As Hurricane Franzen bears down on the coasts, no matter where you point the literary compass, and words are lashed to typewriters for deconstruction of the deeper meaning of the new novel Freedom, readers are feeling more pressure to perform intellectual feats of comprehension. Folks, it’s the last hours of summer, mere days are left until we reload the real world into our highly scheduled lives this Tuesday morning. So chill baby chill.
If you failed to read The Imperfectionists back in May or this summer’s de rigueur Stieg Larsson books, please come up from the root cellar and shake it off. Put down that TV remote and any Jersey Shore worship for these two books that will entertain you this weekend and that you can turn into some bon mots on the final days’ cocktail circuit.
As for those cultural ravens whose ids can’t help but peck at you for being under read in the Franzen category, here’s a line to drive them back to their perches: I only read Bildungsroman when it’s officially fall. Then ask the ravens to make you an Old Fashioned highball. They will be quiet for hours. And while they’re gone, sneak off to the glider on the porch and enjoy either of these books that were largely ignored this summer.
Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith came and went without any fanfare from the major critics. Perhaps they didn’t want to reward another dog book in the wake of Marley Mania, which has struck otherwise sane publishers and even elite daily newspapers, who now use dog themes as fishing lures.
The cover of this book does indeed feature a bright-eyed terrier of the Jack Russell variety. Overuse of the dog theme crossed my mind as well. McCall Smith is the author of the best-selling series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, among others. This novel appears to be a one-off.
Corduroy is not the dog’s name. He is Freddie de la Hay, a Pimlico terrier. And this is not solely his story (proving that the jacket art is unfortunate), but the tale of residents in a charming section of London referred to as Corduroy Mansions. The story is told through William Edward French, a middle-aged (51) wine merchant and widower. At the book’s start, William has one plan: to get his grown son Eddie out of the apartment. Eddie, at age 24, feels no compelling reason to pay his own rent and buy his own groceries. Quite the opposite. But he does not like dogs and William’s friend offers him a “pet share” in his dog, Freddie, a vegetarian canine who was formerly employed at Heathrow sniffing for drugs. If Freddie moves in, Eddie will move out.
McCall Smith introduces a charming as ever cast of new characters. There is Marcia, a boutique owner who is happy to connive on the plot to relocate Eddie. There is the egocentric politician, Oedipus Snark, an MP without a heart; Berthea Snark (his mother and William’s near-by neighbor) and her brother, Terrence Moongrove, who has gone back to the land in his decrepit Morris Traveller; and there are the young women (Caroline, Jenny and Dee, most prominently) who share an apartment on a floor below William.
As always, with McCall Smith’s writing, the characters’ names are farcical and yet so very British (for a Scotsman) and highly enjoyable for readers. On the surface this story is about William creating a new life, but it also contains McCall Smith’s many musings about the state of the world, from etiquette (“William stretched out a hand. The young man hesitated, then took it, limply. Nobody, thought William, has taught him to give a proper handshake.”) to reading Proust (“Jenny looked at him expectantly. She seemed pleased to have discovered a neighbour who could discuss Proust; so few neighbours could.”).
The I Hate to Cook Book, by Peg Bracken is a gem. No wonder when it was published originally in the 1960s it sat on millions of kitchen shelves across America, including my mother’s. The book is a witty attack against the sunken-living room era where every woman was expected to be a hostess cum chef extraordinaire. Say boo! to Julia Child’s bouillabaisse. Liberate yourself from Chicken Kiev and Eggs Florentine, recipes featured in the era’s posh restaurants. Ms. Bracken, who died in 2007, opened the cages in a highly humorous way with recipes that were E-Z, and edible.
Peg Bracken was in step with her time. Not every housewife in the sixties was meant to be a gallant home chef. The I Hate to Cook Book answered their prayers. “Do you know the basic trouble here?” she writes. “It is your guilt complex. This is the thing you have to lick. And it isn’t easy. We live in a cooking-happy age. You watch your friends re-doing their kitchens and hoarding their pennies for glamorous cooking equipment and new cookbooks called ‘Eggplant Comes to the Party’ or ‘Let’s Waltz into the Kitchen,’ and presently you too begin to feel un-American.”
Ms. Bracken didn’t cheat by suggesting leftovers to her fans. Her supposition was if you don’t like to cook, then you won’t like re-engineering meals you hated preparing in the first place. And so she launched her fans and followers — she sold more than three millions books and I’m assuming many read her for the humor alone — on an easy path for sumptuous meals ala Bracken. The recipe names are a hoot: Painless Spinach, Idiot Onions, Clam Whiffle (“a souffle any fool can make”), Sole Survivor, Stayabed Stew (“for those days when you’re en negligee”), Sunday Chicken (“like Saturday Chicken, except it’s curried”) and so forth.
There are menu ideas, a 30-day list of entrees and a marvelous penultimate chapter “Good Cooksmanship” or “How To Talk a Good Fight” where she talks her readers through any contretemps with the fancies down the road.
We are reliving the sixties now as the culture endures an entire TV channel devoted to plated perfection. If you are tempted to make a batch of Rice-a-Roni and pass it off as Pilaf de Edith, then this is the book for you. You don’t need to cook any of these recipes, but you certainly can if you are forced to perform for a group dinner over the holiday and Assigned Responsibilities other than KP. But if you just want to read this as the waves roar in, it’s a fine end of summer serving.
Enjoy these two books as you mark the end of another season of sand, surf and dog-eared pages.
P.E. Logan is a communications and marketing professional and a writer in New York. She worked at various adult trade publishing houses including Random House, Putnam, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for almost three decades. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and in other periodicals.