Thrush Green: The Seinfeld of its Time

You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.
— Jane Austen

The very thing to work on, and for me, the very thing to read.  I tripped over Thrush Green about 5 years ago at the Katonah Library.  I have rather Anglophile tastes in books and this looked appealing.  Besides, the author's name was "Miss Read."  Obviously a pseudonym, but how could you go wrong?  I took it home and was immediately smitten.  I needed to read all of it.  Engaging the beautiful inter-library loan system of Westchester County, I was soon getting automated phone messages twice a week telling me my books were ready for pickup.  I stacked them all up in order on my dresser, ready to read from start to finish.

"What's it about?" Jeeps asked.

I thought about it a minute, then answered "Nothing."

Really.  It's about nothing.  Just this place called Thrush Green and the people who live there in the 1950s.  No major plot, no Peyton Place drama, no cliffhangers between books.  You get to know the characters and follow them about their very ordinary lives.  Each book spans roughly a year.  The characters come and go:  newcomers arrive; babies are born; lifetime residents pass away.  Through it all is this charming village green around which life revolves.

I am a sucker for this kind of thing.  I ripped through Thrush Green and then went on to read the entire Fairacre series.  That was five years ago and I recently got a hankering to go back to the world of Miss Read.  At Christmas I thought about buying myself the entire set as a present, but then decided to go the library route again.  I'm on the third book of Thrush Green and it's just as delightful as I remember.  There is tea galore but no food worth mentioning so this is a pure "Reads" post.

By the way, a bit of trivia if you are familiar with Enya's music:  she has a track on her Watermark album called "Miss Clare Remembers," and one on her Shepherd Moons album titled "No Holly for Miss Quinn."  Both are books in the Fairacre series.

Wondering if there were other fans out there, I found this post from the blog Eclectic Books which beautifully expresses exactly how I feel about the series:

I’ve tried to explain why these books work so well as mood enhancers for me and what I like about them with varying degrees of success.  Usually someone who has read some of them understands, but from those who haven’t I frequently get puzzled looks and polite nods...I’ve given this a lot of thought and decided that I have to give it one more try.

For me, reading these novels is akin to visiting old friends from back home and it’s the back home part that’s important.  It’s back home the way you remember it, the way you always want it to stay.  I turn to Miss Read for the same reason that I might call my sister or nephew or an old friend–just to immerse myself, for a little while, in the details of ordinary life so I can escape whatever ugliness has imposed itself.  I don’t need to dwell on what’s wrong;  I need to be reminded that life goes on in all of its ordinary, sometimes wacky details and that it will continue to go on in spite of what seems to be overwhelming me at the moment.

"The Comfort of Miss Read" by Becky, the "Cerebral Rat", Eclectic Books, 2009

Nursery Supper

Nursery Supper is the meal one partakes with the nanny, in the nursery, while the adults of the household dine in state downstairs. I cannot seem to arrange this in my own household. Probably because I'm one of the adults and I can't be in pajamas in the nursery while my children dine in state. I simply haven't the servants required.

The closest I came to this concept was Playroom Supper, back before house renovations and we had this nifty room off the living room that the kids played and watched TV in. To all intents and purposes it was a nursery, less the sleeping quarters, and though I would not change a thing about the new configuration of the house, I find I do miss that little room. It was cozy, cheerful. Christmas lights were tacked around the windows all year long. The kids' artwork hung on the walls. It had a wicker couch and a little table and chairs, and on nights when Jeeps was working late in the city, I would serve Playroom Supper, and we'd eat at the little table and watch Rachel Ray or House Hunters (this was back when I had control of the TV).

More often than not, what we ate at Playroom Supper was scrambled eggs. Because Rosamunde Pilcher said so in Coming Home:

[Diana] came to settle herself in the corner of the nursery sofa, close to the fire. 'Do you girls want to come down for dinner, or do you want to have nursery supper with Mary?'

"'Do we have to change if we come down for dinner?' Loveday asked.

"'Oh, darling, what a silly question, of course you have to.'

"'In that case, I think we'll just stay up here and eat scrambled eggs or something.'

"Diana raised her lovely eyebrows. 'What about Judith?'

"Judith said, 'I love scrambled eggs, and I haven't got a dress to change into.'

"'Well, if that's what you both want, I'll tell Nettlebed. Hetty can carry up a tray for you.' She reached into the pocket of her pale-grey cardigan and produced her cigarettes and her gold lighter. She lit one and reached for an ashtray.  'Judith, what about that beautiful box you brought with you? You promised you'd show it to me after tea. Bring it over here and we'll look at it now.'"

I, too, love scrambled eggs, not only for myself to enjoy but as my favorite fall-back for dinner on those nights when I can't think of a thing, or the kids just seem too tired to contemplate anything more complicated than eggs and toast. When I hear friends tell of children who don't or won't eat scrambled eggs, I try not to look horrified. No judgement on them, it's just that I don't know what I'd do. Cold cereal, I guess. Bread and milk? My very dear friend Francie served waffles and fruit salad for dinner the other night. She's one of my food heroines.

