Archive for the ‘books’ Category

A day at a famous cookery school

cookbook

Cookbook cover, considerably more pristine than my beat-up copy. Image from http://magazine.direct2florist.com

As an engagement gift, my future mother-in-law gave me a copy of The Constance Spry Cookery Book. Constance Spry was well known in New Zealand, both for this book and for her several books on flower arranging. When I moved to England in the early 1960s, I was delighted to discover that I lived quite close to Winkfield Place, the school of cookery and domestic arts founded by Mrs Spry and Rosemary Hume, who was also co-director of the Cordon Bleu School in London. A  hook for a story for my New Zealand paper was that a NZ girl currently attended the school, so I wangled myself an invitation to spend the day. Here’s what resulted:

A day at a famous cookery school

Even at first sight Winkfield Place is charming. It is a large, white country house, set in broad gardens on the edge of Windsor Forest. Inside, all is bustle and activity. About 100 girls are going about their regular classes: cookery, dressmaking, handwork, flower arranging, shorthand and typing, and another 60 local women are attending demonstrations on cookery and flower arranging. The girls normally spend a year at the school, with a few staying on for a fourth term to take the Cordon Bleu diploma, which is recognised all over the world.

The girls, each in shining white overalls and chefs’ caps, cook in classes of 10. From one kitchen came appetizing smells of spaghetti and baked apples. From another, risotto with a potato salad, and a hazel-nut meringue to be served with an apricot sauce. Miss Hume was found in another kitchen busily stirring whipped cream into a creamed rice pudding. A dish of chopped nuts was waiting to be sprinkled on top.

Later in the afternoon, Miss Hume gave a cooking demonstration. Lotte en mayonaise, tourtiere de boeuf, chicken mousse italienne, and chamonix, were the menu for her supper party. Translated, they were a fish mould gaily decorated with gherkins and chopped parsley, a tasty steak pie, a jellied mould of creamed chicken and shredded ham, and a magnificent dessert of meringue topped with a piped “birds nest” of chestnut puree and whipped cream.

Miss Hume is described by Mrs Spry in her book (which is jokingly referred to as “the bible” at Winkfield) as the authority from whom she obtained all the cooking knowledge she had. She is a tall thin woman, with a strong no-nonsense face, a shy smile, and a deft hand with the pastry. Her guiding characteristics are commonsense and a passion for economy: she believes that all food should be treated with respect, and that to waste it is a crime. She has become expert in parrying the comments of the more snobbish of her day class audiences. One woman, for instance, wondered why she did not use fillet steak in her pie, instead of the less expensive, and less tender, rump steak. Her reply was that fillet was too good for this sort of pie, which was a “cut-and-come-again,” and that the recipe called for a cooking time quite adequate to make the rump tender. Her final comment tactfully vanquished the snob. “I for one would be grateful for a piece of this pie,” she said.

The spirit of Mrs Spry lingers throughout the house. Although few of the present students ever met her, many of the staff, who are old girls of the school, recalled her engaging personality. They spoke of the dinner parties she used to hold on the bare scrubbed table of the diploma group’s kitchen, with the candlelight gleaming on the array of copper utensils on the shelf behind. They described with amusement the clutter of treasures in her flat, and the extraordinary leaps of her conversation. “You will remember, dear,” she would whisper confidentially to one of her students, in the middle of a discussion on current affairs, “that you must always clean out the bath when you get out of it, and hang the bathmat up to dry.” Many remembered her beautiful hands, and her great skill with flowers. With it went the ability to encourage her pupils. Mrs Christine Dickie, now co-principal of the school, described how she herself was never very good with flowers. “But Mrs Spry would come in with a great heap of flowers, and say, ‘Do arrange these for me, dear.’ I would struggle with them, but the result always looked a mess, and I would beg her to show me what to do with them. ‘What’s wrong with that, it looks fine,’ she would say, giving the whole bunch a little tug that made it exactly right. Then I would be rather pleased with myself, although I know deep down that she had done it.”

