Monday, October 26, 2009

Baking Cakes in San Antonio

This past weekend was my daughter's school carnival.  Though I am unwilling to spend two hours manning an unshaded booth on a hot Texas afternoon, I am willing to provide something for the cakewalk.  Possibly inspired by my previous read, Baking Cakes in Kigali, and by my recent discovery of the hilarious blog Cake Wrecks -- and if you have not seen this blog, please, do yourself a favor and visit immediately -- I decided to bake a cake.  From scratch.  No last-minute trips to the grocery store bakery or boxed-mix cakes from me, no sirree!  Even though I would most likely never meet the lucky recipient of my handiwork, I pulled out one of my family's tried and true favorite recipes.  It has no name, it is just the Good Chocolate Cake.  It is quick and easy, and mighty tasty.  [Disclaimer: the above is not an actual photo of said cake, but it's pretty close.]  Sadly, my children did not win our own cake in the cakewalk, so instead they were awarded a dozen Wal-Mart cupcakes.  They had cute plastic Halloween rings on top, but other than that they were pointless calories. (Well, at least they weren't Cake Wrecks.) Luckily, I bought enough ingredients to make another cake. 

I think this cake recipe originally came from Food & Wine, but it's been so long that I have no idea.  If you know the origin of this recipe, please let me know so I can give the appropriate credit. 

It's kind of an unusual recipe -- you don't cream the butter or fold anything in, but you boil water and sugar together until dissolved, then pour it over chopped unsweetened chocolate and butter.  The batter is really thin and the crumb isn't the most delicate I've ever eaten, but it has great flavor and is one of those quick and dirty recipes necessary when you need something both fast and impressive.  And the frosting, your basic ganache, brings the cake to a higher level.  When in doubt, heavy cream is your friend.  Always.

Excellent Chocolate Cake:


2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 Tb unsalted butter.
1 tsp vanilla.
2 eggs, lightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 2 8-inch cake pans. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves, then pour into a large bowl. Add the butter and chocolate. Stir occasionally until melted and slightly cooled, and add the vanilla.

3.  Beat the eggs into the chocolate mixture at medium speed until combined. Add the dry ingredients all at once and beat at medium speed until smooth.

4.  Divide batter evenly between pans and smooth the tops. Bake about 25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans about 25 minutes, the invert on a rack to cool completely.

Frost with Chocolate Ganache:
8 oz heavy cream -- do NOT substitute milk or half and half.  Don't even think about it.
12 oz chocolate chips (1 bag)

1.   Place chips in a mixing bowl.  Use the best quality chips you can find.  Guittard and Ghirardelli are good chioices. Nestle is passable but not nearly as good -- buy a bag of each and do a taste-test.  You will not look back.

2.   Bring the cream to a boil in a small sauce pan (careful, it will boil over the minute you look away). Tip: rinse the pan with water, but don't dry it, before you heat the cream.  It will be much easier to clean afterward.  Nonstick pans are also recommended.

3.   Let the cream and chocolate stand for 5 minutes, then stir until smooth. Don't wait too long, or the cream will cool and you'll have tiny lumps.  Let the mixture stand until thickened. Will frost one 8 or 9-inch layer cake, a 9x13 cake, or a batch of cupcakes. Any leftovers can be chilled to make truffles, heated to dip fruit, or on top of ice cream. Or straight off the spoon.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Warning:  I know a lot of people loved this book, but sadly, I wasn't one of them.  If you are, feel free to skip this review.  For an opposing view, see Amanda's review here.

To me, this book has all the trappings of a book group fad:  a quirky African lady meets people from all walks of life due to her little business and solves all their problems.  Sound familiar?  That's because it's been done before, and actually done well. It's probably wrong of me to compare this to another book, but I think it's inevitable -- this is undoubtedly going to be compared to the far superior No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.   Both books are about busybody African ladies of a certain age and certain size, and both are fairly short books.  But that's where the comparison ends.  I found this book a poor copy of that charming series; it's didactic, preachy, contrived, and frankly, the writing isn't that good.  This book was a huge disappointment from the first chapter.

McCall Smith has written ten books in his series about Botswana, and though they're starting to feel repetetive, they're still warmhearted and appealing.  His characters are well-developed, his descriptions of the everyday life of Africans seem realistic (since, sadly, I've never visited), yet he's able to include subtle messages about African problems without using the sledgehammer approach.  Kigali, on the other hand, is less than subtle.  Our angel, Angel, the baker in the title, segues from a sales pitch about her fantastic cakes to lecturing an Ambassador's wife about the official denial of AIDS in Tanzania on page 9!  It's so heavy-handed and obvious:  "This book has an important message.  Things in Africa are bad!!"  Well, duh.  But of course, Angel is quickly able to make this woman see the light.  Uh huh. 