In Home Cooking, Mrs. Colwin devotes an entire chapter to nursery food, which I could happily transpose here and force you to read. But I won't do that, I will just put it in a china plate with the letters of the alphabet around the rim, and spoonfeed you the brilliant essence:

"A long time ago it occurred to me that when people are tired and hungry, which in adult life is most of the time, they do not want to be confronted by an intellectually challenging meal: they want to be consoled...

Of course I do not mean that you should feed your friends pastina and beef tea (although I would be glad to be served either). But dishes such as shepherd's pie and chicken soup are a kind of edible therapy. After a good nursery dinner you want your guests to smile happily and say with childlike contentment: 'I haven't had that in years.'"

Children cannot resist this kind of food because, I feel, it is trustworthy. It is solid, dependable and, most of all, recognizable. There are no tricks with a scrambled egg. Nothing fishy about a meatball on top of pasta. And if it is a perfect bite-sized meatball for their little mouth, so much the better. In fact, with kids, the smaller the food, the better. They are born noshers. If life could be served on a cracker or picked up with a toothpick, what a wonderful world it would be.

Last night's lid potatoes illustrate this perfectly. When I serve my kids nursery food, their manners materialize, unprompted and impeccable. They turn downright lovey. "Oh, Mom, this is delicious, I love this dinner. Thank you."

Who can resist?

Miriam's Kitchen

I have a handful of books that I read once a year, some on a very particular schedule.  In the fall, right after Halloween and before Thanksgiving, I reach for Miriam's Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich.  This book is 13 years old.  The cover has fallen off.  The pages are dog-eared both at top and bottom.  There are coffee drips on some pages; other pages are taped back in.  I should get myself another copy, but really I don't want to, I love this beat-up one. This beautiful memoir recounts an assimilated Jewish woman’s attempt to embrace the religious traditions of her husband's family by spending time in the kitchen of her mother-in-law, Miriam, learning her recipes.   Miriam, a Polish Holocaust survivor, "guarded culinary specialties in her mind during years when possession and certainties were ripped from her hands."  As the relationship between mother- and daughter-in-law deepens,  Ehrlich remembers and retells memories and traditions from her own Jewish heritage, including those of her fiercely left-wing family in the inner city of Detroit.  She weaves stories from four generations of her immigrant family with those of Miriam's tragic experience in a concentration camp and brief sojourn in Israel as a young mother.

Both families celebrate their Judaism through food, drink, ritual, prayer and family ties. Ehrlich's views on Judaism shift as she travels the road to middle age, first as a young girl, then as a young adult, next as a new wife and, finally, as the mother of three young children. Along the way she explores such complexities as Miriam's memories of the Holocaust and her native Poland, the challenges of managing a kosher home, and the joys and regrets of interfaith unions.

Simply put, this is a book about food, about cooking, about kitchens, about traditions.  Even more simply put, this is a book about women.  Rich with love, lore, memories, cooking tips and recipes, this is an absolutely outstanding read.

Click here to read one of my favorite chapters.

Do Try to Speak as We Do...

Scotch Egg by Sam Breach 2
Scotch Egg by Sam Breach 2

This, my friends, is a Scotch Egg.  Look at it.  It's exactly what you think it is:  a hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, breaded, and then fried. (Are you clutching your heart?)

No, I did not make this one.  I have never made one.  It's possible I shall someday but Scotch eggs strike me as overkill - the sort of thing that sound wildly delicious and then you eat a quarter of one and think, "OK.  Done."  It also seems to me like they must be eaten piping hot...once these babies go cold they probably get pretty lurid.  Just my opinion.  If anyone knows how to make them or swears by them, please do set me straight.

And why am I bringing them up in the first place if not to eat them? must be a READS post!

I first heard of Scotch eggs when I read a book called Do Try to Speak as We Do: the Diary of an American Au Pair, by Marjorie Leet Ford.  It's a little formulaic:  a cross between Bridget Jones and The Nanny Diaries, but a good, light and entertaining read.

Synapsis from Library Journal:  "Reeling from a recent layoff and the possibly permanent postponement of marriage to her longtime love, Melissa takes a position as an au pair to an upper-middle-class English family. It seems like the perfect job. The children are well behaved, the wife sounds charming over the phone, and the husband is a member of Parliament. Melissa's visions of tea, lawn tennis, and elegant parties quickly dissolve upon her arrival in England, when she is handed the tasks of a scullery servant, impossible working hours, children forever on the brink of disaster, and a constant whirlwind of packing and unpacking as the family bounces between their home in London and their crumbling estate in rural Scotland. A faux pas lurks at every turn as Melissa strives to hone her British speech ("Do try to speak as we do!") and manners and to overcome the polite but frigid anti-Americanism of the family's friends and relations. In addition to her other tasks, she must teach three-year-old Claire, who is deaf, to speak the Queen's English. Melissa describes all these trials and tribulations with wit and charm in her letters home."

