Sunday, March 24, 2013

Baking and Books: Double Chocolate Cookies

It's Holy Week!  Which means that my life just got extraordinarily busy (though far less so than when I was a staff singer in St. Louis).  For once, schoolwork is not my top priority this week.  To kick off this new mindset, I took some time this afternoon to bake cookies for my Vespers group tonight - we sing Latin Vespers in Gregorian plainchant and then share dinner together.  I've been so busy this semester that I've rarely made it, but tonight, I'm definitely going.  It's Palm Sunday, and that's more important than an extra hour or two to avoid doing homework.  And happily, I got enough writing done yesterday to feel good about my progress this weekend.

This was my first time making this recipe, and they turned out quite lovely.  I'm especially fond of the coarse salt sprinkled on top.  I made these with white chocolate chips instead of semi-sweet, to use up the last of them.

It's hard to see the title of the book I'm reading - that's because this library copy is a 1944 first edition.  I'm not sure I've ever read an old first edition before; it makes this reading experience that much more special.  Plus, being an old book, the spine is loose and the pages will stay open by themselves, so I was able to keep reading while I folded two loads of laundry last night.  It's Margery Sharp's Cluny Brown, which I requested from the library on a whim after reading Thomas's review.  It's even better than he said!  Utterly delightful.  I'm a little disappointed that it is no longer readily available, because I'd love to own a copy myself.

I know a lot of the country is still facing winter weather.  Even here in Durham, temperatures have been in the 40s for the last couple of days, which is highly uncharacteristic for this time of year.  These cookies are delicious, easy to make, and super cozy: just right for a cold, drizzly afternoon.  Why not try them out?  If you do, let me know what you think, and whether they're good with regular chocolate chips.

Double Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2 1/4 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
Coarse salt (Kosher or sea salt)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Beat together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes.

Blend in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix in the cocoa powder until well blended. Add the flour, salt and baking powder to the bowl and mix on low speed just until incorporated. Fold in the chocolate chips with a spatula.

If necessary, transfer the dough to a work surface and knead briefly by hand to be sure the ingredients are well combined. Roll each portion of dough into a ball and flatten just slightly into a disc. Sprinkle with coarse salt.

Place on the prepared baking sheets, a few inches apart. Bake 16-20 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheets 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Villette

Villette is a much harder book than Jane Eyre.  It is significantly darker in tone, with a clinically depressed protagonist of questionable veracity.  Lucy is not really as passionless or as passive as she makes herself out to be, and at times, her first-person narrative skims over her own outbursts and the moments in which she lashes out at her acquaintances.  And Villette has a deliberately vague conclusion, one that is easily read as tragic – but tragic for whom?  It’s up for debate (and a number of English scholars have indeed debated it).  I don’t want to spoil the entire novel by revealing the ending, but suffice it to say that beyond Villette’s theological themes, I spent the most time contemplating the ending, and I even looked up a few essays on it.  Though dense and slow-moving, this novel is beautifully written and well worth the time.

Villette is the only one of Charlotte Brontë’s novels that is not named for a character (Jane Eyre, Shirley, The Professor) but for a place: the fictional town of Villette, based on Brussels.  So already we have a book that is very different than the England-based Jane Eyre.  Englishwoman Lucy Snowe, an orphan due to unspecified reasons (possibly a shipwreck?), finds herself alone and desperate for an occupation, so she ends up teaching English at a girls’ boarding school in Villette.  Lucy is an outsider, longing for England, “that dear land of mists” (141). 

Villette’s themes, political, religious, and psychological, are very much a product of the novel’s historical context: nationalism, imperialism, and slavery; conflict between Lucy’s dour and prim English Protestantism which leans extremely Puritan and the extravagant continental Catholicism; physiognomy and changing perceptions of race; and isolation and clinical depression.  All of these conflicts are bound up together.  For example, Lucy struggles for self-respect among her students, who not only lack self-respect themselves but welcome a teacher’s sarcastic blow to their own dignity.  They only warm to Lucy after she makes them feel shamed.  Lucy muses on the difference between them and English children (and incidentally, this was the quote I displayed when I took Villette as part of my exhibit for the book-collecting contest):

Imprimis – it was clear as the day that this swinish multitude were not to be driven by force.  They were to be humoured, borne with very patiently: a courteous though sedate manner impressed them; a very rare flash of raillery did good.  Severe or continuous mental application they could not, or would not, bear: heavy demand on the memory, the reason, the attention, they rejected point-blank.  Where an English girl of not more than average capacity and docility, would quietly take a theme and bend herself to the task of comprehension and mastery, a Labassecourienne would laugh in your face, and throw it back to you with the phrase, – ‘Dieu que c’est difficile!  Je n’en veux pas.  Cela m’ennuie trop.’ [‘Goodness, this is difficult!  I don’t want to do it.  This really bores me.’] (91-92)