Even her name is sort of a McCall Smith ripoff.  His character is called Precious (which is both endearing and ironic, since her first husband beat the crap out of her), Parkin's is Angel -- is she the selfless Angel of Kigali, sort of like Mother Teresa?  I will admit, this may be common in Africa.  But it comes off as cutesy and annoying here.  Before the third chapter she's convinced her landlord to change the water bill of two feminist volunteer workers in the building, who were massively overcharged because they're considered Wazungu, rich white foreigners, and convinced a woman to change her infant girl's name from Goodenough (parents disappointed because she wasn't a boy) to Perfect. 

However, Angel, she supports a couple's decision to marry and spends an awful lot of time planning their wedding and raising money for said couple -- despite the fact that the husband doesn't decide to marry the bride until his other girlfriend gives birth -- and finds out if the new baby is a boy or a girl.  [SPOILER ALERT!!] See, the first girlfriend, who runs the convenience store, had his first child, and it's a boy, so she's already ahead.  The writer mentions that it's sort of unfair to celebrate this union because of the disadvantage of the second monther, but pretty quickly she's forgotten -- besides, the chosen wife is from a rival tribe, so it's all about overcoming prejudice.  What about the prejudice the unwed mother and this fatherless baby girl will face for years?  Too bad, so sad.  Angel arranges an enormous cross-cultural shindig and involves all the other characters. The first couple are going to be in the papers!!

And I was really annoyed by a little anecdote about a dentist. [Disclosure:  my husband is a dentist, so I'm a little sensitive about how they're portrayed in the media.  Ignore your teeth, and they'll go away.  Okay, back to the story].  In chapter 8, Angel takes her grandson to the dentist.  Excellent, great to hear that they have dental care in this war-torn country.  However, as a reward, she buys him a soda -- immediately after the omniscient narrator explains that the dentist lectured her about feeding the grandchildren sweets.  See, Angel doesn't necessarily believe him, because after all, he's from some island far away, and because he's a Seventh Day Adventist.  So, if you don't agree with someone's religion, you should ignore his/her medical advice.  So why is she paying her hard-earned money to go to this dentist in the first place??!!? 

Besides this hypocritical annoyance -- since this book is all about tolerance and how all races and religions should tolerate each other -- this books crams too many characters in too fast, many of whom never show up again, and I just didn't buy the story of how this Tanzanian woman is in Rwanda baking cakes fancy cakes for people, despite being surrounded by poverty and unreliable utilities.  The appeal of McCall Smith's books are the slices of life of the Botswana native, and most of the characters in this book are expats that just aren't that interesting.  And the explanation of how she's able to procure supplies to make sophisticated cakes is a pretty contrived.  Plus, Angel keeps repeating the same tragic back story about her family's losses over and over.  The author crams in tragedy after tragedy -- there are so many, I won't even list them.  I'm not trying to belittle the pain and horrors of Africa, believe me.  I see enough of it on the news.  But trying to package them as a charming book isn't going to help Africans.  "Charming" and "genocide" just don't belong in the same paragraph.  I'm not saying readers shouldn't learn about some of the horrible things that have happened there.  I just don't think you can mix the two successfully.  There are plenty of books about the Holocaust and they sell like crazy, but nobody ever tries to package them as charming. 

Overall, I get the impression that this author, inspired by Mcall Smith's literary success (and HBO series), thought, "Hey! I lived in Africa! I can write a book about it, and get rich, too! I'll just change the main character to a woman who bakes cakes. . . and change the setting to Rwanda, so I can add all kinds of political stuff and teach oblivious Americans to pay attention to Africa! And I'll write lots of sequels and get a movie deal, too! Easy-peasy!" Or else someone at Random House thought so, and went out and found an author in Africa to compete with McCall Smith. Either way, it's pretty annoying. I really hope I don't see this as The Next Big Book Group Selection.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Girl of the Limberlost

Since I'm always on the lookout for an overlooked classic, I was eager to read this book.  It came highly recommended by a friend (the same one who was shocked I'd never heard of E. Nesbit) and it was mentioned in the introduction of my new favorite, Daddy Long-Legs.  But again, it's not nearly as widely read as great coming-of-age stories like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I also love). However, that suggests a question -- can it be considered a classic if it's not widely read?  And why isn't anyone reading it anymore?  In this case, I think there's a pretty good reason.  This book started out with such promise and ended so disappointingly -- with a whimper, you might say.

