Wednesday, September 26, 2012

No Bed of Roses by Joan Fontaine

Joan de Bouviour de Havilland, aka Joan Fontaine, is an Academy Award-winning actress from Hollywood's Golden Era. Today she's most remembered for her role as "I" de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's Gothic masterpiece Rebecca (1940), opposite a very dashing Laurence Olivier, and for her ongoing feud with her sister, the also Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland, who is best remembered for her performance as Melanie in Gone With the Wind. Joan Fontaine has always been one of my favourite Classic Hollywood stars - she's a delightful actress to watch.

As the title suggests, Joan Fontaine's story was never going to be a happy one. Part misery memoir, the early part of the book details her abusive and restrictive childhood. Born in Japan, her father abandoned her mother for the family's Japanese maid, forcing Joan, Olivia and their mother to start a new life in America. Her mother remarried a stern, controlling man, (Danny Fontaine) and Joan and Olivia's childhood was strict, rigid and unhappy. Both of the girls had left the household by the time they were 16. The book then tells Joan story as she moves back to Japan to live with her father for a year and then, after he propositions her (ewww!) her return to America, describing her many films, loves, husbands and events from then until the publication of the book in 1978.  

This book is a wonderful read. Reading it felt like a Saturday afternoon on the couch watching a black-and-white movie with fabulous dresses, sparkling dialogue ahold d Hollywood glamour.  Fontaine has a lovely confessional yet entertaining tone and her writing has great wit and perception. No Bed of Roses gives a clear picture of what it's like to be a very beautiful woman, with constant marriage proposals and propositions (from Howard Hughes and JFK's dad, to name a few!), men asking for your room key so they could come into your hotel room to clean your shoes while you were out (!!!) and being taken on extravagant holidays and dinners and shopping trips. The book is also interesting in that it it details how little control actors had in the studio system, where they were contracted to studios for seven-year periods and had really limited ability to choose what movies they starred in, how much they were paid, how often they worked or even which studio they worked at. (Incidentally, Joan's sister Olivia took Warner Brothers to court to end this restrictive practice and was instrumental in changing the labour laws, with a law named after her - the de Havilland law - which still has influence today.)

From a feminist perspective, this because is fascinating because it deals with a successful and intelligent woman's process of negotiation for independence in a world where the options available to women, both culturally and legally, were very limited. Fontaine earned more than her husbands (she had four) for most of her life. She was also a single parent and had to deal with the requirement to travel for her work but be a mother at the same time. She was also a determined woman who wasn't afraid or ashamed of her sexuality, determination and drive.

Despite its many pleasures, No Bed of Roses does have a few WTF moments - her decision to take a child home with her from a trip to Peru like a human souvenir and the effective abandonment of her two children when they reached their teens are bizarre in both their recounting and justification. There are far fewer mentions of her sister than I expected although we are left in absolutely no doubt that Joan believes all fault for their estrangement comes from Olivia. But despite those flaws, this in an engaging story of a headstrong, independent, beautiful woman with a ridiculously weak immune system. The saddest thing about the story is that Joan Fontaine really believes that no-one every really loved her enough, not even her own family. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Naomi's Wish by Rachael Herron

Naomi Fontaine is a buttoned-up emotionally repressed and shy doctor who leaves her small town practice to go to a medical conference. While there she hooks up with a hot doctor for a night of incredible sex. On returning to work, she finds out that her absentee partner has hired a new doctor for her practice and it is ... (surprise surprise) her one-night stand! Et cetera et cetera et cetera.

I read a lot of romance fiction in my teens and twenties. I was studying hard and working in customer service - both occupations that can leave a person completely brain-dead by the end of the day. So, I read romance novels because they were easy to read, didn't contain any surprises and the good ones had a bit of humour in them as well. Then I started analysing romances from a feminist perspective and between the permitted rape stories ("He pushed her up against a wall and pressed his mouth to hers. Her protests died on her lips as she melted into his arms") and the stalking-by-any-other-name stories (hero fights against heroine's resistance until she releases he is really the one for her) and I had to stop reading them.  I do still occasionally dip my foot into the romance novel pool but my relaxation fiction of choice is now murder mysteries - equally predictable but less likely to induce feminist book-throwing rage. However, when I heard there were knitting-themed romance novels out, I couldn't resist (God knows I love a knitting-themed novel) and I've since read all of Rachael Herron's work.

