Monday, 16 December 2013

Tiny Books #2 - The Story of Little Black Sambo, Helen Bannerman

Who had this book? Thinking back, as a child this was a book everyone knew. Most people I knew who had books had a copy of this. By the time I had my own children, it had been banned on racist grounds. Relatively recently though, I've seen new paperback copies of it in odd bookstores, so along with Noddy, golliwogs, and numerous other books and toys that got banished from children's lives due to political correctness, it appears to have been reinstated!

This is my original copy, inscribed on the front end papers in my mother's beautiful handwriting. It was originally published by Chatto and Windus in 1899, with constant reprints, including this edition in 1966 - there were even editions printed during both world wars.

The story is about a little boy, Black Sambo, who lives with his mother and father, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo. Black Mumbo makes Black Sambo and glorious jacket and pair of trousers, and Black Jumbo buys him an umbrella and a pair of shoes from the bazaar. He goes in his new clothes for a walk in the jungle and meets a series of tigers who, one by one, take an item of clothing in exchange for not eating him. Left with nothing but his loincloth, Sambo is miserable, and then, frightened when he hears fierce growling. Carefully sneaking up, he comes across the four tigers all fighting about which of them - each with an item from Sambo's wardrobe - is the most grand. They take all the clothes off and start fighting and then it gets to the truly weird part of the story - they end up in a ring around a tree, holding each other's tails in their mouths, going round and round until they melt and turn into ghee, which Sambo then takes home for his mother to cook with! Sambo gets his clothes back too...

It's a strange little story, but I remember loving it as a kid. Eighteen found it when we were unpacking books after our latest move - he thought it was hilarious. My edition is a much loved, battered hardcover, 10cm x 13cm.

I've got mail!

You've Got Mail, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, is one of my all time favourite movies. At the time it came out, I was living next door to a cool guy who became one of my very good buddies, and because he worked shifts, and I was coming and going at all sorts or random times between kids, art school and work, we caught up with each other by leaving notes on each other's doors. So when this movie came out, WE went out on a kind of a date - although, it was a buddy date more than anything, and we've continued to have those when we meet up - which is less often now two states away!

ANYWAY. Today, I GOT MAIL. I got VERY cool mail. I got a book. Not just any book. I got THIS book:
This less than wonderful image was taken in my study, with my iPhone in poor light. THIS image I got from Google Images, via Goodreads - cos my mate Jack, after much hassling, got his steampunk stories into an actual book. Which you can go BUY on Amazon.
These stories are the best fun. Seriously. Yes, Jack's a mate of mine, and regulars on my blog will have seen his comments on various posts, but, as I said to him when I reviewed the first of these stories ages ago (in this post, which remains firmly fixed on the No.1 top spot for most popular post on my blog, EVER), I didn't review the story because he's my mate. I reviewed it because it was a cracking good story.

Here's a link to Jack's website, where you can get some background on the stories -
Beyond the Rails

So, if you need something for that hard to get person - get online, go to Amazon, and BUY THIS BOOK. 



Oh...and yrs truly gets a wee mention - but you have go HERE to BUY the book to find out where... 

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Tenth Song - Naomi Ragen

I picked this novel up at Gold's in Bondi when I went to replace my copy of Jephte's Daughter, which I'd given to my BFF. I'm still catching up on Ragen's novels - and there's a new one out published in October this year that I must track down, The Sisters Weiss.
The Tenth Song is the story of a family in crisis, exploring the dynamics of love and loyalty within the family, and also looking at how loyalties and trust can be stretched in a network of extended family and friends. Adam Samuels is a highly successful accountant, with a healthy list of high rolling clients, a beautiful house in a prime area of Boston, three children forging ahead with their lives with his generous financial assistance, and a wife, Abigail, who loves him as much now as she did the first day she met him. He and Abigail are observant Orthodox Jews, well respected and liked in their congregation, and enjoying a busy life of work, socialising with friends, and regular get togethers with their family for Shabbat and holidays. The story opens with Abigail immersed in the planning for the engagement party of their youngest, spoiled daughter Kayla, a Harvard law student, engaged to Seth - another law student. She is busy and pleasantly stressed by the party (Kayla is capricious and can be difficult) but is conscious at the same time of how very good her life is. She is still teaching English in high school and loving it, she enjoys her lovely house and gardens, and as long as the party happens according to Kayla's expectations, she knows that it will be yet another memorable occasion to add to the family annals and photographs. She is completely unprepared for the disaster that is about to shatter her world, and that of her children.

At the caterers, a family business she's been using for many years, she is disconcerted to find the staff evasively offering her their sympathies. She has no idea what they're talking about until they swing their computer screen around for her to read the breaking news that Adam has been arrested for funding terrorist organisations.

Meanwhile, Adam has been taken by the FBI for questioning, and has had his secretary call Abigail and his lawyer so they can both meet him at the court for the arraignment. He is in shock, disbelief and in complete ignorance of how the charge has come about. Fortunately, he is released on bail and is permitted to go home. Meanwhile, Kayla, who is supposed to me meeting Seth is still waiting for him - he's never late. When he doesn't return her calls, she heads to his dorm to find out why - to be greeted with the news of her father's arrest, and Seth's unexpected coolness and distance. Rebuffed and furious, she leaves him there after questioning his loyalty and apparent lack of support. The two out of town children - seven months pregnant Shoshana (whose husband, like Seth, distances himself and doesn't come) and Josh, with wife Deirdre, have arrived from interstate in support, and the story begins to emerge. A hedge fund that Adam's company had invested in has turned out to be a front for Al Qaeda and other organisations, so well covered up that Adam's due diligence failed to detect the link. The evening is a mix of emotions - the three grown up kids fighting, Abigail upset and placating, Adam exhausted, still traumatised by his experience, and Shoshana's eldest daughter still upset by things said to her at school - the twenty-four hour news cycle having allowed for the story to have been broadcast willy-nilly as it unfolded.

