended, and I think, again, Steinbeck is trying to offset a literature which is written by, and for, the ruling classes and the intelligentsia.

I have to forgive all these ‘flaws’, these niceties, about what literature should be, how it should NOT be polemic, how we should NOT be so at times crassly manipulated, because this is a book whose power, whose beauty, whose hugeness overrides its imperfections.

My nerves are indeed ragged, I am sick and sore, hurt and confused. I feel as if I have been run over by a proverbial ten ton truck, repeatedly, and then, offered exquisite flowers, delicate, fragile moments, writing of transcendent glory, before, again Steinbeck punches me in the gut and delivers yet another knock-out blow, of polemic, putting me through the emotional wringer, or boring me with the innards of motors.

But I don’t care. This is a book which seethes with enormous power, and the roughness of its sometime edges are part of that power. ‘Perfection’ would be, in this case, something to inhibit the power.

I’m grateful, very grateful, to  my fellow blogger and friend FictionFan whose own superb review kicked me into reading this. Even if it may well be to the detriment of whatever-I’m-reading-next as I can’t NOT read, but what do you turn to after reading amongst giants?

Finally, this particular Kindle download version is brilliant, interlaced as it is with wonderful reproductions of paintings and drawings and stills from the movie which was made of this book. Thanks, again, to FictionFan for persuading me to this version .

The book of course was filmed, powerfully, by John Ford. starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, with Jane Darwell as the towering, dignified figure of the matriarch of the family, Ma Joad. The reach of the film, like the reach of the book, was long.

Here  is a rather wonderful collage of edited sections of the film cut and accompanied by a Judy Collins version of the song ‘Brother, Can you spare a dime?’

I discovered that Woody Guthrie had composed and performed folk songs to Tom Joad, narrating his story (not included here, as they are spoilers). Not to mention, much later, Bruce Springsteen produced his own tribute to the power of Steinbeck’s book, reaching deep beyond its time : The Ghost of Tom Joad

Steinbeck’s book was both lauded, hence, that Pulitzer prize, and his later winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, – and banned in its year of publication from the public libraries and schools of parts of California, as the second part of the book is a searing indictment of the greed of Californian agribusiness. The Associated Farmers, opposed to the organisation of labour, were one of the groupings instrumental in that ban, which was in place for 18 months. They for sure understood the power of this particular pen.

The Grapes Of Wrath, Kindle Illustrated Edition Amazon UK
The Grapes Of Wrath, Kindle Illustrated Edition Amazon USA


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