This is clearly the best book out of the three published so far in this series. It doesn't stray too far from the accepted parameters of the romance novel and it contains talk of KNITTING, my favourite thing ever. It is certainly not perfect - there is a lot of heavily implausible plot crammed into the last 20 pages and the odd fact that whenever Naomi consults a knitting book the phrase she reads always relates exactly to her life (really? every single time?). But, other than that, thumbs up, Ms Herron. This book gets the job done and I really enjoyed the ride.

$120 Food Challenge by Sandra Reynolds and a Legless Chocolate Cake

Recently I was intrigued to see a cookbook based on the $120 food challenge blog at my local library. I’m always looking for ways to eat better more cheaply and I love the idea of an Australian-based budget cookbook that uses ingredients which are easy for Australian cooks to get following Australian seasons, so I placed it on hold. It arrived last week and I am very impressed.

My first impression of the book was that the recipes look great! There are even vegetarian recipes that I think my carnivorous boyfriend would love, which is saying a lot. Sandra Reynolds takes cheap ingredients and uses herbs, spices and processes to make basic food tasty and inexpensive. The downside to this is that to do this needs time and planning – this is not a cookbook for someone who wants to get home, look in the pantry and grab ingredients for dinner to be on the table in 20 minutes. That said, I’m a planner with lots of time, so not a problem for me at all. My first recipe was the 'Legless' Chocolate Cake.

The cast of characters:

Sandra says it’s a huge cake, so I halved the recipe (full not halved recipe given below). Given how easy it was to halve, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some stage in the recipe’s evolution it has been doubled to take to a party and just stayed that way.  It's an easy cake to mix, which is a definite bonus in my book. 

I served it with strawberries and cream...

..and it was absolutely delicious! Plus all of the ingredients for the cake itself are pantry and fridge staples. I can see this cake coming into frequent rotation every time I entertain. I think this cookbook is a winner.

A Legless Chocolate Cake

2 cups caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla essence or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 2/3 cups plain flour
2/3 cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups hot coffee
icing sugar or extra cocoa powder, for dusting

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Grease and flour a cake tin.
2. Beat sugar, egg, vanilla and oil and beat with a hand-held electric mixer for four minutes or until smooth and creamy.
3. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon into a separate bowl. Add to egg mixture in alternate batches with the coffee, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
4. Pour batter in tin and cook for 40-50 minutes or until cake is done.
5. Cool in the tin for a few minutes and then turn out onto a cake rack to cool completely.
6. EAT!

PS: I also tried the steak and wedges and they were completely delicious. I would definitely recommend this cookbook

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I was really looking forward to reading this book. I hated Solar with the passion of a thousand burning suns (see what I did there?) but all the reviews I read said how good this book was, how different it was to Solar and how similar it was (in style not content) to Atonement – exactly what I needed to her to get me excited about reading McEwan again. The opening paragraph gave me goosebumps:

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely.

Exciting, right? Presaging much thrilling action, right? Wrong. Serena’s secret mission is to fund a novelist. Yup, that’s it. She gives a novelist enough money to quit his day job and write. Pretty exciting stuff! There’s a lot of information about politics in England in the ‘70s and a whole bunch of stuff about the emerging literary scene of that time that completely went over my head and was, frankly, boring. We were also asked to believe some very unlikely things such as Haley's Austen Prize experience, (although Haley's short stories were the highlight of the whole book). Sweet Tooth was a real slog to get through, which is a huge disappointment from the author of masterpieces such as Saturday and Atonement.  I recently re-read Amsterdam, which won the Booker prize in 1988, and in direct comparison to that novel this book lacked spark, verve, life and passion. It was very well written, but that’s just not enough. Two out of five stars.