Eventually, Josh, Deidre and Shoshana pledge their support and head back to their respective homes,  Kayla gets on with the process of setting up interviews for her summer internship, and Abigail and Adam settle in for the legal process to start preparing a defence. Abigail, desperate to help, is taken back to the experience of Adam's cancer diagnosis and treatment some years previously when he withdrew from her, insisting that it was his battle and she couldn't help. Disenfranchised, she is emotional and fearful of what it means for their relationship and whether in fact she is of any use to him in his life at all. That plays out in meetings with their legal team when, all too often, she bursts out with emotional questions, or challenges what she thinks is a lack of committment or belief in Adam's innocence. The difficulties of being caught up in the midst of the maelstrom while not being the principal character in the drama are painted with heartbreaking clarity. Abigail's sense of powerlessness to help Adam in his enormous crisis undermines her sense of self and her sense of place in the relationship.

Then, compounding the stresses, Kayla - who had gone to New York for the day for an internship interview - disappears. Seth, who had been trying unsuccessfully to reconnect with Kayla, is the one to break the news to Adam and Abigail, and it is the last straw for Adam. The days pass and there is no word, until one night the phone rings, and it is Kayla with a mobile phone on its last bit of charge, ringing from Israel to say she's safe, but she had to get away, she doesn't know how long she'll stay away, but she will be in touch. For Adam, it's the ultimate rejection. Kayla, his favourite of the children, has deserted him in his crisis. Her flight also impacts his case, when it is brought up in court. Shoshana and Josh are unforgiving, saying it is selfish of her to run away.

Kayla herself - as the narrative shifts to Jerusalem - is in turmoil. The breaking apart of her safe, planned and comfortable life has shattered her sense of self, her belief in her own worth, and her fairytale understanding of how life actually works. Seth was the perfect partner, they had a perfect life all planned, with a perfect wedding and plan for the long term. Now, that all seems to have been pulled from under her, and feeling completely overwhelmed by her parent's need for her, she flees. She has no plans. She has just the money in her tuition account. She doesn't know what to do.

Adam and Abigail, left to themselves, gradually start to find a path through the mire, and are slowly finding their way back to each other. However, the legal team are insisting that he take a plea and serve some time, as they can't see any way of proving what Adam states - that he never knew about the link to the terrorist organisations, and that is is innocent. The lawyers insist that while they believe him, the current climate is going to punish him for even the idea and he risks absolute ruin if he tries to go plead innocence.

In Jerusalem, a chance meeting at the Western Wall leads to Kayla joining an archeological dig near the Dead Sea, close to Qumran, were the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The people on the dig are a mixed bag. At the same site is a community of people drawn together by a young rabbi who is preaching something of the separation from the demands of contemporary society that led to the Essenes (the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) isolating themselves in the region centuries ago. She finds herself drawn to the rabbi's lectures, and starts to find some peace in herself. She meets Daniel, enigmatic and mysterious. Initially, he stays distant from her, but eventually, he is able to tell her his story - that his wife and small daughter were killed by a suicide bomber. Appalled, she doesn't know how to tell him her own story - so puts a magazine with an article in his hands. Much to her surprise, he asks for the article, saying he has contacts and may be able to help.

Back in Boston, Seth has begun to spend time with Adam and Abigail, supporting them and requiring support from them in Kayla's continued absence. His parents have roundly condemned him for his ongoing relationship, fearing the consequences for him. He becomes the conduit, unknown to Adam and Abigail, for Daniel's information, relayed by Kayla. Eventually, Kayla writes to her parents - having had fairly minimal contact with Seth - whose presence in her life she has begun to seriously question - apologising to them for her desertion, but asking that they hear that she's safe, happy, and finding out for herself what she really wants to do with her life. For Adam, this is throwing in his face all that he's ever given her, and he insists that Abigail fly to Israel and bring her home. Abigail is reluctant - on the basis that her trip to Israel will impact on his case as Kayla's did, and that it will leave Adam alone. He is adamant, however, and she finds herself en route to Israel and Kayla's dig.

Once there, she is torn between what she sees of this highly functional community and Kayla's obvious contentment, and what she feels she should be doing to get Kayla home. It results in numerous quarrels between the two of them that ultimately clear the air of years of submerged conflicts and they start to see each other as the indviduals they are, rather just as mother and daughter. By now, it is also clear to Abigail, if not to Kayla herself, that Seth is no longer the man in her life - Daniel is slowly becoming that. She also discovers, accidentally, that the information that has been coming from Seth that is starting to help the lawyers make headway with Adam's case has been sent from Daniel. The phone conversation she has with Adam (not telling him about Daniel at his request) does nothing to reassure him. Highly wound by circumstances, all he can see is that Kayla's got herself mixed up in something weird and has also managed to corrupt her mother. He sends Seth after both of them.