But she also considers the difference between their religions.  She cannot understand why Catholics privilege failing to go to mass as a greater sin than lying, and when all of the other teachers and students attend evening prayer each night, she takes to wander alone in the garden.  Lucy, and by extension, Brontë, clearly knows her Scripture; Lucy quotes the Bible a lot, often to make associations that you won’t pick up on unless you know more of the stories she alludes to than just the phrase itself.  Most interesting to me was the fact that the fearful apparition that so scares Lucy was a ghostly nun!  That whole thread ended up clarified in a very different manner than I was expecting, but even with the tidy explanation, I think it spoke to a deep-seated suspicion and fear of the Other within Lucy.  Because I had such a focus on the Protestant/Catholic conflict throughout my whole reading experience, I thought the book could have safely ended sooner than it did – towards the end was a remarkably cathartic chapter in which all of these theological differences were resolved on a small scale, when it is determined that Lucy and her Roman Catholic friend worship the same God.  It was a stunning chapter and, to me, a more satisfactory conclusion to the many themes of the book than the actual ending itself.

You’ll note I haven’t actually talked about the plot much.  There’s a lot of thematic discussion packed into this novel, which results in it having a fairly minimal plot despite the nearly 550 pages.  Lucy’s actions and personal growth are important, but not as important as the greater points the book makes.  Villette is a fantastically atmospheric, continually thoughtful, and often terribly sad novel.  Just perfect for winter.  Now I need to find a copy of Shirley or one of Anne’s novels for next winter break’s annual Brontëfest.

Have any of you read Villette before?  What was your response?  Did you focus on different aspects than I did?  If you’ve read it multiple times, did you find that your focus was different each time?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: Gone to Earth

Shortly after I bought Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth to go with Precious Bane, which I’d picked up at the fall library sale but hadn’t read yet, I came across Simon’s hilariously scathing commentary.  He had tried Gone to Earth, but frustrated by the excessively flowery prose of the rural novel, abandoned the book after only a page and a half.  This made me nervous, of course!  But because I’d just paid good money for my copy, I decided to give it a go before giving it away.

Simon, I’m pleased to tell you that these crazy descriptions are not typical of the entire novel.  Every few chapters begins with a page or two of unbearably purple prose describing nature, but if you just get through them, the story itself was quite engaging.  I ended up staying awake far past my bedtime one night because I just couldn’t put the book down.

Hazel Woodus, the nymph-like daughter of a crazy musical bee-keeper, is an innocent, highly attuned to nature but ignorant of the ways of society or sexuality.  By far the most important person in her life is her constant companion Foxy:

‘Who is Foxy?’

‘Oh!  Fancy you not knowing Foxy!  Her’s my little cub.  Pretty! you ne’er saw anything so pretty.’

Edward thought he had.

‘But she canna get used to folks’ ways.’  (This was a new point of view to Edward.)  ‘She’m a fox, and she can’t be no other.  And I’d liefer she’d be a fox.’

‘Foxes are very mischievous,’ Edward said mildly.

‘Mischievous!’ Hazel flamed on him like a little thunderstorm.  ‘Mischievous!  And who made ‘em mischievous, I’d like to know?  They didna make themselves.’

‘God made them,’ Edward said simply.

‘What for did He, if He didna like ‘em when they were done?’  (68)

Hazel grows up into beautiful young woman and attracts not one suitor, but two, and these two men represent the complete opposite ends of the spectrum.  Jack Reddin is an older man, voracious in his desires, known to have seduced several of the local women, who becomes obsessed with his need to possess Hazel.  Because of her own wild nature, Hazel finds herself attracted to these dark desires, which causes real problems because in the meantime, the girl has become engaged to the caring and upright local minister, Edward Marston.  Recognizing that Hazel is like a child, Edward is determined to marry her but decides to treat Hazel like a sister until she asks him to do otherwise.  As much as Hazel is grateful for the new life Edward offers her, Reddin’s desire proves irresistible and the path to tragedy is begun.  It’s not hard to guess the ending; I picked up on the foreshadowing only a few pages into the book, but since I didn’t know exactly how Hazel’s actions and circumstances would lead to that point, I wasn’t bored.