The food in Do Try is tantalizing:  luscious descriptions of banquets and teas and the aforementioned Scotch eggs abound.  Plus there is a little gem of a book referenced within the book:  Fattypuffs and Thinifers, by André Maurois, which the English children's mother reads to them on picnics.  Written in 1930, it concerns the imaginary underground land of the fat and congenial Fattypuffs and the thin and irritable Thinifers, which is visited by two brothers, the plump Edmund and the thin Terry. The Fattypuffs and Thinifers do not mix, and their respective countries are on the verge of war when Edmund and Terry make their visit.

This sounded like a great book to read to Pandagirl so I took it out from the library.  Turned out to be just a little over her head (this was some years ago) but I went on and read it myself.  It was charming! I think I recommend it just a little more highly than Do Try, and a lot more highly than Scotch eggs.

How do you have time to read? Read a little book.

I don't watch TV. Yeah, I said it. TV doesn't appeal to me much so most nights you can find me with my nose in a book.

I often think I'd like to be held hostage in a library. Most of the books you'll find here are not the latest best-sellers. I figure everyone is reading those.  I do check the "new fiction" section of the library but what I really love to do is trawl the stacks looking for treasure. Plus, a stack book can be checked out for three weeks instead of just one. My library late fine rap sheet is something to be discussed on another post.

Today, I give you a list of little books. By "little" I mean at my last trip to North Salem Library, I searched the stacks looking for books that were little.  Short in stature. Diminutive. I think it's an interesting publishing decision to print and bind a book that's small (and maybe somebody in the business can comment on that?). Their smallness gives them presence on the shelf. They are charming before you open a page. They fit well in a purse. They are not intimidating. They make you think, "I have time for this."

Lily and Looking After Lily by Cindy Bonner

The cover illustration drew me in to this wild west love story, and I confess I'm a sucker for cowboys. Based on true events surrounding a vigilante posse that went after a band of outlaw brothers in post Civil War Texas, Lily introduces us to the motherless Lily DeLony. Living on her father's farm and raising her younger brothers and sisters, she herself has been raised to be god-fearing and good. But she is inexplicably and irrevocably drawn to Marion "Shot" Beatty, one of the infamous Beatty brothers whose misdeeds of robbery and even murder are well-known but never proven. Lily tells her side of the story at a Christmas Eve shoot-out that sends her running from her family and into Shot's world with a pistol in her skirt pocket, never looking back. 

Looking After Lily continues the story, this time from the point of view of Shot's younger brother Haywood. Just twenty years old, Haywood is charged with looking after the now-pregnant Lily while Shot serves hard time in jail. The two make an unlikely but resilient pair of survivors as time after time Haywood tries to settle Lily and go out on his own adventure, but his misadventures bring him time after time back to Lily and the promise he made to Shot. In the end the brother- and sister-in-law find a place to settle together and wait for Shot and it's then that Haywood faces the fact that he has grown to love the courageous Lily.

Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories, by A. S. Byatt

I got hooked on A.S. Byatt with her novel The Children's Book, but fell in love with these two little books of her short stories. Or rather, I should say they are intelligent fairy tales for adults. They are full of her gorgeous language and imagery.  "Cold" in Elementals was by far my favorite: a tale of an ice princess who falls in love with a prince of the desert, an inventor and genius glass-blower. She leaves the environment in which she flourishes and travels to her husband's land where she wilts in despair. But her husband designs a new palace for her, in essence creating ice with the power of fire. 

The title story in Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye gives a modern look at the three wishes bestowed on a British woman by a genie (djinn) in a bottle of Turkish nightingale glass.


The Holy Man by Susan Trott

Insomnia can take credit for this little book by Susan Trott which Kirkus Reviews calls "gently profound." Instead of counting sheep, Trott counted pilgrims on their way to visit a renowned Holy Man who lives in a hermitage in a place never really identified although the Tibetan mountains come to mind. It hardly matters. In thirty-four lovely chapters we meet the Holy Man, his fellow monks at the hermitage, and the pilgrims who line up every day for a chance to see him. Each interaction between pilgrim and Holy Man is witty, human, charming and yes, gently profound. And I was happy to find out that this is actually the first book in a trilogy, to be followed by The Holy Man's Journey and The Holy Woman.


The Mirror by Lynn Freed

Agnes LaGrange gives today's modern woman a run for her money. In 1920 she flees an unpromising future and arrives in Durban, South Africa to be housekeeper to a gentleman she refers to as "the Old Jew." He presents her with a mirror, along with his advances, and regarding their reflections in the mirror she falls in love with the power of her own beauty. Armed with ambition and no thought for social mores of the day, she rises from housekeeper to hotel owner, acquiring property and wealth and a string of lovers. Freed paints a portrait of a not exactly likable character, but as a woman of her day refusing to be dependent on a man for her happiness and self-worth, Agnes deserves admiration.