Flower Decoration cover

One of Constance Spry’s books on flower arranging. Image from from amazon.com

Mrs Dickie was with Mrs Spry during the founding and early growing pains of the school. “She had that wonderful gift of delegating authority,” she said. “She would forge ahead with some new project, with her ‘dogsbody’ (that was me) beside her, and when the groundwork was laid, she would say, ‘Now you take over – I have other things to do’.” The result was that at her death a few years ago, the staff, although they missed her very much, found that they could continue almost as if nothing had happened. Mrs Spry made provision for this in her will. She instructed that the existing staff were to run the school for three years. If they succeeded in keeping it going, they would be permitted to continue, but if in that time the school went downhill, it was to be closed immediately.

It says much for Mrs Spry’s groundwork, and for the enthusiasm that she had inspired in her staff, that not only has the school survived, but it has had to expand to cope with the increasing demand. There is now a long waiting list for places, and the day classes, about 60 women each on three days of the week, are filled well ahead of each term.

There have been a few changes in the character of the school, and these are ones that reflect an interesting facet of English society, the decline of the debutante. When the school opened, it was regarded as a finishing school for debutantes, as a place to acquire some skill in the domestic arts before coming out into society. To a certain extent this is still true, although of the 100 girls at present at the school, only four or five are potential debutantes, and the social whirl of a debutante’s life is viewed with some scorn by the staff. The others will take up a great variety of careers. Some will go from the secretarial course to office jobs. Many of the girls in the cookery course will go into institutional kitchens, some into private houses. Some will take up other careers, such as nursing. The really dedicated cooks are to be found in the Cordon Bleu diploma class, practically all of whom want to be free lance professional cooks, and spend many of their odd moments discussing the most suitable kit of kitchen equipment to carry with them, or the prospect of gaining experience among their friends.

There are still some girls who will probably not have to earn their living. For them the course provides a convenient stop-gap between school and adult life, in a place where they can learn to grow up pleasantly and happily, while at the same time providing themselves with a form of insurance in case they do have to keep themselves. For them it is also a safeguard against the increasing difficulty of finding domestic staff. Coming from homes where all the housework is done by servants, they realise that for themselves it may be a choice between the cooking and the dusting. The girls who attend Winkfield have plumped for the cooking.

Westernesse in the rain

Back of Inis Mor

An Aran Island scene on a sunnier day. This aerial photograph by Aongus O’ Flaherty is from http://www.aerarannislands.ie

My first glimpse of the British Isles was the Aran Islands, at the mouth of Galway Bay, where our trans-Atlantic ship stood off to land a few passengers. It was an emotional moment. The destination of our long sea journey at last become visible.  Vague romantic dreams faced with reality. I was shocked by the bareness and bleakness of the landscape. Heavy rain was falling, and wind lashed waves onto the shore. The bare rock of the grayish white hills (karst limestone, I later learned) was dotted with tiny scraps of green that glowed brightly in the rain-sodden air. A few white cottages of plain design: four walls and a pitched roof, a door in the middle and small windows at each side.

In notes written at the time, I tried to capture my sense of the place:

Centuries old, yet timeless. Feeling of age and solidity of a way of life that has gone on for centuries – the grimness of it, the few rewards. Can imagine the people to be tough and dour. Weather-beaten faces of seamen who brought the tender out to pick up passengers. No-nonsense faces, with a wry sense of humour.

tolkien books

The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its original format as published by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. in the mid-1950s.

From halfway across the world, the reality of the British Isles was also mixed with romantic fantasy. Before we left New Zealand, copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the device on its cover of Sauron’s eye within the Ring, surrounded by Elvish script, were passing from hand to hand among our friends.  As I looked across the sea to this westernmost part of Ireland, I couldn’t help thinking of Tolkien’s Westernesse, the place to which the fairy people set out when life on Middle Earth became impossible for them.