Seth's arrival at the dig is classic alpha male coming from civilisation to wilderness outpost intending to be masterful stuff. He hires a car at Ben Gurion airport that is large enough to accommodate Kayla, Abigail and all their combined luggage, absolutely certain that his arrival will be met with relief. It isn't. By anyone - Abigail, Kayla or Daniel. His timing is off too - the whole community are about to head into a desert where an important discovery has been made in one of the caves. Unwilling to be left behind, and notwithstanding having just done an international flight and long drive, he goes too. In the course of the walk, it becomes clear to all of them that everything has changed. Trying to force the issue with Kayla, he finds himself on the receiving end of revelations about their lives and what she wants now that he never wanted to hear.

Abigail, who has been feeling unwell for some time, struggles with the long walk and rugged terrain. She battles on nevertheless, determined to be part of the discovery. And then, creating yet another crisis, she collapses, prompting Daniel to contact the local army base so she can be medivacced out, and she is flown back to Jerusalem for surgery for a ruptured appendix. Kayla has to call Adam with the news and he is left alone in Boston waiting until she can call back post-surgery. Thankfully, the surgery goes well, and Abigail comes through - although it was a near thing. At the same time, the welcome news comes that the elusive men, upon whom proof of Adam's innocence is dependent, have been arrested in Lybia.

Life can never be the same for any of them, but I'll leave that hanging for anyone who is intrigued enough to hunt down a copy for themselves - my reviews can't be spoilers for the entire book!!

I really enjoyed this book. It's pacy and gripping. The sense of dominoes falling is incredibly strong. One thing goes wrong, and due to the reactions of the individuals concerned, a string of consequences are set off, creating numerous unexpected ripples. In life, most of us spend a lot of, sometimes, unnecessary time on the 'what ifs' and this book demonstrates how that can be variously useless and useful at different times. The very ordinariness of the characters lends credence to what might be considered a slightly fantastical plot, although, given Ragen's tendency to model her books on actual stories, I have no doubt that somewhere underneath this story is the real life incident that inspired it. It also made me homesick for Israel - again! Somehow, in the next year or so, I'm going to have to get back there!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Food of Love Cookery School - Nicky Pellegrino

I was bad. The other day when I was in Double Bay, I dropped into Oscars and Friends for a wee browse, and then - remembering that DB and I have a holiday coming up - decided that a few purchases wouldn't be TOO awful...that way I'd have some books to take with me. And then I read one of them!
This was expressly purchased with light holiday reading in mind - but after Jephte's Daughter, and despite getting David Copperfield off the shelf after getting inspired by Arabella's blog post about her Dickens reading, my head just wasn't ready for anything that required any energy. And my David Copperfield is a lovely vintage hardcover with the tiniest print!

The Food of Love Cookery School is another lovely, light, food and romance based novel, in a similar vein to Anthony Capella's The Food of Love. Where that was set in Rome, this one is in Sicily. Four women - Tricia and Moll from England, Valerie from America and Poppy from Australia - arrive for a week long, live-in cooking school and food experience taught and hosted by Luca Amore, in the home his Nonna left him.

After a disaster in his previous career in London, Luca has returned to his home town of Favio and created the cooking school as a way to honour and remember his Nonna, and to help heal himself from his traumatic experiences. Part of the aim of the school is to create an environment where the participants can slow down and appreciate the pace of the local lifestyle, and the care that goes into the food of the region. Sicily has a fascinating culinary history, with influences from invading Arabs, Greeks and Spaniards, all of whom have left elements behind that have been incorporated into the food. Luca has settled into the routine of the week long schools, he likes the down time between the schools when his Nonna's house is his again, but he also enjoys meeting the new people who come. He feels as if he's achieved the balance he needed, and has no idea that this new group will change everything. All he knows about them is what they've filled in on their questionnaires. He doesn't know that one of them is hiding a secret, another is hoping to find love again, one is desperate to escape her life, and one has just succeeded in doing that.

The narrative switches between third person and intervening chapters in the voices of the different individuals - a device used by Pellegrino to make the reader feel as if they are a fifth member of the group. It's interesting, but it did take me a little while get used to it and I wasn't really aware that that was the intention until I read the blurb on the back cover after I'd finished the book. It does shift the pace, and there are moments where I was left wondering just who the individual concerned was talking to or if, they were just that individual's thoughts. As the story opened out, it became clearer.

Each day at the school starts with Luca arriving at the house to make coffee and bring breakfast. Early mornings are THE time of day when people tend to be most themselves - it can take a little while for the armour we all wear to settle in for  the day. On that first day, Tricia sets an edgy tone when she discovers she's forgotten to pack her hair straighteners. Valerie loans hers, but they're clearly an inferior brand - and the resulting tense conversation is the first time we start to get an inkling of the differences between the four women, their priorities, and how they respond to each other. There is a cooking class each day - either to make lunch or dinner - and field trips to local artisans, such as the village chocolate maker, winemakers, growers, etc, in between. Luca also teaches them to forage for wild food - there are capers for the picking on walks through the village, and fennel and other herbs.

