Emma, A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

Emma

As much as I love Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet — and particularly Mr. Darcy — it may very well be, if I am quite honest, that I, myself, have more in common with Emma Woodhouse. Miss Austen’s Emma is — a “spoilt, self-deluded” (The Guardian), “altruistic, but self-absorbed” (Time), controlling, opinionated, and kind (Me) young woman living in a small rural community with her chronically-neurotic, hypochondriac father. I like Emma. And despite her penchant for getting in her own way, or perhaps because of it, I find Emma quite charming.

I feel I must not be alone. “Emma” has ranked in the top five of girl’s names bestowed at Emma Gellerbirth in the United States since 2002. However, that is much more likely to the birth of Emma Geller Green on April 4, 2002, to Ross and Rachel of Friends. But where did they get the name? I ask you. (Friends-o-philes know that Monica chose the name first and Rachel stole it. But Monica must’ve gotten it from Miss Austen!)

As part of HarperCollins’ Austen Project, where modern writers have been tasked with rewriting Jane Austen’s novels, The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith has rewritten Emma. This Emma, A Modern Retelling is the fourth of the Austen Project novels released, but only the second I’ve read. Eligible!, by Curtis Sittenfeld, is most recent and I loved it. In fact, my book club is reading Eligible! on my recommendation this month. Here’s the link to my review of Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

Emma, The Modern Retelling, treads quite softly on Austen’s hallowed ground. Really, all minicooperthat Smith has changed significantly is the century. Emma herself, living alone with her father, is as recognizable as a beloved teddy bear. George Knightley is his same lovable self, though a bit reticent; Harriet Smith, Philip Elton, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill. All is so much the same, one is quite shocked when a MiniCooper appears. Even Emma’s slight of Miss Bates finds a modernish interpretation:

Then there was Miss Bates. Emma felt a sudden tug of conscience and told herself that she must make more of an effort with Miss Bates; she must give her a bit more of her time. It would be easy enough; all she had to do was to call on her now and then – Miss Bates was always in – and give her a present of those violet creams that she liked so much but obviously could no longer afford. Miss Bates, she assumed, divided her life between the violet-cream days – before she was an unsuccessful Lloyd’s Name – and the days in which violet creams were just a distant memory. Lloyd’s Names had suffered in many different ways – being deprived of violet creams was just one way in which financial disaster brought hardship. Poor Miss Bates – and there she was sitting next to James, who was being so kind to her, as he was to everybody, whatever his or her failings.

I enjoyed McCall Smith’s Emma . . . but not as much as I enjoy reading and rereading Miss Austen’s original. Indeed, at the conclusion of the “Modern Retelling,” I wondered what the point of it was? There were no updates to plot, character, setting and even the minor changes to things like occupation and schooling (and a sperm donor in lieu of illegitimacy) did not have any significant impact. In her review for the New York Times, Leah Price said:

Emma bookMcCall Smith’s “Emma,” in contrast, reads like a too literal translation. His reluctance to alter now anachronistic details ­forces him to spend pages explaining why, in an age of universal schooling, Emma would have a governess, and why, at a time when overscheduling afflicts even the erstwhile leisure class, she wouldn’t have a job.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/books/review/emma-a-modern-retelling-by-alexander-mccall-smith.html

Emma, A Modern Retelling, is an easy read, enjoyable. But unlike Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible! which gives Pride & Prejudice a true modernity, McCall Smith’s Emma doesn’t have much point.

For information on the other Austen rewrites: http://www.boroughpress.co.uk/?s=Austen+

MENUMM-sign-Rural-capital-etc

McCall Smith provides several menus from which to choose for your book club.

“Parma ham laid out on a plate with asparagus spears and quails’ eggs” served at Emma’s first memorable dinner party.

Melton Mowbray pies — which is, according Wikipedia, made from “uncured meat, grey in colour when cooked; the meat is chopped, rather than minced. The pie is made with a hand-formed crust, giving the pie a slightly irregular shape after baking. As the pies are baked free-standing, the sides bow outwards, rather than being vertical as with mould-baked pies.” Personally, I would skip those.

The Oak Tree Inn’s blackboard lunch menu of “potted shrimps, steak and kidney pie, sticky toffee pudding.”

And of course, the violet creams, Emma’s gift to Miss Bates. Available for order from Fortnum & Mason or on Amazon. Or if you are a courageous candy-maker, here’s a recipe link: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/violet-creams.

