I’ve been away on Planet Grandma for a week and have been neglecting all blogging responsibilities. The one thing about having house-guests, particularly those of a certain age, you can’t really sit down at your computer of an evening and say, “Sorry I have a blog post to write” or “My 22 favourite blog pals have all posted, so entertain yourself while I just make some comments”. Instead you have to drink red wine, eat heartily, talk family and ignore any tempting Webbery.
I did manage to get some reading in. That’s still considered good behaviour on Planet Grandma. Reading is good stuff. Lurking behind a computer screen telling people what you’ve read is not. Anyway, luckily for me, Grandma has a way with books. She brought me Stef Penney’s prize-winning The Tenderness of Wolves and JM Coetzee’s Slow Man. I finished TToW this afternoon so that she could take it and read it on the plane. It’s remarkable in many ways – firstly, it’s a first novel that has won a major prize (the Costa Award), Penney was agoraphobic when she wrote it and struggled to get out of her home to the British Library to research the book, and, at the time of writing, she had never been to Canada. So the novel is a feat of excellent storytelling, force of will and imagination. Also, if you like a good murder story, it’s a gripping read.
Set in the frozen backwoods of Ontario in the 1860s, it tells of immigrants and natives, pioneers and trappers, farmers and townspeople, who are all struggling to make a living. The book is peopled with a large cast, and Penney races around everyone’s point of view, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third. This threatened to become exhausting, and at some points I was nervous that the threads would untangle themselves, but she held it all together. It’s interesting to learn that she is agoraphobic because her settings are claustrophobic: small houses, tiny tents, falling-down camps, all set against a backdrop of the freezing, engulfing, deadly snow. However, the story rackets along, the twists are suitably surprising and the characters varied and interesting.
If I had been a Costa judge last year, William Boyd’s Reckless would have been my first choice for the prize, but The Tenderness of Wolves would probably have been my second.
Then, while on Planet Grandma, I finally managed to finish Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia. I had been dying to get my hands on it since I like blogs, and cooking, and blogs about cooking, so I was thrilled when Kerryn kindly offered to put it in circulation. Julie & Julia is about one woman’s attempt to cook 524 recipes from one Julia Child book in 365 days – and blog about it at the same time. Having never read a book that originated as a blog, I was expecting J&J to be a collection of blog posts, but it isn’t. She’s written the story of her project as a book, with occasional reference to the blog. I spent the first third of the book feeling disappointed about that, but once I gave up and allowed the tide of Powell’s writing to carry me onwards, I grew to enjoy it very much. She writes amusingly and vividly about her attempts to cook insane food (Eggs in Aspic, anyone?) in a minute New York kitchen, alongside plumbing disasters, job ennui and her friends’ disastrous love lives. Powell herself is married to the saintly, long-suffering Eric, who endures her tantrums and strops when the Creme Brulee turns to soup or bandages her gently after she stabs herself trying to de-marrow a bone.
The book is delightful, fluffy as an omelette, but not for the squeamish: she murders live lobsters, discovers maggots in her kitchen and does quite a lot of stuff with hooves. Powell discovers that she is a fan of offal (who isn’t?) and writes movingly about liver. Often when I read food blogs (this one by the lovely Kathryn springs to mind), I find myself thinking, “Ooh, I want to cook that, let me bookmark this at once” but I didn’t have that experience with Powell’s book. I think it’s possibly that our delicate twenty-first century sensibilities may clash with that of Child’s bold derring-do, as she fearlessly boils hooves in order to make aspic, makes sauces out of bone marrow and arranges quivering kidneys on plates. So you have to admire Julie Powell’s – dare I say it – guts for getting up to her elbows in the yucky stuff and then having the sense to turn it into a project, a blog and a book.
Give me a roasted pepper and rocket salad, any day.
(Helen has first dibs on J&J, but in case she isn’t ready for it yet, please signal in the comments below if you’re also interested in Kerryn’s copy, and I will send it on.)