The curtain of rain swept down again. The ship moved on, headed for Southampton, the end of our journey and the beginning of our new life.

 

Maureen is exploring the contents of an old black filing cabinet in her attic, which contains 55 years of her writing notes

 

My new poetry collection

Earthward cover

Cover image by Tony Eppstein

I am excited to announce that Finishing Line Press is now taking pre-publication orders  for my new poetry collection, Earthward. It can be ordered now and will be printed and shipped in October. You can order online from the publisher at https://finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?cPath=4&products_id=2129

The cost is $14 plus $2.99 shipping. The publisher bases the size of the print run on how many pre-publication orders they receive, so I hope you’ll consider adding to my tally. Please feel free to suggest this book to others you think might be interested too.

The poems in Earthward explore the cyclical patterns of life. Here is a sample poem:

Osprey With Fish

Undercarriage of leg and talon

joins two bodies similar

in sleekness,

twinned

as life and death conjoin

in a continuum

of nourishment.

Huge wings slow over forest,

a fading cry.

 

I’ve been honored to receive reviews from poets I admire:

With a naturalist’s eye for the precise and sensuous image and a writer’s care for the precise and sensuous word, Maureen Eppstein plants our human griefs into this book, roots them, and invites them to quicken into new life.

—Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief

What captivates me about Earthward is the way Maureen Eppstein transforms ordinary landscapes into miraculous acts of affirmation. Turning compost becomes an opportunity to ponder death and resurrection, braiding garlic reminds us of the “pleasure taken in braiding the hair of the beloved”.  This is poetry of quiet lyrical depth, that reconnects us with land and spirit. Earthward invites us to stand deeply rooted in each moment, “in awe and wild surmise at all this human brain can not yet comprehend.”

—Devreaux Baker, author of Red Willow People

 In Earthward, Maureen Eppstein unites what would break us with what will bring us back to life. The wild ones, like us, must eat, and so kill.  Lost sisters are mourned by proxy.  Some things we love are transplanted and transplanted again, surviving and sometimes thriving. The tenacity Eppstein describes is the foundation of our lives.  There are those who say that to write about the extraordinary one must look lovingly at the ordinary.  Eppstein knows where, and how, to look.

—Camille T. Dungy, author of Smith Blue

Here’s a brief bio:

Maureen Eppstein is the author of two previous poetry collection: Rogue Wave at Glass Beach (2009) and Quickening (2007), both published by March Street Press. Quickening was also first runner-up in the 2007 Finishing Line Press/ New Women’s Voices competition. She has been a finalist in several other book contests. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poecology, Calyx, Basalt, Written River, Sand Hill Review, and Aesthetica 2014,  and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Crossing the boundary between the arts and the sciences, her poems have been included in a textbook on computer graphics and geometric modeling and used in a university-level geology course.

Josh Weil novel launched

I’m so proud of young novelist Josh Weil, whom Mendocino Coast Writers Conference picked as a rising star and invited to be on faculty at our 2013 conference. Here’s news from Josh worth sharing:

Dear Friends,
I’ve got a bunch of news to share with you—the first reviews of The Great Glass Sea, a just-released long-list for a literary prize, the most incredible first-edition program I’ve ever seen, my complete book tour schedule—but there are two reasons, above all else, that this issue of The Gazette is a pretty special edition.