MUSIC

Emma is playing Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies on the piano when George Knightley arrives for a visit with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse describes the music — in one of my favorite lines in the book — as “the sort of thing a spider would play if spiders played the piano.”

She also plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

And Jane Fairfax is, of course, even more of a talented pianist. She is compared to Bach.

MOVIE CASTING

Emma — Felicity Jones might make a fine Emma. Or Emma Watson.

Harriet Smith — Imogene Poots

Jane Fairfax — Scarlett Byrne

George Knightley — Henry Cavill

Philip Elton — Alex Pettyfer

Frank Churchill — Sam Claflin

So there you have it. Read Emma one way or another.

Happy Reading!

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Night Garden, by Carrie Mullins

night garden

Oxycontin, methamphetamine, teen pregnancy, predatory teachers, economic upheaval, poverty. The headlines of tragedy we’ve become far too accustomed to reading. Carrie Mullins tackles them all in her first novel, Night Garden, a literary cry for help for Kentucky’s small towns and their residents being ravaged by drugs.

Marie, Night Garden‘s protagonist, is a high schooler whose brother Shane has been involved with a teacher at the school since he was a sophomore. Shane’s leaving and Marie dreads being at home alone with her middle class parents. The night before Shane’s departure, the two attend a party.

Shane disappeared into the woods up above the fire, left with one of the Owens boys to get high. As soon as he was out of sight, Ms. Anglin put a champ chair beside Marie. She got a beer and some ice out of the cooler then sat down and showed Marie her finger. “So what’s going on with him?” she asked, holding the ice on her finger. “Does he have a girlfriend?”

“I thought you were his girlfriend,” Marie said.

. . .

“I know he’s screwing that Miller girl. Oh God, I love him.” Marie looked down at her hands in her lap, down at the ground, looked at anything except her journalism teacher. “I’m only six years older than him. That’s nothing. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a drip in the bucket.”

You’re a drip, Marie thought.

In Night Garden, ultimately, Marie has had enough and escapes her safe, middle class life to live with Bobo Owens, an exotic, attractive, charmer with a dream of owning his own kayaking business by saving from the proceeds of his family’s meth trafficking and bootlegging. Bobo and Marie set up house and soon, far too soon, Marie finds herself pregnant and Bobo a changed man: paranoid, emaciated, unfaithful, violent, and unsupportive.

According to the cover of Night Garden, author Carrie Mullins grew up and continues to live

Gurney-Norman-Photo-by-Tim-Collins-e1360956757688

Gurney Norman by Tim Collins

in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky. Night Garden is the first novel published by Old Cove Press, a literary publisher based in Lexington, Kentucky, and founded by noted author Gurney Norman and his wife Nyoka Hawkins. http://oldcove.comGurney Norman has been a member of the University of Kentucky Department of English since 1979 and currently serves as the department’s Director of Creative Writing. His first novel Divine Right’s Trip (1971) was published by The Dial Press, Bantam Books, and Pantheon Books of England.

Nyoka was kind enough to help me connect with Carrie for some q&a, food and music talk . . . and of course a recipe or two

Daeandwrite: The food in the Night Garden illustrates the socio-economic divergence between Marie’s family and Bobo’s. Was this a conscious decision?

Carrie: There are definite class and status issues in the book, and food is one way that plays out. The food was also a modern vs. old time divergence that I was thinking about. The food Marie makes for her parents early on – biscuits, sausage, eggs, fruit and coffee – that is kind of old school, and it takes time to make all that, especially the way Marie was making it (biscuits from scratch, she was not even using Bisquick). And then when she takes up with Bobo, it is mostly all convenience food, like we all eat now, pizza and cereal and honeybuns and all that, stuff that is easy to make and easy to eat but not necessarily very good food. With the exceptions of Marie making a cake from a box for Etta’s party, Etta’s actual party where they are working in the kitchen making potato salad and lunch for everyone, and being at Crystal’s house when she makes the casserole, there really isn’t any food that is “made” in their world.

Daeandwrite: Marie bakes a chocolate cake from a mix for Etta’s birthday but yearns for her own grandmother’s version. Do you have a particular memory of a chocolate cake that inspired Marie’s memory? Do you have a recipe you could share?

hershey'sCarrie: My grandma Hattie made the recipe from the side of the Hershey’s Cocoa tin – cake and icing both. She made it in a bundt pan, and she made it for about every get together we had – Memorial Day especially when everyone would come home from Ohio to visit. She made the best chicken and dumplings, fried apple pies, slaw, everything. Even her hamburgers were different and delicious, she sliced up onions and put them right in the hamburger. In fact, all the women in my family, on both sides, were incredible cooks. They’d make a big tableful of food for every get together. I’m like Marie in that I’m pretty nostalgic for all that food and those times together.

