Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Back, With Books


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.)

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

20 thoughts on “Back, With Books

  1. I had my parents to stay for one night and suffered from blogging withdrawal. One night. Well done you for ignoring the pull of the web for a week.

    I’m glad you enjoyed J&J. I think I might just have had the opposite reaction to you. I really enjoyed the first third to a half, especially when JP was talking about actually cooking, and her kitchen but lost momentum and interest towards the end. Perhaps it was her preoccupation with her friends’ love lives that put me off because I really enjoyed her writing about food and cooking and kitchen disasters. I even admired her persistence with offal (I’m raising my hand as someone who loathes offal with a passion after some early traumatic experiences with tripe and liver).

    And I didn’t feel the urge to cook anything she cooked either, apart from the potato soup she opened with. Odd.

  2. i’m reading tenderness of wolves too – and really enjoying the brooding atmosphere set against the huge open landscape. amazing she was able to create such a sense of space – but it does feel menacing!

  3. I’m relatively new to blogging, so it intrigues me to read your post. It’s like a sneak view into the mind of a committed blogger. I have been getting a little addicted to the writing myself, but didn’t realise that this was a usual condition. So, it becomes part of your life… weird. Why do so many of my friends look blankly at me or laugh until their sides ache when I tell them I’ve discovered blogging?

  4. Glad to hear you’ve survived your trip to Planet G. How did you like Slow Man?

  5. I would have such a hard time not feeling like I could read blogs or write posts! I’m curious too what you think of the Coetzee.

  6. I’ll request The Tenderness of Wolves at the library tomorrow. It sounds really interesting.

    Glad you enjoyed your visit!

  7. Ooh, I’m about to visit Planet Grandma too, and in the meantime am wading through the mires of Teething Toddler and Tedious Manuscript Redraft. So if anyone wants Julie and Julia please go in ahead of me.

    The Tenderness of Wolves sounds great. I’m interested in the fact the author wrote it while suffering from agoraphobia. It just goes to show that people can struggle in their daily lives but can still make great achievements. That inspires me.

    On that note, I’d better get off this internet, pull on my wellies and get back to those mires!

  8. Mastering the Art of French cooking is one of the very few cookbooks I have. I find it not necessarily a very practical book…that would be Joy of Cooking. But it’s an inspiration. I love offal (though not that word very much!), love to make homemade chicken stock, and generally like to cook in the less “modern” way that is reflected there. But would I cook all of those recipes? No way. For laughs I read the one about de-boning a duck, stuffing it with pate and then wrapping it in pastry. I would definitely try that in a restaurant but never would I try to subject my kitchen to that! Maybe one of these days I’ll have to read J & J just to see what it was like to try.

  9. Kerryn, I honestly think her blog – when she was actually writing about food and the J&J project – must have been more interesting. I wish I’d been up enough on the Webgeist then to have caught it while it was happening.

    Mad Muthas, it’s a great read isn’t it? I love the way she deftly manoeuvres so many characters.

    Welcome Bindi! Yes, I’m afraid it is totally addictive, and some people will never get it. I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening over on epossums.

    LK and Dorothy, I’m in the middle of Slow Man now and really enjoying it. Coetzee has to be one of the smoothest writers I know.

    Nat, it’s a rollicking read. Enjoy it.

    Helen, good luck with all that lies before you: redraft, teething toddler and grandma visit. You must be excited to be seeing your mother again!

    Henitserk, you’re a bold one with your cooking! If you want to read J&J, I have permission from Kerryn to send it on.

  10. Please put me one the list for J&J. Glad to hear you had evenings of good wine and conversation, though I am equally glad that you’re now back writing and commenting. Missed you on both fronts.

  11. Hey, no permission needed. The book belongs to the world now 🙂 Although, it will be interesting to follow its travels…

    Her site is still available to read but is horrible to navigate. I tried reading from the start but I, too, think it would have been a far more interesting, and far more immediate, read as it happened. Something had to be lost in the editing.

    And I didn’t entirely pass over the other books you mentioned — my tbr pile is quite simply unmanageable and I’m afraid to read reviews such as yours because you always manage to make your reading sound so enticing. I’m currently resisting the very strong urge to add The Tenderness of the Wolves to the pile.

  12. I have been wondering whether the Stef Penney novel was any good or not, so thank you very much, Charlotte for that extremely helpful and insightful review. I’ve also got Julie and Julia on my shelves to read (although I have to say she will never win me over to offal).

  13. This made me laugh out loud: “writes movingly about liver.”

    I wonder if I’ll ever read that phrase anywhere again? Maybe I don’t read enough about food prep?

    btw, it’s ok to miss the ‘net a bit when you’re actually spending time with people.

  14. I laughed my way through J&J during a period in which I really needed the laughs. I don’t know if it’s still out there (haven’t checked recently), but while I was reading it, you could still access her blog, which was fun to read. It was actually one of the things that inspired me to start blogging. I kept thinking, “Maybe I should have a project like that for my blog, like teaching myself how to take apart a car or something.” As you can see, I quickly abandoned that idea.

  15. Welcome back from Planet Grandma. I have the same feeling when my family is staying, reading books all sociably together in the sitting room is fine, but I have to sneak off occasionally to do a lightning post and then hurry back to the sofa, without lingering over other people’s blogs, like sneaking off for a cigarette behind the bike sheds…

    Julie and Julia sounds interesting, though all that offal would definitely not get past my door. I think I’d rather work my way through Nigella in a year, though it wouldn’t make such a good story. Having started my blog as a food blog, I now find I’m writing about it less and less. I think I need some new inspiration in my cooking to make it fun to write about again…not just we had pasta again tonight.

  16. So, Ms Henitserk, am I sending J&J to you? You were the first to signal interest … if not, it’s winging its way to Lilalia. Just let me know!

    Kerryn and Litlove, TToW is a book that’s going to scoop you up and take you to another place and time. She creates a completely plausible, absorbing and dangerous world.

    Hey there Funky Uncle! You are right. Time spent with people is far healthier than weaving through the Net – what scared me was how much I missed it!

    Emily, I really like the way your blog’s turned out. I may not have lasted if you’d made car repair your topic. I remember thinking too “oh my blog should be specific, about something” and then I thought “oh sucks boo it’s my blog – it’s going to be about whatever I want it to be”.

    Kit, the couple of posts I managed did feel very surreptitious and sneaky as you describe. And give me Nigella over the lovely Ms Child any day – the chances I’ll be ever deboning a duck are slim in the extreme.

  17. Just noting that Henitserk will be receiving Julie & Julia next, and that she will be posting it on to Lilalia! I’m enjoying this global book sharing.

  18. Thank you Charlotte, I look forward to J&J. I’ll let everyone know if I get inspired to cook any awful offal.

  19. I started Julie & Julia about 6 weeks ago, reading about 2/3rd of the book in one sitting. Haven’t opened it since. Like you, I was disappointed that it wasn’t her blog. The disappointment, I think, is that it was so hyped as a blog book. I think there are plenty of great blogs that could be made into a book of collected posts. But maybe that would be pointless, especially if the blog was still available on line. I didn’t think that Powell’s writing was especially outstanding and in many ways I think the book could be used to support some of the more negative attitudes about blogs. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it, laughed through most of it, and was totally grossed out by the idea of aspic. I either missed it, or haven’t read far enough to read about offal.

  20. Pingback: The State of the Blog « Charlotte's Web

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