Stuff and Nonsense: June 2011


Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Originally published in The New Yorker, these stories offer a window into the lives of "ordinary" people you might mistake for your neighbors or, but for the grace of god, yourself -- families with too many children, unhappy women with ogre-ish husbands, mad/bad girls, men who realize they've outlived their dreams, and bitterly average people who fantasize about knowing celebrities (and then are horrified by how perfectly dreadful those celebrities turn out to be).

Reading these stories, I'd frequently feel a great sense of relief as I reached the end of one -- as if I had escaped from something terrible -- and yet I couldn't stop myself from going on to the next. They're well-written, expertly crafted stories. While you can't go wrong reading them, you might want to lock your liquor cabinet and hide your knives before you sit down with Saturday Lunch with the Brownings. (If you like Shirley Jackson or Daphne du Maurier's short stories, you'll probably eat these up with a spoon).

What a relief, he thought, as he started up the engine. My God -- it was almost a prayer -- what a relief. The car shot around the gravel crescent, headed towards home. He looked back once, gripped with a moment's uneasiness. The blur in an upstairs window might possibly have been a child, but the cry thrown out to him was soundless and hardly misted the glass. He drove on, vindicated. In a vaguely disquieting way he was no longer lonely. People would say he had done the right thing, and as for Patricia ... Everything passes, he told himself, settling more comfortably in his seat. Everything passes.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer (McGraw-Hill, 1961)


Lolly Willowes or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner

"It was an adventure, she had never done such a thing before, and yet it seemed most natural."

Much to her London relations' horror and confusion, Laura chucks her stiflingly safe life as everyone's favorite spinster, Aunt Lolly, to carve out a new, far more interesting life for herself in the village of Great Mop (a tiny-out-of-the-way place where the taciturn inhabitants keep interesting hours). Of course, Laura can't escape her family for long and her plans for her new life are nearly overset by a visit from her favorite nephew. His fussing and constant claims to her attention drive Laura to despair and, in desperation, she cries out in the wilderness for aid ... and is answered by the Devil.

Townsend Warner has written a darkly humorous and bitingly sharp story with a protagonist it is impossible not to cheer for (even when she's making pacts with the Devil). The novel is short, making it a quick read you could easily get through in one sitting and the story does have a rather slow, leisurely pace ... but Townsend Warner has packed some truly gorgeous prose and interesting thoughts into her slim novel. I found it hard to stop thinking about Laura long after I'd put Lolly Willowes down and I'm sure I will be buying a copy of my own, soon.

One doesn't become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It's to escape all that -- to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day, the workhouse dietary is scientifically calculated to support life.

Lolly Willowes or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner (New York Review Books, 1999)


Local Food Matters: Connecticut Farmer & Feast

Last Tuesday, I was lucky enough to hear Chef Emily Brooks, author of Connecticut Farmer & Feast: Harvesting Local Bounty (Globe Pequot Press, 2011), speak at the Farmington Libraries as part of the Chefs & Books series. While Brooks didn't talk a lot about her book, she did provide a lot of information about the local food movement and why it is so important -- better for you and better for the environment.

She explained that, the closer to you food is grown, the longer it has to naturally ripen and mature and the greater its nutritional value when it arrives on your plate. Also, locally raised food travels shorter distances and requires less care in handling, reducing its footprint.

And, of course, Brooks talked about food security and addressed the dangers of dependency on foreign food (whether you're looking locally or nationally, too much food comes from elsewhere and that's Not A Good Thing).

Brooks was a very dynamic, passionate speaker. If you get a chance to hear her speak, it's well worth the time. She raised many interesting points I'm still thinking about today and helped me organize my own half-formed food philosophies.

Connecticut Farmer & Feast is a beautifully packaged book with lovely illustrations (great for gift-giving). The text is divided up by county and profiles forty-three small Connecticut farms or food producers. While the profiles make good reading (why have I never been to Urban Oaks?), it's the recipes I'm really interested in. Some of them seem fabulous -- I am hoping to try "Sweet Wind Farm Swiss Chard with Caper Butter" and "Local Farm Chilled Cucumber Soup" (since I'm growing Swiss Chard and cucumbers this year).


Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande Velde

Velde offers eight tongue-in-cheek retellings of "Little Red Riding Hood" in this slender (and so pretty) anthology. I found it quite refreshing that many of the retellings recount a point of view different from Little Red's -- we see the classic tale through the eyes of the wolf and the woodsman among others. My favorite retelling was "The Red Riding Hood Doll" in which we see the story spin out through the eyes of Little Red's mother:

So Georgette didn't feel bad about not going to the parties, which, in any case, her mother said were not for the likes of her. She didn't feel bad about not having a husband, since her mother had pointed out often enough that Georgette was too plain and set in her ways to attract a man. But Georgette missed a child to love, a child who would make her feel loved in return. Georgette was quietly sure she would be a better mother than her own mother had been.

Overall, I found the collection a real pleasure to read and recommend it to those who like "twisted" fairy tales.

Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande Velde (Marshall Cavendish, 2010)