What I found really interesting about this novel was how Webb treated Christian theology.  Edward is a minister, so he contemplates his faith a great deal.  Hazel is not Christian, so she often grows bewildered when Edward tries to explain a few of the beliefs of Christianity.  Christian allusions saturate the novel, though in far more subtle ways than, for example, Charlotte Brontë’s constant quoting of Scripture.  In Gone to Earth, Hazel doesn’t believe the Bible is real, but the narrator does; nor does she believe that Christ died for her.  Instead, Hazel is presented as representative of an alternate Christian faith.  This book tentatively suggests that Hazel’s paganism is more Christian (more loving, more forgiving, more righteous) than Christianity itself.

“But when she ran into the night to comfort the little fox, she was living up to her faith as few do; when she gathered flowers and lay in the sun, she was dwelling in a metaphysical atmosphere as vivid as that of the saints; when she recoiled from cruelty, she was trampling evil underfoot, perhaps more surely than those great divines who destroyed one another in their zeal for their Maker.”  (17)

She equates the tyranny of churches over souls to the murderousness of “fox-hunting squires over the creatures they honour with their attention.”  (99)  To Hazel, wild mushrooms are akin to the Lord’s Supper, as are fairy tulips and honey.  Hazel herself is described as a Christ figure: “She, in her inexpressive, childish way, shared with the love-martyr of Galilee the heartrending capacity for imaginative sympathy.  In common with Him and others of her kind, she was not only acquainted with grief, but reviled and rejected.”  (55)

Perhaps one of the reasons Hazel and Edward fail is because he refuses to recognize the truth in her paganism, “resolv[ing] to combat these superstitions and replace them by a sane religion.  He had not yet fathomed the ancient, cruel and mighty power of these exhalations of the soil.”  (71)  But even he, the devout minister, finds that he has more need of God in the wilds, and in the end, Hazel’s actions cause in him a crisis of faith.

And yet, the narrative refutes Hazel’s pagan religion, explaining away all of her signs and symbols.  What are readers supposed to believe?  Is Hazel the representative of God, or is the world God’s and she foreign to it and to Him?

“While she struggled to wrench herself free [to stop the rabbit-killing of reaping], two rabbits bolted, and hell broke loose.  One would not have thought that the great calm evening under its stooping sky, the peaceful, omniscient trees, the grave, contented colours, could have tolerated such hideousness.  The women and children shrieked with the best, and Hazel stood alone – the single representative, in a callous world, of God.  Or was the world His representative, and she something alien, a dissentient voice to be silenced?”  (253)

So Simon, perhaps this will whet your interest.  I truly enjoyed this book, in spite of my initial trepidation – perhaps I even loved it more out of surprise when it turned out not to be a dud after all!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why I read Fifty Shades of Grey

When I was growing up, my dad used to warn me that if I didn't have any knowledge of pop culture, I wouldn't be able to interact with anybody outside my small circle of friends.  It wasn't really that bad - I'm proud to say that I wasn't so sheltered that I couldn't carry on conversations with others in high school and college - but I did have a pretty narrow sphere of interests.  That hasn't much changed.  When you're an academic, you can usually get along instantly with other academics.  Same goes for being Episcopalian, and a classical musician.  And since I started reading classics, I've had countless fabulous discussions about books, sometimes with people I never expected had ever read, say, George Eliot.  On the other hand, not everybody reads the old stuff I enjoy, which is why I also try to keep up with just a few of the current book crazes.  That's why I devoured all of the Twilight books in my high school and early college years.  More recently, I read The Help and all of the Hunger Games books.  And because of them, I've had some great conversations about society and politics, racism and violence.

So when Fifty Shades of Grey made the bestseller list and all the news - and then stayed crazy popular - I wondered why.  I read a few articles on the craze, and I looked up a few feminist bloggers who completely tore it apart, taking it to task for its terribly harmful depiction of gender roles, relationships, and sexuality.  I thought the popularity would die down, but it didn't.  So I decided to try it out, if for no other reason than the fact that I'd be able to carry on an informed conversation about it.  Unwilling to spend any money on it, I requested it through the campus library, and it was my turn with Duke's copy almost seven months later.

Now that I've read Fifty Shades of Grey, I fail to understand its popularity even more than before I'd cracked it open.  It is fanfiction, plain and simple.  Melodramatic, annoyingly angsty, with characters and personalities ripped straight from Twilight with only minimal details changed.  And the sex scenes...  It's all terribly awkward and uncomfortable but, like much of the reasonably literate fanfiction, hard to put down.  I'm not equipped to undertake my own feminist analysis, but suffice it to say, this book has really terrible things to say about women in relationships.  I wouldn't recommend it, and I doubt I'll end up in any conversations about it because all I'd have to say would be vehement criticism.