The setup:  set in the early 1900s, teenaged Elnora has grown up in the Indiana countryside, on the edge of the Limberlost Swamp -- a virtual nature preserve.  It's her first day of high school in the big city, and of course, she's dressed all wrong, has no friends, and no money for the books and tuition which she owes because she lives outside the district.  Her grumpy, distant mother is unsupportive, and had hoped Elnora would quickly be discouraged from such upstart notions and stay on the farm where she belongs, since there is no ready cash to pay for such foolishness.  Though her widowed mother owns acres of land with valuable trees, she's clinging to it, symbolizing her lost love for Elnora's dead father, who perished in the swamp when she was an infant.  They're so cash-poor they can't afford the taxes, much less school. 

But hark!  Elnora can pay her own way -- the Bird Lady, (a local botanist/collector of moths and other flora, fauna, and historic artifacts) will pay good money for the treasures that our heroine can collect from the swamp. So it looks like Elnora will spend the rest of the nearly 500 pages learning about life and love from her benevolent naturalist patroness, and somehow reconnect with her embittered mother, possibly learning more about the story of her lost father.  All will end well.  Right?

But sadly, this story sort of went downhill about halfway through. [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!] Quite a few plot developments are just waaaay too convenient.  Elnora and her mother reconcile seemingly overnight, characters like the beloved neighbor couple and an orphan boy essentially disappear, and the second half of the book is dominated by a plot about Elnora's true love and his evil fiancee, which drags on forever.  Finally, Elnora is aided by some friendly characters who were mysteriously mentioned earlier but never explained.  When Elnora first starts collecting moths etc. for cash, she refers to someone called Freckles, without any explanation or backstory.  Later, the Bird Lady suddenly refers to someone called Swamp Angel.  Who the heck are these people?  It turns out A Girl of the Limberlost is actually a sequel to another book called -- wait for it -- Freckles. There is no mention of this previous volume on the book jacket, and none of the characters are included in the list that precedes the first chapter. Yet, [SPOILER!!!] Elnora suddenly takes off from Indiana, take a train ALONE to Michigan, and goes to meet these people -- complete strangers -- in chapter 23!!  Who, of course welcome her with open arms.  Riiiight.

It also really annoyed me that this is sort of two stories in one, a detailed story setting up Elnora and all the hardships she's going to overcome, then, without minimal transition, the book just jumps forward in time three years to set up the scenario in which she meets her true love Philip. Seriously, the book reads,

So the first year went, and the second and third were a repetition; but the fourth was different, for that was the close of the course, ending with graduation and all in attendant ceremonies and expenses.

Hold the phone, what happened in those three years?   Not one thing worth mentioning the rest of her high school career -- up until the point at which Elnora is valedictorian and a star musician.  How convenient!  It's as though the author had some really good ideas about the setup of the character, and a couple of major events in her life, but couldn't take the time to expand the rest of her life. Doesn't she have a single sweetheart in high school?  A nasty teacher?  Doesn't her character develop at all in those years, or the relationship with her mother?  And some foreshadowed events never take place -- in the beginning, there's a whole setup about how dangerous the Limberlost is at night, full of robbers, bandits, etc., and it appears in the first couple of chapters that Elnora's being stalked -- yet, there's no payoff as these characters and plot elements simply disappear.  Ooops!  Forgot about that, never mind. 

The ending of this book digressed so much that I stopped reading it with less than 20 pages to go.  Seriously, I put the book down and did not care how it ended.  I finally picked it up again last night so I could force myself to finish it --  frankly, I just didn't care any more, but I didn't see how I could post a review without actually finishing it.   And, sadly, the ending is just horrible, unbelievable and preachy. 

The final message of this book (which is about as subtle as a sledgehammer): "Everyone should be just like Elnora, who is perfect!"  I honestly don't think she had a single flaw.  In retrospect, I wonder how I made it through this book.  I did like the first half; I was really rooting for her, and it's not a difficult read.  I got through a lot of it on an airplane (it was just easier than rooting around in my carryon for another book) and in the shuttle to my hotel.