First, The Great Glass Sea is, as of tomorrow, officially out in the world.  Here I am with the very first copies I got to hold in my hands:
I hope you get to hold one soon, too.  In part, because the folks at Grove Atlantic have simply created such a beautiful book, with rough-cut pages and my drawings for endpapers and illustrations at the start of each chapter — the kind of object that reminds me why ebooks will never totally replace the real thing:
But mostly I’m hoping to share the book with you because it means so much to me.  It feels like a part of me, as if I’m sending a child of mine out into the world.  After all, I’ve nurtured it for five years, now.  And I’ve worked harder on it than I’ve worked on anything in my entire life.  It’s been all consuming.  It’s taken everything I had as writer.  And it would mean the world to me if you might take a look at it now.
You can get ahold of your own copy here: IndieboundPowell’sBarnes & Noble  or even Amazon (though please support your local bookstore if you can!).
Or you can pick one up at one of the many readings I’m doing over the summer.  There’s a good chance I’ll be coming somewhere near you on my cross-country (and across again) tour.  Click here for the full schedule. I would love so much to see you, say hi, catch up, or simply sign a copy.
The pre-publicaton reviews have been all I could have hoped for:
“[An] impressive debut…As broad as its themes are—touching on political, philosophical and historical divisions—Weil’s first novel is rooted in family and fine storytelling; it’s an engaging, highly satisfying tale blessed by sensitivity and a gifted imagination.

“A tale of longing and sadness, threaded by Russian folklore and heavy with the weight of love…resplendent and incandescent.”

“A well-timed dystopian tale, the novel beautifully details both the politics of [an] hypothetical Russia—“oligarchs bred beneath the clamp of communism let loose upon loot-fueled dreams”—and its impact on one small family.” 

And the first newspaper review (out even before the official publication date!) was even better:

“If complex literary novels really are done for, Josh Weil must’ve missed the text message. His formidable “The Great Glass Sea” knits together strands of traditional Slavic folklore and futuristic speculative fiction to create a passionate reflection on technology and personal happiness. Spanning almost 500 pages, the novel poses mind-bending questions about politics, ecology and the ambivalent closeness of siblings…Weil pulls off dazzling strokes of storytelling…His distinctive voice obliges readers to slow down and swish certain passages around before swallowing…While keeping the sophisticated themes afloat (science vs. nature, the state vs. the individual, family obligation vs. ambition), almost every page flows with respect for the flawed, endearing heroes, Dima and Yarik. Pushing the envelope on literary artistry even further, each chapter begins with a pen-and-ink illustration by the author….A genre-bending epic steeped in archetypal stories, “The Great Glass Sea,” rises above the usual Cain-and-Abel formula by way of sensitive, resourceful craftsmanship.” 
But you know what might be the most exciting thing that’s happened yet?  This:
Powell’s, the great independent bookstore in Portland, OR, selected The Great Glass Sea for its amazing Indiespensable program: a specially designed slipcase, a signed copy of the novel, a booklet of an extensive interview with me, and other crazy-cool extras.
Although, this was pretty cool, too: Just last week I got word that The Great Glass Sea has been long-listed (along with about 20 other terrific novels) for The Center of Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.  No matter what happens from here on out, it’s an honor to be up there with such great debuts by authors I admire so much.
And, in case you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s a chance for you to check it out yourself: an excerpt from the novel over at Guernica and an extract from the book online in Granta.
And if you’re wondering why the heck I wrote this book about Russia (of all things!), just yesterday, The New York Times Magazine ran my essay—Looking for the Russia I Once Knew—about, well, exactly that.
And in really non-book-related news, here’s the second reason this gazette is special:
Yup, Jen’s pregnant.  With a boy.

Although maybe that is book-related after all:
And, heck, while we’re at it let’s make it three babies.  Since it happens to be my birthday today.  Here’s me 38 years ago:

And here’s me, now, signing off and saying thank you, again, for continuing to care about what that tyke’s grown up to love, what the writer he became now does, these words on a page that I am so lucky to be able to share with you.

Much warmth and thanks,
Josh

Given Time

Helen Bigelow book coverGiven Time: Living Our Last Months Together by Helen Park Bigelow, which I’ve just finished reading, is an unflinching look at the emotional and physical landscape a care-giving spouse or partner must traverse in those last months before death. Helen’s husband Ed had a melanoma removed in 2005. The surgery seemed successful, and regular follow-up tests and scans at first came out clear. But three years later the melanoma returned and metastasized throughout his body.