And yes, I'd be a little embarrassed to admit that I'd read it.  I was mildly embarrassed to have to pick it up from the music library's hold shelf, where countless books on Reformation theology have waited for me.  I was embarrassed when the music librarian helped with my library account - what if she saw that I had it checked out and thought worse of me for it?  She and I are great friends; I saw The Hobbit in theaters with her in January and we intend to see the new Star Trek film together.  Once I had Fifty Shades of Grey in my possession, it stayed at home.  It took me a few days to read, and in that time, I started another book too, because I didn't want to carry Fifty Shades with me to school to read over lunch in the faculty lounge.  It was nice to finish and return it, and my husband, who was a little appalled that I was reading it, was glad to get the book out of the house.

And all this left me wondering: Why do we care what we read publicly?  I'm told that Fifty Shades has had great success as an e-book, with people speculating that this was because people didn't have to make it known they were reading it in public places.  If I'm a reader, shouldn't I feel free to read whatever I want, wherever I want?  What does it say about me that I had this embarrassment over Fifty Shades of Grey?  What does it say about me that I read it at all?  Are there other books I'd be ashamed to be seen with?  If something were a book I'd be ashamed to be seen with, would I normally want to read it at all?  Why do I feel a need to make a public explanation on my blog detailing why I read Fifty Shades when I don't normally make these sorts of disclaimers about the books I read?

I don't have any answers, but if nothing else, Fifty Shades got me thinking.  It's true, my pondering has been far more about reading choices and the potential vulnerability of reading in public instead of about BDSM and sparkly vampires (oops, I mean, millionaire businessmen), but one one level, I do have to commend any book that gets me thinking this much.

What do you think?  Have you read Fifty Shades?  Have you ever been embarrassed to be seen with a book you were reading?  Should we just read whatever we want and not care who sees us?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Baking and Books: Cinnamon Cream Cheese Pie

Despite following all of my husband's instructions exactly as he looked over my shoulder, my first attempt to bake bread two days ago was a bit of a failure.  It didn't rise properly, but we baked it anyway.  The finished loaf is unpleasantly dense, so I may try turning it into bread pudding one of these days.  Today's baking endeavor was a far greater success!  I tried this recipe for Cinnamon Yum Yums, but with several modifications.  I've been dying to learn how to make pie crust for ages, so instead of the complicated homemade phyllo dough, I made a standard pie crust.  Instead of the eight (eight!) tablespoons of butter for the cinnamon crumble topping, I only used one.

The pie turned out fabulously.  It's basically an excuse to eat sweetened cream cheese, and what's not to love about that?  This pie is a totally un-British accompaniment to an enjoyable pop history book (one which I'll post on soon; it's fun but has some pretty significant faults), but together they've made for a lovely afternoon.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Lesson Learned

It’s spring break!  And a badly-needed break as well.  My husband and I have been working really hard all semester and while we can’t actually use spring break as a vacation, it will allow us some time to tackle final papers, reconnect a bit, and recharge.  I intend to try a few local coffee shops and bakeries that I haven’t yet gotten to.

And quite wonderfully, I did get out of town for the beginning of break.  I sing in a women’s barbershop quartet, and after we won our international championship a few years ago, we began being hired to sing shows around the US and Canada.  I just got back from a trip with my quartet out to Chicago, where we sang a show with our dear friends from the chorus there.  It was a lovely trip, and very nice to get away, but I also learned a valuable and unexpected lesson: always bring enough reading material!  I don’t think I’ve ever run out of books before!  But I only brought two, and one (Margaret Powell’s memoir Below Stairs, part of my Downton Abbey-themed reading project) was a much quicker read than I expected, so that plus an extra four hours or so in airports meant that when I landed in Chicago, I only had about seven pages left in my second book.  Thank goodness it held out that long!

I hope I didn’t irritate my quartet when I insisted that, on the way to one of our events, we stop at a bookstore.  I haven’t bought a new book in several years, but I needed something for the trip home, so I was happy when we found a Barnes and Noble, and delighted to find a Signet classic edition of George Eliot’s Silas Marner.  I like Signets because they’re small and cheap, and usually have decent introductions (if somewhat short for my taste).  They don’t have quite so much aesthetic appeal as Penguins or Everymans, but when it comes to value at a bookstore that sells new rather than used books, you can’t beat Signets and they’re my first choice every time.

So the lesson here is to always bring more books than you think you need!  I’m usually so good at estimating, but Mary Webb’s Precious Bane had been rather slow going that I thought it would easily last.  Turns out, it’s only slow if all of your reading time is in short little chunks.  With a sustained couple of hours, I sank right into it and flew along.

Plus now I’m several chapters into my first George Eliot novel (I own Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss but haven’t gotten to them yet) and am loving it.  So far it reads like a cross between Les Miserables and, curiously enough, Webb’s Precious Bane (goodness, even the cover looks like Valjean and Cosette, doesn't it?)