Would I have liked it when I was fourteen?  I guess parts of it are a little romantic, since Elnora is a sort of a Cinderella figure.  But aside from the structural flaws (which I probably wouldn't have noticed as a YA), the writing is pretty stilted, it's sentimental, and really preachy. I'm really not surprised nobody reads this book any more.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

JASNA 2009

I am a weak, weak person.  Did my last blog not mention how many books I was taking to the JASNA meeting?  Five? Six?  Not including a copy of Persuasions (Vol. 30), the annual association journal.  I'm embarassed to admit that I came home with no less than SIX new books.  Gentle readers, how could I stop myself?  Honestly, how could I resist Jane Austen and Crime ??  I am not making this up, this is a real book. That I bought.  Seriously, folks, you would not believe how many books there are out there about Jane Austen -- and a whole lot of them were for sale at the AGM, courtesy of Barnes & Noble and Jane Austen Books.

Other irresistable purchases:  Jane Grigson's Food with the Famous (out of print); Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction  by John Sutherland (also out of print); and a signed copy of The Making of Pride and Prejudice -- signed by Andrew Davies! Clearly, all excellent purchases.

But the best books, naturally, were the free ones:  first, I scored an adorable pocket/reticule-sized copy of Northanger Abbey as a door prize at the closing brunch; second, I got this really interesting book called So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in 'Pride and Prejudice'  -- from the author herself, no less! She is a lovely lady from Vancouver named Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer and we started chatting at the end of the ball.  One thing led to another and we ended up talking for almost two hours about her book, which is fascinating.  Ms. Ferguson Bottomer is a speech language pathologist and has worked for years with children on the autistic spectrum, and while during a viewing of the 1995 BBC adaptation, she was struck by how many of the characters show autistic tendencies.  So she's published an entire book about it, analyzing eight characters from the novel. And she was kind enough to give me a signed copy.  I started it on the plane ride home and can't wait to finish it.

So that's why my luggage was nine pounds heavier on the return flight.  And in my defense, I did resist lots of other really interesting books, like Jane Austen and Marriage; the complete Jane Austen's Letters; Jane Austen: A Life; Becoming Jane; The Jane Austen Cookbook. . . basically, the contents of my Barnes & Noble wish list.  Well, Christmas is coming, right?

Oh, and as for the rest of the conference. . . let's see, four breakout seminars (I particularly enjoyed Marginal Siblings Stir the Plot -- member of my JA book club can expect a summary next month), plus at least four or five other speakers; a banquet, the ball -- I tried English Country Dancing, and I'm really, really, bad at it, I must be from the Mr. Collins school of dancing -- I learned how to play whist, which is both easy AND fun -- plus I had a great, great time talking to lots of fascinating people.  What a great time.  I am so hoping to go to the next AGM, which is in Portland in 2010.  And Ft. Worth in 2011!!! Yee haw! 

And I did actually get some reading done!  Nearly 300 pages of The Woman in White, and nearly all of A Girl of the Limberlost.  Reviews to follow soon.

Update, 10/18/09:  Somehow I conveniently forgot about the other Jane Austen book that I ordered online. . . during the conference.  Because the book vendors didn't have it.  Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane.  Does that count as #7, since it didn't arrive until today?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Books and Chocolate for Travelers

This is a late posting, but I wanted to let everyone know I'm in Philadelphia at the 31st Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) That's right, classic book lovers, I'm spending five days in beautiful and historic Philadelphia with 500 or so other Jane Austen fans, attending seminars, drinking tea, learning how to play whist, and just generally learning about Jane and her world.  In the most ladylike fashion, of course.  All Jane, all the time!

Of course, the hardest thing to decide when packing for a trip is What Books to Bring.  I don't think I ever go on a trip with less than five books, no matter how short.   (Always paperbacks, for easier carrying).  I have to have choices. What if I'm just not in the mood for my current read?  Plus, I live in mortal fear of being stuck on a plane or on a layover with nothing to read.  Oh, the horror!!

Here's what I brought in my carryon:  Of course, my two current reads:   The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (classic Victorian/Gothic mystery/book group book) and A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter (coming-of-age/spunky girl wants an education/YA); and Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto (Japanese literature/owned-and-unread).   In my suitcase:  The Watsons/Lady Susan/Sanditon by Jane Austen (have to bring at least one Jane Austen -- will they let me in without one? -- plus it's the only one I haven't read); and Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia by Patricia Wrede (YA fantasy -- and it has chocolate in the title, what's not to like?  Plus my daughter is named Cecelia, so there you are).  I could bring lots more books, but quite frankly, I may be overdoing it already, considering my two current reads alone total more than 1000 pages. But they're quick reads, and the flight is only about 5 hours total with layovers.   I guess they have bookstores in Philadelphia, just in case.  Not to mention the vendors with Jane Austen-related titles.  I only bought three books so far, but there could be more before the day is over.

