Sunday 31 August 2014

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Since I've got a review copy of Lila on my shelves (the third of Robinson's novels to concern the good people of Gilead), I thought it was about time that I read Home (the second, from 2008, after 2004's Gilead). When I read Gilead, I was completely bowled over. How could an elderly minister's reminiscences create such a stunning work of fiction? On the strength of one book, Robinson became the living writer I admired the most. A subsequent read of Housekeeping did nothing to diminish this, and reading Home has cemented her position. Nobody else holds a candle to her.

Home covers much of the same time period as Gilead, although it is not a requirement to have read the former before you read the latter. Indeed, it would be interesting to read all three of this series in various orders - it's been so long since I read Gilead that I have forgotten a lot of it, so it was a bit like coming to the characters for the first time. And, indeed, different characters take centre stage. While Gilead is narrated by the Rev. John Ames, Home looks at his neighbour's house. Ames' closest friend, Rev. Robert Broughton, is old and ailing. His wife has died, and he is looked after by the only child who has remained at home - Glory, a spinster who is kind, good, and a little regretful. The novel sees how they cope with the return, after twenty years, of Glory's wastrel brother Jack.

His return will be familiar to readers of Gilead, and Ames certainly did not approve of him, but seeing him through the eyes of his family is a different matter. Glory is some years younger than him, separated by several siblings, and never felt that she knew him very well. Robert has longed for him to return - their dynamic is very much that of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father - but even his patience and hope have their limits.

It's very difficult to talk about great writers, or to pinpoint what makes them great. Home details the awkwardness of people who are biologically very close and emotionally very distant, but not through arguments or slamming doors. Instead (and no author does this better) Robinson shows us the silences - the emotions that family members cannot discuss, the past hurts they cannot confront, and the future hopes they dare not express. All the more impressive that this is done in the third person, so - although it feels like we know all three key players intimately - we are never actually taken into their perspective wholly. Being very close to my nuclear family, particularly my brother, I can't quite understand the awkwardness of Glory and Jack's relationship, but (being a family of introverts) I can understand the reluctance to discuss depths of emotions - and yet communicating them at the same time.

Like Gilead, there is a background of faith to the novel. But, where Gilead is a beautiful depiction of a life of faith, Glory is a little less certain. She seems occupied more with duty and goodness than with grace, try as she might. She sums up the theme of the book while musing on the Bible:
What a strange old book it was. How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world, how endlessly creation wrenched and strained under the burden of its own significance. "I will open my mouth in a parable. I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us." Yes there it was, the parable of manna. All bread is the bread of heaven, her father used to say. It expresses the will of God to sustain us in this flesh, in this life. Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it mean to come home.
'Home' is, unsurprisingly, the biggest quandary in Home. What makes a home? What does it mean to come home?  For Glory, home is a place of safety and continuity, but also a place of disappointment and a sense of failure. For Jack, it is a mirage and somehow dangerous. For Robert, it is chiefly an ideal in his mind.

One of the loveliest things in both this novel and Gilead is the friendship between neighbouring ministers. Friendship is depicted so seldom in literature, and it is touching to see one that has proved far more constant and successful than romantic or paternal relationships. And for readers like me who dearly love Ames, it is a joy to see him again - albeit frustrating at how little we see of him! Not to mention illuminating to see a different vantage of a man that any reader of Gilead will know intimately. It's like hearing your best friend described by somebody who only knows them a little.

I quote this passage partly because Ames is in it, but mostly because it's a lovely example of how beautifully Robinson writes a domestic scene:
Then Ames arrived with Lila and Roddy, the three of them in their church clothes, and she took her father into the parlor with them, the company parlor, where they sat on the creaky chairs no one ever sat on. It had been almost forgotten that the were not there just to be dismally ornamental, chairs only in the sense that the lamp stand was a shepherdess. Ames was clearly bemused by the formality her father had willed upon the occasion. The room was filled with those things that seem to exist so that children can be forbidden to touch them - porcelain windmills and pagodas and china dogs - and Robby's eyes were bright with suppressed attraction to them.
Home has so many nuances and is so rich in insight that it would be futile to go much further. I don't love it as much as Gilead - perhaps because I missed the first-person voice that Robinson handles so extraordinarily - but I am still amazed by what a great work it is. Sometimes I wonder which writer from our time will be remembered in future generations and centuries. If there is any justice in posterity, Robinson will be among that number.

