About Rosemary Wolfe, NoChargeBookbunch

Avid reader; published writer; itinerant walker; experimental cook...

We Are All Baking in Quarantine

On my latest dangerous mission to my local grocery store, armed with a face mask and rubber gloves, I was expecting some empty shelves, but not devoid of flour and sugar, and even vanilla extract.  The only item left was a large bag of confectioner’s sugar, and, of course, I grabbed it.  The fresh greens were surrounded by ladies not practicing safe social distance, so I took the celery on the aisle and quickly wheeled over to the frozen foods, thinking frozen vegetables might be a good alternative.

No crowds surrounded the frozen bins because they were empty. Only a sad looking package of chopped cauliflower sat alone inside.  Of course, I took it.

What else could I not find?  My favorite mozzarella cheese sticks and chocolate fudge bars – then I stopped looking, not able to bear further disappointment.

Last night I happened to hear Ina Garten, known as the Barefoot Contessa, talking from her home kitchen with a PBS interviewer.  She opened a stocked freezer with homemade chicken stock, tomato sauce, cookie dough, and more, as she explained she usually tried not to go into her stash.  She offered her solution to ingredients not available or not worth the trip to the store these days:  Substitute ginger for garlic, onion for scallions; be creative and you might start a new dish you like better than the old.  I don’t think Ina would advocate reversing the order and substituting garlic, of which I seem to have an abundance, for ginger in my cupcakes, but maybe it would be worth a try.

The interview inspired me to find her cookbooks on my shelf, and have hope that confectioner’s sugar could substitute for granulated sugar. (It can.)

You can see the interview here.  

And read about how her Instagram page is saving the sanity of many erstwhile cooks in an Atlantic article – Ina Gartens’s Quarantine Playbook

And read my review for How Easy Is That?    It has a recipe for my bag of cauliflower.

The Splendid and the Vile

I am reading Eric Larson’s brilliant book – The Splendid and the Vile – in small doses; Larsen’s writing makes it easy with short chapters and a conversational style to this nonfiction.   I am turning to Churchill to get me through the increasing count of the infected and the anxiety of sheltering in place.  I need Churchill to calm me and reassure me with his mastery of words and ideals, when the leadership of my own country fails to do so.  I hope if I read through the book slowly, the crisis would be over by the time I finish.  It is not working; I may have to read the book again.

I haven’t felt much like reading, writing, thinking – getting out of bed? – lately, but Churchill is an inspiration.  As Larsen documents the year before the Americans finally joined the war, he includes Churchill’s daily routine as well as his preparation for his decisions and his motivational speeches.  Churchill’s life and personality are so well intertwined with his decision-making, the whole picture of the man creates confidence and admiration – no wonder Goebel banned Churchill’s speeches from German radio.

Susan MacNeil, author of one of my favorite fictionalized Churchill books – Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first book in the Maggie Hope mystery series, notes from her research;

“Despite the alcohol, despite the naps, despite the baths, Winston Churchill was a work horse.   All accounts have him rising at eight, reading newspapers and attending to paperwork all morning from bed, taking the first bath of the day, then meetings and dictation, then luncheon. After lunch, a nap, then writing, second bath, dinner, and work often long, long past midnight. It was in this way that he was able to “… press a day and a half’s work into one,” as he’s quoted saying…a tenacious attitude…{with} an interesting balance — long hours of work, true, but balanced by rest and meals.”

In Larsen’s accounting, he notes famous decisions as well as behind the scenes dramas:   Larson draws from the diaries of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and notes from their daughter to fill out private conversations at dinner meetings and with his staff; he notes the radio address with Churchill refusing to remove his cigar from his mouth as he speaks.  His close advisors’ personalities show through as Larson references their anxieties in letters and notes.  

I am still reading and I am still sheltering in place.  The book is a comfort in a strange way – if the world could come together before, surely it could do it again.  