So tell me, gentle readers, did I overdo it?   I did read on the plane and every night before falling asleep (even after a long day of seminars and whist until midnight!)  Do you look forward to uninterrupted reading whilst traveling?  How many books do you pack?  And how much chocolate is enough?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope is a sadly underrated and underappreciated classic British author.  Everyone knows Dickens, Austen, and the Brontes.  Even Thomas Hardy is well known, since Tess of the D'urbervilles is routinely assigned high school and college reading.  However, Trollope is hardly mentioned in all those must-read classics lists (well, in this country) and not one of his works made the BBC Big Read list (of which, I am proud to say, I have read 74).  It's too bad, considering he was one the most prolific writers of the Victorian era, publishing 47 novels -- 47!!! -- some of which he wrote while employed as a civil servant.  He invented the British pillar post box, among other things, and is known to have risen early every day so that he could write from 5 to 8 a.m before he went to work.  Now, that's discipline.

I do realize there are literature lovers who will run screaming from the room if Victorian writers are mentioned.  Many people have bad experiences with too much Dickens at too young an age (or, as grownups, they just don't like him, which is also okay).  I suppose it's fair to compare Trollope with Dickens because a) they were contemporaries and b) they wrote long, serialized novels.  However, they're really quite different.  Many people dislike Dickens' melodrama, his flowery prose, sentimental characters, and his constant use of unbelievable coincidences.  You won't find this in Trollope.  He's a much more straightforward writer, and unlike Dickens, it never seems as though he's writing with a stage adaptation in mind.  He does include social commentary and satire, but it's much more political.  And while Dickens' characters cover a cross-section of society from the gentry to the lowly crossing sweepers, Trollope's novels are more concentrated on the upper classes, and his commentary is mostly focused on politics.  (It does help to have annotated editions which explain all the background).  However, I must qualify this by saying I've  read only two of his novelsI haven't encountered any bedraggled orphans yet, but this could change.

I got hooked on Trollope last year when I read The Way We Live Now, considered by many to be his best work.  Seriously, I could not put that book down -- it's more than 800 pages and it is a real page turner.  Plus, it's surprisingly timely, since the story revolves around a financial scandal eerily like the Madoff scheme, which is why Newsweek put it on the cover this summer as its top pick of What to Read Now and Why. Pretty impressive for a book written in 1875!

But back to The Warden.  It's one of Trollope's earliest novels, written in 1855, and is the first of his beloved Barsetshire Chronicles.  The story centers around the Reverend Septimus Harding, pastor of the church in fictional Barchester.  This job also includes the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital, an almshouse for twelve local indigent men, funded with a legacy from a local landowner John Hiram who left his land to the church in the 15th century.  The will stipulates that the warden receives income from said land, which has increased in value exponentially, thereby providing the warden a generous income for this work (800 pounds per annum, or about $50K in current U.S. dollars).  A local reformer has decided it's a shocking misuse of church funds, and brings it to the attention of the tabloid newspapers, who decide to blow the lid off this scandal.

This is further complicated by the fact that Mr. Harding's elder daughter is married to the archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, the son of the Bishop (Mr. Harding's boss); and by the fact that the reformer, Dr. John Bold, is in love with Mr. Harding's younger daughter Eleanor.  Dr. Grantly is offended by the implication that the church is abusing its position and files a lawsuit against Dr. Bold.  The hospital residents get wind of this and decide they each deserve a hundred pounds a year, so they get involved also.  Meanwhile, Rev. Harding just wants to play and write music, his first love, and poor Eleanor is stuck in the middle of all of this. 

Basically, Trollope is satirizing the power of the church, reformers, the tabloid press, and the power of the sensational novelists of the time -- that is, Charles Dickens (referred to as "Mr. Popular Sentiment").  Throughout his novels, Trollope uses hilarious and thinly veiled pseudonyms.  Besides Mr. Popular Sentiment, The Warden include characters called Rev. Quiverful and Sir Abraham Haphazard; The Way We Live Now had aristrocrats known as Lord and Lady Damask. 

I also loved the way the characters were developed.  Trollope was really good at creating sympathetic characters -- I felt so sorry for Rev. Harding, who really wants to do the right thing, but he's under pressure from the church to fight back, and he's also worried about his youngest daughter and what will happen to her. Eleanor and even John Bold are interesting and conflicted.