Friday 29 August 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series Five: Episode Four

Wow, guys, WHAT an episode. Who'd have thought that this baking show would make headlines across the country? It leaves me quite a lot to live up to, particularly since I'm used to making high drama from very little in these recaps. In this week's episode, there actually is high drama. But we'll save that for later, and treat things as normal for the moment - which means sunny opening shot of Mel and Sue, reference to Mary's bomber jacket, and it's all bakers present and correct for pudding week.

But things are tense already. Seldom has a montage of people putting on aprons been filled with more foreshadowing. Chetna is looking anxious, Luis is nervous, and Alex/Kate looks (if she doesn't mind me saying) like somebody who once ran a marathon. The biggest question on my lips, though, is - did these four deliberately match the shade of their jeans?

Probably not.

Time for Blazer Watch, of course. Sue's is getting suspiciously slack. That's one step away from a cardy, love. And, while Paul's continuing lack of suit jacket is our first indication that it's very warm, Mary knows that art is pain, and continues to button up. As Beyonce once said, Pretty Hurts.

The first challenge is: self-saucing puddings. This gives Mel and Sue carte blanche for Carry On Baking vaudeville throughout. The bakers find it hilarious, including future best friends Norm and Martha.

Why aren't these two on Celebrity Antiques Hunt yet?
I even renewed my TV licence today like a fool.
It also seems to be entirely open to interpretation. The sauce can be under, in, on top of, or vaguely near the pudding. (NB #selfsaucing was trending on Twitter at this point. What a time to be alive.)

Mel says they have to make eight 'individually portioned' self-saucing puds. No idea what individually portioned could mean, let alone self-saucing puds, but Paul is on hand to explain. He says the key thing is to keep the sponge nice and light. "Timing is everything". (No mention of the sauce so far.) Mary steps up with the helpful advice that it has to 'have the right consistency, and - for me - it has to have some texture to it'. Everything has some sort of texture, and I don't know what she means, but it's Mary, so I assume she wants alcohol involved.

"Where's my gin at?"
Luis says that puddings are not his strongest area (this is dessert week, Luis, puddings will be another time! Yes, I know that nobody outside of the Bake Off scheduling people really use those words differently) and it doesn't help that he seems to be boiling potatoes.

"Fancy" - Norman.
(That's the only one I'll use this week.)
Martha is adding peanut butter to her fondants, which is a big no-no for me. She's also in the middle of her A Levels, which is pretty impressive.

Nancy: "this is the chocolate mix for the centre of my pudding. The sauce, if you like". She's caught on to the buzzwords of the episode perfectly, hasn't she? She still seems delightfully unbothered by the whole process. Then she engages the judges in a keen game of charades.

"Third word..."
She says she's going to push the envelope. My friend Emily, watching with me, perspicaciously commented "You don't have to push envelopes. People want envelopes."

"I need to get a wiggle on" - Alex/Kate. Surely the expression is 'wriggle'?

Watching again, I see that we have all sorts of omens. Kate slowly wanders over to a freezer. Iain tells us that timing isn't his forte. There are shots - so subtle as to be almost subliminal - of ice caps melting, polar bears looking forlorn, and Alaska sinking into the sea.

Also, I'm sure his beard and head hair started off as the same colour. One seems to be getting lighter, and the other darker, as the series continues.

Science doubtless has the answers.

He's making something with chocolate, lime, and raspberry, which are three wonderful flavours. Paul likes chocolate and lime together, and so do I - chocolate and lime sponge cake is one of my favourite things to bake. Truth story from real life.

Guess who's decided to keep it simple this week?

Well, that plan's worked beautifully so far, why not? (In his defence, sticky toffee pudding is amazing.)

The cameraman remains curiously obsessed with Diana's trainers. A couple of series ago the BBC was slapped on the wrist for showing the logo of Smeg fridges too much. Have Nike now got an underhand deal with the Beeb? Or is this some sort of unclear foreshadowing again?

Or is to show that something's AFOOT??
The puddings go in the respective ovens, and it's time for Sue to give us the history of cake. It's the most heavy-handed link yet ("I like desserts. So does Paignton!") and self-saucing puds aren't mentioned, presumably because they were made up someone in a BBC office in a panic.