As a regular subscriber to Robin Sloan’s (author of Sourdough) newsletter, I appreciated his sign off on his most recent email:

As you might have heard, the Federal Reserve recently released one (1) emergency Churchill quote to every American writer, a significant injection of liquidity and bombast.  I will use mine immediately:

Now, this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Here is my Churchill quote or rather a famous phrase attributed to Churchill:   “KPOKeep Plodding On.”   Churchill modeled how important it is to take care of yourself; then, back at it – every single day until it’s over.

So, KPO, everyone, and hopefully when this war is over, as Queen Elizabeth promised, …”we will meet again.”
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Saramago’s “Blindness” – How People React to Disaster

Why would I look for fiction about a pandemic?  Seeking literary meaning in a world of apocalyptic possibilities, I found Jill Lapore’s article for the New Yorker – What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About

(the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human),

listing so many choices for fiction from the fourteenth century Decameron to Camus’s The Plague.  Mary Frankenstein wrote a story scarier than Frankenstein in The Last Man, imagining the extinction of the human race by a global pandemic, but the most appealing was Jose Saramago’s Blindness.

I knew Saramago from his slim but powerful volume, The Elephant’s Journey, a book I had picked up in a bookstore years ago for its appearance – small and thin, easy to slide into my travel bag – not knowing the weight of its message. Although the author wrote over two hundred books and won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I had never looked for more of his stories.  Now here was Blindness, a book about a pandemic striking its victims blind – not a cheery topic in this real time of global infection promising an end to the world as we know it.  Wisely rebuffed by my friends for a Zoom book discussion, the book was hauntingly appealing to me for its relevance. I decided to read it.

From the first Saramago drew me into a tense and wary scene.  This man who never wore glasses and was in perfect health had stopped at a red light while driving, blinked, and suddenly was blind – seeing not a black void but a white impenetrable denseness.  Because the author never uses quotation marks in the running dialogue, the action seems more intense. The newly blind man’s thoughts are interspersed with his conversation with others – his rescuer, his wife, the doctor.  Amazingly, this style never confuses the reader; rather magnifies the characters’ feelings and invites the reader into the story.  I felt I could shout out warnings and be heard as I read, as one by one the blindness spreads from the good Samaritan who helps the first blind man home and then steals his car to the ophthalmologist the man consults and to everyone in the waiting room.

As more and more are afflicted, noone is named.  The reader can identify them as the Doctor, the Doctor’s wife, the woman with the sunglasses, the man with the black patch, the dog of tears.  The government decides to isolate the initial group in an empty mental hospital, treating them minimally with boxes of food twice a day.  The conditions are horrific, but only one person can see it – the wife of the ophthalmologist who feigned blindness to be with her husband.  The conditions get worse as more blind are afflicted and packed into quarantine, and outsiders become more fearful.

The story inside escalates to a war between those first blind and those newly blind.  Food becomes more precious than gold, and sanitation is abandoned to squalor as the toilets break down with no one to repair them.  The newly blind find a way to keep the others from going out to the courtyard to retrieve the boxes of food dropped by the soldiers before they run in fear of contamination.  The leader has a gun and at first, this group demands payment for food by rings, bracelets, watch fobs – anything of value; when this runs out, they demand payment in women.

The wife of the doctor, hiding her ability to see, sneaks in during one of these rape scenes, and using her sewing scissors stabs the leader in the neck, killing him.  More riots follow, but as the first group runs into the courtyard to plea for help from the armed soldiers, they realize they have been deserted.  They escape into the city to discover everyone has gone blind, some wandering the streets in small hordes looking for food.

In 2010 Myla Goldberg wrote in a review for NPR:

Saramago describes disaster’s potential to bring out both the best and worst of people, from the misguided actions of the city government, to the clear-headed ministrations of a blinded doctor and the bravery of his sighted wife…Saramago tackles all of human nature — love, loyalty, fear, jealousy, bravery, heroism, cowardice, violence, happiness, disappointment — it’s all in there,

Moments of brutality scrape against acts of kindness throughout.  Although this is a dark story, elements of humor and adventure puncture the misery – even a love story surfaces.  The ending is a happy and hopeful one but not without irony.