Moll is the foodie of the bunch. A social worker and single mother of two teenage girls, she takes copious notes, photographs, asks innumerable questions, tastes everything, and has a list of food shops to visit while she's there. She also writes a food blog and this is an opportunity to give her readers a share in her big adventure. Valerie, the oldest, didn't intend to come alone. She had a friend teed up to join her on this first overseas trip after the death of her partner of twenty years, but at the last minute the friend drops out. Spurred on by the thought of what Jean-Pierre would say if she backs out too, she goes anyway, but is still weary from her grief and struggling to find herself as a single woman again. Tricia is a high powered divorce lawyer married to a busy doctor, who gave her this trip as a gift, hoping that the break will give her some much needed R&R away from a life governed by lists and stress. Poppy, freshly divorced and curious about her own Sicilian heritage, has taken a leap of faith and done this, her first overseas trip alone.

The dynamic in the house ebbs and flows, driven by each woman's particular baggage, Luca's mysterious background, the odd behaviour of Orsolina - daughter of the chocolate maker - who is very proprietary about Luca, and the journey each of them makes in the course of the week. The women, in turn, irritate, confound and comfort each other at various times, and Luca holds the group together until, towards the end when his own story comes into play, he is thrown off balance and we're left waiting until right at the end for resolution.

Like the Capella book, this is a lovely light read that comes with lots of fun information about Sicilian cuisine - which has long fascinated me - and a small selection of recipes from the actual school that inspired the story. Perfect for a hot afternoon with a long cool drink and some delectable little nibble!

Tiny Books #1. Pippa Passes - Robert Browning

I realised the other day that I have a significant collection within my book collection - tiny books. They are across all the categories on my shelves, and I think they're one of the keys as to why I'm so attached to actual books rather than electronic versions. We're all well aware of the tactile qualities of books, particularly old ones with leather covers and/or thick pages. The tiny book is another phenomena altogether that, absolutely, can't be replicated in electronic form. So, I decided that I'll work my way through my collection - which, by the way, wasn't intentional...they just seem to have multiplied over the years, some gifts, some I've bought myself - and document them here.

This first one is one of my mother's that was always in her bookshelves. Where it came from, I have no idea. I must confess to having never sat down and read it from beginning to end in one go. What I have done, particularly since Mum died and it came to live with me, is pick it up and let it fall open randomly to read a page here and there. It's a play in poem form, with little songs scattered throughout and has just the most delightful and whimsical use of words and phrases. It is one of the many books that came to me with Mum's extensive poetry collection, and she was enormously knowledgeable about poets and their works. While I do love certain poetry and some poets in particular, other than school, I've not made the study of it the way Mum did all her life. Whenever we move house, DB takes it off the shelf - it sits on the shelf, rather than stacked in the lineup - and hands it to me to go in my handbag so it doesn't get lost or damaged.

The leather binding is now a little worn from much handling. I have no idea how old it is, because there's no publication information. The gold embellishments on the cover are still very clear and the colour in the title pages is beautifully rich. It measures 10cm x 7cm. Such a lovely little treasure.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Jephte's Daughter - Naomi Ragen

I don't know where I was when this book first came out, but I missed it then. In this new edition, Naomi Ragen includes a foreword about the experience of writing it - her first published novel - and the fallout that occurred post-publication. It deals with the topic of domestic abuse, and is set within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. While the issue is now beginning to be addressed, with avenues available to individuals suffering abuse becoming more accessible, at the time it was a matter that was not really acknowledged, and there were few places the women and children could go for help.
The title refers to the story in Judges 11:31-35:
And Jephte vowed a vow unto God, and he said, "If you will give the Ammonites completely into my hands then whatever comes forth from the door when I return in peace I shall sacrifice to God." ... And when Jephte neared home, behold his daughter, his only child, for he had no other son nor daughter, came out to greet him with dancing and drums. And when he saw her, he ripped his clothes and said: "Alas, my daughter, you've undone me and now you are undone. For I have opened my mouth unto the Lord and cannot take it back."
Abraham Ha-Levi is the last of a Chassidic dynasty, his father and brothers, along with the rest of his extended family, having perished in the Holocaust. Unlike the rest of his family, Abraham is no scholar, and having survived, wants nothing more than to rebuild his life and live well, safely and comfortably...but for the vow he made to his mother when she threw him off the train bound for Auschwitz - that he continue the chain of leadership to their faithful followers.

When the story opens, Abraham's only child, his eighteen year old daughter Batsheva, is finishing her education at an exclusive girls' seminary in New York. She dreams of college and travel, and an opportunity - stifled in her ultra-Orthodox seminary - to discover the world for herself. However, back in her luxurious Californian home, she finds that her father has been taking the first steps towards finding her a husband - the means by which he sees that the dynasty can be continued as, feeling inadequate to the task, he has refused to take on the responsibility to lead the Ha-Levi Chassidim. On the surface, she doesn't see this as a real issue - she knows marriage, and an arranged marriage, is what she can expect, but she worries about her freedoms and choices once she has a husband in the mix, rather than her indulgent and loving father. Her mother, Fruma, who has always taken a back seat in decision making in the family is hesitant to see her daughter married so young but feels powerless to stand in the way of Abraham's quest. He heads to Israel to consult with heads of yeshivot in Jerusalem to find a scholar worthy of marrying his daughter and becoming father to the heir of the Ha-Levi dynasty.