Here is the Hershey’s recipe:

 

 

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • CHOCOLATE FUDGE FROSTING (recipe follows)

Directions

  • 1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.
  • 2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of electric mixer 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water. Pour batter into prepared pans.
  • 3. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out almost clean and the top springs back when touched gently. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost with CHOCOLATE FUDGE FROSTING. Makes 12 servings.
  • CHOCOLATE FUDGE FROSTING
  • 3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter or margarine, melted
  • 1 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1. Place melted butter in large mixer bowl. Add cocoa, stirring until smooth.
  • 2. Gradually beat in powdered sugar, milk and vanilla, beating until smooth. If necessary add additional milk, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, beating until spreading consistency. About 3 cups frosting.

https://www.hersheys.com/recipes/en_US/recipes/8421/really-chocolate-chocolate-cake.html

And my Aunt Iris Rose made a chocolate cake from the Settlement Cookbook, (1965), here chocolate cakeis that recipe:

Ingredients

2 cups cake flour

2 cups  sugar

1/8 tsp salt

1/2 cup butter

1 1/4 cup water

squares unsweetened chocolate

eggs – well beaten

1 tsp vanilla

2 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 325

Grease and flour 2 9 inch cake pans

Sift flour, sugar and salt together

Add butter and mix with fingertips or pastry blender to the consistency of corn meal.

Boil water and chocolate. Cool. Add to butter mixture. Beat very well.

Chill thoroughly.

Add eggs, vanilla and baking powder.

Pour mixture equally into pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, until cake tater or fork comes out clean when inserted in center.

https://cookpad.com/us/recipes/340844-chocolate-cake-from-the-settlement-cookbook-1965

Daeandwrite: Did you have music you listened to during the writing or editing process? Any particular genre or songs? Do you have songs you associate with any particular character?

Carrie: I listened to Gillian Welch quite a bit. She has a song “The Way It Goes,” that has the same sort of atmosphere as the book, I think. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiS37_EULj8  And everything by the Drive By Truckers, and Jason Isbell – his album Southeastern especially. The Dixie Chicks, Steve Earle, Gram Parsons and U2 are always on all my playlists. Shelby Lynne and Caroline Herring as well.

Daeandwrite: Why did you feel compelled to put this story on paper? What was it about this particular tale that you wanted to convey?

Carrie: People I cared about in my county, a whole generation it seemed like at one point, were really being devastated by drugs. Starting with oxycodone and then moving on to methamphetamine. I didn’t know how to fix it, but I could write about it. I guess I wanted to make a sort of “record” – fictional but near enough to true, to the time and the people of this time and place and what they were going through.

MENU

For my book club, I would make the breakfast that Marie fixes for her parents in Chapter 3. Homemade biscuits, sausage patties, scrambled eggs. And I would definitely make that Chocolate Cake!

MUSIC

Carrie said she listened to Gillian Welch quite a bit while writing Night Garden. “She has a song “The Way It Goes,” that has the same sort of atmosphere as the book, I think. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiS37_EULj8.” Carrie also suggested Drive By TruckersJason Isbell. The Dixie Chicks, Steve Earle, Gram Parsons, U2, Shelby Lynne and Caroline Herring.

Carrie Mullins will be at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort on November 5 and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October. Night Garden is available at Morris Book Shop, Wild Fig Books & Coffee, Carmichael’s in Louisville, and Amazon. It can also be ordered directly from Old Cove Press by emailing  books@oldcove.com  or by phone 859-361-0533

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

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The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Image

With the grand assurance born of generations of exceptional breeding, Jay Gatsby assures star-struck neighbor that one can, indeed, relive the past. That he, Jay Gatsby, can seduce Daisy Buchanan and spoil her with his ill-gotten gains and marry her, reliving the past and reshaping it to align with his own view of his future.

I went to see Leonardo DiCaprio throw his body and soul into the role of the golden man last Friday, the first day of release for Baz Luhrman’s chaotic carnival of a movie. I loved it. I loved Leonardo’s smile, Carey Mulligan’s languid, limpid expressions, Isla Fisher’s drunken hoyden and Joel Edgerton’s physical and mental meanness. The music — eh. I wasn’t impressed with the “1920’s rap” but the feel of the parties certainly honored Fitzgerald’s writing.