To offer a flavor of the book, I can’t do better than to quote the blurb by Fithian Press, the book’s publisher: “The book deals honestly with the process of dying, an ordeal shared by both of them. It also deals with the process of staying alive and in love until the ordeal is over… [Bigelow] writes with brutal honesty about her anger and grief over what has become of her husband and herself. The book isn’t a manual about how to take care of a dying man, but it makes the reader well aware of what a grueling job it is. “So this is it,” she writes. ‘This chemo routine is the rest of our lives together…and goddamn it, it’s going to be as good for both of us as I can make it.’ ”

Reading this book set me to thinking about my husband’s and my circle of friends. We’re all of an age where we’re facing mortality, both our own and our partners’. Physical infirmities creep up on us. Memories start to fail. The mechanisms of the heart become clogged. I know we’ll all do what we have to do, to the best of our abilities, when loved ones need our care, and that, if we are the ones whose lives are ending, we hope to have someone as caring as Helen to tend our passage. I’m grateful that services such as hospice are available. Most of all, I am inspired by Helen’s love of beauty to seek it out in my own life. Whether my time is counted in decades or years or even months, I want every day to be touched by grace.

Texts

Searoad, a story collection by Ursula K. LeGuin, has a permanent place on my bedside table. It’s there because every now and then I need to reread a certain story. A very short story, less than three pages, it is titled “Texts,” and tells of an older woman who, bombarded by messages and calls to action, retreats to the coastal Oregon village of Klatsand for a month-long winter break. As she walks on the deserted beach, she notices that the waves have left messages in the lines of foam, messages she can almost decipher. The laciness of the foam leads her to speculate that crochet work and lace might also be legible. In a handmade lace collar she reads a message that seems directed to her: “my soul must go, my soul must go … sister, sister, light the light.” There the story ends, with the woman not knowing “what she was to do, or how she was to do it.”

I think of this oddly moving little story every time I walk on Ten Mile Beach, as I did last Sunday. The receding waves left undulating lines of bubbles, iridescent in the hazy sunlight, that popped to form patterns of foam. Scattered across the beach were strands of bull kelp, dried into coils and loops that lay like a cursive script on the sand.

Yesterday, when the wind was brisk and the sea streaked with white caps, I remembered an interview I did for the Mendocino Art Center magazine. It was part of a series I wrote on artists who helped found the art center in the 1960s. By the time I met Jim Bertram in the early 2000s, he was senile and nonverbal, so I had to rely on material in the art center archives for information about his background and artistic vision. Nevertheless, Jim and I spent a wonderful afternoon together. I think a poem I wrote at the time sums it up:

MESSAGES

For JB

 “Line expresses the inner thought. It is a narrative of what we really want to tell each other but somehow can’t seem to verbalize.”

– Jim Bertram

 These bright spring days, when the wind

scribbles its white calligraphy

on a wash of aquamarine,

I think of the artist in his studio

upstairs of a weathered storefront

overlooking Mendocino Bay.

Sheet after curling sheet he showed me, canvas

after canvas, covered with calligraphic forms

that could have been words, but were not.

 

In our shared silence I understood his drift:

how sometimes what matters most is inarticulate:

like the line of spray from a lifting wave,

the hand of an old man painting messages of love.

 

On my way downstairs from Jim’s studio, I fell in love with one of his paintings, which now has a place of honor in my house. I smile when I read its message.

Bertram painting

Jim Bertram: Untitled, acrylic on canvas. Eppstein collection

A Lifetime of Friendship

“I have not written these poems, nor even read them; this is a spoken book,” declares my friend Diana Neutze on the back cover of her latest collection, AGAINST ALL ODDS. The title refers not just to her illness—she has battled Multiple Sclerosis for well over forty years—but to the difficulties inherent in transforming poems from her mind to the printed page. As MS closed down her body, she progressed from longhand, to one finger on the computer, to voice recognition. “But now I dictate to Gabrielle, my editing carer. Even the editing has been done by voice, backwards and forwards in the air.”