He finds Isaac Harshen, a young scholar with a brilliant academic reputation, who is also good looking and, seemingly, personable, and makes arrangements for his rosh yeshiva (principal) to accompany him to California to meet Batsheva to see if a match can be made. Batsheva, meantime, has spun a web of fantasy about being married. Her upbringing has been sheltered, and although her father has allowed for contemporary literature and art to be part of it - not condoned by her school - that just exacerbates the fantasy element of her ideas of what a marriage could be and mean for her. She has had no experience at all of meeting boys, and while Jewish Law states that she can't be married off if she is unwilling, she knows that if she refuses Isaac, there will just be more candidates until she does say yes. Even their meeting is coloured by all her fantasies and guesses as to how he perceives her, and her family. Her tutor, Elizabeth, who may have been able to provide an alternate viewpoint, has been paid off by Abraham, and has left to go to university in England. The rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Magnes, has some concerns about the balance of his student's personality. Certainly, the young man is brilliant, but under the brilliance, he's a little worried that the hothouse learning environment of the yeshiva has hindered him from becoming a well-rounded individual. However, it's been the same for all the boys in that environment, so he dismisses those concerns, sure that like most young couples, Isaac and Batsheva will work things out over time and achieve a good marriage - if they hit it off. Isaac is taken both by Batsheva's beauty and what is on offer if this marriage goes ahead - traditionally, the highest calling for a Chassidic man is to be able to continue to study, which requires that living expenses be funded by generous dowries and, in the event that those are not sufficient, that their wives work to support the household. Abraham Ha-Levi is prepared to be very generous indeed, both to ensure that his daughter and potential heir are taken care of and that the young man can continue to study and be worthy of his place as the temporary head of the Ha-Levi Chassidim.

As is traditional, once Batsheva agrees to marry Isaac, everything happens very quickly and any reservations she still may have are obliterated in the the arrangements for a big wedding in Jerusalem and setting up the house her father buys for them. Isaac's family, many generations in Jerusalem and living on the edge of poverty like so many Chassidic families - their finances eroded over time providing for children, sons in law, grandchildren, etc - watch on in bemusement, pleased for their son's good fortune, but not overly enamoured of the glamorous young American-educated girl and worried about how she's going to fit into the life of Meah Shearim - one of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox enclaves.

From the very beginning, things are rocky - the wedding night is a disaster. Isaac is just as ignorant of how to consummate the marriage as Batsheva, and is doubly hampered by years of repressed emotions and anger. In the morning, he accuses Batsheva of having been with another man, so to add to her confusion and mixed emotions of the previous night's events, she is mortified and furious. He visits a doctor, who soothes him, and sends him back to Batsheva with some practical advice, but the damage is done. She further compounds the dynamic between them by impulsively joining in his Talmud discussion at one of the nightly dinners that is customary for a week following the wedding - traditionally, women do not join in with any kind of teaching, and he is furious that his bride should behave in such an unseemly fashion. By the time Abraham and Fruma are ready to return to America, leaving Batsheva to begin her new life as a married woman, Batsheva is starting to feel as if she's made a huge mistake - turning on her, albeit gently, Abraham makes sure she's left in no doubt that she has to grow up now, and if there are issues, to discuss them with Isaac and work them out.

Things steadily go from bad to worse. The house has everything that opens and shuts, and a maid, so there's nothing to do - even if Batsheva had been brought up learning the ways of a household, which she wasn't. Bored, she looks for things to do, and bringing out her much loved Leica, she starts making excursions to take photographs all over the city, clad in culottes and a headscarf - items not deemed sufficiently 'modest' for a young woman of her status. Coming home late one day, she finds that Isaac has started reading some of her literature, that she'd just started to unpack. Incensed already by her clothing, and the stories he's been told of her roaming the city alone, he is provoked into even greater rage by the books, and seizing them all, dumps them in the bath and sets them alight. Batsheva flees the house and calls her father. But, Isaac has already spoken to him by the time she calls, and tells her she must go home and work it out. Instead she takes herself to the King David Hotel and checks in there, joining a bus tour of the country the next day. She travels all over - from Eilat in the south, to Sfat in the north, discovering people and sights she'd not known about, only to arrive back at the hotel to discover her parents, parents-in-law and Isaac waiting for her, her room checked out. Outraged, and strengthened by her time alone, she stands up to them all, only to have her father collapse in front of her eyes. Later, in the hospital, he sends Fruma from the room, and tells Batsheva of her older brother, Yerachmiel, named after their grandfather, who died before she was born when he was three, falling on the steps of the shul on Yom Kippur. He tells her also of the vow he made to his mother, and that he has done everything he can to ensure that the family will continue, that the Ha-Levi Chassidim will have continuity of their line, and she must go back and do her part.

Months later, Elizabeth, now living with her professor in England, receives a disturbing letter from Batsheva, in which the girl sounds so unlike herself Elizabeth insists on going to Israel to see her and find out what's going on. Graham, the professor, goes with her - more to keep the peace than from any conviction of his own. Batsheva sees them, spends a couple of days sightseeing with them - which she keeps from Isaac - but does little, despite her best efforts, to truly settle Elizabeth. But it is Graham who accidentally discovers the hidden bruises when her skirt rides up - choosing not to tell Elizabeth as he senses that the now pregnant Batsheva still won't leave.

