‘Fictitious Dishes; An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals’ by Dinah Fried (HarperCollins Publishers) What a great idea for a book; meals that have been mentioned in classic books such as ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, ‘Emma’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Middlesex, ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’! Fried explains that her book grew out of a design school project; she had to cook, style and photograph meals described in various books. From my background in styling, I have set up many place settings for meals for photography, so it was fascinating to see her work. The book includes some snapshots of the locations as she was setting the shots up such as some images that were shot on very small patches of grass on an inner-city nature strip. I loved how Fried included information at the bottom of each page about the classic books the meal was from, little gems like that ‘Little Women’ was semi-autobiographical or how J.D.Salinger included many references to Swiss cheese sandwiches and how Salinger’s father was a cheese importer, what exactly are corn dodgers in ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, a moustache tea cup that Mr Bloom drinks from in ‘Ulysses’ and just remembering fabulous parts of books where food is integral such as Mammy bringing up the tray of food to Scarlett in ‘Gone With the Wind’, Tom Robinson’s father sending a chicken to Atticus in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, Oliver asking for some more gruel in ‘Oliver Twist’ and Turkish delight in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. At the end of the book Fried lists each of the books and their summaries just to keep you wanting to read more!
‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St. John (Text Publishing) I’m not sure why I had never heard of this book until last year, but I loved it! Set in Sydney, Australia it’s the story of a young girl who works in an easily identified department store and the characters and challenges she meets there. After finishing my final year of school I got a summer job until uni started and then I kept the job as a casual for the next few years. My job was at a boutique department store which was annexed (and later bought by) the department store alluded to in this book. So I could completely relate to the wonderfully exotic older women that St. John writes about in her book, they were exactly like the spectacular women I worked for with fabulous accents from my French boss and Eastern European colleagues, fascinating conversation and all of whom were spectacularly groomed. Everything had to be done in particular ways and respect paid to loyal customers as I showed them the latest eye cream from La Prairie, Petit Bateau children’s clothing, measured men up for Ermenegildo Zegna suits and was spell-bound during gift-wrapping lessons by the Japanese expert! All this was just a day in the life as it is with St. John’s hero, Lisa, as she grappled with conversations to make, socializing with these new colleagues, what to bring for lunch and where to eat it and the glorious pay packet! A beautifully written book, perceptive in it’s views and thoughts of young Lisa meeting extraordinary characters, the feel of the rush of Christmas and sale time and her individual dream of buying a particular dress.
‘Happily Ever After; Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’ by Susannah Fullerton (Frances Lincoln) Susannah Fullerton has a gift; she writes in such a fascinating way, weaving a range of interesting facts that you have finished her book before you know it! Susannah Fullerton is the dynamic President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia. This book celebrates the 200th anniversary of the first publication of one of the world’s most popular books, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I was interested to read that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was one of the most popular reads for troupes in the trenches during World War I, infact Rudyard Kipling wrote a story ‘The Janeites’ about soldiers and their shared love of Jane Austen and it was again a popular read in the bomb shelters during World War II. Fullerton describes the history of this classic book before publication and then its journey after publication including the various different editions (stunning cover art for the Hungarian version!) and that, despite the daunting task of translating (even the word ‘pride’ has good and bad connotations in English and creates havoc when translating into other languages) there are at least 44 languages in which ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is available. The BBC TV series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) is the most popular period drama series to date and sales of the book sky-rocketed when the series was screened on TV in 1995. Apparently British motorways were jammed with people eager to get home on the night that Elizabeth married Mr Darcy and Chawton House (where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life) museum had to extend its opening hours and hire more staff to accommodate the visitors inspired by the TV series. Why is ‘Pride and Prejudice’ still popular today? Human nature has not changed so much in 200 years and we still come across similar characters and emotions that make us reassess what pride and prejudice actually means.
Read my interview with Susannah Fullerton here.