In light of the movie, and perhaps some of the thoughts it gives rise to, I’m updating my earlier review of the book.

I’ve always considered Gatsby to be the great American novel.

If it is the great American novel, what makes it so?

Is it the snapshot of America’s own coming of age, the Roaring Twenties?

It is the purely American, up-by-his-own bootstraps tragic hero whose flaw is his own belief in himself; that American ideal?

Is it the concentration on America’s one true post-Native American, native art form?

My book club’s discussion touched on and argued for each of those distinctions.  And there were a couple of people who believed there was no such thing as the great American novel, or if there were, Gatsby is not it.

I find myself in the other category.  In less than 200 pages, Fitzgerald creates a classic love story, two adulterous relationships, an ill-fated summer fling, a self-made man, a seedy, criminal endeavor and tragedies of failure, loss, death and murder.

Most of all, Fitzgerald created a tragic, optimistically flawed hero, who cannot believe that after all he has done, he will not win.

From Gatsby’s brave pink suit to his glittering palace built to win his one true love, I find the novel more compelling with each read and like Gatsby, end reaching my arms to the green light across the bay for greater understanding, comfort; for the happy ending that won’t come.

My menu suggestions are all champagne based.  Champagne with kiwi rounds (in honor of the green light), champagne-poached chicken breasts (Sorry Myrtle, but I had to go there) on a salad of tender, baby greens with champagne vinaigrette, crackers with carraway seeds (are you seeing a punny pattern?).  And champagne cupcakes …. here’s a recipe:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/champagne-cupcakes-with-italian-buttercream-recipe/index.html.

I found this interesting Salon article: http://www.salon.com/2012/11/08/is_the_great_american_novel_still_relevant/

Perhaps, for me the most compelling image, and one recurring image from the movie that worked perfectly, is that of Jay Gatsby, hand reaching nervously toward the water, toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. His reach, his vision so far beyond his grasp that he doesn’t know how wrong he is.

Circus Circus (and A Menu)

Circus

My sister is having her book club tonight for a discussion of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.  I suggested the book because I loved the images of the black and white circus redolent of exotic spices, magic and mystery.  Despite huge sales of The Night Circus, I guess there are mixed reactions:   my mother said her own book club wasn’t fond of it and my weekly group at the Carnegie Center wasn’t sold on it either.

I admit, the plot is confusing and perhaps the basic love story of two magicians creating a world within a circus as part-competition, part-sacrifice is a bit strange.  But the imagery created by Ms. Morgenstern, possibly due to her years of stage experience, pulled me in and kept me bound to the story.

red scarf

MENU

My sister asked for some help with a black and white menu for her group tonight and this is what I suggested:

Popcorn drizzled with dark chocolate

Bagel chips smeared with cream cheese and topped with black caviar

Steamed white asparagus sprinkled with poppy seeds and lemon juice

Squid ink pasta in alfredo sauce

Chicken breasts wrapped in whole spinach leaves

Black and white cookies (store-bought) for dessert

The only tricky parts of the menu would be the asparagus and chicken.  Trim the asparagus ends first, by holding the end and bending.  Where it snaps naturally leaves you only the tender part of the spear to cook.  You will want to wait to cook them until right before you are ready to serve.  I steam mine in an asparagus steamer for 3 boiling minutes, then turn off the heat and let the asparagus sit for a few more minutes.  Place the spears on a plate, douse with lemon juice and poppy seeds just before you serve them.

On the chicken, use whole skinless, boneless breasts and season with salt and pepper.  Place the breasts on the spinach leaf (or leaves) and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.  Wrap the leaves around the chicken to create a cooking packet and drizzle the exterior with more olive.  Drizzle, don’t drown.  Then place in a pre-heated 375 degree oil.  Cook for 15 minutes per side.

I would also serve hot chocolate with fresh cream and strawberries to give a nod to the Circus followers’ red neckties.

MUSIC

Tears of a Clown, Smoky Robinson

The Show Must Go On, Three Dog Night

Wild Billy’s Circus Story, Bruce Springsteen

Circus, Britney Spears (UGH, I know)

Circus, Tom Waits

and there’s always the cast albums from Pippin and Barnum

MOVIE CASTING

I’d love to see this as a movie.  Caitriona Balfe who is magnificent in Outlander would make a fine Celia.  And I suggest Hugh Dancy as Marco.

Happy Reading!