Thursday, July 28, 2011

For Esme - With Love and Squalor by J D Salinger

I love listening to podcasts while playing with Deacon in the park, especially the ones pertaining to books.  Every once in awhile the presenter or a guest will gush about a story and stop me in my tracks.  That happened the other day while listening to Simon Evans and Hardip Singh Kohli discuss For Esme - With Love and Squalor during an episode of Books and Authors. I just had to stop everything and read it.

It starts off with an American receiving a wedding invitation from overseas.  The narrator then takes the reader back in time several years to England and the American is a soldier preparing to leave for battle in Normandy.  Passing a church he is drawin in by the performance of a choir and immediately fixates on a young girl with a beautiful singing voice.  Afterwards, he stops into a tearoom to escape the rain and before long the same girl arrives with her little brother, Charles (who is quite a character), and their aunt.

Now it is her turn to centre out this lonely soldier and she proceeds to engage him in all sorts of conversation.  She seems intelligent beyond her years in her use of language and opinions but there is no doubt of her innocence.  My heart broke when she spelled out s-l-a-i-n to protect Charles when mentioning the death of their father in North Africa.  The subsequent death of their mother has left the children orphaned.  It's apparent who used to be the owner of the man-sized watch adorning Esme's tiny wrist.

There is an immediate bond between these two characters and you could ponder for an afternoon about why that is.  In the end, this encounter between child and adult, that watch, a little boy's ability to laugh and a young girl's courage to face adversity will leave an imprint on your heart.  This story is poignant and unforgettable and if you haven't already then please read it!

An interesting tidbit, which fans of Lemony Snicket will be aware of, is that a secondary antagonist in A Series of Unfortunate Events is named, Esme Squalor.  References are everything and now I get it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

'Why don't you have a cat?' Flora asked.
'I don't want a cat.'
'But it would be lovely for you.  Percy likes cats.'
'Well, Percy's got a cat.'
Flora, in fact, had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in.  In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable after all.  Although as good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people's pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine.

During the early pages of The Soul of Kindness it is tempting to imagine Flora surrounded by a glowing halo of light, floating just above the ground so as to avoid the merest scuff on her shoes.  The world as she sees it is just about perfect and full of amiable people who are all the better for knowing her.  But as the story moves along you realize that Flora leaves a wake of disappointed, confused and lonely people who fall victim to her fanciful ideas or well-meant interfering.

Brushing aside her glistening tears Flora writes her mother a note after changing out of her wedding dress.  Instead of reassuring her mother that a strong bond still exists between them, Flora manages to imply that the task of motherhood is now over leaving Mrs Secretan feeling empty and useless.  Flora's numerous attempts to bring together a female friend with a man who is clearly homosexual paints a picture of ignorance which is far from blissful.  And at her worst, Flora is relentless at building the confidence of a young man, who hangs on her every word, in his ability as an actor with devastating results.

While the reader is busy watching Flora create her idyllic world, Elizabeth Taylor is masterfully painting a dark side to Flora.  Such as the resentment when things don't go her way, taking to her bed as a way of drawing people to her, childish sulking and ignoring news which doesn't please her.

Taylor's writing and skills of observation are as supreme as ever in this novel.  Discovering in Nicola Beauman's biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor that she would sit in her local pub with pen and notebook at hand to people watch, I smiled when she described a character on page 151.

'...a more than middle-aged man, jauntily dressed, in a navy-blue blazer heavily badged, and shoes with pointed toes, was also sitting alone.  He covered his mouth with one hand, and with the other worked with a pick among his gold or rotting teeth, eyeing every woman who came in.'

Ugh!  But I'm quite convinced this fellow actually existed and unknowingly sat down within viewing distance of Elizabeth Taylor while she jotted down the details of his very public display of dental hygiene.  Other details such as nurses removing flowers from hospital rooms at night and that television sets needed to warm up before the picture came on were charming reminders of what things were like when I was a child but forgotten about.  And I really must read von Arnim's Elizabeth and her German Garden as Taylor had Flora's mother reading it 'for the umpteenth time'. 

Others have mentioned that The Soul of Kindness would have been better served as a short story or novella and I would agree.  At times the pace did seem to stall ever so slightly.  But having said that, once I reached the ending and mulled over the brilliant characterization my affection for the story increased and I could have happily turned back to the first page.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tea Bread and Treasure

The Honey, Sultana and Pecan Tea Bread from Tea at Fortnum & Mason filled the kitchen with the aroma of Christmas yesterday.  My shorts, tank top and the sound of lawnmowers buzzing in the background set the record straight that it was most definitely not December!  There were some slight modifications, I had to investigate what "mixed spice" was (it's an English term) and had to do a bit of mixing of my own from jars of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.  And I didn't have Earl Grey on hand so regular black tea it was with a splash of brandy for interest.  It tastes absolutely delicious!

I've been pulling my copy of Taste  from my bedside table in the morning before Deacon decides it's time to haul everyone out of bed.  This morning I read about wartime rationing and recipes for mock this and that leaving me quite thankful for a full pantry.

"Icing was illegal, wedding cakes were more often cardboard than edible, and, as Christmas Day dawned, 'Austerity Pudding' was likely to be made with potato, grated carrot and apple, as much dried fruit as you could get your hands on, dried egg, flour, breadcrumbs, cooking fat and a scraping of precious golden syrup or marmalade."

On a related kitchen matter, my good friend and colleague, Roberta, picked up this cup and saucer from one of her treasure hunting jaunts because she thought I would like it.  R loves to tease that over the years of her gifting treasures she hasn't lightened her purse by more than $7 to date.  We ignore him.  The exact reason for two handles, other than looking quite pretty, had us wondering.  With a bit of searching the internet we now know it's actually a cream soup bowl and stand.  My everyday china doesn't come with anything so pretty or so dedicated, it's all about simply making do.  I read that two handles also make tea drinking easier for the infirm.  Knock on wood, I won't need it for that reason for quite some time.