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte (Penguin) I reread this book recently and just adored it (again!). The story just flows so easily and it’s a real page-turner. Written in the first person, Bronte captures our imagination and emotions from Jane’s sad tormented childhood to her schooling, time as a governess, intriguing relationship with her employer and beyond; Bronte keeps us fascinated and spell-bound throughout. Bronte’s turn of phrase is really so beautiful; from the stoic conversations with Helen Burns, the cruelty of Mr Brocklehurst, the justness of Mr Lloyd, the kindness of the Rivers sisters, the reserved nature of St. John Rivers, the loyalty of Bessie and the stories and hope of the rejuvenating powers of kindness. After Jane’s cruel childhood, the expressions of gratitude and later of love are so beautiful; ‘it was the real sunshine of feeling – he shed it over me now’ and ‘the sunshine of his presence’. Bronte’s wonderful sense of humour is carefully and effectively placed so when a servant hears a very surprising piece of information she ‘did look up, and she did stare at me; the ladle which she was basting a pair of chickens roasting in the fire, did for some three minutes hang suspended in air’. Bronte was a master storyteller with her many twists and turns in the plot enhancing the mystery of the tale. Her writing is so beautifully crafted that it is a joy to read right up to and including the unexpected ending.
‘Emma’ by Jane Austen (Penguin) This is one of Austen’s most popular books. It’s easy to read, funny and unpredictable. The story is about Emma who likes to think she is a great match-maker, but misinterprets many comments, looks and situations and really makes a bit of a mess of it; one of the themes is the blinding power of imagination! It’s a bit of a lesson in life not to make presumptions about what people are thinking or feeling. I went through the full round of emotions with Emma; adoring her, being very frustrated with her, embarrassed for her, annoyed with her and, basically, doing exactly what Austen wanted: to make the reader see Emma from every side and through every emotion until we see her for what she is; a human not to be judged, but who has their faults, has learnt along the way, corrected herself and trying to do the best she can in the future. A wonderful collection of characters travels with us through the journey of discovery making this classic all the more fun and engaging. Once again, the fabulous Coralie Bickford-Smith has woven her magic with the gorgeous cover design of this edition of ‘Emma’ as part of her Cloth Bound Classics for Penguin.
‘Rebecca’ by Daphe du Maurier (Penguin) With an opening line that’s sure to get you in, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again’, this classic book doesn’t let up on the mystery and intrigue through the whole book. One of my nieces recommended I read this. Knowing I had never read this book, I was a bit unnerved that the eerie storyline was enhanced by the fact that when I was reading it I kept thinking ‘there’s something important about that boat shed’ or ‘that character comes back later’ without knowing the whole story. Partway through I realized it was one of the movies one of my sisters, brother and I watched on a Friday evening. We used to watch classic old movies including ‘The Birds’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘West Side Story’, ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘The King and I’ (quite a mixed selection of movies!). So even though I knew I hadn’t read the book, the half-remembering of the movie all those years ago really added to the spooky feel. Du Maurier writes beautifully and poignantly. She describes her characters so magnificently that we feel we know them. Even the house (Manderlay) takes on its own persona and her descriptions of the landscape are breathtakingly beautiful. We get taken in by these descriptions before we realize we are following an intriguing mystery. Du Maurier leads us to imagine one side of the story whilst building up the case for a completely different scenario so that at the very unexpected ending you think – ‘Oh!!! of course, now I understand!’
‘Great Expectations; The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens’ by Robert Gottlieb (Picador; Macmillan) First of all, I’ve got to say, what a clever title! This book was fascinating. Charles and Catherine Dickens had nine children that grew to adulthood and this is the story of each of the children; what they were like, what it was like to be the child of the most famous writer in the world and the most famous person (apart from Queen Victoria) in England, how they reacted to their famous father and what they did during their lives. Dickens sounds like the ultimate neat freak with daily morning inspections of each of the rooms in his house, but he was an involved father when the children were young – he had a special voice he spoke to each of them and crazy nicknames. However, nine children were a lot of dependents and there were seven sons who needed jobs. Five of Dickens’ seven sons left England – some never to return – to be in the army, navy, India, Canada and Australia; one left when he was as young as 14! Dickens’ friendship with the richest woman in England (apart from Queen Victoria), Angela Burdett-Coutts, helped finance Dickens’ eldest son, Charley’s, education who later went into publishing and eventually Macmillan Publishers. Kate, Dickens’ second daughter became a respected artist and was the model for one of John Everett Millais’ paintings. Kate also painted scenes inspired by her father’s novel and she and one of her brothers, Henry, enthused people to send copies of her fathers’ work to soldiers at the front during World War I. Henry gave a series of talks, was a founding member of Boz Club (monthly dinners to celebrate his father) and the Dickens Fellowship which included the establishment of the Charles Dickens Museum in London which is a place I loved visiting. Each of the children are carefully discussed and documented in a fascinating mix of research from letters, dairies, contemporaries and biographies.