I liked The Warden, but compared to The Way We Live Now it seemed to take an awfully long time for the story to get going.  The Warden is only 189 pages long (Penguin Classics edition), but I found that the first 100 pages dragged.  After the story began to move along, it really held my interest and I finished it right away.  The Way We Live Now is more than 800 pages and 100 chapters, but the story really grabbed me.  It is by far the fastest I have read a classic of that magnitude -- I found myself sneaking off to read "just one more chapter."  It is that good.

I suppose it's unfair to compare the two books because they're written 20 years apart. Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, and The Last Chronicle of Barchester, the final book, are the most popular, so I'm looking forward to reading both of those.  The Warden wasn't quite as good as I was hoping, but I have heard that it's the least good (I wouldn't say worst) of the Barsetshire Chronicles. If you want to read a one great Victorian novel with wit and satire, I'd recommend  The Way We Live Now.  I'll report back on the Barsetshire series as soon as I get through my current read, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which is shaping up to be a great book.  As soon as it's finished, I'll be back for more Trollope.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

I've never been a fan of the adult fantasy genre, but for some reason, I am still drawn to juvenile works. I adored fantasy books when I was a kid -- Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Madeline L'Engle, L. Frank Baum, I still love all of them. But somehow I have never found the appeal of adult fantasy unless it's somehow rooted in our world, like Anansi Boys (one of my all-time favorites.) Maybe it's only the child in me that has an imagination and can still appreciate it. I still love children's fantasy, new and old.

Sadly, somehow I managed to miss all the classic works of E. Nesbit. (And why are so many great, classic works of fantasy written by British writers? Or am I just a literary Anglophile?) The works of E. Nesbit is as beloved in England as the Wizard of Oz or The Wrinkle in Time series, yet I'd never heard of them until I was an adult.

This is the second Nesbit work I've read (the first was Five Children and It, which also has a decent movie adaptation). The Enchanted Castle, first published in 1907, is about three children, Gerald, Cathy, and Jimmy, who are forced to spend the entire summer holidays at Cathy's school because of contagious cousin at home. So, though not orphans, we have children running around unsupervised, getting into mischief with magic. They're out exploring one day and find a passageway that leads into a nearby manor home -- the eponymous castle -- and inside they find a sleeping girl whom they believe to be enchanted. She's really the housekeeper's niece, but they soon realize there is magic about, and hilarity ensues. People turn invisible, wishes are granted, statues come to life, and there's a subplot with long-lost lovers. Of course, it all turns out well in the end.

The interesting thing about Nesbit's books is that the magic always backfires -- basically, the children get their wishes, but it takes them awhile to figure out that sometimes what they wish for isn't what they really want. So in each adventure the children learn a little something, but not enough to keep them from messing about with magic. There's a lesson here, but it's not preachy.

I enjoyed this book, but I think it might be difficult for a child today -- Nesbit's writing style takes getting used to, and I think it might frustrate a child that's too impatient. Gore Vidal wrote an essay about Nesbit's work, and he thought that Nesbit wrote about children but not necessarily for children. [Vidal also wrote that "the librarians who dominate the "juvenile market" tend to be brisk tweedy ladies whose interests are mechanical rather than imaginative." Vidal wrote this essay in 1964, before I was born, and I'm guessing that was the last time a librarian wore tweed. Fellow librarians, please feel free to comment.]

Of course, Nesbit was writing a hundred years ago -- it's hard for me to guess what children liked a century ago, though it's my impression that they were treated more like small adults and were expected to grow up a whole lot quicker. Maybe they had longer attention spans, but they definitely had less choices when it came to children's lit.

Here's an example from chapter one:

Gerald could always make himself look interesting at a moment's notice, a very useful accomplishment in dealing with strange grown-ups. It was done by opening his grey eyes rather wide, allowing the corners of his mouth to droop, and assuming a gentle, pleading expression, resembling that of the late little Lord Fauntleroy -- who must, by the way, be quite old now, and an awful prig.

I think it's pretty funny and clever, but I don't know many eight- to eleven-year olds who would have the patience to read this book. My daughters are eight and twelve and [brag alert!] they're both extremely advanced readers. They did not have the patience for this book, even when I was reading it aloud and promised to skip ahead to the part with the magic ring. I'm glad I read this book, and I'm definitely going to read more Nesbit, but I think it would be a tough sell to the kids unless they're hardcore British fantasy lovers.