I'll warn you at the beginning - this blog post does have some bookish bits, but you have to get through quite a lot on baking first. Not to be read if a) you loathe baking, or b) you're on a diet...
A happy afternoon has been spent baking - Mel and I discovered that we had seven types of sugar in the house, and decided to put them all in some carrot cake muffins. Seven types of sugar, you ask (and the more literary-theory-obsessed amongst you may make mention of Seven Types of Ambiguity) - since I am never one to turn down a sugar-based question, I'll list them. Caster sugar, golden caster sugar, granulated sugar, soft dark brown sugar, soft light brown sugar, muscovado sugar, icing sugar. The resultant carrot cake muffins are pretty delicious, though I says it as shouldn't.
I use sultanas with the carrots, rather than walnuts or almonds as some recipes suggest - and added in some cinammon. Oh, and I rather distrust any icing made of cheese, so I sprinkled muscovado sugar on them about two-thirds of the way through baking, to give an extra crunchy topping when they came out. (By the way, the main sugar in them is soft light brown - the other six were added in small amounts, just for fun).
Oh, and I also made a chocolate orange sponge cake, which is very sweet and very nice. This isn't Stuck-in-a-Baking-Tin, I know, but if anybody would like recipes, I'd be happy to include them soon...
This was all inspired by Darlene's foray into baking, which she documented here. Do go and read the comments (which do include a very lengthy one from me, I must confess) as the blogging baking community is quite good with tips. Though like most eager bakers, there are some fairly arbitrary rules which I stick by, regardless of advice. (Does anybody know the difference in taste achieved by caster or granulated in a sponge cake? Is there any? I refuse to use granulated, but based on nothing but whim and prejudice.)
Right. And onto books... They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell was the third title selected in the Cornflower Book Group over at Cornflower Books. Sadly, since I'm already in four other book groups, I've not been able to join in with this one online - but They Came Like Swallows sounded absolutely wonderful when I read this introductory post, not least because it was under 200pp long. Karen very kindly gave me a copy of it, and eventually I was able to read the novel, whilst in Devon with my brother. And it is quite, quite brilliant.
My copy is at home, so I'm going to have to rely on my memory and all these wonderful comments from the Cornflower Book Group (including some pretty big spoilers, but then the book is more about writing than plot). In fact, I'll keep it quick, because you can just as easily follow the links above and read their more erudite thoughts(!) The novel is divided into three sections - the two sons and the husband of Elizabeth, the silent centre of the book. Bunny starts off - a very nervous, anxious child, bullied by his brother and scared of his father, who just wants to be left alone with his homemade village. His love for Elizabeth burns through his every action, as does the isolation he feels in every other relationship. But Maxwell writes very cleverly - by the time we get to the sections from the perspectives of Bunny's brother Robert, and father James, we realise that Bunny's perspective is skewed. Not wrong, but very subjective. Three competing viewpoints coalesce into one brilliantly delicate novel - the various relationships between family members are all laced with misunderstandings, misconstruings, misapprehensions... all so realistic and uncomfortably possible.
Maxwell (and here is the bold statement) may be the best plain stylist I've ever read. Writers like Woolf are better at the detailed, mosaic, entangled writing. Austen is better at the balanced sentence; Wilde better at the epigram - but Maxwell perfects that type of writing that seems style-less but must actually take endless work. It flows perfectly - depths and minutiae of emotions are included without being obtrusive. The subtlety is in these familial depictions, not in the way the story moves - which is only a vehicle for Maxwell's greater art. They Came Like Swallows has some pretty big plot moments, but the novel is much more about the interaction of a family - and that ambiguous, absent voice of Elizabeth ringing through every page.