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte (Penguin) Anne Bronte published this book under the pseudonym Acton Bell in 1848 (the other Bronte sisters also wrote under pseudonyms that begin with the first letter of their name; Charlotte was Currer Bell and Emily; Ellis Bell). This classic is about a new neighbour who moves into a quiet town, but doesn’t seem to want to make friends and guards her young son fiercely. The neighbourhood takes offence; all except one young farmer who is intrigued and confused by the new neighbour’s behavior. An interesting and quite sad story, dealing with relationships and the implications of law in Victorian England and, I can tell you, they were pretty dire for a woman; this book must have been quite provocative when it was first published. Anne Bronte wrote her explanatory famous preface at the time of the second edition, ‘if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain’. Beautifully crafted with wonderful descriptions, I enjoyed the message and the story of this classic. The scene where the young farmer makes a discovery towards the end of the book and he needs to get himself from one place to another tout suite is a masterful piece of writing as the words run, trip and hurry along with anxiety and expediency mirroring the actions and feelings of the farmer; simply superb reading!
‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell (Penguin) Called an ‘industrial’ novel, I really enjoyed reading about the difference between the manufacturing centres in the north of England and the city centres in the south of England in 1800s. I loved Gaskell’s clever turn of phrase and use of understatement; when the main family needs to move from the south of England to Milton in the north, their rooms are freshly re-wallpapered in a light colour; ’It needed the pretty light papering of the rooms to reconcile them to Milton. It needed more – more that could not be had’. This classic compares the south to the north through various characters and we see how their opinions are debated with others and how their opinions change over time and why. We read about workers, the businesses and managers, how both are dependence on each-other, misunderstandings, unions, strikes, conflicts and resolutions – we are forced to evaluate and then to re-evaluate our sense of social justice. Before being published as a book, ‘North and South’ had appeared in twenty weekly episodes in ‘Household Words,’ which was edited by Dickens. Apparently Charles Dickens requested Gaskell to change the title of this novel from ‘Margaret Hale’ (the main character’s name) to ‘North and South’ – a much better title, in my opinion. A great read about the differences between industry, country and opinions that constrict and enlighten.
‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens (Penguin) This is one of those books that you’ve always heard about, but might not have read. I reread it just before last Christmas and it quickly became a favourite. Bringing attention to the plight of poor conditions in contemporary London, Dickens highlighted the fact that the poor feel their conditions even more strongly at Christmas time. A theme that is current now as it was then. The mean-spirited Scrooge represents the ‘Bah! Humbug!’ reaction to Christmas with a ‘who cares?’ attitude. His past business partner in the form of a spirit visits Scrooge and warns him that he has a chance to redeem himself and change his fate of being punished for his selfishness and self-serving life. The ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’ then visits Scrooge and we see how his former sweetheart leaves him because Scrooge cannot love anyone more than money. Scrooge is deeply moved. Next the ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ shows Scrooge his employee’s Christmas and how that family is in need. Scrooge is shaken. The ‘Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come’ shows him how few people mourn Scrooge’s death except a poor couple who are relived they don’t need to pay their unforgiving creditor. Overwhelmed Scrooge repents and finds himself returned to Christmas Day where he gives provisions to the poor and treats everyone with kindness, generosity and warmth from now on. Dickens says ‘while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour’ – thus banishing the ‘Bah! Humbug!’ theme, the cynicism and reminding us to celebrate life. In this era of commercialism, doubt and sarcasm I think it’s a great book about the power of humanity, the ability to change and of hope and respect.
Read my reviews of other classic books here.