Almost three years on, Batsheva has a son, Akiva. She and Isaac have reached a point of mutual disdain, coloured by hatred, which they keep stifled in front of Akiva. Batsheva no longer has access to money - Isaac has taken her name off their accounts, she has only what he doles out for housekeeping. But, she has a friend in Gita, wife of Rabbi Gershon Kessel, and their three year old daughter, Dina. Isaac doesn't like it, but cannot block this friendship with the wife of an eminent and respected rabbi. She is starting to learn that not all ultra-Orthodox marriages are like hers. However, things are about to change, as on Akiva's third birthday, he will start at the yeshiva - and when Batsheva learns that he is to go to the same hard line yeshiva that so damaged Isaac, something in her breaks. On his birthday, he receives his first, ritual haircut, leaving only the long sidecurls, or payot, and he is wrapped in his father's tallit to be taken to the yeshiva. He is terrified, but despite Batsheva's pleading, he is taken to begin school. Part one ends with a missing persons report, followed up with a second report that clothing belonging to Batsheva and Akiva has been fished out of the Mediterranean off Tel Aviv. The Ha-Levi Chassidim go into deep mourning - the heir and his mother are dead.

Part Two - London. We find Batsheva and Akiva, both disguised with blond wigs, looking for accommodation and for Batsheva, some way of earning a living once the money she got selling an heirloom necklace is gone. She knows Elizabeth would help her, but feels that is the first place she would be looked for, and that she might be judged, and is too fragile to risk either. Eventually, she attends a lecture, urged by a neighbour, and Elizabeth is the lecturer. Elizabeth is still mourning her young friend, believing her to be dead. She is shocked, but supportive, and helps Batsheva start a business as a photographer - giving her back the precious Leica Batsheva had given her in Jerusalem. Batsheva, for the first time in her life, has to negotiate normal social situations, and finds them challenging. She is no longer living in an ultra-Orthodox enclave, and comes face to face with anti-Semitism and prejudice for the first time. And then, at a party of Elizabeth's she meets the brother of Elizabeth's soon to be fiance - David. A charismatic, troubled and conflicted man who is studying for the Catholic priesthood - and yet, there is an immediate attraction on both sides. He is initially of the mind that to bring her peace, she must accept Christianity, but slowly comes to understand that she IS at peace, religiously. They attempt to fight it. David's superiors, fearing they will lose him form the church decide to fight it by sending him away from London - to Jerusalem, on a study trip. Among his teachers is Rabbi Gershon - husband of Batsheva's friend Gita. David, still struggling with the church, his faith, and his love for Batsheva, embarks on a course of Jewish studies - trying to come to grips with the foundations of his own religion. Back in London, Batsheva, try as she might, can't forget him, and knows that if there was a way for them to be together, it would bring her life completion.

David, doing research into his family, discovers that his mother - his father's first wife - was Jewish, making him, by Jewish Law, also Jewish. She had escaped the Holocaust, just, and wanted him never to have to face what she'd gone through, so he was never told. However, given recent events, his father tells him everything. Overjoyed, he rings Batsheva to tell her. However, to be together, she will have to face Isaac, Jerusalem, and her family, and get a religious divorce - risking losing Akiva in the process.

The end of the book is riveting - both times I've read it I've been torn between going slowly because I don't want it to end, and rushing through because the level of tension it generates is fierce. The beit din, religious court, sits for days. Isaac attempts to pull a proper, forgiving and learned stance - and fails spectacularly. David is questioned. Akiva is questioned. And still it all hangs in the balance until, finally, Abraham stands up and makes clear his part in driving Batsheva to the desperate move she made to escape.

This is a truly gripping book - even if you don't know anything about ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, and especially if you only know a little. Ragen deeply loves this culture, and seeks not to destroy it - although, some of the fallout when the book was published accused her of doing so, I believe - but to open it up so that it can be seen as any community should be seen, with transparency. It is when things are hidden and people are repressed that issues become toxic.

Coming, as I do, from the other end of the Jewish spectrum, there is a sense of the exotic about the setting. In the progressive Jewish world, there are those who condemn what they see as rigidity and limitations imposed on people, particularly women and girls, in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities. The flip side of that is that there is also a lot of security and peace living in a world where expectations and roles are understood and respected. Batsheva's wedding, and the esteem in which her family is held - those dynasties of Chassidic leaders - they're real. Just this year there was a huge wedding in Jerusalem of the heir of one of the sects that attracted 25,000 people - you can look at a slide show of that HERE. There is a groundswell of change beginning in the Orthodox world, and some of it is coming courtesy of the feminist movement. In America, the first Orthodox women rabbis have been ordained - not with the title rabbi, but all have gained jobs in congregations in North America. The Women of the Wall - a group of Jewish women from all denominations - reached their 25th anniversary of praying at the Western Wall every Rosh Chodesh (new moon), fighting for equality in prayer at what many consider to be Israel's holiest site. The hardest fight - as is so often the case - is against entrenched traditions - traditions, as opposed to laws, traditions that have come over the years to hold the force of laws. Equally difficult for these communities is breaking the code of silence when there is abuse, cruelty and injustice - and no way for victims of being heard.