Also, Sue apparently thinks it's appropriate to chat with an aged historian on deckchairs while wearing a blood-stained skull T-shirt.

And we're back in the tent. Dr. Paul Cleave has got a 'proof of the pudding' joke in there (the PUN KLAXON taking an unprecedented trip to Devon) but they're staunchly avoiding it in the tent. Must save something for next week, you can see Mel thinking. There seem to be some mini, individually portioned, catastrophes... but these are quickly glossed over. This, if nothing else, should have warned me of what was to come. Usually a bubbling pudding would have been previewed half a dozen times, and made the centrepiece of the show.


Kate, of course, hams it up no end.

Richard, meanwhile, checks to see if his prop is in place.
Instruments that the soundtrack have brought into play: french horn? Not sure - something unduly brassy.

Bakers dust and press and tweeze and place, the camera spins dizzily around every bake and zooms in unnervingly close to corners of puddings, then everything is ready for judging.

Paul uses 'drop through' as a noun.

"Now that's what I call a sauce pudding!" Mary says of Richard's pud, clearly having been as at sea as the rest of us, and relieved to have been given some indication of what one might be.

He does well. Martha glues Paul's mouth together. Luis's sauce is more of a liquid. 'Almost a wet liquid', says Paul, which leads one to wonder - what could a dry liquid possibly be like?

They're not very impressed by Norman's presentation - quelle surprise! - but I'd love to try it. And I do wonder if they'd have mentioned it for any other baker (they look a darn sight better than Martha's peanut splodges, for instance).

Over with the other Great British Beige Off contestant - Diana gets good feedback on her orange surprise thingummy, which looks a little like it's enacting Ode on a Grecian Urn, and she is pretty euphoric about it.

Nancy, on the other hand, isn't happy with her critique - saying (in a way that rather misses the point of being in the competition at all) that puddings get eaten so quickly that it doesn't really matter if they don't have any sauce.

"Four puddings a pound, a pound, lovely puddings"

Meanwhile, Martha is having an exam-fuelled breakdown. "I try and be a tough cookie. Sometimes it's a bit hard and the cookie crumbles." I think she's babbling rather than distraught. Norman, on the other hand, is unaffected by his critique - saying that sticky toffee pudding isn't meant to look nice. He suggests it is the opposite of the sort of person who looks nice and is 'rotten in the middle'. That took a turn, didn't it? His interview is beautifully juxtaposed with this sheep:

Technical challenge time: Mary's tiramisu cake. CAKE? That doesn't sound like a dessert to me. Food etymology fans, did you know that tira mi su is Italian for 'pick me up'? Which suggests, to me, that Mel and Sue can be translated as Mel and Up. (Sorry.)

"I think I'm the only person that's made it before in the whole room, and I'm the youngest by far," says Martha, and somehow doesn't come across as appalling. She is super lovely. (But, fyi, Richard has now taken the coveted second place in my affections - behind Norm, obvs - as I love how resolutely cheerful he is all the time. Martha is in at third.)

"It is quite tricky to make," says Mary - get used to that line, it's not the last time we'll hear a similar sentiment. "What I'm looking for is every layer to be evenly soaked in the coffee and brandy mixture."

Where's my brandy at?
Iain says something that just sounds like a series of vowel sounds to me. Luckily my lovely Northern Irish housemate Laura is on hand to translate. It's something about flour. She's not here as I recap, and I can't remember.

Norman's mixture has 'a few spots of flour, here and there, but you always get that'. He's not what you'd call a perfectionist, is he?

"Right - in the oven," says Diana, taking it upon herself to provide audio commentary for the blind.

This week's to-prove-or-not-to-prove-that-is-the-question is clingfilm vs. baking paper. This could probably have provided twenty minutes of nail-biting controversy if we hadn't been steaming through the challenge to get to the #bincident.

Alex/Kate slams her oven door closed - Alex/Kate! If Mrs Poll taught me one thing in GCSE food technology, and she did just about teach me one thing, it's that you close oven doors gently to prevent a rush of cold air. (I got an A, thankyouverymuch, thanks for asking.)

Everybody is preparing to slice their sponges in half, and Richard has run into difficulties...