 

 

 

Lingering Library Books When You Are Not Sure How Long the Library Will Remain Closed

Library books don’t always make my cut. Lately, I had been discarding some after a few pages, but since the reopening of the library here is an unknown, I’ve given the books I checked out before the library closed a second look and determinedly read them. Here are three books I probably would not have finished if I were not sheltering in place, but they did pass the time.

 

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

A slow slog through a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is dying did not, at first, capture my interest; however, as I forced myself to continue into the saga, I found a strange connection to current repulsive men who are celebrated for their egregious lives. Vincent is a power-hungry real estate developer who cheats on his wife and sexually abuses her and others, including his daughter-in-law. As he gets richer, the misery he causes gets worse.  The author calls him a “bad man,” an understatement, whose wife has stuck by him through it all.

Through a day as he lay dying in the hospital, Atttenberg explores Victor’s influence on the lives of his wife and now grown children.  Each has a story increasingly miserable, and the book ends with Vincent’s body unceremoniously thrown into a common grave, as the others move on, their lives forever marked by him.  Not a happy story, and probably not one I would have read, but it does give insight into how the abused cope, sometimes surviving and sometimes even thriving.

 

Little by Edward Carey

As I read this book, published in 2018, I was sure I had read it before. Although  I had  no evidence, the story kept being familiar. I finally found the title in a list of library books I published in December, 2018, but no review.

The opening introduces the narrator, Anne Marie Grosholtz — known as Little for her small stature.  The book includes black and white illustrations throughout and the first is of Marie’s mother’s strong nose and her father’s upturned chin, combined not as attractively into their young daughter.  Both die when she is six years old, and little Marie is sent to live as an apprentice to Curtius, a gruff sculpturor who creates Marie’s face in wax.

Carey continues with the narrator’s description of their lives in Paris, creating wax heads of famous nobleman and dressing them in the period attire to display in the window.  Marie continues her story as she grows into Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution.

I skipped through some of the more vivid descriptions of the war; Carey mingles history with the growth and popularity of Tussaud as she uses decapitated heads for her models.  She eventually lands in prison awaiting the dreaded guillotine but regains her freedom and the story ends with an eighty-nine year Marie in business in London.

The historical facts are grim and Tussaud’s life is a sad one.  I probably returned this book to the library the first time unfinished.

 

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

When the book was described in a review as a coming of age novel about Zelda, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, I decided to research exactly what the term means.  Zelda had alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, causing learning and behavior problems, including difficulties with memory or attention, and impulse control and judgment – the reason she could not be responsible for herself at twenty-one, and lived with her brother. Although I did not read the extensive research available, I understood the premise and started to read this young adult novel, written in the voice of a girl whose life and mind at first seem limited and juvenile.

I stopped not long after, not because I’m a prude, but sex started to pervade the story; the foul language and double entendres were irritating and distracting from Zelda’s quest for independence. I made it through to the end as Zelda conquers her fears, becomes self-assured and independent, despite her difficult beginning.

The title refers to Zelda’s obsession with Vikings and her need to have structure and rules  to cope.  Her bible is a book by a retired professor outlining the history and culture of the Vikings, and she uses it to organize her life and to make life-altering decisions. Sadly, the insertion of sexual language and actions, many of which Zelda did not always seem to understand, seemed exploitive and did not add to the story.

 

Only one library book left before I delve into my own stash.   I have high expectations for Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea.  Have you read it yet?

 

The Sky is Falling on Two Percent

Ron Charles recently wrote in his Washington Post Book Club column – “Tom Perotta’s ‘The Leftovers’ might become U.S. policy,” reminding me of the 2011 novel about an apocalypse with two percent of the world’s population vanishing.

Charles points out the U.S. President has proposed tolerating the death of just one or two percent of us, as he urges the country to go back to work – Trump said: “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents…”

Perotta frames his story around the 98 percent who are left.  Two percent doesn’t seem so large a number; Emily St. John Mandel’s  “Station Eleven”  imagines that a flu kills off 99 percent of the world’s population. Yet, who would volunteer to be one of the millions who are sacrificed for the good of the economy in an election year?

I looked back to my review of The Leftovers in 2011 and am posting it here.  Chilling how fiction mirrors real life.

Review of The Leftovers