This is a very powerful read. Ragen doesn't pull her punches, but there is nothing gratuitous in the way she presents her stories. Her characters are very real people - flawed, imperfect, struggling, each in their own way, to make their way through what look, at times, like impossible situations.
There are two more novels in this 'set' - she didn't start out looking to write a trilogy, and they're not really one - the other two are quite separate stories. The common ground is the setting within the ultra-Orthodox world, in America and Israel. I'll get to those in due course as well, but if you're looking for them, they are The Sacrifice of Tamar and Sotah.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Kaleido Books and Gifts

Remember that post I did on giving books with the cool pic of the blackboard? A friend sent me a message on FB the other day asking me if I'd seen a Buzzfeed post that had a pile of pics of many blackboards. It's the fabulous marketing for Kaleido Books and Gifts in Perth and I just had to share it here - these people are clever, and have a marvelously whacky sense of humour. Sounds like a place to visit. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Dear Francesca - Mary Contini

I don't know about other readers, but I find myself frequently following trails of similarly themed books and reading through until I get it out of my system. So, in the wake of reading The Food of Love, I went in search of things Italian and food related on the bookcases - hence this post.
I was given this book by a friend in the Abbey Girls group in Adelaide as a farewell gift when I moved back to Sydney. It's a memoir, a collection of wonderful recipes and a history of a migratory pattern of which I was quite unaware until I read it. Mary Contini's ancestors on both sides made the move from their poverty stricken, remote mountain villages in the Abruzzo region of Italy, south of Rome to - of all places - Scotland. Once there, they established themselves with mostly food related businesses, primarily fish and chip shops and ice creameries.

It is typical of diaspora stories in that it relates the sense of dislocation for those making the original move, down through the generations of locally born children and grandchildren of a different but distinct ethnicity trying to fit in with the dominant culture. Holding the generations together is the food - in this particular family's case, both domestically and professionally.

The book is written as a series of letters, each chapter focusing on one particular part of traditional southern Italian cuisine - pasta, meat, vegetables, etc. Francesca is Mary's daughter, who, like many of the grandchildren of migrants, distanced herself from her culture as a child, but as an adult finds herself looking for it - at least that's the impression gained in the reading. Each chapter is full of family anecdotes, stories of how the various couples met, the trips back and forth by those who did go back to Italy, food likes and dislikes, and homespun philosophy about teaching children to eat well by being inclusive in the kitchen.

The recipes are lovely - good, simple authentic dishes that require, first and foremost, quality fresh ingredients - although, pretty short lists per recipe on the whole. Real Italian food is very simple, relying on the quality of fresh seasonal produce to speak for itself. In the past, my base cooking style at home was largely Italian and Chinese. These days, it's more Middle Eastern, because DB and Eighteen are training on and off constantly, so pasta is loved and then banned equally constantly, and I've not got into a groove of my regular dishes. But reading this book, and others in my collection, and I'm reminded how much I love the simplicity of Italian food - and tonight, my lot will be getting a pasta dish that will make working around a messy evening of people coming and going very easy, as well as being something I can put together from the pantry cupboard and the garden. And that last bit - THAT'S the real pleasure of books like this. I get something out of most books I read - some so much so that I re-read them regularly. This book transports me into a diaspora experience similar to that of my ancestors (albeit they were Jewish, not Italian) that is many generations back from my own childhood, and it also gives me the means of bringing some of the Italian experience into my kitchen. The Scottish connection is an oddity that I really enjoyed - we all know about the American Italian community, and in Australia we have a huge Italian community. Obviously, Italian migrants went other places, but I'd not have pulled Scotland out of a hat myself!

It was published originally in 2002, so I don't know how easy it is to come by copies now, but if you can get your hands on a copy, and you want some fresh inspiration in your kitchen as well as a lovely read, try and find it.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Giving books

I am THAT relative/friend who gives books. I'm sure we all have/had one in our lives, and I was very fortunate as a child to have a number of relatives, including my mother, who could be counted on to produce the much desired, neat rectangular parcels on any gift giving occasion. My children always give me one of THOSE looks when they spot similar parcels in a gift pile - Twenty-eight is living the 'busy' Sydney lifestyle and says he doesn't have time to read, and Twenty-two reads on his iPad, but I give them actual books anyway... Eighteen (that birthday happened...) hasn't been the recipient of many books as gifts in his lifetime and reading for pleasure is something that's only come relatively recently, so for him it's still a novelty that he rather enjoys. DB is starting to look forward to what might be within the wrapping I think, now that I've managed to get him casting further afield than vampire stories!

One thing I have noticed though, is that as I've got older and I've lost those relatives of my childhood, I've received fewer books, and there's something that's just not right about a birthday or other gift season when there's no book in the stash at the end of the unwrapping...

So for those still with the odd Chanukah present to get (two nights left...) or about to get really stuck into Christmas shopping, don't forget the books!! And - bit of a plug for a friend of mine - if anyone you know is into Steampunk, there's a new book out by Jack Tyler. It's available on Amazon, but I'm not sure of the process to get your hands on it. If you follow the link to his website, you can contact him that way and check it out. Great story, and a fun read.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Food of Love - Anthony Capella

I've had a couple of bad nights that have had me up while the rest of the house was sleeping. I have a new nook in the sunroom at the back of the new house, with a comfy couch and a rug, so at 2.30am yesterday I settled in with this little gem of a book. I've read it more times than I can remember now, but there's something inherently fresh about Capella's writing that makes it just as enjoyable to re-read as it was to read for the first time.