I was privileged to receive a copy of this handsome limited edition. Written over the past three years, the poems chronicle the poet’s recognition that her death is imminent and her determination to live each remaining day in the beauty of the moment. The poems are rich with images such as: …a tangle of branches/ peremptory against a crystal sky. She asks:

If I died tomorrow, what would

happen to the poems in my head?

Christchurch, New Zealand, where Diana lives, has suffered a series of devastating earthquakes and aftershocks that figure in many of the poems. In “Elsewhere” she writes:

…the earth where I thought

to lay my final bones

is writhing like a wounded snake.

The earthquake draws her mind outward to share a communal grief:

I mourn for the lost, the mained, the dead.

I mourn for our grieving city.

The experience of working with composer Anthony Ritchie on a song sycle of her poems draws her to a new awareness of the importance of people in her life. The final poem in the book reworks “Goodbye,” the final poem in the song cycle. Keeping the opening lines:  If this day were to be/ my last …,  she traces the trajectory of her preparations for death, from spiritual and inward-looking to a recognition of a fear in which …I relegated/ my friends to the outer suburbs. The poem ends:

If tonight were to be my very last,

I would be desolate

at leaving behind

a lifetime of friends.

I have been friends with Diana since our freshman year at the University of Canterbury, fifty-four years ago, where we met in English Literature class. During school breaks we worked as kitchen hands at the same remote fishing camp. We lived next-door to each other as young marrieds, and shared survival tips as penniless expatriate parents of small children in London. Over the years and across the globe we have stayed in touch, supporting each other as best we could in times of grief, commenting on each other’s poems, occasionally visiting. I honor this lifetime of friendship as I read AGAINST ALL ODDS.

Season Words

A small group meets at my house once a month to talk about poetry. We take turns to choose the topic and lead the discussion. Yesterday’s topic was haiku, a classic Japanese form. We considered the arguments about Robert Hass’s poems in recent issues of Poetry, and agreed that the small fragments quoted have to be considered in the context of the whole poem. They should not be thought of as haiku. We read translations, by Hass, Jane Hirshfield and others, of the great Japanese masters. We pondered Gary Snyder’s comment:  “I do not think we should even ‘think’ haiku in other languages and cultures. We should think brief, or short poems. [Haiku] has elements that can indeed be developed in the poetries of other languages and cultures, but not by slavish imitation. To get haiku into other languages, get to the ‘heart’ of haiku, which has something to do with Zen practice and with practiced observation—not mere counting of syllables.” We read some of Snyder’s haiku-like fragments and some of Hirshfield’s “Pebbles,” her tiny poems that she describes thus:  “A pebble … is seemingly simple, but also a bit recalcitrant: it isn’t quite completely present until it has been finished inside the reader’s reaction.”

We also talked about some of the rules of classical Japanese haiku: the “turning” that often occurs, from outward observation to inside the poet’s mind, and the use of kigo, words or phrases associated with a particular season. We decided it would be fun to come up with a set of season words that would fit the environment of the Mendocino Coast. Here’s the start of our list. We’d welcome additions.

Whales swimming south

Whales swimming north with calves

Blennosperma spreading gold over Glass Beach Headlands

Aaron’s Book Club

My grandson Aaron, visiting for the weekend, tells me about the book club that he and his fifth-grade friends have started at their school. Aaron’s teacher came up with the idea, because Aaron and his friend Alexandra were such fast readers.  They started out reading The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis (the first Narnia book), then met with their teacher, Mrs. Lara, at lunchtime a few weeks later to talk about the book. Alexandra picked the next book, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Next up will be Aaron’s choice, which is The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. So now Aaron and his Mom are on their way to Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino to get the book.

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