(Insert building pun here.)
He throws it in the bin. FORESHADOWING. Iain has problems. FORESHADOWING. Diana talks to herself. FORESH--, wait, no, that doesn't happen again.

Nancy is making a layer from 'remnants'. I love how little she cares.

Mary's recipe doesn't specify how much brandy/coffee mixture to add but, c'mon, this is Mary. Pour a whole bottle in, and she'll quite literally lap it up. We also see the first of Martha's many anxious looks-around-the-tent...


Wonderfully, Luis has drawn out a diagram saying sponge/cream/sponge/cream/sponge/cream. Mel makes fun of him in an adorable way.

He is a graphic designer, after all.
Even Marth isn't sure what temperature the tempered chocolate should be. "Even a few degrees out, and the chocolate will lose it's shine and be difficult to work with." LIKE SUE, AM I RIGHT, AMIRITE?  (No, not really.)

Finishing touches are done all round - special mention should be made of Luis's wonderful chocolate calligraphy...

...and Sue hears 'the gentle padding of lady moccasins'. Mary is returning. The challenge is over. Norman says he is "surprised by how good it looks", which can only mean that they'll think it a mess. He's always so optimistic.

I think everyone has done a brilliant job - and Mezza and Pazza don't have many criticisms to give, on the whole. Mary complains that some of them don't have enough 'coffee mixture'. She keeps using the words 'coffee mixture', when we all know that she means...

"...where's my brandy at?"

With no disasters, there's not much to say. Diana comes last, followed by Norm. Luis is second, and lovely Martha comes top. "Well done!" says Mary, as though addressing a toddler. But she doesn't give as good shocked face as Luis.

Imagine if he wins?

The showstopper challenge is... Baked Alaska! Since nobody has made one of these since 1974, the bakers can be forgiven for being pretty relaxed in how they interpret it. (Somewhere - presumably at an ABBA-themed party, with olives and bright orange cupcakes - The Brend is gnashing his teeth and wondering why he wasn't asked to make a Baked Alask.)

At this juncture, I'd like to express my disappointment that nobody uses this joke: "What does Mary think?" / "I don't know, Alaska." Ahahahaha.

"It's a sponge base and an ice cream; what could go wrong?" asks Luis
"There are many things that can go wrong in a Baked Alaska," answers Paul. Only he's sat outside, and it was probably filmed on a different day, so it can hardly be called a conversation. "There's Joconde, there's Victoria, there's Genoise," says Paul, apparently having forgotten the names of any of the contestants.

Fans of repetition are treated to both judges and most of the bakers telling us that it's hot in the tent; ideal weather for making ice cream. But nothing can stop daredevil Norm from pulling out the stops. Not satisfied with dabbling in the exotic world of pesto, this week he's using... strawberry. Oo-la-la.

The surprise is that it has the exact ingredient mentioned in the name.

Martha's making a sort of key lime pie Alaska, with coconut, which sounds in every way amazing.

Chetna mournfully tells us that she used to have mangoes all summer.

Iain is using black sesame seed ice cream - because who doesn't want their food to be grey? Mary Reaction Face time.

Nancy's has three stripes (two ice creams and a parfait) which Mary suggests will be like a football jersey, and Nancy believes will closely resemble a rainbow. Have either of them ever seen either of these things?

Alex/Kate says that she's making a very kitsch Baked Alaska. So far, so tautological - but it's difficult to see quite why she believes hers is more kitsch than anybody else's. She even references her 'fellow Brightonians'. Ugh. Shameless, Kate; you're better than that.

Iain talks about wanting to put his ice cream in the freezer, which is numbingly obvious at the time, but significant after the event...

Norman looks absolutely disgusted by his ice cream, but apparently this is a look of pleasure.

"I could have been born in Italy" - actual thing he says.

Never mentioned again.

There's lots of stuff about them making meringues, but there's not much to say - although mention must be made of Norman's statement 'A year ago I didn't know what an Italian meringue was' - presumably the same sentence would have held true with either 'Italian' or 'meringue' deleted - and this shot of Luis multitasking:

Norm is the king of photobombing

Alex/Kate tells us it's hot. Going for a variation on a theme, Norm speaks of the warmth of the tent. Ever the scientist, Sue opts for "It's 25 degrees."

Ladies and gentlemen, we come to the crux of the episode. Which I shall narrate in images.