I bought it in a bookshop at Kuala Lumpur international airport where I had a stopover from Rome on my way back to Adelaide in 2005. I'd spent a month based in Florence doing an art history course at The British Institute, living in a studio apartment in a medieval building around the corner from the Duomo, shopping for food each day like a good Italian housewife at the huge two storey undercover market and little local shops, and generally immersing myself in an Italian lifestyle. I didn't want to leave - I really didn't, and going back is something high on the bucket list.
The blurb on the back reads:
Laura Patterson is studying art history in Rome. She's decided that from now on she'll only go out with a man who can cook.
Tommaso Massi, handsome and silver tongued, tells Laura that he's a chef at one of Italy's best restaurants. In fact, he's just a humble waiter.
His best friend Bruno, who really is a chef - a brilliant one - is called upon to help. But when he also falls for Laura, the sparks begin to fly...
It sounds all very light and fluffy. Light it is, but fluffy, not so much. This is a book that was written for people to enjoy. Capella has lived in Rome and knows it well, and I found - particularly on that flight home from KL to Adelaide, fresh from Italy - that the flavour of the city was authentically drawn, heightening my homesickness for Florence! He also knows his food, and the book is (and can be, literally, given the recipes for and detailed descriptions of various dishes) a feast of Roman cuisine that has me heading to the kitchen post-read to create something similar.

Laura is in Rome for a year of study that she won in an essay competition. After a few disastrous dates with local boys, she's a bit over the general attitude they have that an American girl is fair game, so in a telephone conversation with a girlfriend in Milan, overheard by Tommaso in a cafe, she decides that a chef - who is used to being creative, taking time and savouring his ingredients - might be different, so she's going to limit her dates to men who can cook... Tommaso is typical of the type she's been put off by, even more so, because he actively pursues tourist girls, not wanting a serious relationship, and has an impressive array of photos of his conquests pinned up on the inside of his wardrobe door. He is so taken with Laura that he tells her he's a chef, inviting her to let him cook dinner for her. Enter Bruno, Tommaso's best friend and flatmate, who IS a chef... Tommaso talks Bruno into cooking for him and allowing him to pass off the food as his own. Doubtful, but loyal to Tommaso, Bruno agrees, and creates a delicate springtime feast of local specialities. The evening is a huge success - Laura is a dedicated foodie, and the meal awakens more than just her tastebuds.

Encouraged, Tommaso decides that the next meal should be seafood, fresh from the Mediterranean. This means taking Bruno along to do the actual cooking and Tommaso enlists Laura's help in bringing along HER flatmate, Judith, as a date for Bruno. When the girls arrive to meet the boys, Bruno is stunned to see that one of them is the girl he's seen a number of times in local food markets and has lost his heart to - although he's never had the chutzpah to say anything to her. Sadly, it's not Judith who's the mystery girl, it's Laura... His cooking - masked by lots of theatrical faux prepping by Tommaso - is, once again, a huge success. He rationalises that if he can't have Laura for himself, he can at least cook for her.

The dinner dates continue, including a hilarious evening when Tommaso is required to 'cook' for Laura's Milano friend, visiting her parents in Rome, in the parent's apartment. The culmination of that dinner is tartufo, a rich chocolate gelato, spiked with chilli, which has such a comprehensive aphrodisiac effect on all who eat it that Laura's friend's father is moved to announce that he'd like to fund a restaurant with Tommaso as the chef. Bruno is horrified, saying it's impossible, but then realising that it's the opportunity for him to develop his own menus, caves in the face of Tommaso's insistence. They are an instant success, and are soon run off their feet catering to rapidly increasing customers. And then, one day, in an unguarded moment when Laura drops in while Bruno is experimenting with THE dish he's been trying to create since the first time he saw her - he feeds her his latest creation and kisses her...

Meantime, Tommaso has become tired of the demands of the relationship and after a few bungled attempts at breaking it off, is then sprung by Laura in flagrante with a new girl... In the ensuing argument, Laura lets slip that Bruno kissed her, and then it's all on. Then it's all on. Laura flees to Judith to be consoled and won't speak to either of them. The boys have a huge row that ends up with Tommaso announcing that Bruno is no longer his friend. Bruno packs up and leaves Rome in the ancient and unreliable van he buys from their local cafe owner, leaving Tommaso with the restaurant and no chef...

Bruno is devastated. He feels as if his life is over, nothing has meaning any more, even the food he eats along the way no longer has any taste... Not knowing what to do, he keeps driving aimlessly until the van gives up high in the mountains of La Marche - one of Italy's more remote and isolated regions. Walking on to the next village in search of a mechanic, he stumbles onto a small osteria run by a mother and daughter where the whole village appears to dine. Both Gusta and her daughter Benedetta are excellent cooks, but Bruno realises in Benedetta, he's met his culinary equal. He stays and cooks with them, falling into a relationship with Benedetta, who falls in love with him, but then one day, a familiar voice in the courtyard of the osteria jolts him back into the reality of his situation. It is Laura, with the lecturer from her history course, with whom she's drifted into a relationship, on the last leg of a tour of the region. Benedetta, realising who it is, engineers a situation to keep Laura there so that Bruno can have his chance to make up with Laura - but it all goes wrong. Realising at the moment Bruno first hears Laura's voice that she can never have him the way she wants him, Benedetta then castigates Bruno, and challenges him to go after her...

This is a very bald review of this lovely book. The joy of reading it is in all the little details; the wonderful Roman insults and funny lines, the food, the side stories (such as the cafe owner who sells Bruno his van, who is on a life long search for the means of making his coffee machine produce the best ristretto in Rome), Capella's understanding of Italian, and particularly Roman, culture, and the wonderfully balanced mix of humour, romance, and ordinary people. If you love food, read this book. If you love Italy, read this book. If you just love a delicious romp, read this book!