Poignant, no?

On re-watching, it becomes clear that Iain asked about freezer space, and Diana/Nancy knew it was his when they took it out... and... well, you know by now. It was left on the side. It *looks away from camera; sheds a tear* melted.

(I should say at this point, I think Diana has suffered enough, and my blog is intended to poke gentle fun at the whole thing, not be cruel - so don't expect any witch-hunt or meanness from me.)

Accompanied by guttural scream
Diana: "You've got your own freezer, haven't you?"
Iain: "Why would you take ice cream out of the freezer?" (which invites the response: to eat it.)

I can do no more than state the facts. I can't believe how fraught and emotional this was. My friends and I were screaming at the television. I feel like we are part of history. "Do you know where you were when Iain found out his ice cream was taken out of the freezer?" we will say to each other through time. Children will tire of their parents talking about it. Grandparents will reminisce. This is truly the defining moment of the third millennium AD.

My biggest question, though, is why - knowing that it was not frozen - Iain chose to take the tin off. What did he think would happen? Was he hoping that his vendetta against gravity (so clearly evidenced by his hairstyle) had finally been successful?

Sue desperately tries to calm him down, but... #BINCIDENT. #MELTDOWN. #PASSPORTTONEWSNIGHT. He storms out. It's not frozen, Iain, you should let it go. (Geddit? Frozen. Let it go. Wit.)

And then my favourite moment of the whole show - Richard and Kate have a gossip in the corner. "Iain threw his in the bin!" says Kate. "He didn't!" from Richard. He sounds every bit like an archetypal spinster in a Miss Read novel and I LOVE it.

"Oooo - he never did! Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs."

Chetna is very lucky that Iain has stormed out, as her ice cream has also melted everywhere, and she's trying to put it back in place with her hands while Martha anxiously stands behind her. Unsurprisingly, it's not very effective.

Iain - presumably having been refused the bus fare away from this house in the middle of nowhere - wanders back into the tent.

Does anybody care any longer about these Alaskas? Well, I do, and these were my favourites:

When it comes to Chetna's turn, she presents a melted mess, but Mary says that she 'has a smile on her face, which is what it's all about!' No, Mary, it isn't. (But I still love you, Chetters!)

It looks rather like a blobfish. Google it.
Incidentally, loving Richard's cajz lean against hedge. (Yes, cajz is how I'm abbreviating 'casual'. We all need to make our peace with that and move on.)

Then the music gets all tinkly and sombre, and for some reason Iain processes up with the bin. Chetna and Luis have their heads in their hands (in clips probably filmed some hours earlier). Iain is a gent, and doesn't mention Diana at all (so far as we see.)

Mary is very sweet to Iain at this moment, beaming away and saying that everybody makes mistakes. It's a different tune in the backstage debrief. "I think that's sort of unacceptable." Ouch. Somewhere a fairy has died.

As you'll probably know by now, going home is...

Mr Tumnus
Sue and Mel seem genuinely heartbroken by the news.

Star baker, more happily, is Richard.

It's been an emotional rollercoaster this week, baking fans. I don't know if can keep up with this excitement.

(And can you spot where this week's update word is, Helen??)

See you next time!

Thursday 28 August 2014

The Man Booker longlist

Thanks so much for all your suggestions on 1990s books - I will reply soon, and there are lots I haven't read. If you thought that was unusually modern for Stuck-in-a-Book, then brace yourself for this: the Man Booker longlist. Granted it was announced some time ago, but I'm not one for keeping my finger on the pulse...

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

I usually steer clear of Booker winners. I've only read three from the past decade, and all of them were underwhelming (The Sense of an Ending, The Finkler Question, and The Line of Beauty) and in fact I gave up halfway through two of them - but sometimes the shortlists and longlists bring up more intriguing titles.

When the longlist was announced, the editors of Shiny New Books had a fun conversation about it - I think you'll enjoy reading it, especially if you like my cynical moments - and I hadn't read any of them (unsurprisingly). I had heard of nearly all of the authors, though, which is a sign of what Shiny New Books has done to me.

After that, though, I did read Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and reviewed it for SNB. It was good. But it wasn't any better than good. I don't understand by what criteria it made this list. Intriguing.

Have any of you read any of these, or want to? I'd like to read the Nicholls, and that might be it...